Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966) As long as we're looking at movies with dystopian society speculations, we should look at an unusual one from the 1960's with a different "take" on things. "Fahrenheit 451" is Ray Bradbury's conjecture, inspired by past Nazi practices during its Third—and final— Reich, the then-current McCarthy era (at the time of its writing) and future projections of thought-control, of a society where the written word is banned as subversive, and "firemen," in a time when houses are fire-proof, are, instead, tasked with burning contraband books. That is, all of them.

In the society of "Fahrenheit 451" (supposed to be in the American mid-West post-1960), books are considered bad, as they offer a different perspective from the government's social engineering efforts to keep the populace passive and controlled. Books stir everything up, confuse and enervate (and inspire), so they are suppressed to keep people placid and "equal" (although some more than others).

Bradbury's book was first published as a novella "The Fireman" in the Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in early 1951 (written on a rented typewriter in UCLA's Powell Library) and expanded for Ballantine Books in 1953. It became a classroom perennial to teach students metaphorical concepts and to keep a wary eye on sponsored group-think (in a time before they all graduated to Facebook).
In 1966, French director Francois Truffaut, part of the French "New Wave," chose Bradbury's book to be the subject of his first English-language film (a language barrier that created a slight frisson with the European actors taking direction from an artist (talented, though he may be, visually) for whom English was an unfamiliar language (is that the reason the dialogue is all dubbed?). On the top of that, Truffaut's version of the future is clean, sterile, upwardly mobile, very "white" and slightly robotic, and heavily influenced by Albert Speer's monolithic, concrete city blocks. 
The film's title sequence is a nifty introduction to the concept; over tinted zoom shots of roof-tops with broadcast aerials with no title-text, the credits, instead, being narrated by actor Alex Scott. It sets you up for a world without words, and the movie-proper starts with a call to the local fire-house and a small team of fire-men raiding a book depository, finding hidden books, creating a pile of them and setting them ablaze with ruthless efficiency.

Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Montag (played by Oskar Werner, whose role in Truffaut's Jules et Jim made him an international star), who mans the flame-thrower on the fire-man raids on hidden libraries. He is mentored by Capt. Beatty (Cyril Cusack), who coaches him on the purpose and philosophy behind their fiery task. But Montag is pulled in other directions by two women: his wife Linda (played by Julie Christie), a willing product of the government's propaganda and desirous of an easy, uncomplicated life; the other is Clarisse (also played by Christie), an optimistic and inquisitive teacher who questions the status quo, and who elicits suspicion from the government.
Clarisse's curiosity infects Montag, who begins to question what he's doing, and even smuggles away a book during one of the raids, hiding it from his wife and painstakingly teaching himself to read.
He also begins to see the other side of what he's doing. seeing the devotion of the book-keepers, one of whom (Bee Duffel) chooses to be immolated, monk-like, with her beloved books. It shakes Montag right down to his bindings and he begins to see the whole society as having a broken spine, devoid of the passion that the books engender, and he begins to feel more isolated from his co-workers and his wife. After all, he is now a criminal...in his own mind, and in theirs, as well.
Truffaut's film is flawed—his published diaries reveal that is was a difficult "shoot," especially in dealing with actors (especially his former star Werner) and he was never satisfied with the English translation of the script, preferring the French version. Perhaps that is why the film seems to come most alive when he languishes his lens on all those montaged shots of books, as they explode into flame with an almost sensual fervor. Pages crisp and blacken among the collections of controversial books—and even an issue of Cahiers du cinĂ©ma, the magazine where Truffaut began his film criticism career—with all the unblinking fervor that Carl Theodore Dreyer used filming The Passion of Joan of Arc. Truffaut mixes the titles notorious at the time of the film with familiar classics long past their time of controversy ("David Copperfield" for instance) to show the wide spectrum of time and how it can outdistance objections of long-ago melted snowflakes.
There are moments that are dodgy—technically, on the effects side, the jet-packed police are clumsily wired in front of a projected back-drop that exposes the searchers as not moving independently in flight. But, on the other hand, the movie does forecast flat-screen television monitors (interactive ones!) and the way the media can invade one's life. Such things are much less jarring in current perspective than jet-packs (however poorly supposed).
Fahrenheit 451 does have an aspect to it that makes me regard it fondly, seeing past its flaws—its ending. In it (FLAMING SPOILER ALERT), once Montag has escaped his puppeteered pursuers—and is dramatically and fraudulently "killed" for the cameras—he makes his way along an abandoned railway track to his ultimate destination—a secluded wood that has become the home of the "book-people" who each devote their lives to a single book, memorizing it, archiving it in their minds, so that it can never be destroyed except by death (and even that is maintained with a hand-me-down oral history to the next generation).
It is one of my favorite sequences in film* augmented by an exquisite strings-only score by Bernard Herrmann. As the spken words commingle, Herrmann, whose score has previously gone turgid in moments of action and pursuit, breaks free and creates a delicate melancholy theme that is one of his loveliest compositions, certainly one of the most beautiful in cinema since the sound era. That he ends it with an unresolved blast of strings that resembles a cry of anguish finishes the film with an appropriate flourish of emotion previously not realized in the film. 

It moves me no matter how many times I've experienced it. 

After a couple of decades of an update being planned, HBO has produced a new version starring Michael B. JordanMichael Shannon, Sofia Boutella and Keir Dullea to be directed by Rahmin Bahrani (director of Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo) which sounds very intriguing. They'll start showing it May 19th of this year.

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