April 26, 2013
Here are the origins of the futuristic New York, as in the great Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis: Detained overnight as a German alien soon after the end of the Great War, Lang saw the city at night as an illusion. Its glaring lights and tall buildings helped him conceive Metropolis. Manhattan’s skyscrapers helped Hollywood create the playground of superheroes, headquarters of super-big corporations ruled by masters of the universe.
The symbolism of strength in height and size is unmistakable and has made Hollywood’s life easier as a result. “Skyscrapers,” proclaims Ayn Rand’s hero Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, are “the greatest structural inventions of man.” He then dismisses Greek temples and Gothic cathedrals as mongrels of every ancient style they copied. (That’s good old Rand for you.) Her philosophical belief in the value of the individual versus the collective somehow reminds me of the great lady the Brits just buried with style—a friend, Nick Scott, rang me after her funeral and told me it made him proud to be English. Hear, hear, just as it made me never want to set foot in the place after some of the remarks I heard by those ghastly lefties of the BBC.
But back to Rand and her supermen. She set her novel in New York because New York means one thing only: power. Power is an active, dominating presence throughout the book, and even more in the movie made from the novel, with the sweeping skyline of the city, especially down Fifth Avenue, seen by the audience from the interiors of offices through enormous glass walls. Raymond Massey, impeccably dressed in double-breasted suits in his office with spectacular views of Downtown as background, is no one to mess with. And the movie knew what it was doing, even back when it was made in 1949. Roark’s dream was of a sleek, dynamic, individual edifice, not the boxy bores that the UN and Lever House are. Massey’s press baron was Rupert Murdoch long before Rupie baby owned a single newspaper. Massie dismisses neoclassical designs as “great big marble bromides.” Murdoch would most likely have said the same in a different accent, and that’s what bothers me about The Fountainhead. I like big marble bromides—kids can play stickball between them—but I also like the power of glass and steel. Go figure, as they used to say in the place I venture out into only at night to raise hell with people much younger than me.
Image of Park Avenue courtesy of Shutterstock