Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Calculating Personage Through Appearance

Much of our movie viewing discussions were focused upon evaluating the vivid portrayal of countenances within both The Fountainhead and The Grapes of Wrath. Most striking was the thematic binary juxtaposition of insidious inhumanity through “beauty” and “humanity” through gauntness. With particular emphasis on the ways light affects the presentation of face and facial expressions, both The Fountainhead and The Grapes of Wrath serve to expose the multifacetedness of human nature and illuminate the conditions under which it develops into and under the extremities of political reality. I find that the film The Fountainhead asserts an almost eugenic profile of what is “evil” and what is “good” through the use of lighting and make-up. The director presented totalitarian corruption as genteel perfection and sage self-determination as provincial homeliness—a now overused departure from the traditional trope of good as beautiful and evil as ugly. With this invocation, the film launches a campaign befitting its spatiotemporality: by tapping into the nation’s prevalent xenophobia, the 1949 film The Fountainhead offers an interesting subliminal commentary upon U.S. international (and domestic) affairs and relations.
These films both reached box offices during the height of a pedestrian eugenic craze. With the greater part of the latter 19th century and early 20th century witnessing the escalating manifestation of Nazism in the European theater and U.S. state’s implementing sterilization projects for the “mentally and psychically impaired,” it comes as no surprise that “decent” and “indecent” take on archetypical phenotypes for both the American public and its specialized, jargonic echelons. Couched in fear of the “foreign” and “impure,” scientists and policy makers cast “decency” and “indecency” as physically manifestable thus making these character profiles replicable and/or eradicable—something that all societies have striven to accomplish through simple citizenship standards or more caustic miscegenation regulations. Therefore, for Hollywood to echo with these sociopolitical reverberations comes as no small surprise. Beginning with increasingly more exoticized iterations of Dracula to post-1904 St. Louis World’s Fair portrayals of “Oriental” villains, Hollywood ran a bountiful cornucopia of filmic, over-dramatized binary profiles that strove to define both in drama and popular culture the faces, figures, and figurings of heros vs. villains, beautiful vs. ugly, good vs. bad, and reality vs. alternate universes.
In The Fountainhead, Henry Roark’s character had a face of weathered ruggedness, which in comparison with the refined features of characters like Ellsworth Toohey and Mr. Francon, separated him from the world of lecherous mooching and corrupt theft. Accentuated in the black and white cinematography, Henry Roark’s chiseled facial planes spoke of a multidimensional character whose mantle of abstruseness lent a devil-may-care recklessness. . He possessed a predatory muscuclature of someone accustomed to physical labor while the sharp valleys of his perpetually furrowed brow and the spidery lines of his crows’ feet emulated the highly defined and architecturalized quarries he prowled and buildings he designed. His darkened complexion evidenced hours spent toiling in the fields rather than in the boardroom.
Ellsworth Toohey, on the other hand, exemplified the appearance of a well-educated and refined man whose life was appointed by grand pursuits and high society. The great expanse of his unblemished forehead gestured to an undiluted intelligence, whilst his fair complexion and white hair created a refined sagacity. This served to centralize Toohey’s aesthete around his head, providing an almost halo meant to enlarge the impression that he was in possession of more mental faculties than perhaps he really did. This balanced his rather diminutive and frail stature; however, it did nothing to prevent Toohey from proudly lifting his head and jutting out his chin in order to observe the practice of looking down his nose at any interlocutor.
These physical attributes are emanations of what may arguably be considered the era’s social thoughts. Roark, with his rugged, homely appearance represents the idyllic American Dream imaginary of self-wrought livelihood and success. The peaks and troughs of his sun-ravaged face, labor-chiseled forearms, and predatory gait create the perfect image of Manifest Destiny’s champion; Roark is the man who drilled through obstinate mountains, hacked away clingy fauna, and architecturalized the wilderness of the West into the high rises of American free market domination. Toohey, in his soft genteelness personifies the pinnacle of high society— “that which the American Dream” suggests, but never explicitly expresses as its culmination. In further contrast, the slight figure possessed by Toohey combined with his despicable cunning, stresses what Rand considers the lootery that American democratic idealism can easily evolve into. With his waistcoats, cumber buns, pin stripes, and cigars Toohey’s rounded inflection reminds audiences of the colonial looters of America’s pre-Revolution days when the public’s wills were bent to those of Oxford’s noble aristocracy.
I do not think that Rand’s book nor the cinematic adaptation strive to connect the British crown of yore and the implementation of democratic socialism; however, there is a startling parallelism between the “villains” of Rand’s social thought and the British “high society” under which American self-determination suffered the destiny of suppression and possible extinction. In the cinematic profiles offered by costume and lighting direction, it seems as though the Americans are once again “fighting” off foreign subjugation in the face-off between Roark and Toohey. I find that the profiles created by Roark and Toohey are not meant to present eugenic caricatures of Self-Determination and Corrupt Democratic Socialism, rather aesthetes meant to impress upon audiences a cautionary and scapegoat. By connecting to a historic consciousness and memory, the cinematographers are able to invoke the chafing resentment of American pioneers

This is my original work, but for some reason it won't properly copy+paste from my word doc.

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