I don't really have much of a history with Ayn Rand. In my senior year of high school, as graduation approached, my drama teacher gave me a battered paperback copy of The Fountainhead from out of some dusty box or shelf she was cleaning out and suggested I read it, claiming she thought I might like it, that it had things I might identify with. I'll never know for sure what motivated this, but she had been right in the past, so I took the book--only to never read it. The Fountainhead was a pretty fat book to contend with during my last summer before college, and it subsequently got lost in all the moving around I would do over the next couple of years. My lone brush with Ayn Rand was left abandoned on a trash heap somewhere in California.
If I had to hazard a guess now, the teacher knew me enough to be aware of my burgeoning existentialism and my belief that the individual was sacrosanct. Personal responsibility was and is a big thing to me--though likely where Rand and I would part is on the subject of one's responsibility to the rest of the world. While I think her rejection of altruism is a bit over exaggerated--and really, many of the boogie men in her philosophy lose their capacity to scare via Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words, none of it really sounds that outlandish or terrible when the author explains it herself--my argument would be that engaging in charity and other good acts doesn't sacrifice the supremacy of the self but rather enhances it by going against one's own worst tendencies. Like exercise, it can really suck to do, but it makes us stronger.
Anyway, given Ayn Rand's resurgence as a cultural and political flashpoint, I thought the opportunity to at least explore her point of view a little bit through this documentary would be a worthwhile endeavor. Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words is exactly as it sounds. Working with the late writer's estate, filmmakers John Little and Robert Anderson have compiled a 72-minute film told entirely through audio and video of Rand talking about her life. Combined with photos, clips from movies (silent footage of Goffredo Alessandrini's unauthorized adaptation of We The Living), and sometimes rather odd stock footage (man buys Ayn Rand book with credit card = proof capitalism best in world!), Rand's testimony forms one long monologue, birth to...well, not quite death. In Her Own Words doesn't go very far beyond Atlas Shrugged in terms of Rand's life. Judging by the footage of her talking to Mike Wallace, Tom Snyder, and Phil Donahue (a finer collection of pinkoes you're never likely to find!), she seemed to dine out on her gift for gab in later years, like some gnomish Orson Welles. Too bad she never sold wine or frozen peas.
The basic story of Ayn Rand's life is actually an interesting one. She was born and raised in Russia, where she developed her ideas about freedom and learned to abhor control. She moved to America to expand her opportunities, and surprisingly ended up in Hollywood, where she worked as a movie extra (there are images of her from DeMille's The King of Kings) and wrote screenplays. Her husband, Frank O'Connor, was also an actor and a painter. Literary success came slow, but her working method was deliberate and slow itself. Her personal struggles to become published fueled the development of Objectivism, the name given to her ideology, promoting reason over emotion, free-market capitalism, and the supremacy of the individual. Again, when you hear Rand lay it out herself, the ogre-like ugliness dissipates. Regardless of whether you agree or not, it's not an open-and-shut case, this is a way of thinking that is worthy of debate. Kudos must be given to the filmmakers for choosing clips where misconceptions of Rand's ideas are raised so the author can bat them aside as way to honestly deal with some of the criticism about Objectivism. I know people like to harp on Phil Donahue, but seeing the friendly, yet adversarial, role he takes as an interviewer will make you long for a time when genuine discussions took place on television. Outside of The Daily Show, we don't really see the legitimate exchanging of ideas anymore. I know TV has to adapt to compete with the internet, but does that mean news shows have to operate like the IMDB message boards?
Anyway, back to Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words. Generous access to source material? Check. A clearly defined narrative line through the author's life? Check. A well-formed presentation of ideology? Check. But is the movie any good? Errr...um...no, not really.
For all the good parts laid on the table, the sum of those parts is not so much. Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words is slapdash and dull. The sound quality is poor and the editing repetitive and chintzy, using some photographs and drawings multiple times and often resorting to cheap graphics when there is nothing else available. And as noble as the approach is, giving Rand a platform to present her own case becomes a little too one-note/one-sided, and her droning voice doesn't do the filmmakers any favors. While her personality shines through when sparring with a TV journalist, most of In Her Own Words is audio sourced, and Rand's speaking style is really flat and monotonous. This results in the documentary being more like a tedious school assignment than an engaging evaluation of an influential thinker. Which I don't think was Little and Anderson's intention. It's hard for me to imagine anyone seeing Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words and rushing out to buy Atlas Shrugged; on the contrary, for as intellectually shallow as this may sound, you end up feeling like you got all you need to get, and you need never dip your bucket in this well again.
Then again, maybe for me it's that I waited twenty years to finally sort out all the hubbub, and I'm surprised by how little sound and fury there ended up being...even if that does signify something. I don't know what, but something.
The full frame disc of Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words is decent. The film is cobbled together from a variety of sources, all of them decades old, so the quality varies. Most of the footage cleans up nicely, but the overall DVD authoring is a tad slack. There is a fair amount of digital noise that may annoy some--though given the nature of the program, it's not exactly demanding a much greater presentation.
The Dolby Digital sound mix can be problematic. The producers do a good job of making all of the old audio sound clear and distinct, with only a little distortion, but the overall mix is kind of flat, with the paltry ambient music being woven into the discussion almost like an afterthought. At times it comes on so quietly, I thought maybe I had left a radio on somewhere in my house, it didn't seem to match what I was seeing on my TV.
Subtitles are available for the deaf and hearing impaired.
Ayn Rand: In Her Words comes with a handy booklet giving further background on the movie and its subject.
Four extra clips comprise the only on-disc bonus content (and they are, bizarrely, presented in widescreen, as evinced by the image below): "Childhood Parties/Comments on Culture Today/Who is Howard Roark?/First Impressions of Alan Greenspan." This is about 10 minutes of extra footage, fairly insubstantial. The attempts to connect the writer's words (she died in 1982) to anything current is disingenuous and transparent, whereas her meeting with Greenspan at least spawns some laughs. You should have stuck with your first reaction, Ayn, the guy is a jerk. The Roark bit is just a rundown of who may or may not have influenced characters in The Fountainhead.
Atlas was supposed to shrug, not me. Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words makes for an interesting study guide on the controversial author, but it's a yawn in terms of documentary filmmaking. Rent It and watch it so you can make yourself sound smarter at parties, or if you're in school and need a little goosing in terms of understanding The Fountainhead. Otherwise, I'd say the free market should let this one slip away. You can probably get most of the same information from Wikipedia and it won't cost you a dime.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.