Sunday, February 13, 2005
I finally saw Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life Friday night. After a frustrating and long day in the lab (which didn't end until close to 9:00 p.m.) and with my wife being out of town for a departmental retreat, I really needed an emotional lift. I have to admit that I didn't quite feel like watching this movie at the time. But I must have known on a subconscious level that this movie would do the trick: I watched it anyway. I have not been so inspired by heroism since Apollo 13, or so moved by greatness in the face of adversity since La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful). This is easily the best documentary I have ever seen, and one of the best movies. I strongly recommend it to anyone, whether or not they are already familiar with the novelist-philosopher or her work. I traditionally grade movies I review here, but feel silly doing so in this case. See it. Yesterday.
How can I say this? Because making a film about a figure like Ayn Rand poses a much greater challenge than most biographical films and Michael Paxton proved more than equal to the task. Given that Ayn Rand was a woman of ideas, it would have been absurd to attempt to make this film without discussing some of these ideas. But to dwell too much on these ideas could have easily resulted in the film becoming pedantic, and disappointing to an audience interested in learning more about the life of Ayn Rand than just her philosophy or her fictional works. Paxton not only struck just the right balance in his approach to the life and the ideas of Ayn Rand, he masterfully illustrated how well-integrated with her life -- both in origin and application -- these ideas were. As a result, the movie manages to illustrate Ayn Rand's ideas with her life while simultaneously employing these ideas to explain why Rand was great. This might sound like circular reasoning, but in fact, Paxton is helping his audience reason inductively about Rand's ideas during the narrative. This is an ingenious application of what is known as the "spiral theory of learning."
For example, Ayn Rand was a champion of individualism, yet she hailed from Russia at the time of the Communist revolution. We see how Rand was able to essentialize the chaos of those times to see that the Communists were waging war against the individual -- and thus why she grew to hate Communism in particular and collectivism in general. We see further that Rand was able to learn from Western literature and cinema that life in general did not have to be the way it was in Russia. Exposed to two contrasting visions of life for man on this earth -- the Communist hell she lived in and the life of the West she learned about from fiction -- she was able to abstract the essential differences between the two. One of these differences is that man has a choice to drift submissively, and live or die at the mercy of those around him -- or to be purposeful, independent, and heroic. Ayn Rand chose the latter. In doing so, she did all of the following, each of which is amazing in itself: she saw this difference, she chose to live her life as she saw fit, she escaped from the mass graveyard of Soviet Russia, she became a success -- in her chosen profession, in a foreign language, and starting from scratch -- in her adopted country, and she created an entire philosophy to do all of these things.
Seeing this movie was a moving, uplifting experience for me. It is a testament to her intellectual and artistic success that the phrase "like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel" is something of a cliche. But to do the things she did in her life, she had to be just such a heroine. Ayn Rand's many detractors would like you to forget that this was the reason Rand was able to create the fiction that she did. I'm not sure exactly why, but I have a few guesses. Maybe they gave up on their dreams long ago, and so have to pretend that someone like Ayn Rand never existed. Maybe they realize that her life provides an example of the validity of her own philosophy. Whatever their motives are, Rand's detractors invariably focus, not on her actual ideas (And see this post for just one example of how poorly many grasp her ideas.), but on her affair with Nathaniel Branden. This bears out the notion that for whatever reason, they feel that they have to find something they can hold out as evidence that Rand wasn't perfect. But what man would have been her equal romantically? It is clear from the documentary that if there was a tragedy in Rand's life, it was that she was unable to find in one man all the qualities her great soul required. Her detractors gleefully damn her for having an affair, but I have never seen a single solitary one say what he would have done in her shoes. I don't know what I would have done, either, but I don't share the apparent relief of Rand's detractors that something went badly for her. I'm too moved by what she accomplished and by what she had to be to accomplish it.
I brought up, as just one example of Rand's brilliance, her integration that Communism was at war with the individual. She understood this on many levels: ideological, existential, historical, and spiritual. I don't know how to do this example justice, let alone an entire life of such examples. You'll have to ask Michael Paxton how to do that. Better still, see the movie.
2-16-05: Added hyperlink to the movie's web site. Hat tip to Martin Lindeskog.