Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fahrenheit's 451 influences

You won't believe what an hour-long nap at 6:30 p.m. can do for your evening's longevity.

Not only did I never succumb to sleep during the 2-hour-and-26-minute running time of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, but I fancied myself up for an entire other (short) movie, starting at just before midnight. I didn't finish it, but did watch a whole hour before finishing up this morning.

It was totally unpremeditated: Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, for the second time. I can't remember whether we had it in our streaming queue because I put it there, or because my wife did and wanted to watch it with me. But there are lots of movies out there, and I decided there were other movies I could watch with her.

As I was watching, not only was I reminded of how great it is, but of how many other films it may have influenced in one way or another. (Topic: Were these other films influenced by Truffaut's movie, or Ray Bradbury's original book? Discuss.)

Okay, so there aren't 451, but there are 4 or 5:

1) The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). The 2006 best foreign film Oscar winner concerns an Eastern German Stasi captain who's charged with ferreting out suspected traitors who may threaten the state. His dogmatic principles are ultimately thawed when he spies on a pair of artists for an extended period of time. Although the activities of the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 are much more overt -- they arrive at domiciles with plenty of pomp and circumstance, openly seizing and burning the contraband books -- Fahrenheit's central figure is also an operative of the state who loses his belief in the big-brother methods of his government, in large part due to his interactions with a woman he suspects of being a book owner.

2) Equilibrium (2002, Kurt Wimmer). Wimmer's film consists of a more direct homage to Fahrenheit 451, as it portrays a future world where emotions are forbidden. In fact, law-abiding citizens take a regular regimen of mood-controlling drugs, hence the title. In this society, anything that inspires emotion, which includes works of art of any kind, is banned. That's the reason given for why the books are verboten in Fahrenheit -- that they agitate people too much emotionally. In Equilibrium, Christian Bale plays an enforcement agent who's charged with rooting out those who oppose the state, must like Oskar Werner's Montag in Fahrenheit. He too sees his resolve crumble due to his interactions with a beguiling woman (Emily Watson).

3) The Book of Eli (2010, Allen & Albert Hughes). If you don't want a "surprise" near the end of either Fahrenheit 451 or The Book of Eli revealed, skip this one and go on to the next. For those citizens who oppose the book banning in Fahrenheit, but also want to stay out of jail, they have a novel (no pun intended) method of keeping books alive in a form other than physical: They commit them to memory, and "become" the book. Love that concept -- in fact, Eli screenwriter Gary Whitta seemed to love it too. The big secret (one of two, actually -- I won't reveal the controversial and somewhat dubious second secret) of Whitta's mysterious protagonist, Eli (Denzel Washington), is that he has committed the Bible to memory, in the hopes of reciting it for eventual republishing in this post-apocalyptic world devoid of the written word.

4) Don't Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg). When I studied Roeg's masterpiece Don't Look Now during my first film class in high school, my film teacher emphasized the fact that this odd mystery set in Venice has at least a small amount of the color red in every single shot. I'd have to watch it again, but I think that's correct -- every single shot. It's the main detail about the movie that's stuck with me in the probably 18 years since I last saw it. Well, when I watched Fahrenheit 451 this time, and herd Roeg's name in the cast as the cinematographer (marvelously, the written word is banned even in terms of the film's credits, which are read aloud), I put two and two together. Fahrenheit 451 is a film with a ton of red in it, most notably the ominous truck that carries the firemen on their calls, as well as the firehouse from which they originate. As Roeg's film came seven years later, I have to wonder if his use of the color red in Don't Look Now was a seed that had been germinating since he shot Truffaut's film.

Okay, there were four, not five. Actually, I'm sure there are a ton more. But this is already more of a blog post than I ever thought I'd get to write on a Saturday morning while on daddy duty.


Travis McClain said...

I haven't seen any of the four you cite, so I can't speak to those. More generally, though, I would like to comment on Fahrenheit 451. I read Bradbury's novel in one night during my freshman year of high school and literally had an anxiety attack. I don't mean I got tense, I mean I had a full-blown freak-out. I was shouting in the kitchen about how hopeless the future was, how willful ignorance was going to smother us all, that the future was bleaker than the so-called "Dark Ages."

I have not read a single page from that novel in close to 20 years now, and I can vividly recall whole passages--and the emotional impact they had on me. That entire exchange about how homes used to have porches, to encourage neighbors to connect with one another, but now only have narrow stoops to discourage such intercourse...every time I see a new neighborhood under construction I think of how prescient Bradbury was. It chills me.

The film left me cold. I never felt the kind of smothering from the film that I found in the novel. One reason is that Clarisse is imbued with elements of various other characters from the novel. It makes her more involved in the story, yes, but it also means that Guy is interacting only with her instead of what really is a desperate cell of an underground movement. This feels like Guy is just falling for a more interesting woman and taking up her hobbies because he's infatuated.

There's no real social commentary in the film, either. Despite being set against the backdrop of a culture being spoon-fed information via TV(s) and having no real mental spark of their own, it appears that most characters other than Linda (Mildred in the novel) are actually pretty alert; they're just hostile to literature. In the novel, though, society at large came off as a lumbering mass of gossiping zombies who become suspicious of anyone asking questions or doing too much talking about anything.

In the film, one gets the sense that perhaps engaging others one-on-one might be productive, where the novel makes it clear that the neighbors clandestinely discussing things with Guy are taking an extraordinary risk.

There was nothing about the film that was particularly overwhelming. If anything it was rather lethargic, fraught with catatonic performances.

I did like the idea of the spoken opening credits, though.

Vancetastic said...

I guess we differ on the film, though I take your points. Of course, we're coming at it from different perspectives, since I never read the book.

I do think there is definite social commentary. I guess you thought it needed to be more pointed. One thing I think is interesting about this film is that it sort of operates as a screed against itself. Moving images are all this society is permitted to consume -- and moving images are what movies are. So in a way, Truffaut is throwing his own industry under the bus in favor of books.

It's funny, I don't think anyone would argue that this is among Truffaut's classics -- there are many more obvious candidates. But it's my favorite Truffaut film just because the genre is more interesting to me. Always love movies about future dystopias. Okay, I don't always love them, but I'm always open to them.

Travis McClain said...

I would argue that whatever social commentary is present is built into Bradbury's story. The film has a dispassionate, cold distance from the events that runs contrary to the intimacy of the story. How much more personal can a story be than one about our own awareness of self?

I'm certain I downgraded the film to an extent simply because it could not measure up to the novel and its impact on me. I can't do anything to counter that prejudice other than be aware of it and concede the point. It's a competent adaptation, and I liked parts of but it just never quite seemed to coalesce the way I had hoped it would.

Also, you really ought to read the novel. I would say that even if we weren't discussing the film.