RAY BRADBURY WEEK: SEPTEMBER 29, 2010
On August 22, the 'smoke started a series of articles in celebration of Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday. The Toronto Film Festival waylaid plans to publish the second half of the series, so we're picking it up where we left off one month earlier. Besides, it's still technically August on Mars, a planet Bradbury has written about on several occasions. And really, is there a bad time to pay tribute to a writer as influential as Ray Bradbury? As long as it's autumn, a season important to the author and his work, we figure there's no harm in turning "Ray Bradbury Week" into "Ray Bradbury Week and a Few Months".
We burn a lot more books these days.
I mean that's what they call digital downloading right, "burning?" And these ugly little Texas Instrument toys you can use to read the text of a book off of are rapidly taking hold in hip American culture. The most popular one is called a "Kindle," a word that means "to set fire" from which the noun "kindling" is derived (it also sounds remarkably like "kinder," making it seem even more kid-oriented). And if its ultimate goal isn't to replace printed books I don't understand the motive behind its manufacturing, unless it's to put bookmark-making companies out of business. I guess turning pages is out, gingerly tapping fingerprint-smudged screens is in. It's bad enough that people are watching movies on these things: now they're looking to eliminate book browsing, book lending, the used book market and covert assassinations - what are we to hide our guns in now? - with their little gameboy devices. Even if you think you look cool with your tacky gizmos (you don't), why would you actively seek to do away with what has been a durable, perfectly compact method of word storage for the last 4,000 years? Why take away the simple pleasure of flipping back a couple pages and re-reading a passage that really spoke to you in favor of tooling around town glaring into an oversized pocket calculator? Is it just a social thing? Gone are the days of hipsters proudly displaying the title of whatever impressive tome they're supposedly absorbed in: since having a Kindle is cool enough, you can just sit there and enjoy Carrot Top's autobiography without fear of exposure and ridicule, thanks to the technological breakthrough of the "book walkman!"
Ok Mr. Caveman of the Clay Tablet Preservation Society, we don't pay you to transcribe your talkback letters to the editor on this site so how about you get to the skinny? Well first off I would point out that you don't actually pay me anything, and secondly that I plead my case as an incurable booklover. I'm one of those people for whom enjoying a book doesn't begin and end with the first and last page of a text: going to the library, pulling things off the shelf, finding the right comfortable area to repose and concentrate, skimming author bios, table of contents and index pages, basking in the unique smell of old paper, re-shelving and retrieving certain titles at a later date - it's all entwined in one big process I like to call "reading." I developed a healthy distaste of technology while working at the charmingly archaic St Mark's Bookshop in the East Village, a store that still uses ancient computers with the giant, clunky print-out processors where I deemed customers unworthy to do business as they payed for whatever the Sunday Book Review had recommended while chattering away into their bluetooth or Nextel walkie talkie phone. The Kindle debate, with all the practical and ecological issues involved, is potentially endless, especially when it turns to the argument 'Who cares how a book is packaged, it's the content that counts so why are you making a big deal about it?'
That same argument is made at the conclusion of the book and film of Fahrenheit 451, in which the written word survives because a cult of devoted readers have chosen to memorize the texts and thereby "become" their assigned volume. Bradbury's novel has got to be one of the most misinterpreted works of science fiction ever written. It's also not one of his best. I hate to say it, but there's a reason Bradbury's best stories are at heart fantasy tales and not allegorical science fiction. The author (and I'd like to think he'd agree with me here) is better at translating mundane moments of real life into sensational scenarios (like the crippled roller coaster he and his wife saw on the beach being transformed into an ancient dinosaur from the depths of the ocean in "The Fog Horn") than he is at reshaping the design of social climates into visionary alternative realities. Fahrenheit is a profound idea but not a complex one; it seems political when it's actually completely generic, which is why Bradbury refuses to attach it to any of the modern events that invite comparison like the Nazi book burnings of World War II or denouncements made in the shadow of McCarthyism during which the book was published. Those events undoubtedly informed the novel's basic concept of future fire departments responsible for burning books and citizens turning each other in for maintaining secret libraries, but nothing of their motivation (essentially, the nullification of competing political ideologies) carries over to the story. Bradbury is more interested in the page-turning* aspects, and they're the best aspect of the book: the presence of the murderous mechanical hound, a group of cruising kids who try to run down the hero on the freeway, and (most effectively) main character Montag's almost pyromaniacal pleasure at the experience he gets burning things, the exaltation from creating fires the only real sense of emotion he knows. Less effective are the clumsy contrivances of the genre: an invisible oppressive government, the threat of imminent nuclear war with an unidentified nation. Not that some of the sci fi tropes he comes up with aren't fun, even conceptually brilliant (like the billboards that span out across the throughway for miles because vehicles travel so fast the drivers wouldn't see them otherwise), but the main story is so parenthetically connected to this boilerplate background as to make it easily dismissible. Bradbury always claims in interviews and introductions to have written the novel in a few short days, and was so sick of it by the mid-60's that he turned down the opportunity to write the script for the film. None of this detracts from what the novel wants to say, but it opens it up to very loose interpretation.
Coincidentally this article is being written during Banned Books Week, an arbitrary observance created by the American Library Association for "celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment." This actually may be a moot point: Bradbury has gone back and forth about whether the book is a statement on censorship, and the set-up really is a case of the writer wanting to have his cake and eat it too. In the novel, the government imposes a ban on all literature; as a result, a majority of the population no longer exhibits a passion for reading. So it's a mix of the Orwell and Huxley approach, with an emphasis on the Huxley theme of technological advances in media, specifically television, paralleling the decline of literacy (I wonder what Neil Postman thought of the book.) To Bradbury, the beauty of books is that they give human beings the right to be miserable, or rather that the ability of literature to evoke painful responses is a small price to pay for the freedom to discover new ideas that can't be duplicated by the emptiness of TV. Even though the establishment of the book's oppressive government is shoddy, few of the author's passages are as gorgeously conceived as one character's detailing of how houses no longer have porches because it's detrimental to have people sit on them and participate in meaningful discussions. It's best for everyone not to get excited and think the same way, hence the outlawing of anything that could offend the general populace, be it a book controversial for its alleged racism or one decrying all forms of bigotry. And so diversity is wiped out and all are unified in the effort to expunge anything provocative or inspirational. Television and other forms of media - Bradbury's book predicted the walkman/iPod by having Montag's wife so absorbed in a headset she doesn't acknowledge his presence in the room as well as the flatscreen TV with mind-numbing 24/7 reality shows the viewer "identifies" with (in the novel the characters on these shows are called "the family," anticipating audiences being made to feel part of the Osbornes or the Kardasians) are inclined to give answers rather than ask questions and desensitize to the point of abandonment of communication, inquiry and, in more extreme cases, lawful behavior. The alleged technological advances keep the people set firmly in their present, unremarkable stasis.
A story so anti-audio/visual was destined to run into difficulties in the film adaptation, and attempting to sort out all the novel's mixed messages reportedly resulted in Truffaut's "saddest and most difficult" experience making a film. The idea to adapt Bradbury's book came from a discussion with a friend about how Truffaut hated science fiction because it didn't reflect real life; his companion's argument citing 451 as the exception was apparently strong enough to inspire Truffaut to buy the rights to the book without actually reading it first. This opened a series of correspondence between the director and the author, during which Truffaut expressed that it was "very important for Fahrenheit to be the first European science fiction film" (I guess he never saw Metropolis.) Like Godard, Truffaut was a reputed lover of books, which became a motif that rivaled his various cinematic odes to women and movies. His filmography includes loose adaptations of David Goodis, Henry James, Henri-Pierre Roché, Charles Williams, two different Cornell Woolrich novels and the diaries of Victor Hugo's daughter; in the context of his movies the director's love of books is mirrored by his characters' own literary appreciation (Antoine's obsession with Balzac in The 400 Blows) and tomes central to the plot (the lead character's eponymous autobiography in The Man Who Loved Women.) The books used as props in Fahrenheit were personally selected by Truffaut - he even managed to represent himself and Bradbury by including copies of The Martin Chronicles and a collection of Cahiers du cinema criticism in the film. So his passion for the material is unambiguous, as was his intention to make an impression with his first film in color and in English. But it was in this area that the filmmaker ran into trouble.
Truffaut wanted to shoot the movie in France with Jean-Paul Belmondo as Montag and Jean Seberg as Clarisse but was unable to secure financing and ended up in England with Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Whether Truffaut's own inexperience with the language was most harmful to the stilted rhythm of the dialogue or his inability to communicate what he wanted from the actors is debatable, but the performances are a big problem. Werner is awful: having made the decision to play Montag "like a robot" and with a heavy German accent to overemphasize the Nazi angle, he somehow pulls off the feat of being over-the-top and unemotive at the same time. The perplexing double casting of Christie as both Montag's wife (long hair) and liberated student Clarisse (short hair), which Bradbury correctly points out as the film's greatest flaw, was supposedly the suggestion of producer Lewis M. Allen (who made his mark in the literary adaptation department by producing both the seminal Richard Brooks Lord of the Flies and the dispensable Harry Hook version in 1990). I'm not sure why filmmakers in the '60s thought Bradbury adaptations would benefit from the multiple casting of actors, but it didn't work in Illustrated Man and it doesn't work here. Christie is awful in both roles: she plays the emotionally vacant Linda with self-conscious sexuality; as the happy, free-spirited Clarisse she appears physically thin and sickly as if her love of books and ideas has infected her with some sort of disease. Christie's colorless Clarisse doesn't make a good contrast to the dull lives of the other two characters, even though Werner is so robot-like and Linda is a suicidal zombie. The story also suffers from Truffaut's decision to cut Faber, the kindly former professor who aides Montag in his awakening, and substitute a creepy old witch lady instead. It makes the heroes' good cause seem sinister, like Montag is being initiated into a Satanic cult (that comparison isn't helped when the creepy witch lady is reeling in ecstasy as she's burned alive later in the film.)
When it comes to arthouse intellectuals directing genre pictures, especially sci-fi, there's inevitably a certain amount of arrogance and undermining of the material going on. In that tradition, Truffaut removes the mechanical hound, the denizens of the deadly future freeway and the nuclear war subplot in order to avoid the novel's potential B-movie holdings. In doing so, he also takes away the representatives of this oppressive future society, leaving only the firehouse chief as a villain. While he and co-writer Jean-Louis Richard add some funny surreal touches like a pole which firemen slide up rather than down, they're clearly nervous that any inclusion of fantastical elements will work against the seriousness of the narrative. Truffaut offers a "Here, see? It's science fiction, ok? Moving on!" moment that's so goofy it plays more like a throwaway gag: a ridiculous-looking effects shot of firemen/police in jetpacks with visible strings suspending them in front of an obvious back screen ("They're not going anywhere but down," Bradbury quipped of the shot.) Truffaut thumbs his nose at what he sees as the book's hardcore sci fi audience with this sequence by making it intentionally crappy, which is even funnier since Bradbury had helicopters as opposed to jetpacks in the novel.
The director finds other ways to debase the fantasy world of the film, mainly through the humor added to Bradbury's prominently bleak story. The oddest example has to be Anton Diffring in drag at the school. Diffring, who plays an envious fireman out to get Montag (a subplot that never really goes anywhere) suddenly appears in a wig and a dress at the school where Clarisse has been fired, spying on her and Montag in a single shot as they exit the building. I honestly don't know what to make of this moment: is it supposed to be Diffring's fireman character in a ludacris disguise? Or is Truffaut trying to make a point that there's a spying, resentful co-worker like this in every institution, including an ugly old woman version of that guy? Or did he just run out of extras that day, pull Diffring over and say "Put this wig on?" Either way it's very strange. During a routine search in the park the chief confiscates a little thumb-sized book from a baby in a stroller and wags his finger at the infant; when the fire pole refuses to hoist Montag to the second floor, the chief asks "What's this Montag, something between you and the pole?" It's hard not to take these additions as the director sabotaging the narrative to say "I'm not taking this seriously!" while other choices that seem like attempts to be profound just come off silly, like Montag's white "monk" robe that he wears while reading late at night. Apparently it's supposed to symbolize his newfound purity, but it's as hokey a costuming decision as Rod Steiger's off-white jumpsuit and sandals in the "Last Night of the world" segment of The Illustrated Man. Truffaut's insistence on using background projection is a decision that really dates the look of the film, one he defended at the time by saying it was a way to show the French countryside while shooting in England. But is a beautiful French countryside really the ideal setting for a dystopian novel where the government is striving to block ideas and inspiration?
It's too bad Truffaut feels the need to backhand his own efforts with these coy moments and unintentional hamminess, because Fahrenheit features a number of expertly handled scenes of action and suspense that, without the glibness of the director's backtracking, would have been fine on their own. Truffaut was working on his Hitchcock interview book at the time and approaches the plight of Montag like the hounding of the "wrong man" in movies like North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much. His direction of scenes where Montag's book hoarding habit is almost exposed are - for what it's worth - just as good as anything in those films, and the action during the third reel climaxes in an atmosphere of pitched tension and urgency. In interviews Truffaut denied any conscious attempt to imitate the "Hollywood" style of the American productions he so revered, but that just feels like him trying to maintain his independent, philosophical aesthetic without being accused of excessive homaging. Besides that, there's the usual amount of Truffaut intelligence and romanticism that make it impossible to dismiss the effort entirely: the credits read aloud at the beginning to foreshadow the last scenes with the Book People, having Werner use the light from the television screen to read late at night while his TV-zombie wife is sleeping, the soft falling of snow over the commune in the final shots of the film. Complimenting these moments is Bernard Herrmann's gorgeous all-string soundtrack (the composer, who had just broken ties with Hitchcock for the last time, was recommended to Truffaut by Bradbury) and Nicolas Roeg's chromatic cinematography. Even the writing and acting, the film's largest problems, have positive exceptions: although the character is flawed, Truffaut is right to leave Clarisse in the story until the end (Bradbury is less strong at writing women, hence her off-page hit-and-run death in the novel) and Powell & Pressburger regular Cyril Cusack, a last minute replacement when Werner switched roles, is excellent as the doting, dangerous fire chief ("Beatty" in the novel, unnamed in the film.)
Cusack provides the film's most brilliant moment: the anti-idea monologue the chief delivers to Montag in the secret library which he punctuates at the end by saying "The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal. So, we must burn the books," and holding aloft a copy of Mein Kampf with a big grin on his face: "All the books!" This is where the film comes closest to meeting Bradbury's novel halfway and clarifies a lot of the movie's ideas that seem otherwise murky. Truffaut never really touches on why reading is important in a society, allowing his arthouse audience to figure that out for themselves, and since the books in the movie just happen to be acknowledged classics of literature they seem significant by their own pre-determined status. Would these forcibly illiterate people find just as much profundity in a manual on toilet installation? The idea that one of the Book People would dedicate his or her life to the preservation of a Lauren Conrad novel or that "Creeping on Chicks" book by the Jersey Shore guy is vaguely disturbing (and I feel bad for whoever has to memorize the dictionary, or one of Norman Mailer's unreadable and interminable late works). Bradbury suggests the possibility of greatness in books, that any published work could potentially have merit; Truffaut seems to be saying that if books didn't exist, I couldn't show off my fancy diverse library. Not that there's anything wrong with a fancy library: I caught myself trying to read the titles off the spines of the books featured in the lady's secret stash. In fact while doing so I lamented that there were apparently no comics to be found, then I remembered Truffaut includes a shot of Montag in bed leafing through what is apparently a government-approved, wordless illustrated panel. Nothing like this comes up in the novel, so is Truffaut tossing a little snobbery towards narrative artwork? (The problem with this is that a collection of cartoons from MAD Magazine is featured in the library, so maybe Truffaut just doesn't like strips without word balloons although I'm more convinced that this title was an incidental inclusion that probably didn't come from the director's own selected list.)
As Pauline Kael pointed out in her 1968 review, simply keeping books alive rather than using knowledge gained from them to make a difference makes the inclusion of the oppressive government seem trivial. Wouldn't a more hopeful ending be Montag jotting down notes for his own book, one that will benefit society like M Night Shyamalan's (character's) future masterpiece in Lady in the Water? Even without the threat of nuclear war background, everything about Truffaut's film - the costumes, the militaristic monochrome architecture, Werner's accent, the emphasis on secret informing and the government's encouragement to turn book collectors in - reflect wartime German fascism and play up the book burning as political ideology concept (something that already interested the director based on Jules and Jim's newsreel sequence about the Reichstag fire.) It was during the war that young Truffaut first experienced so many of the films that would turn him into the movie maniac he would become. So for him Fahrenheit 451** is really a story of discovering the beauty of art in a collective society based on destruction; like The Wild Child, a fable of intellectual awakening which has nothing to do with heroics but rather the question, Is my appreciation of higher thinking enough to help it survive in this insane environment of eradication? The book Truffaut has Montag reading is the opening of David Copperfield: "Chapter One: I Am Born. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show..." (having Montag also steal a book on Kaspar Hauser is a little bit of overkill on Truffaut's part, but not as much as showing the Joan of Arc book burning as the woman goes up with her library.) From this perspective the shuffling of politics in the film seems intentional, and the willingness of the Book People to erase their identities and "become" the texts they so admire more Orphic and admirable than critics like Kael thought at the time.
The movie's still a mess, but I personally don't chalk it up to the tangled four year pre-production or the troubled shooting during which Truffaut struggling as many suggest. I think the director felt conflicted with what he wanted to say and came up against some of the things the book stood for, although at the end of the day it more or less incorporates Bradbury's preference of progression: that new ideas generate from old ones and a society without that will collapse upon itself. This, according to Bradbury, has nothing to do with technological feats and new shiny gizmos. The preservation of ideas rather than advancement of mechanics is something that people need to be reminded of, hence the novel's continued popularity (the Hughes Brothers even borrowed the concept of man-as-living-book for the twist ending of this year's The Book of Eli.) One only has to look at the movie in terms of Truffaut's filmography to see where this becomes relevant to Bradbury's theme: it had a bigger budget, was shot in color and was poised to reach larger audiences by being shot in English, but these supposed improvements didn't make Fahrenheit any better than the films he had made before. It had the right idea and the same title, but moving it from one form of media to another didn't make it better...am I forcing my point a little too much here? How about we end on Bradbury's thoughts on electronic books? He hates them, but that's no surprise coming from a man who's been so outspoken against television and the internet for the last 60 years. Although some might find it surprising for a noted science fiction writer to say, "I was approached three times during the last year by Internet companies wanting to put my books (into E-books). I said to them, 'Prick up your ears and go to hell.'" Bradbury wants to put men on the moon but not books on hand computers because progression should move forward rather to the side - otherwise why keep ideas alive at all?
* I'm not using that phrase to sound snarky, that's just literally what it is. What's the Kindle version of "page-turner" going to be? "Screen-flipper?" A real "finger-smudger?"
** Did you know that 451 degrees fahrenheit is in no way an official measure of heat at which paper sets fire? Bradbury called fire departments when he was coming up with the title asking at what temperature paper would burn, and some guy who obviously had no idea told him it was 451. It had a good ring to it so the title stuck.
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