Ayn Rand's Aesthetics: Preserving the Glamor of Hollywood's Silent Screen

Article excerpt

The young Alisa Zinov'evna Rozenbaum, the future outspoken political emigre writer Ayn Rand, shared with fellow Petrograd artists an admiration of the low genres of the music hall, cinema, and variety theater, which the influential Factory of the Eccentric Actor (Fabrika ekstsentricheskogo aktera, or FEKS), celebrated in its 1921 manifesto Eccentrism (Ekstsentrizm). Founded in 1922 by Grigorii Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, Sergei Iutkevich, and Georgii Kryzhitskii, FINKS so closely linked these genres to American industry and technological innovation that Eccentrism declares: "THE AMERICANISATION OF THE THEATRE/ in Russian means/ ECCentriSM." (1) This manifesto, distributed by hand in the streets of Petrograd and plastered to the city's walls when Rand was still a student at Petrograd State University, likely encouraged her early association of America with skyscrapers and cinematic advancements. (2) However, Rand did not, in the manner of FINKS, understand these forms as liberatory, revolutionary art for a new social order seeking independence from its own traditions, but rather as an escape to the West, an imagined land of limitless potentialities embodied in the simple phrase "over there" in her movie synopsis Red Pawn (1932). (3) Hence, in her novel about Communist Russia, We the Living (1936), she includes "The Song of Broken Glass" as emblematic of a desire for freedom abroad, (4) and in Red Pawn (1932) the "Song of Dancing Lights"--"the lightest, gayest, maddest tune that ever conquered the capitals of Europe"--signals Commandant Kareyev's rebellion against the collectivist state. (5) In her personal interviews (1960-61), she recalls that foreign operettas in Petrograd stirred her "love for city streets, city lights, [and] skyscrapers" that awaited her abroad. (6) Nevertheless, it was the Western (specifically the German and American) film industry that particularly ignited the young Rand's imagination, as her interviews, correspondence, film diary, and early booklets on the Polish-born actress Pola Negri (Apolonia Chatupiec) and on Hollywood attest. As a result of a governmental decision to allow the distribution of foreign films as a means of accumulating capital to support the impoverished Soviet film industry, (7) Rand was able to view Western movies, which fascinated her because of their "specific, not merely symbolic view of life abroad." (8)

She was drawn to romantic movies with high drama, intricate plots, histrionic acting, and monumental architecture, as her early diary entries suggest. They disclose a preference for German films--with Joe May's 1921 The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal) being her favorite--that she still maintained in 1969, when defining her aesthetics in The Romantic Manifesto in reference to Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924): "Lang is the only one who has fully understood the fact that visual art is an intrinsic part of films in a much deeper sense than the mere selection of sets and camera angles--that a 'motion picture' is literally that, and has to be a stylized visual composition in motion." (9) This emphasis on the chronological axis of the film arts, or the transmission of meaning through the dynamic relation of one shot to another, remains central to Rand's film aesthetics, which prioritize this silent cinema era, as evidenced in a 1948 letter to Mia May, with whose career as a leading silent film actress Rand would have been familiar from the films of her director-husband Joe May (including The Indian Tomb). In the letter, Rand describes how pictures sent to her by Mia May remind Rand of a time when the name Mia May represented "the symbol of the only beauty and relief I had while being imprisoned in hell." (10) Rand further claims that "the kind of pictures I want to make are in the style and spirit of the pictures you made. It is a spirit which does not exist in the world any longer--and part of my battle is to bring it back." (11) In shaping her cinematic ideal, Rand insisted on the integration of the philosophical with the aesthetic, an achievement that she believed was realized on Hollywood's silent silver screen: "they were not philosophical, but that's what I liked, it was as if Atlantis had already arrived, the ideal was right here on earth, and one did not have to be philosophical, certainly not political, all those problems were already solved, and it was the perfect existence for purposeful men. …