Clear History (2013)

The Fountain…foot-in-mouth

In Greg Mottola’s Clear History, the latest comic concoction starring Larry David, premiering in the United States on HBO this month, the creator of the revolutionary sitcoms Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm registers another triumph. By now, it must be clear that Larry David is this century’s Moliere, a master of social critique mounted via shocking levels of misanthropy. The film follows the failed life of Nathan Flomm, a marketing executive who leaves a start-up car company the day before its new model earns billions of dollars. Now famous merely for having become the world’s greatest idiot, Nathan moves to Martha’s Vineyard and assumes the persona of Rolly, a kindly neighbor to the locals. Ten years later, his former boss, the inventor of the car, moves to Martha’s Vineyard and begins constructing a monstrous McMansion, universally loathed by Nathan and his fellow islanders.

David uses this plot structure about failure as an excuse to deliver the most precise, and much needed, deconstruction of Ayn Rand’s objectivism ever attempted on screen. Known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s mid-century rejection of socialism in favor of libertarianism has won her generations of teenage fans, yet has nary registered a blip on the academic literary radar. There’s precious little tolerance for naïve Romanticism and didactic politics in English classes devoted to studying the works of Herman Melville and J.D. Salinger.

Clear History presents Nathan as an inversion of the central character of The Fountainnead, Howard Roark. In the novel, Roark drops out of architecture school because he refuses to listen to conventional wisdom. When he finally gets one of his buildings contracted for construction, his life collapses as his vision is destroyed by lesser minds, those incapable of appreciating his artistic vision. Rather than let a compromised building bear his imprint, Roark dynamites the structure. Rand positions Roark as an individualist hero whose personal integrity is worth going to jail for, even if it means suffering the condemnation of all of America.

Clear History begins with a frontal assault on Rand’s bankrupt philosophy of rabid individualism. One of Nathan’s colleagues at the firm informs him that Will Haney (Jon Hamm), the inventor of an electric car poised to revolutionize the American automobile industry, has named his son Howard, inspired by Rand’s Roark. The colleague finds the idea of naming one’s son after “the biggest [jerk] in the history of literature” preposterous. The linkage of Haney and Rand continues as Nathan attends the inventor’s staff meeting celebrating the imminent launch of the car. On the whiteboard in the conference room, we learn of Haney’s love for objectivism: a prominent quote from Rand has clearly inspired the entire design phase. When Haney announces that he plans to name the car the “Howard,” Nathan quits the company, forfeiting his stock in the company. The next day, the car becomes a billion dollar success, leaving Nathan in financial ruin.

Ten years pass, and we find Nathan far more human, living as a quiet friend to the Martha’s Vineyard locals. However, his Walden idyll is destroyed when Haney moves to the island to build a grotesque mansion. Recoiling from his past catching up with him, Nathan goes home to watch television. On the late show, Nathan catches a screening of the Hollywood film version of The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper as Roark. After the film ends, Nathan brainstorms a solution to his life’s problem: like Roark before him, he will blow up Haney’s house. He hires a riotously funny Michael Keaton, channeling his Beetlejuice character to play a quarry worker with explosives expertise. Of course, the plan proves disastrous, and Nathan is even further humiliated.

David plays Nathan, the successful marketing executive, preposterously as a counterculture figure, complete with stringy long hair and an unruly grey beard. Thus, his decision to leave the company rather than market a car with the ridiculous name of Howard, resonates with Rand’s and Roark’s objectivist system of personal integrity. However, when we next see Nathan in Martha’s Vineyard years later, he has become the Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, bald, clean-shaven and neatly dressed. Yet the earlier events of his life refuse to stay repressed, leading him to destructive conspiracy when Haney shows up on the island. The second half of the film demonstrates the sheer insanity of Roark’s explosive solution. While Nathan is inspired by The Fountainhead, Motolla’s film literally wants to clear Rand from history, demonstrating the insanity of individualist pride trumping the common good.

It is a stunning adaptational move, taking head on the poverty of Rand’s philosophy. Clear History represents a terrific intellectual move for David, taking his Curb Your Enthusiasm character’s foible of inflexibility to construct a vicious critique of the similarly inflexible and psychotic Howard Roark. Clear History is the greatest adaptation of a Rand novel ever filmed, one that the objectivist would have hated, since it links libertarianism with what it truly is, another crackpot political philosophy of rigidity. This is the stuff of Moliere’s Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, 17th century French plays which also used the comedy of inflexibility to expose the inhumanity of the social structure. In a moment in our country’s history where Rand’s novels fuel disastrous social policy, Clear History provides a stunning, and hilarious antidote: it is better to be building with our fellow citizens than be plotting to blow them up.

– Walter Metz