In the second part of Extremists Week, Niall Anderson looks at a curious biopic of the American right-wing’s favourite philosopher
In August 2010, 22-year-old Nick Newcomen took a vacation, a car, a GPS device and ten days to ‘write’ the words READ AYN RAND across a Google Earth representation of the USA. In the process, he apparently logged 12,328 miles and thirty States. Speaking to Wired two days after completing his odyssey, Newcomen said: ‘In my opinion if more people would read [Rand’s] books and take her ideas seriously, the country and world would be a better place – freer, more prosperous and we would have a more optimistic view of the future.’
If Newcomen’s project sounds insane, it might be because Ayn Rand – libertarian philosopher and didactic novelist – tends to send her devotees insane. If it sounds like complete and utter bullshit (Nick Newcomen is weirdly untraceable for a man with such a pronounced interest in GPS), well, let’s just say that Rand and bullshit were close kin, if not inseparable.
But Rand’s own story is even odder than that. She is more popular and talked-about these days than at any time since her period as a Rightist anti-draft, anti-Nam firebrand in the sixties. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead – her major novels, in heft at least – sell close to a million copies each every year in the US. In 1999, her face appeared on a 33-cent US stamp: an oddly equivocal gesture towards someone who was both a rabid stamp collector and opposed to any federal intervention in municipal life, up to and including the existence of the US Postal Service. Her fans include Brad Pitt, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan, and 30-year Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan (once a personal friend). Having died in 1982, Ayn Rand is news in a way she never quite was in life.
Which is how I came to watch The Passion of Ayn Rand, a 1999 made-for-TV biopic in which England’s Own Helen Mirren dons an assymetric wig and a wigged-out Russic accent in order to impersonate the Great Lady of Voodoo Economics. We join Rand in the 1950s, in a moment of crisis. The high priestess of rational self-interest has fallen in love – with a married man, twenty-five years her junior.
The Passion of Ayn Rand is based on a biography of the same name by Barbara Branden – the wife of the man for whom Rand conceived this unfortunate affection. This faithless lump, Nathaniel Branden, was born Nathaniel Blumenthal, but changed his surname so that it would contain the word ‘rand’. (Yes, really.) He set up something modestly called the Nathaniel Branden Institute, which was devoted to spreading his mentor’s philosophical message as far as possible. At its peak, there were 80 NBI offices across the US, including one in the Empire State Building. He disbanded the NBI in 1968, having been denounced by Rand for refusing to have a physical relationship with her. His response was to say, ‘Oh yes we did, for twelve years’, something his erstwhile wife Barbara is at pains to back up in her biography.
This is kind of funny – in the way that intellectual love matches are somehow always funny. But The Passion of Ayn Rand is not funny. Nor is it especially dramatic. And of all the possible dramatic crises the film could decide to build itself around, the one it chooses is perverse beyond expectation.
Rand’s philosophy is known rather grandly as Objectivism. A little like Ornette Coleman’s theory of Harmolodics, nobody can sum up what this actually means apart from following the leader while crossing your fingers. One of the things it certainly means is a giant Fuck You to bourgeois modes of social behaviour. If you want something, you make it yourself or you take it. If you take it, your responsibility remains to yourself – not the thing you’ve taken. If you’ve taken somebody else’s husband, for instance, the last thing you owe is an apology to the wife. And fuck him, too, in the long run.
But Rand and Branden didn’t do this. Oh no. They asked permission of their partners to have the affair. The entire moral crux of The Passion is whether Rand was betraying her principles by doing so. This extravagant non-dilemma is, literally, the moral centre of the film. That the animating philosophical principles might have been complete and utter bullshit from the off is not something The Passion is prepared to go into.
You can make good drama out of this sort of stuff. TS Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral is essentially one long monologue about whether you can genuinely become a martyr if you know you’re going to be a martyr. But martyrdom – and self-sacrifice in general – feels like a permanent issue in human life, a thing it’s always worth having a conversation about. By contrast, the right to do whatever you want without ever having to consider another human being feels like a conversation you may have had once, while stoned, at university, and now have only a vaguely embarrassed memory of. But that’s what counts for drama here.
The Passion of Ayn Rand isn’t a total dud. It does capture the cultishness of Rand’s circle: the games of psychic control and abuse that followers would play on each other in order to become closer to the leader. And the film isn’t totally blind to the fact that this is a standard, even rather Jamesian morality play, in which grubby sentiments are dressed up in high-falutin talk without ever becoming less grubby. Leaving Mirren aside, the cast is starry right down the line: Peter Fonda as Rand’s husband, Frank; Eric Stoltz as the faithless Nathaniel Branden; Julie frickin’ Delpy as Barbara Branden. They’re all watchable, even while spouting the most juvenile libertarian drivel, and as a result the film is more or less watchable too.
But the film’s inertness is truly of a very special sort. It has the dilatory ponderousness of a Biblical epic, the same sort of inscrutable solemnity that it mistakes for seriousness. It doesn’t inhabit or illuminate any of the ideas it purports to be about: it merely has its characters speak them to each other. In this, perhaps, it’s not so different from Rand’s novels, which are secular creation myths thronged with longwinded messiahs. By coincidence, in 1927, Rand showed some of her draft film scripts to Cecil B. DeMille. ‘Too extreme,’ he said. Oh, for some extremity here. The Passion of Ayn Rand isn’t extreme, it’s just thorough in the most mindless way.