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January 2011

Fahrenheit 451 - UK DVD

cast: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, and Alex Scott

director: François Truffaut

109 minutes (PG) 1966
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Universal DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Fahrenheit 451 - USA DVD
Fahrenheit 451

The opening paragraph punches home the shock. The fireman is hosing 'venomous kerosene' from his brass nozzle. It brings you up sharp; 'kerosene'? This is François Truffaut's only English-speaking film, one that adapts Ray Bradbury's classic 1953 sci-fi novel in which the fire brigade is not there to put out fires. Instead, they burn illegal collections of books wherever they discover them, hidden behind false-front TV's, concealed in radiators, suspended in Perspex light-shades, or 'a veritable well of words' stashed in secret loft-space.

Fahrenheit 451 is "the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns." So your Kindle is presumably safe! But, for 30-year-old fireman Guy Montag - with the symbolic '451' numerals on his beetle-black helmet - "it was a pleasure to burn..." In a form of gleeful pyromania he considers himself as "some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history." And Oskar Werner plays this fireman, who learns to love the books he's employed to burn.

The book is a strange mix of retro and historical futures. There's the brass pole, down which the firemen slide; and the eight-legged robo-hound, a precursor of Neal Stephenson's 'Fido' cyborg-dog in Snowcrash (1992), and let's leave K9 out of this, okay? Then there are the 24-hour robot bank-tellers which predict ATMs. In 1950s' SF terms, there's a sketched-in backstory relating how "we've started and won two atomic wars since 1960," which leaves maybe a starving radioactive world beyond America's national borders. Nobody knows for sure, but already they're on the precipice of a new war as "bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky" above them.

There's also a kind of dystopian political correctness that conforms more than a little to the 1950s idea of orderly social homogeneity: "The tyranny of the majority." The "Little boxes on a hillside" thought-control levelling-down embodied by the three caricatured 'Stepford Wives' with their mindless harpy-inanities. Just as Montag's wife uses her ear-thimbles, a kind of radio iPod, and her interactive three-wall TV with its endless soap-opera 'relations' as a kind of numbing anaesthetic. Truffaut has Montag offered a promotion. When he's asked "am I right?" he replies 'absolutely', deliberately replicating Linda's auto-response to her wall-cousins.

Kurt Vonnegut also used SF as a medium to satirise this stultifying conformity. And graphic novel future-lawman Judge Dredd confiscates banned books, too. It's because books offend minorities, and "there are too many of us, (Montag) thought. There are billions of us and that's too many," and with more people, there are more minorities to offend. African-Americans dislike Robinson Crusoe. Jews don't like Nietzsche. We must be happy. So we must all be alike. Books raise awkward questions about freedom and individuality. Questions create dissatisfaction, with "silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words." As if to vindicate this position, Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack) brandishes a copy of Hitler's Mien Kampf. Books are subversive. "A book is a loaded gun." Books are rebellious. "If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him, give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget..."

Of course, it's a metaphor. It's as much of a metaphor as the old-fashioned salamander fire-truck they drive. It's as much of a metaphor as that phoenix-device used by Montag's suave boss. Book-burning is a mark of repressive totalitarianism, from Nazi pyres, to the Ku Klux Klan, to the burning of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses on the streets of Bradford, to the Taliban, or to China blocking Google. Truffaut shows, with a neat 1960s touch, how conformist forces intolerantly shear long-haired youths. And Bradbury conjures this censorship by forcing it into extremis. In an increasingly inhospitable world, he argues for the survival of literacy, of sensitivity, of solitude, of quiet thinking. A situation that seems more glaringly urgent now than it was then.

There was a wartime dictum that "the speed of any convoy is that of the slowest ship," so focus-group mass-media now seems to deliberately pace itself to the speed of the lowest common demographic. Are books dying? Small bookshops, maybe; but it's not the case if you visit Waterstones. Is the internet killing off newspapers, are they "dying like huge moths"? Are postal charges eliminating the viability of small-press publishing? It now seems there's even more background noise of inconsequence. More roaring dumbed-down trivia...

At first, Montag imagines himself to be more-or-less content until, the same evening his wife Mildred (Linda in the film) overdoses on sleeping pills, he encounters the strangely disturbing beauty of Clarisse McClellan, "17 and crazy." In the movie she's 'loopy crazy', and Julie Christie has the dual role of playing both women, implying that although they may have started out with equal potential, they evolved into two very contrasting people. Time magazine unfairly claims her portrayals differ "only in their hairdos." Linda has long hair. Clarisse has a bob. In an artfully contrived subplot Clarisse even pretends to be Linda on the phone. Clarisse is a flower-child before there were flower-children; a social misfit because she asks questions, where others merely accept.

She's the beautiful irritant that insinuates herself into Montag's disquiet, into the dissatisfaction he scarcely realises he feels. She embodies his "stirrings of unease." Medics come and impersonally replace his wife's blood so the following morning she's unaware of the whole near-death incident. A nullity charted in their dislocated aimless conversation. He ruminates that, along with the new blood, if only she could also be the recipient of "someone else's flesh and brain and memory. If only they could have taken her mind along to the dry-cleaners and emptied the pockets and steamed and cleaned it and re-blocked it and brought it back in the morning. If only..."

His life comes apart. Even the fireman's pole rejects him. "Do you ever read any of the books you burn?" asks Clarisse. "That's against the law," he laughs. But on his next call there's a woman with a 'Tower of Babel' of books at a house on Elm who burns herself to death rather than live without her 'secret library'. It sets him thinking. "There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house." In Bradbury's novel there is a tantalising seep of unacknowledged quotes - "time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine," which is from poet Alexander Smith's city poem: Dreamthorpe.

Montag reads an excerpt from "that evil political book" Gulliver's Travels. There are two verses complete and un-credited of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach. In the film you strain to catch authors' names or book-titles as they burn, Catcher In The Rye, Jean Genet, Kafka, Brendan Behan, Moby Dick, Henry Miller's Plexus, De Sade's Justine, Lolita, an issue of Mad magazine. In a long page-flickering sequence The World Of Salvador Dali burns. In a Truffaut in-joke, he burns an issue of French New Wave movie journal Cahiers du cinéma.

Clarisse vanishes. Is she dead? Montag has salvaged a book and brought it home. Soon, he has a stash of books hidden above the vent. Truffaut portrays him reading David Copperfield. He reads aloud, following the lines with his finger. Because he's unfamiliar with book-reading he even methodically reads the imprint. Do Beatty's loaded comments mean he's aware of Montag's furtive secret? In the book, the escaping Montag links with a poetry-quoting retired English professor called Faber - named rather obviously for T.S. Eliot's publisher.

In the on-screen version there is no Faber. Instead Montag has a dream in which it is Clarisse, not the woman on Elm, who burns. As if to fulfil the dream, Clarisse's house is the next to be purged. A conflicted Montag assists her to destroy an incriminating list of lit-subversives before she escapes through a skylight. Then, in both versions Montag's last call is at his own house. He's been betrayed, by his wife. And the act of burning his own home becomes the act of burning his past self. Better illustrated in the book where he torches their bed "with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain."

In a decisive final act of rebellion he turns the flame-gun on Beatty and incinerates him too. Then there's the pursuit through the night city, with the coordinated simultaneous surveillance from every house. At one point, Montag is deliberately almost rundown by joy-riding Clockwork Orange-style feral teens. And where Truffaut has him drifting by punt as his pursuers use curiously-animated jet-packs to hunt him down, Bradbury uses the robo-hound. Eventually, they both make his way to a secret rural commune of the outlaw custodians of literary lore, the 'walking camp' where members spend their days memorising books. In this way, even though the physical volumes may cease to exist, the books will not die. One of the memorised books is The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

The tale originally told in Bradbury's evocative rapid poetry, about "the warm-cool blowing night on the silvered pavement" is re-told by Truffaut in elegant cinematography, which critic Philip French describes as "beautifully shot by Nicolas Roeg." Bradbury uses fire as a motif. "If he was fire, Faber was water." Beatty has the stare of an 'alcohol-flame'. The sun in the sky above them 'burns time'. And a glimpse of fire is the first hint Montag sees of the camp. Yet Truffaut translates a flame-focused screenplay into a very chill film indeed. He does so partly by deploying colour values. There are colour-filter title-frames with voiceover credits. Reds and greys predominate. The screen is drenched siren-red for calls. And he effectively conveys the idea that each book incinerated is an act of murder.

John Brosnan, in his Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction entry is less convinced, "the film is more ambiguous than Bradbury's original," he argues. Where Bradbury is sharp, Truffaut is more questioning. "Truffaut seems not altogether to accept Bradbury's moral simplicity. This is particularly evident at its ending, with the book-people murmuring aloud the words they are committing to memory, while plodding about the snow-covered landscape like zombies."

The film switches the camp into a bleak autumnal railway carriage, where a boy learns Dickens by rote from his dying grandfather, in a deliberate echo of the monotonously chanted times-tables that wash around Montag in the corridors between the classrooms of Clarisse's school. It suggests that the aesthetic, as opposed to the literal survival of literature still seems to be in balance. As a humorous parting shot Brosnan observes "Truffaut might have been less dispassionate with a story of a future where all films are banned!" A little unfair, as Truffaut was always a literary director. And the film reflects his genuine love of books, opting for a straightforward linear adaptation of the novel, while re-crafting it in ways unlike anything a British or American director might have done.

Truffaut was a French 'New Wave' activist who'd begun as an influential critic and 'auteur' movie-theorist. Until, from The 400 Blows (1959), to his third movie, Jules et Jim (1962), which also starring Oskar Werner, his reputation took him outside the French market. For Truffaut, his only English-speaking film proved a major challenge. The large-scale Pinewood production contrasted with his more usual small crews and budgets. It was also his first foray into colour. But largely it was problematic because he scarcely spoke English himself.

In the manner of his some-time collaborator Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, he suggests his vision of the future through selective shots of brutalist tower-blocks. The one real future-concession is the overhead monorail where robotic commuters read wordless picture-papers. A dysfunctional people caught in the sharp vignette of a man in the park who appears to be embracing a lover, but is actually caressing himself. Truffaut's deliberately stylised artificiality is offset by the musical lyricism of the Bernard Herrmann score - long-time collaborator of Truffaut's idol, Alfred Hitchcock.

Yet, unlike many filmic adaptations from literary sources, the book and film reinforce and complement each other, both bringing out and developing suggestions from the other, and building into an impressive, cross-media continuity. Martin Scorsese rates the film as 'underrated', and claims it as an influence on his own work. Another Bradbury-derived film - The Illustrated Man (1968) followed by other hands, with Rod Steiger taking the star billing in a portmanteau of three linked tales. Again, it's an SF film for people who don't necessarily like SF films, thoughtful and evocative with little of the flashy effects and blockbuster zapping pace more usually associated with the genre. Truffaut died 21st October 1984, aged 52.

For Bradbury, there's none of Truffaut's cleanly appropriate reunion with Clarisse. Only the strange apocalyptical war-levelling of the city Montag has left. There's a momentary vision of Mildred lost and alone without her comforting wall-cousins as the power fails and she's left facing only her own reflection. Both book and film use the joke "as you can see, you can't judge a book by the cover." But only the onscreen Montag becomes Poe's Tales Of Mystery & Imagination, while Clarisse becomes Louis de Rouvroy's Memoirs Of Saint Simon. And, of course, paper does not spontaneously ignite at fahrenheit 451. In fact, different brands of paper ignite at different, and generally higher, temperatures. Ray Bradbury later admitted he just liked the number.

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