British Universities Film & Video Council

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Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. 2004. USA. DVD (Region 1 NTSC). 143 minutes. Strand Home Video. $34.99

john.rileyAbout the reviewer: John Riley is a writer, lecturer, curator and broadcaster. He is the author of Shostakovich: A Life on Film (I.B. Tauris, 2006) and Discover: Film Music (Naxos, 2008) and contributed chapters to The Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich (2008), Contemplating Shostakovich: Life, Music and Film (2012) and The Sounds of the Silents in Britain (2012), among others. He is a regular contributor to The Independent newspaper. He wrote, directed and produced the evening-long show ‘Shostakovich – My Life at the Movies’ for the South Bank Centre. It was premiered by the CBSO with Simon Russell Beale and was then produced at the Komische Oper, Berlin, with Ulrich Matthes.

Ayn Rand is undeniably an influential American thinker though it was mainly through her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) that she expounded her philosophy of Objectivism: ‘the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’ Denouncing Kant, this heady brew insists that morality and logic are indivisible, that altruism is immoral, and that the state’s only role is to use full laissez-faire economics to protect the individual’s right to pursue happiness

Produced with the help of the Ayn Rand Institute, A Sense of Life would seem to be perfectly placed to explain this controversial philosophy but it pulls its punches, producing little more than a standard-issue biography of an admittedly eventful life.

Born in St Petersburg in 1905, Rand was an Americaphiliac/anti-communist, devoted to capitalism. We learn of her fierce atheism; and her stance against racism, though, paradoxically she opposed legislation to deal with it. However, perhaps less surprisingly, we learn little of the Objectivist movement’s ferocious schisms. Even one of Rand’s closest acolytes, former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, has recently been condemned for advocating state intervention which for Objectivists is ‘immoral’, a cause of the current economic meltdown and doomed to fail.

Despite her popularity, some of her admirers may not have fully grasped the implications of her all-or-nothing outlook. Meanwhile, adepts see ‘academic’ philosophers rejecting Objectivism because of its ‘practicality’, hinting at a degree of cultish paranoia. But the ‘practicalities’ are never really addressed (with fully privatised health and education, what would happen to the poor?)

The Institute’s involvement makes some interesting material available and there are some scenes from her early, clunky play Ideal, but a series of bedazzled interviewees and no contrary viewpoints (the makers were forbidden even to speak to Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s former lover and greatest apostate) ironically hobbles any ‘objectivity’.

John Riley

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