Charles River

Charles River
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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Burning Down the House: Revisiting Bradbury and Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451

Immersing myself so intensely in Solaris this past week has proven unexpectedly powerful. Last night, I dreamt of my parents, both of them dead four years now. They were at an age I remember them at their happiest, in their early 60s, just before my father retired. They were smiling warmly and a feeling of great kindness suffused the scene. As Cixous writes, in "The School of the Dead," dreams "give us the marvelous gift of constantly bringing back our dead alive ... writing originates in this relationship." This is not a claim I would have endorsed till now.

Likewise, thinking about Tarkovsky has put me in mind of one of his favorite SF writers, Ray Bradbury. I devoured much of his work in my teens, but later lost my taste for his particular brand of American whimsy, though I think Martian Chronicles, for the most part, still holds up. My review of Fahrenheit 451, from 15 years ago, is pretty hard on the old Grand Master as well as Truffaut's adaptation of it. Beating up on Ray is easy sport, I fear. But I think the review does a good job of locating the real concerns of the novel as a severe case of brow-anxiety, as Menand might put it. In other words, 451 bears all the symptoms of the Cold War struggle to identify and fix cultural values.

Oddly enough, I once met Bradbury, in the early 80s, when Filmex was still holding its annual film festival in Century City. He was a sunny, avuncular presence. To my lasting regret, I turned down his gracious invitation to join him at a showing of John Huston's Moby Dick, for which he'd written the script. The screening was at midnight, and I was worried about missing the last bus back to Hollywood. Maybe I missed it anyway...

Here, then, is my take on 451:

Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 wants to be a chilling portrait of a future totalitarian state in which reading books is banned and the books themselves are burned. Instead, it's a rather quaintly dyspeptic take on dystopia. Bradbury's trademark whimsy and lyricism is poorly served by his choice of theme here. He lacks the behavioral savvy of a George Orwell; he also lacks Orwell's political sophistication. 451 (the temperature at which paper ignites) has little to do with the terror of the modern state. Awkwardly didactic at best, its real purpose is to chastise the subscribers of Reader's Digest and other middlebrow cultural elements, like TV, which Bradbury perceives as eroding the bulwarks of the cult of High Culture's purity.

For reasons best known to himself, French New Wave director Francois Truffaut decided to adapt Bradbury's novelette to film in 1966. What resulted was probably Truffaut's stiffest film; it's certainly his least characteristic one. Even so, he manages to breathe some life into Bradbury's heavy-handed social message through the inventive use of rapid montage and some camera work that fetishizes the book-burning fire brigade in their black outfits and incongruously innocent looking red fire truck.

On the whole, 451 the movie seems to have been no more than the result of Truffaut's desire to respond to compatriot Jean Luc-Godard's earlier - and far superior - futuristic thriller, Alphaville. Alphaville is much smarter, though, at playing with the conceits of a modish futurism than 451, although Truffaut, following Godard's lead, makes excellent use of present day settings to suggest the gleaming and soulless metropolis of the 21st Century. (Alphaville, with its blend of noir and sci-fi, is the unacknowledged cinematic inspiration for Blade Runner).

The story follows the conflict of state book-burner/fireman Guy Montag as he wrestles with his conscience and gradually undergoes a less-than-Saul like conversion from repressor to underground resister. It's a lackluster transformation, devoid of conviction and suspense. This is partly due to the flabby nature of the material, partly to the miscasting of Truffaut veteran Oskar Werner (Jules and Jim), who assays the befuddled Guy with his usual mordant Weltschmertz.

Julie Christie plays a dual role here, filling in as both wife and mistress, status quo seeker and subversive agitator. It may strike one as merely a clever gimmick, but Truffaut seems to be implying that both positions contain elements of seduction and distress for the hero. Unfortunately, this suggestion, which is purely visual, never rises above the level of subtext.

The movie is almost, but not quite, dull. Unlike the novel, Guy's giving into the desire to read forbidden books is presented fait accompli. There's never any genuine build up of suspense or tension, just a vaguely ominous sense of something sinister about to happen. Only it never does. The storyline is weakly resolved -- petered out would be more accurate -- as compared to the novel, but at least we're spared the silly business of the Mechanical Hound (which sniffs out traitors) and the disgraceful eugenicist notion that humanity could be regenerated by the purgative fires of a nuclear Armageddon.

Bradbury wants to engage us in a thoughtful debate about the evils of censorship, but his analysis of the problem only goes skin-deep. To his credit, he attacks intellectual and moral complacency, thought it's doubtful that our society would blossom into maturity overnight if everyone put aside his detective novel or her romance book and took up Kant and Jane Austen instead. Any "culture of compassion" to come will be founded not on books, but on a new ethos transcending our previous concerns. The world of 451 in some ways anticipates today's university wars about what makes up a literary canon. It fails, however, to take into account the vitality and subversive power of popular forms of culture (music, films) and how the interplay between highbrow and lowbrow feeds into and invigorates the mainstream.

Bradbury's vision of culture is suspiciously purist: there's room for Plato and Dickens and other elitist shibboleths; no room for Danielle Steel, Snoop Doggy Dog, or Pulp Fiction. Exclusive and pretentious, this is scarcely a democratic vision of culture. Bradbury inveighs against the evils of repressing free thought, but it never occurs to him that by championing the great works of Western Civilization at the expense of popular genres (like science-fiction, for instance), he's exercising his own equally pernicious brand of censorship. In the end, his self-congratulatory elitism is alienating and, ironically, just as philistine as the broad target he aims for.

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