Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ayn Bland

“The life of Ayn Rand was the material of fiction. But if one attempted to write it as a novel, the result would be preposterously unbelievable.” So wrote Barbara Branden, in the introduction for The Passion of Ayn Rand. Showtime's producers must certainly have this quote in mind during the conception and production of the TV movie of the same name, adapted from Branden's biography of Rand. For the movie they produced, unlike its unwieldy and larger-than-life subject, is lukewarm and and indecisive.

The main, obvious problem with this approach is that it's not Ayn Rand's story being told, but that of her secret relationship with her number two man, Nathaniel Branden. In itself this is not a bad idea, as the affair spanned the period of her greatest public prominence. But even then Rand is not the real focus. This is a 90s Showtime TV movie, which necessitates a multitude of softcore sex scenes. Because if there's any reason to watch an Ayn Rand movie it's for the boffing.

What this means from a story standpoint is that the Brandens are over-emphasized, to the point that the movie ends basically as soon as they exit the picture. The story begins with their introduction to Rand (Helen Mirren) and her husband Frank O'Conner (Peter Fonda) and ends with a speech Rand gives after casting them into outer darkness, and is bookended by a framing device, with Barbara visiting the public viewing of Rand's body as well as her grave. Issues like Rand's prior life in Russia or the mammoth John Galt speech are included but barely touched on. Even within the weird "Collective," it feels like a by-the-numbers love story.

Worse, Rand's Objectivism is engaged in only the most perfunctory and obvious ways, reciting the basics but neither digging into their implications or their very subjective origins, nor offering a spirited defense. It keeps the contentious material all at arm's length in a way that would irritate both Rand's devoted partisans and her vehement detractors in exactly the wrong way. Why make a movie about one of 20th century America's most controversial figures that scrupulously avoids controversy?

And why must it be so dreary? Rand's aesthetic was a mixture of the agit-prop obviousness of Soviet Realism with the boldness of the Hollywood silent movies she consumed avidly as a young woman and later wrote treatments for when working for Cecil B. DeMille. Her tastes in high--middle-brow, really--culture were Romantic (Victor Hugo, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov), and the popular entertainment she deigned herself enjoy were stunningly obvious (Charlie's Angels and Mickey Spilane novels). True, her dialogue was wooden and her prose dry, but beneath the surface one can sense her mad, wild-eyed fervor.

Surely some of this could have been utilized to get us inside her strange and frightening mind. Instead we get a bland lite jazz score that is at war with the tone of every scene that doesn't have naked people, cheap production values, and Toronto standing in for New York. The one time the movie does come alive is, not coincidentally, a sequence with Rand and Branden dancing to Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz," that manages to convey Rand's goofily old-timey stridency (even here they get things wrong, as she was on record saying she would "take a funeral march in preference to" the "Blue Danube Waltz").

The only thing keeping the entire endeavor from going completely off-rail are the performances. Best in show goes to Peter Fonda as Rand's cuckolded husband Frank, deftly shading the sadness of his predicament with a welcome self-awareness, such as a scene where he's discovered passed out in a phone booth and remarks, "I must have been trying to make a phone call, which is odd because I don’t know anybody." Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel comes off as mostly a twerp that's too big for his britches; over time he becomes sort of fun to hate, yet the muddy intentions of the movie make it not at all clear whether this is the intended impression. Julie Delpy's Barbara has a certain fierce independence that, misconceived though her centrality to the movie is, at least anchors the film as best as can be done. At this point I should give special mention to Sybil Temtchine, who takes a largely thankless role as Nathaniel's late perfunctory love interest, originally a 'patient' that comes in for some public humiliation from him and Rand, and becomes one of the few sympathetic people in the whole sordid mess.

As to Mirren's performance as Rand: it is accomplished, it feels "lived-in." But as written, the character's roughest edges have been neatly sanded so that she exudes neither magnetism nor repulsion; notably, her exclamation, "I hate surprises!" with which she kills the buzz of her own surprise party, is lukewarmed by a subsequent, "but seriously, don't ever do that again" half-joke. Rand scorned humor and self-deprecating humor particularly as a sign of weakness and an unserious attitude toward life. She would never have seen anything funny about, say, her enjoyment of Charlie's Angels as a depiction of the world as it ought to be. If anything, Mirren does her job of conveying the script's neutered version of Rand too well.

The "Passion" of The Passion of Ayn Rand, the original book, connoted Rand's manic drive to succeed. The Showtime movie takes it to refer merely to her sex drive. Everything else is window-dressing. As yet it remains the only dramatization of of her life story--there was talk of adapting the book into a stage production directed by Peter Hall, but it seems to have never come to fruition--which makes its tepid approach an especial waste.

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