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Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra
In keeping with the current practice of "coming clean," that is, of acknowledging our biases, let me say that I received an on-screen credit in Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, as a "Research Assistant" for having provided A.G. Media with a very limited amount of material on Rands education in Russia. And yes, I was delighted to see my name in the closing credits of an Oscar-nominated documentary on the life of my favorite writer.
On the night of the premiere, the film had all the aura of an "event." The sold-out theater was packed with Rand fans, who were fully engaged for all 145 minutes, chuckling and sighing at various moments of comedy and drama. They burst into applause at the films conclusion making it seem as if wed seen a live performance. Punctuated by commentary from Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, and John Ridpath primarily, and by some original animation, the film was narrated by Sharon Gless. The script featured a generous sampling of direct quotes from Rand, coupled with a haunting imagery of rare archival stills and footage: How remarkable to see, for example, illustrations of Cyrus, the barefoot hero from The Mysterious Valley, an inspiration to young Alissa in her quest for the ideal man. And how ironic to see stills of Rand, the atheist, and her husband-to-be, Frank OConnor, as extras on the set of DeMilles religious epic The King of Kings. We learn many new tidbits too: that Rand had re-written the love scenes of a Hal Wallis movie, The Conspirators, and that the casting competition for The Fountainhead was more intense than first reported. Rands work with the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance is also described. In fact, the congressional footage of Rands appearance as a friendly witness before HUAC is hypnotic. Id read the congressional record but had never seen the testimony; for me, it was worth the price of admission. Saul Bellow once claimed that the New York City literary scene was like an "intellectual annex of Moscow"; in such a climate, we can understand Rands torment as her chosen country inched its way toward statism.
Rands reflections on subjects ranging from Marilyn Monroe to racism, are highlighted throughout. Peikoff correctly observes that Rand saw every question as a springboard to a whole interconnected network of premises and implications. Her own explanations to Phil Donahue, Mike Wallace, and others, are sometimes riveting, and sometimes graced with a distinctive sense of humor. Wallaces reminiscences particularly are valuable, conveying the intensity of Rands eyes, as portholes to her profoundly focused mind.
All that said, however, the film would have benefitted from more critical distance from its subject-matter. Too many statements are made without further explanation. We learn, for example, that Rands mother lamented the raising of children as "a hateful duty." How might that have affected her children? Binswanger tells us that Rand was an ardent anti-feminist. But how might Rands life and thought serve as a model for women? The story of Rands recollections of N. O. Lossky, her Petrograd philosophy professor, is repeated here in much the same form as it appears in Barbara Brandens essay, "Who is Ayn Rand?" The imprecise identification of Lossky as a "Platonist" and a "distinguished expert in ancient philosophy" remains in tact. And no questions of historical authenticity are raised.
Further, where are the prominent philosophers, politicians, writers, even critics, who have been influenced by Rand? Michael Paxton, writer, director and producer, tells us in an interview published in The Intellectual Activist ("Capturing a Sense of Life," November 1997) that the film was not intended as comprehensive journalism, but as an exploration of Rands personal sense of life. Yet, even a brief examination of alternative voices would have dramatized the controversy surrounding this womans life and work.
The treatment of the Rand-Branden relationship is a case in point. When Nathaniel Brandens face appeared on the screen, the enthusiastic audience suddenly fell silent. Paxton notes in TIA that he was asked not to speak to the Brandens for this project. He agreed with the Estate that it would be "inappropriate" to approach people with whom Rand had broken. One cant help but wonder if this was a quid quo pro. Would Paxton have been granted unprecedented access to the Rand archives if he had interviewed Nathaniel or Barbara Branden? (Curiously, Barbara Brandens picture is shown, as is Alan Greenspans, but neither persons name is mentioned.)
I also wonder about the appropriateness of having Peikoff talk about this painful affair in Rands private life, which he was not privy to. While Paxton claims that his film does not "psychoanalyze" its subject, Peikoff injects his own brand of psychoanalysis into the discussions, since he has to present the audience with a semi-plausible explanation. Rand is said to have considered Branden a "genius," a great "innovator" in psychology, and Peikoff admits that Branden was indeed quite intelligent. But he says that "one thing or another precipitated the break," venturing further that Branden committed "personal and professional deceptions." Peikoff speculates, moreover, that Frank OConnor probably experienced little jealousy, accepting the affair because he knew his wife was special, and that she needed more than he could offer her. For me, this whole explanation was vacuous; we are given such a humane portrait of this gentle, sensitive man, and we cant help but think about the pain he must have felt over his wifes adultery. Since the Estate has access to Rands private journals, and since these will be published as part of a forthcoming biography, Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words, it might have been better to simply read from the relevant 1968 entries. It would have given life to Rands pain and rage, for sure, but it would have provided the audience with a deeper insight into this bizarre episode.
It is, in part, this lack of depth that Janet Maslin faults in her New York Times review, in which she characterizes the film as "slavish," "conventional," and "pedantic." She is uncomfortable with the producers reliance on "acolytes like Dr. Leonard Peikoff (identified by a title as Ayn Rands intellectual heir)," and she suggests that the film "will be best appreciated by those who ask no questions and share that point of view." Jami Bernard, in her two-star New York Daily News review, seems quite receptive to Rands ideas. But she thinks that the films ties to the Estate may explain "why the tyranny [Rand] is said to have exercised over her own devotees is never mentioned." Even Michael Medved, in his three-star New York Post review, complains about the absence of dissenters. Medved too, is left wondering about more penetrating questions: How did Rand feel about having no children? What about her Jewish background? Even the lack of "more heroic" music disturbs him. (By contrast, I found Jeff Brittings pensive score unintrusive; at times, it was quite effective in evoking Rands solitary battle, and the isolation of genius.)
No book and certainly no film can answer all the questions regarding Rand and her movement. Yes, we have to keep Paxtons purpose in mind. The film returns again and again to its theme. Rand once suggested that ones "sense of life" is so private and complex a matter that no one should presume to know hers. That Paxton succeeds in offering us a glimpse of a heroic spirit at work is to his credit. By grappling more extensively with several thorny issues, he may have been able to pre-empt some of the critical objections to his film. However, the film is well worth seeing; it may not get an Oscar, given its strong competition, but its nomination is yet another symbol of a continuing Rand renaissance. By any measure, we stand at the precipice of a veritable industry in popular and academic studies of Rand, awaiting other vantage points, other books, other movies about this most enigmatic twentieth-century thinker.
Other published reviews of Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life ...
New York Times (Feb. 13, '99)
Hollywood Online (Feb. 13, '99)