Peak Oil Flicks

The Fountainhead (1949)


If you are one of the 16 or so people who has seen the recent release of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, you’ll be heartened to know there’s another Ayn Rand film to enjoy while you’re waiting for the next Atlas installment (but don’t hold your breath). That film is The Fountainhead, released in 1949.

Russian-born Ayn Rand (1905-1982), a staunch anti-Communist, promulgated a philosophy of extreme individualism called Objectivism. It holds that man is an end in himself, and it rejects altruism in any form. The title of her 1964 book, The Virtue of Selfishness,sums up the philosophy succinctly. Objectivism promotes the capitalist system, especially property rights, and reviles “distribution of wealth” carried out – or stolen, in Rand’s view --in the form of taxes.  Above all, Objectivism exalts the primacy of the gifted individual, the doers and “wealth builders,” unfairly shackled by the less productive in society (Rand called the poor and non-acheivers “moochers” and “looters.”) Objectivism gained some traction at the outer edges of libertarianism, peaking in the 1960s. Atlas was one of Rand’s many novels and non-fiction works to promote her views.

As a personality, Rand exuded a certain brutal glamour that attracted a number of acolytes to her camp, despite critics’ widespread panning of her writing ability. With their stilted dialogue and cardboard characters, Rand novels don’t lend themselves to the film medium, a factor that the reception to Atlas seems to bear out. 

But The Fountainhead is in a different category altogether. Directed by King Vidor, it features some of the best-known stars of the era, high production values, and a stirring score by iconic Hollywood composer Max Steiner.

The Fountainhead is the story of uncompromising architect Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper. Roark struggles against the critics and conformist builders who reject his visionary ideas and conspire to break him. Beautiful, spirited Dominque Francon (Patricia Neal), a columnist for an influential newspaper, swoons for both Roark and his pure principles. She helps him at a crucial point when a rival architect betrays him, in an act that lands Roark in jail. He defends himself heroically in court and wins his freedom.

For such a high-minded film, The Fountainhead contains a number of unintentionally funny-- or at least confounding—scenes, most of them suffused with heavy breathing and barely suppressed libido. Like the scene in which Dominique stalks Roark to the quarry where he is reduced to working as a common laborer. As she gazes down on him from the rim of the quarry, wordlessly admiring his, er, drill, you just know that these two superior specimens are meant to merge. Later, she pursues him on horseback, occasioning another turbulent encounter involving jodhpurs and whips.

So what qualifies Fountainhead as a Peak Oil flick? It’s the staggeringly tall buildings that Roark dotes on and struggles to build. Most of the film takes place in or around sleek high-rise buildings, inspired by the Internationalist architecture movement that took root in the US following World War II. In cavernous offices devoid of bourgeois values like utility or comfort, the film displays its surroundings as the pinnacle of modern achievement. (Interestingly, Vidor’s great 1929 silent film, The Crowd, presented the large, impersonal city, with its towering buildings, as a spirit-crushing environment. The veteran director also portrayed ordinary working people in the film with compassion and affection.)

Viewed from today’s perspective, ultra-tall buildings occupy a moment in time that may be on the wane – or at the least, their use may be open to repurposing. (Some thinkers propose that high-rises could be put to better use as, perhaps, silos or vertical farms). Almost everything conspires against this building style: the rapid increase in the cost of structural materials, from steel to glass; the trend toward building height limits in some cities; the obvious vulnerability to seismic activity; and the design barriers that complicate both rescue and evacuation in emergencies (tragically confirmed in the World Trade Center attacks). From an urban planning perspective, their presence encourages social isolation.  But the most decisive deficit of skyscrapers, one almost certain to deepen in the future, is their outsized energy demand.

Just as a prospective buyer of a Hummer today has to ask himself, “Am I gonna afford to drive this thing, or just put it up on blocks and turn it into a storage shed?” every responsible contemporary architect must consider the energy cost of every proposed structure on the drawing board. For everything we build or buy going forward, the energy cost embedded in the entire product life cycle will take on increased importance.

None of this mattered in 1949, with the country on the cusp of a long-term economic surge and one of the biggest building booms in history.   A mere 16 years later, New York City and several northeast U.S. cities experienced a huge power blackout. The 2003 reprise affected not only New York City but also a dozen other U.S. cities and parts of Canada. The symptom of an aging, centralized power system for which there is neither the will nor national revenue to modernize, the blackouts presaged more of the same in the future.

“What will happen in a city full of skyscrapers when the electric grid goes out unpredictably for hours at a time? What will happen to people stuck in the elevators?” James Howard Kunstler poses in The Long Emergency. “What will happen to the people down at street level who need to get upstairs to their twenty-ninth floor office or apartment? What will happen to the elderly? What will happen during a summer heat wave? It’s one thing if a blackout occurs in a big city once every fifteen years. It’s another thing if it happens every year, or several times a year, or once a month, or twice a week.” 

But old habits die hard, and investment seemingly can be found for any real estate vanity project. The newest "Tallest Building in the World," the Burj Khalifa complex, opened in Dubai in January 2010. At 2,717 ft, it is taller than any other man-made structure ever built. Despite its oil-based riches, the debt-ridden Dubai government had to borrow petrodollars from its Arab emirate neighbor to bankroll construction costs.

And there are other looming problems. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Burj Khalifa -- like many of the offices, hotels and housing developments constructed around the world during the late building boom -- may never attain full occupancy of its shops, business suites, and 900 hotel  rooms. The profligate use of natural resources on the scale of Burj Khalifa may not be feasible in a future of dwindling raw materials and global deficits. But in the  Rand/Roark world, such structures are not unsustainable monuments to folly; they are lofty expressions of the unfettered individual – no matter the cost to society or nature.

After lots of tedious speechifying about the tyranny of the creative impulse squelched by mob mediocrity, Fountainhead wraps up with Roark’s architectural vision vindicated. He and Dominique reunite as happy newlyweds.  As the film ends, she visits her hubby on the construction site of his latest gigantic project. She takes the lift up, up, up about 1000 stories to the roof, where Roark awaits her, silhouetted like a solitary god against the skyline.

Ayn Rand and her supporters despised the ideal of the commonweal. Their values have resurged in our day in the no-taxes orthodoxy of some politicos and talk radio hosts. They demonize public employees i.e., the teachers, firefighters, nurses, etc. who provide services for the collective good, and press to privatize or eliminate them. Which leads to an ironic postscript: Near the end of her life Rand, stricken with cancer, registered for government medical benefits and Social Security under her married name, O’Connor. Although she had paid into the Social Security system during her working life, it was the collective contribution of millions of the deprecated masses of her adopted country that supported her in a time of need. The American “socialized entitlement” system enabled her to afford decent medical care and not have to live out her remaining years in a state of penury. So much for rugged individualism.