“Who would win in a fight Godzilla or King Kong?” was a question that was asked by just about every kid I knew growing up. “What about Batman versus Superman, or how about The Six-Million Dollar Man and Big Foot?” With that mindset forever entrenched in my skull, I was intrigued when I learned that one of our society’s most popular satirists would be taking on one of our most popular philosophers.
Larry David’s Clear History is a satirical comedy, not a philosophical treatise, so the movie should be given some artistic license when it attempts to deconstruct, refute, or simply poke fun at one of Ayn Rand’s most famous books The Fountainhead. The question that every viewer should ask themselves is where does that artistic license end, and the requirement of factual refutation begin? As it has often been said, a satirist can be humorous when poking fun at various institutions, but he can be hilarious if he adds an element of truth to his satire. In this vein, Clear History is not hilarious.
Some would say that those who are so bothered by the content of a movie that they can’t enjoy something as simple as a simple comedy without analyzing it to death, need to relax, get out more, or have more relations with the opposite sex. It’s a fair point, but isn’t it also a fair point that if these movie makers are going to attempt to satirically refute one of the most famous books of all-time (Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) that the material might be more effective if they did so in a more accurate manner? Why even mention the book, much less make it an ongoing theme of your movie, if that wasn’t their goal? If the screenwriters simply wanted to provide light humor, why didn’t they just invent a book, and that book’s writer, for Will Haney character’s inspiration? They could then more easily refute any claims of inaccuracy by those who believe that they didn’t properly represent the book in question.
Even if the writers wanted to avoid the heavy handed task of providing exact refutation, and their work of light humor was only going to trim the edges of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, for the purpose of providing their audience a base from which light humor and sight gags would spring, we should require those satirists to get the subtext of her philosophy correct, for proper, albeit humorous refutation. If that satire’s main character is going to portray an anti-Rand character (Nathan Fromm), shouldn’t we require his adversary (Will Haney) to properly represent the Rand character, if for no other reason than to have a proper adversarial relationship … Even if it’s for no other reason than to have humorous exchanges, or to have a subtext that hints at those philosophical differences?
There are moments in the movie where it appears as though the writers purposely avoided representing the Ayn Rand philosophy accurately, that they don’t understand the greater import of her message, or that they simply wanted to provide their “impossible to grasp” interpretation of it. One of the few direct interpretations of The Fountainhead’s main character, Howard Roark, involves a swear word that characterizes Roark as one of the meanest characters in the history of literature.
Teenagers use this swear word, in this manner, to provide their listeners with an all-encompassing dismissal of the chosen object of their scorn, and that’s all other teens need to follow a fellow teen’s dismissal of their subject. Adults often need more. Adults may allow the speaker to dismiss a person with a swear word, especially for the sake of humor, but they often require more if they are going to join the speaker in their attempts to dismiss a person, or an idea. Even if said adults aren’t willing to join the speaker in the condemnation of a subject, they usually enjoy the blows delivered in an epic battle, but even then, even for the purpose of satirical refutation, most adults prefer to have an element of truth added for added amusement.
When I learned that a mighty satirist would be taking on a mighty philosopher, I thought of all of those speculative epic battles that we talk about in our youth. When I saw my satiric hero had another character in the movie deliver a blow below the belt, characterizing Ayn Rand’s character Howard Roark with a swear word that was supposed to define him as one of the meanest characters in the history of literature, I knew this wouldn’t be a fair fight. Even though I knew that the protagonist’s adversary (Ayn Rand) in this epic battle was no longer alive to counter punch, I knew the fight would be called early.
It strikes me that when we create a satirical piece, we have one shot. We have to combine a substantive take with clever inserts of humor. It’s a juggling act that allows some room for error, as long as the premise is true. Doing otherwise leaves the audience thinking, “Ok, you don’t like Ayn Rand, or the Fountainhead. We got it. Now tell us why we shouldn’t.”
Then, when I realized that this below the belt punch was going to be the best blow in the arsenal of one my favorite satirists, watching the rest of Clear History proved to be as sad, and as depressing, as watching Muhammad Ali battle Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson battle Lennox Lewis at the end of their careers. This isn’t to say that I think Clear History spells the end of Larry David’s career, or that he’s in any way past his prime, but that he had one awful match in which he proved to be out of his weight class.