THE FOUNTAINHEAD is the weirdest, most deranged movie I’ve seen in a while. I know you’re thinking wait a minute, that old Gary Cooper movie? He must mean ERASERHEAD or something. No, man, have you seen this thing? I guess to most people it doesn’t make sense to say that a beautiful 1949 drama from the director of DUEL IN THE SUN is more fucked up than THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, but that one was trying so hard to be outrageous. This one is effortless. It seems like a very well-made studio picture, but created by some very troubled individuals.
Director King Vidor designed and shot the thing really well, really stylish compositions and uses of shadows and what not. He did a good job filming this screenplay, and it’s a fascinating movie to watch, but I can’t let him off the hook morally. If he spent the time making this thing he must’ve agreed with it. I think he really believes the character you see at the upper left there is the ideal man. Yeah, he looks like one, but trust me, the guy’s a dick.
That’s Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, a fiercely individualistic architect who stands manly and proud in the face of the cruel world that plots to suppress and water down his unique style of buildings. I think it’s fair to say I’m more for pure artistic expression and independence than the next guy, but even I squirm a little bit when the first lines in the movie stack the deck so blatantly. The dean at the school says to Howard:
“Do you want to stand alone against the whole world? There’s no place for originality in architecture. Nobody can improve on the buildings of the past. One can only learn to copy them.”
Howard begs to differ so he struggles to survive, getting very few commissions. It’s not like DEAD RINGERS where you get in trouble for making your own gynecological tools but then patent them and make a fortune. When Howard’s down to his last $14 he finally gets a really good gig, but the clients tell him in bizarrely straight-forward language that oh yeah just one more thing before you sign the contract – you have to agree to compromise your work and make it less bold and more middle-of-the-road and Ron Howardy for the masses, and if you don’t do that you’re making a big mistake because it will ruin you forever and you’ll never work again, you understand, okay just sign here thanks. So he declines the offer.
What’s wrong with me? I should be loving this shit. I don’t build skyscrapers, but I take pride in my work too. I’ve had my frustrating disagreements with the way my work was presented, I’ve passed up the occasional dollar or opportunity for exposure because I wanted to do things my way. Man, I stayed on Geocities for ten years just to freak out the people who think having a slick websight is more important than good content. I admire original voices and subversives, I hate blandness and conformity, I have great respect for anybody who pulls a Dave Chappelle or a Redbelt and chooses their personal sense of integrity or code of honor over a big pile of money. In fact, that’s central to my world view. I’d like to see more movies glorifying that type of philosophy instead of all this materialism and ends-justifies-the-means business. I want to see more turning down money.
But there’s a real sign that something’s wrong here. It happens before Howard even turns down that money, when he turns down some earlier money. His old college buddy and mediocre rival Keating (Kent Smith) finds out how broke Howard is and tries to loan him some cash. Of course Howard turns it down, but it’s not out of pride. He says, “I don’t give or ask for help.”
Wait a minute, did I hear that right? He doesn’t believe in giving help? And is so proud of that that he throws it into conversations where it’s not relevant, before the part that is relevant?
So, like, okay, a guy tries to bum a cigarette or get some change from you, you’re not ever gonna give it. I guess that’s not a big deal. He asks you for the time, you refuse, that’s just bizarrely dickish, but oh well. But let me ask you this one. The other day I saw an elderly lady trip on the sidewalk and fall flat on her face, so I helped her up. Are you saying you wouldn’t do that, Howard Roark? You don’t believe in that? You would feel your personal sense of integrity violated by helping her up off the ground and making sure she was alright, because you never asked that bitch for a favor and you’ll be god damned if she’s gonna get one out of you? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what he’s saying.
Let me ask you something else Howard. Do you got a brother? Does your brother ever need help moving? Does your mother ever need help around the house? Do you wonder why they don’t invite you over for Thanksgiving? I’m just curious.
It’s not a misunderstanding, it really means that he doesn’t believe in helping others, because it comes up again towards the end. But first there’s some other wacko shit I gotta tell you about. I don’t know if this is meant to be some kind of satirical or stylized world, but alot of it has to do with one of those newspapers that has two competing architecture critics. One of them is pretty much the lead villain, Ellsworth M. Toohey (Robert Douglas), an exaggerated snob (complete with accent) who consciously argues in favor of conformity and against originality. He says things like:
“Oh, but surely you’re not in favor of so-called ‘modern’ architecture. It’s worthless because it’s merely the work of a few unbridled individualists. Artistic value is achieved collectively by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority.”
“I don’t like geniuses. They’re dangerous.”
Later he admits, “Maybe I wanted to dishonor and discredit all greatness.”
These are all actual quotes, and they talk like that all throughout the movie.
The other critic is Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), the daughter of a famous architect and object of the newspaper owner’s desire. She’s introduced skipping work to throw her Greek statue out the window of her apartment, because it’s too beautiful and her love of it can only hurt her. Her whole personality is built around obnoxious dramatic gestures and mopey “fuck the world” philosophies. I hope she was written to be funny, like the goth girl in BEETLEJUICE, but in the movie at least I think you’re supposed to find her attractive and witty. Which she might be if she wasn’t so crazy and horrible.
Howard declares that he’d “rather be a day laborer” than compromise his vision, and he says it with disgust the way you’d say “I’d rather eat a horse’s asshole” or something like that. As if being a normal, hard-working person is beneath contempt. But sure enough he ends up working in a rock quarry, and that’s where the creepy sexuality starts to rear its gimp-mask-wearing head. I think people tend to make too big a deal out of phallic symbols, but it would be hard to miss the suggestiveness of the shot of muscular Howard jerking off his drill as Dominique stands watching, biting her lip, clutching a riding crop. I’m pretty sure she picked up on the symbolism since it then shows her at home daydreaming that same shot. Unless she just really appreciates good rock chipping.
You may be asking wait a minute Vern, am I mistaken or does that movie poster above depict Howard Roark leaping from the pages of the “Fountainhead” book by Ayn Rand to rape Dominique Francon in the real world? I’m glad you hypothetically ask because I felt a little uncomfortable bringing it up myself. There’s a whole thing where she pretends to need him to work on the house, hoping to get some more experience with his drill, and he obviously gets it but messes with her head by sending another dude to finish the job later. That pisses her off so bad she gets on her horse, tracks him down and hits him in the face with the riding crop. So that night he breaks into her bedroom and starts shoving her, she hits him a bunch of times and tries to run away, then they kiss passionately, then she falls to the floor crying and the scene ends with a closeup of him smiling.
(In Google I found an essay about it called “The Rape Scene in The Fountainhead: Why it was not rape”, but unfortunately it was removed for plagiarism.)
So of course after the brutal rape they’re in love, but she hates love and it would ruin his greatness to be in love, so she immediately runs away to marry the newspaper guy. She doesn’t even have to pretend to love him because he’s prone to INDECENT PROPOSAL type rich people social experiments and asked her years ago to marry him even though she doesn’t love him. Now he says, “What I want to find in our marriage will remain my own concern. I exact no promises and impose no obligations.”
That’s another thing about this story, it’s full of weirdos masterminding bizarre plots that take years to pan out and achieve very little. At one point the evil critic Toohey approaches Howard on the street and reveals that he has personally plotted to destroy Howard’s career, and wouldn’t he like to know why? And Howard just says no and walks away. If he hung around he’d find out that Toohey didn’t really believe originality was bad, he just said that shit because promoting blandness is a way to gain power. (I’m tempted to point out that there are very few cases on record of architecture critics becoming very powerful by unfairly criticizing good buildings, but I’m sure that’s just because people have kept an eye on them ever since Rand’s book.)
The newspaper man has indecent proposals for other people besides Dominique. He loves Howard’s work but tries to force him to compromise just to see if he’ll break. He hires him and demands, “You will take your spectacular talent and make it subservient to the taste of the masses.”
Roark has kind of a devious plot of his own. Years after Dominique left him because she loved him too much he sneakily agrees to build her a new house, not revealing their rape/love past to the new husband. So she lives in his house, it’s like his architectural way of fucking her again. The first time she saw one of his buildings she said, “I wish I had never seen your building. It’s the things that we admire or want that enslave us. I’m not easy to bring into submission.” Now she has to live inside the building she loves so much she despises it. He keeps bringing her into submission.
Dominique tried to get Roark to quit architecture because she was convinced that the world would have no choice but to crush him, seeing as how it’s so dangerous to the powers that be to have some buildings that don’t have statuary on them. But he’s got a giant drill-penis so he refuses to back down and makes his bones designing gas stations and grocery stores for small business owners who dig his unbridled individualism. Everything boils over when he ends up designing a housing project that his old buddy Keating is gonna take credit for. Howard demands no payment, just the guarantee that his vision will be followed exactly, so you can see where this is going. Yes, he ends up heroically committing a terrorist bombing of the housing project.
(okay, maybe not terrorist. There doesn’t seem to be anybody inside. It’s like when they blow up the credit card buildings at the end of FIGHT CLUB.)
(also please note that Dominique is there and has to injure herself to not raise suspicion, so the ol’ drama queen slits her wrists with a shard of glass)
Of course, the fucking sheep in the media, law enforcement, world, etc. are a little unclear why it was necessary for him to blow up the building, so they put him on trial and he has to make a big speech to explain to everybody that “the world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” He goes all the way back to the invention of fire and how every great thinker, artist or scientist, every new idea and invention other than the iPod, the microwave oven, electricity and the wheel were denounced and suppressed. And, you know, you can do the math. Galileo got screwed = blowing up buildings is legal.
So he’s a free man and he poses real manly on the top of one of his buildings as Dominique goes up the elevator toward him where she no doubt will be romantically raped again (SPOILER). It’s appropriate that he poses on the building that was made as a vanity monument to a rich guy instead of the one that was made for the poor people. Well, not made for the poor people I guess, they just happen to live in it but “that’s not the motive of my work, nor my reason, nor my reward! My reward, my purpose, my life, is the work itself – my work done my way! Nothing else matters!”
I knew this was a book by Ayn Rand and I vaguely knew of her reputation as an influence on libertarians and what not, but that’s about it. So part way through the movie I couldn’t stop thinking “what’s the deal with this crazy bitch?” and I had to pause and do the ol’ Wikipedia look-up. It turns out she wrote the script and they stayed very true to what she wrote although she still despised the movie because they fucked it up so bad or whatever, and she was really mad because they tried to trim down the big speech at the end where he explains why it was really the right thing to blow up the low income housing project instead of let somebody else add some balconies that he didn’t like. (I wonder if Ridley Scott tried to blow up BLADE RUNNER when they added that narration?)
I read about how Ayn Rand started “the Objectivist Movement,” still around today and following her ideas even though she’s dead and buried with a wreath of flowers shaped like a dollar sign (no joke). Although from what I understand the Objectivists believe the same things preached in this movie I know that it’s a big thing with a long history and I’m not gonna pretend to be knowledgeable about it. So I won’t make any generalizations about them. I will speak only of the fictional characters in this movie version of Rand’s story, who I would say are part of the Toughshitist Movement. They believe that you gotta look out for yourself and if somebody else needs any help then tough shit, they should’ve thought of that before something bad happened to them.
There are two tempting ways to interpret the destruction of the building in THE FOUNTAINHEAD:
A. Howard Roark is a big whiny baby who refuses to accept the realities of working in a medium that requires you to use millions upon millions of other people’s dollars. Sure, they should’ve let him do it his way, and it probly would’ve been better. But guess what dude, you’re an architect hired to do a job for somebody else. If you want to stay pure you’re gonna have to use your own money to build it, like Christo does with his art. If you hate it then take your name off of it – oh, whoops, your name already wasn’t gonna be on it anyway. It’s too bad you didn’t get to make the building but dude, you gotta quit blowing shit up in my opinion.
2. You can’t really take this literally, only as an operatic gesture to show an artist going all the way over the edge to stand up for the integrity of his work. It’s meant to be extreme and going too far as a tribute to pure artists. It’s kind of like CECIL B. DEMENTED.
I wish I could go with #2, but the extreme asshole philosophies of Howard Roark make it impossible for me to side with him. The rape already did the job but there’s another more unusual scene that makes it even more impossible for me to sympathize with this prick.
When Keating asks Howard to design the housing project it’s a pretty ridiculous request. He’s behaved badly in the past, Howard owes him nothing, and he’s asking to take credit for Howard’s work to improve his own career. That’s all fine with Howard, but Keating’s mistake is trying to appeal to Howard’s heart, as if he has one. Keating says, “But it’s a humanitarian project. Think of the people who live in slums. If you can give them decent housing you’d perform a noble deed. Would you do it just for their sake?”
Howard stands up out of his chair, pissed. “No. The man who works for others without payment is a slave. I do not believe that slavery is noble. Not in any form, nor for any purpose whatsoever!”
To the Toughshitists, helping the old lady up off the sidewalk is slavery. Unless she pays you. (When it happened to me she offered me a Dick’s burger, but only afterwards, it was not a previously agreed upon form of payment, and I didn’t accept anyway because what kind of an asshole would want to be paid for helping somebody?) Rand was a strong atheist, so she wouldn’t be put off by her philosophy being the opposite of Jesus and basically the same as the Church of Satan, minus the emphasis on evil goatees and eyebrows. But the Toughshitists are opposed to Santa Claus, with his self-promoting mission to spread Christmas joy. They’re anti-John McClane, because he wasn’t on duty, he shouldn’t have tried to help everybody there unless some kind of a reward was offered. The Toughshitists say “Do be Ellis.” To them, Mother Teresa is no Mother Teresa. They read “A Christmas Carol” every winter, but to them it’s a tragedy where a great man is ruined at the end.
I’m not sure what the Toughshitist stance would be on the first responders who ran into the burning buildings on 9-11. We consider them heroes because they risked (and in many cases lost) their lives to help others, but THE FOUNTAINHEAD argues that this type of behavior is not actually noble and you should get pissed off just thinking about that somebody would do that. Roark may go light on them because they did that while performing a job that they’re paid for, but I think since they could’ve chickened out and still gotten their paychecks (and since many of them were off duty) that he’d be against it.
Since Howard’s Toughshitist philosophy made more of an impression on me than his art, I was forced to take the bombing more literally than symbolically, and I couldn’t help but think of the consequences of his actions. Not only is he offended by the implication that he might possibly be motivated by helping others, he also doesn’t mind going way out of his way to prevent people from being helped. Here a building has already been constructed to house the poor, and he fucking destroys it. What’s that? You’re a single mother living on the streets, feeding your kids out of garbage cans, and you were really looking forward to being able to afford shelter? You think you have it bad, I had it in my contract that they had to stick to my designs, but then the assholes tried to make the stairways more fancy than I wanted them to be!
The movie tries to make you look past that by having the building eventually be rebuilt (faster this time I bet, like the second Death Star) to his specifications, but there was no way he could’ve known that was gonna happen, considering how unlikely it is that he actually got a jury to buy that ludicrous horse shit he shoveled in front of them. Even he thought he was pretty much for sure going to prison, and he’s a mad bomber. He didn’t care that he could ruin hundreds of lives by blowing it up. Tough shit. I’m an artist. I will not compromise. This movie pays well deserved respect to the value of artistic integrity, but it neglects the at-least-as-important value of not being a huge fucking asshole.
Howard and Dominique really are a couple of fountainheads, two useless fuckers stuck in their own heads, living for no other reason than to endlessly spray out their self-involved intellectual bullshit and suck it back in. They deserve each other. I wouldn’t be that sad if a beautiful Greek statue fell on their heads. But I’d still try to help them get out from under it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.