Home Video Hovel: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, by Tyler Smith
When you are politically conservative, as I am, it’s only a matter of time before you arrive at Ayn Rand. In my case, I did it begrudgingly. I was already aware of her political legacy and the misguided attempts to bring her novels to the big screen. I really wasn’t that interested in digging further into her life and philosophy. However, enough respectable people recommended her that I thought I’d give her a try. So, I read The Fountainhead and found that, as I suspected, there was some interesting philosophy in there, and quite a bit of passion about architecture, couched in a troubling narrative with characters that were little more than Rand’s mouthpieces. It was far from being the best book I’d ever read, but I’d be lying if I said that it hasn’t stuck with me. That was the power of Ayn Rand; love her or hate her, you certainly couldn’t ignore her. And that’s why Michael Paxton made an Academy Award-nominated documentary about her in Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, recently released on Blu Ray.
Paxton clearly has a great deal of respect- and maybe even affection- for Ayn Rand. And, upon watching the film, it’s easy to see why. While her philosophies may be seen as emotionally cold, she certainly was not. She had a passion for her husband and a deep love of America. Born in Russia, she was raised in the middle of the Soviet revolution, and witnessed firsthand some of the dehumanizing practices of Communism. She immigrated to the United States just in time for the Great Depression, when many people legitimately thought- and wished- that capitalism would fail and that America would become Communist. This thought horrified Rand, and she devoted the rest of her life to warning the United States about the evils of collectivism.
I know all of this because the film is very clear in its depiction of Ayn Rand’s passions and philosophies. Insofar as the film provides a great deal of information, it is well-made and very interesting. Unlike many other documentaries about controversial political figures, this film is about as straightforward as it gets. I genuinely feel that docs like this aren’t made anymore; at least, not with any expectation of getting a theatrical release. So much about it seems small and easily-comprehended. The film belongs on PBS, not in a theater.
Perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to in-the-moment documentaries like Citizenfour and The Act of Killing or experimental documentaries like Room 237 and Exit Through the Gift Shop. The standard biographical documentary, with its authoritative narration and retrospective interviews, just doesn’t stir me up the way so many other documentaries do. I would blame it on the time the film was made, but Errol Morris, Steve James, and the Maysles brothers had been making gripping, cutting-edge documentaries for years by then. In the end, it was probably just Michael Paxton’s goal to make an easily-understood, straightforward film. In many ways, it’s appropriate, as Rand herself didn’t have much patience for extraneous ornamentation.
Despite its uninspiring presentation, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life accomplishes what it sets out to do. It humanizes a very polarizing public figure, while never shying away from her difficult philosophies. In doing so, it smartly uses a great deal of archival footage, allowing Rand to speak for herself, which works wonders in connecting subject and audience. I genuinely felt like I had a deeper knowledge of Ayn Rand by the end of the film. And, for a person with as much philosophical baggage as Ayn Rand, the more knowledge we have of the person herself, the better.