Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life
1998, NR, 147 min. Directed by Michael Paxton.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 6, 1998
While not exactly Ken Burns territory, this expansive documentary on the multi-tiered life of Russian émigré-cum-novelist-cum-philosopher Rand is nothing if not ambitious. At 147minutes, it may in fact be too ambitious for its own good, slavishly marking everything about Rand from her humble origins in St. Petersburg to her waning years post-Atlas Shrugged when she was making the rounds of such television interview programs as Donahue. Frankly, I haven't seen anything more bizarre in years than the sight of the pudgy-cheeked Rand giving Phil Donohue's silver mane a good what-for -- the pairing of these two (in 1980) was, and remains, one of the oddest philosophical sparring matches in known history. That aside, Paxton has recruited Rand scholars from all over to echo her always controversial opinions and add insight where possible. Colleagues Dr. Harry Binswanger and Dr. Leonard Peikoff recount Rand's transition from a bright if introspective Russian child who, after suffering through the October Revolution, enrolled herself in film school (while still in the Soviet Union) and then managed against all odds to secure a passport to visit relatives in Chicago. Rand never returned to her homeland, nor, it is assumed, did she plan to. Once in the U.S., she hurriedly set about learning her adopted language so that she could pursue her real goal, that of becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood. Although she was originally taken under the wing of Cecil B. DeMille while the director was in the course of shooting King of Kings, Rand kept busy during the Depression honing her fledgling skills writing plays and preparing to begin work on her first great novel, We the Living. Always an outspoken critic of the Soviet system (and fascism and collectivism in general), Rand at first found it difficult to have her anti-Soviet work published in the Bolshevik-happy heyday of 1930s Hollywood. As Stalin's oppressive regime was eventually dragged into the light, Rand found more acceptance, but like modern Rand progeny such as Camille Paglia, acceptance was hard-won. Paxton is thorough to the point of punctiliousness -- there's not an event that remains unrecounted here, and no aspect of Rand's philosophy goes unexamined. Her deep hatred of altruism (“I regard that as evil,” she remarks. “It means placing the interests of others above your own.”) and the antipathy that engendered makes for some dishy, objectivist commentary, but most of all Paxton reveals a woman before her time, neither feminist nor shrinking violet, and above all stridently passionate. The same applies to Paxton's film; by the end of its 147 minutes, you'll only have to read the books and plays to seemingly know all there is to know about Unpronounceable Rand.