Jew's Muse / It's a big year for Roark and Rourke
Why Oscar nominations for two unrelated films - 'The Wrestler' and 'The Fountainhead' - throws blogger Uzi Silber back to 1986 Albany.
2009 is a big year for two unrelated films: One is 'The Wrestler', up for multiple Oscars; the other is 'The Fountainhead', released exactly sixty years ago, and based on the controversial novel by the Russian-born Ayn Rand, formerly known as Alisa Rosenbaum.
While the movies have little in common, they do share a pair of homonymically surnamed guys - Roark and Rourke - who together once short-circuited that section of my brain responsible for post-adolescent reason.
It all transpired in wintry Albany, N.Y., where I was enrolled in college in the mid '80s - 'enrolled' being the sole operational description here, as opposed to, say, 'studying': Churchill's hackneyed quote about youth being wasted on the young was particularly apt in my case.
Rather than sensibly prepare for career or at the very least devote study to an area of personal interest, I opted for a wholly different if unoriginal approach. The real test of intellectual rigor, I decided, was to take one's exams without attending any lectures, reviewing textbooks, or even a whiff of cramming.
Needless to say, this strategy didn't work out particularly well, and in fact had the diametrically opposite effect of promptly dumping me on academic probation.
One would assume, with a Palin-esque wink, that there must have been a method to this academic suicide: that the gaping holes in my schedule must have surely been filled with other worthy diversions such as serial all-night toga parties or tending to a massive stable of ladies.
Sadly, this wasn't the case. The lost days, weeks and semesters in Albany were largely spent loitering in the busy center of campus either inspecting the flouncy freshman merchandise on display or playfully harassing passing acquaintances diligently on their way to class.
Carnality was largely limited in those cloudy years to occasional hookups with familiar companions. Yet despite this, I managed to develop in certain quarters a vague reputation as something of what was referred to by members of my father's generation as a cocksman.
This may have been related to my repertoire of pun-inflected vulgarity and scatological provocations, taken by some as the incisive, envelope-pushing commentary of an underground humorist - say a poor version of Lenny Bruce or a somewhat more literate Andrew Dice Clay.
Whatever amusement I might have imparted at the time, it's clear that I've retained no long-term goodwill, evidenced by the fact that none of my remaining friends date to my Albany period.
This alienation was exacerbated by two jolting but connected discoveries I had made during that winter of '86 that - for lack of a better trite expression - blew my mind: 'The Fountainhead' was one; the newly released movie '9 1/2 Weeks' was another.
Rand's almanac-thick novel was purchased on urgent recommendation at long-gone Coliseum Books off Manhattan's Columbus Circle; I was promptly and hopelessly riveted.
It was futile to resist identifying with or attempting to emulate Howard Roark, the book's hero and creative genius, who on principle would dynamite rather than compromise his architectural vision. A certifiable ubermensch, Roark has precious little time for the inferior beings around him, and no woman would do until he finally and fully came to possess the alluring, equally dominant Dominique - despite her somewhat tarty resume.
With the novel percolating in mind, I caught '9 1/2 weeks' at a small theater in downtown Albany. Underwhelmed American reviewers derided it as 'yuppie soft-porn', but the French were floored, and so was I. A purring but steely Mickey Rourke plays a self-made low-key Wall Street Master of the Universe, dwelling alone in a sleek Tribeca loft. This velvety version of Howard Roark is a self-possessed, virtually flawless superhuman who finds and seizes his own Dominique, in this case, the ravishing Kim Basinger.
Social Realistic chins ajut, Roark and Rourke bestride their lofty perch above us all, possessing all wisdom and charismatic masculinity. Viscerally physical, passionate and accomplished, both remained above the petty grievances and daily drudgery afflicting the rest of us. In short, these two winners had it all, while the rest of humanity just didn't.
Except, that is, for me. With novel devoured and movie absorbed, I was now certain that I did in-fact have 'it'. Whatever 'it' really was, it surely involved a careful awareness of my physical appearance and facial expressions. It also meant modulating the cadence of my voice, striking studied and extremely cool poses, and wearing those vintage long coats that were fashionable at the time. 'It', apparently, was attitude masquerading as purpose.
Cruising the sprawling campus with an ironic detachment, I'd disdainfully peer through and beyond ordinary mortals going about their unremarkable lives, and gaze toward the distant Adirondack foothills on the northern horizon, immersed in a wholly unfounded sense of superiority.
The young unnamed narrator in Tobias Wolff's 2003 novel 'Old School' experiences a similar 'Fountainhead' transformation. Like me, the narrator felt a certain "caged power... straining to break loose, and crush every impediment to its free running."
Like him, I realized that "nothing stood between me and greatness itself" as I contemptuously "took long walks through the snowy woods and fields, watching myself do it, admiring my solitude as if from a great height."
This had practical, though wholly unintended consequences. Astounded by my own magnificence, I searched campus for my own Dominique to claim, and had managed to become preoccupied with a certain pretty blonde who lived in the dorms, a former homecoming queen from upstate New York. Though the feelings may have been mutual, she had failed to reveal the existence of a clean cut and chiseled boyfriend, a campus ROTC officer, who upon exposing the flirtation between us promptly became enraged and decided to kill me.
On some fateful frigid Saturday night, I found myself shivering on line, waiting for admission into a dingy college pub serving cheap trash can-sized pitchers of beer.
Just then, something tackled me to the icy sidewalk, and pounded my face with angry fists. Two women standing behind me, one lanky, the other svelte, fearlessly leapt like mother leopards onto my attacker's back, and unleashed a ferocious storm of girlie slaps on his head that succeeded in prying him off me. As I scraped myself off the ground and brushed myself off, my attacker pointed at me menacingly as he stalked away, in that manner that promises 'I'll be back.'
Sure enough, the winning swagger I had adopted would soon fade along with the blonde flirtation, and I retreated to my recently abandoned observation post at the center of campus.
Sitting in a crowded Lower East Side movie theater a generation later, I watch a mellowed wrestler past his prime, now a bloated deli-man, stapled and plastically altered, and wistfully recall the slick celluloid superhuman he once was. At the same time, I can't help but shake my head at what a poor ubermensch I made.
Though it would have horrified me back then, it's comforting to realize that there were others smitten with themselves besides me.
After all, millions of impressionable readers have succumbed to the charms of 'The Fountainhead' over the years and many more saw the movie version released six decades ago. And '9 1/2 Weeks' managed to attract all of France and even a handful of Americans in a darkened Albany theater.
Finally, it's now clear that even demigods are just as flawed as the rest of us: Roark marries the dame of his dreams, but not before she's been passed around like a social disease. And by the time '9 1/2 Weeks' ends, Rourke finds himself discarded and broken, much like so many recent Wall Street Masters of the Universe that followed him.
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