Saturday, June 30, 2012

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966) – ‘Do you ever read the books you burn?’

Greg Goodsell here. With the recent passing of author Ray Bradbury at the ripe old age of 91, it seemed very timely than ever to dig out FAHRENHEIT 451 from 1966! This one has significant historical importance as it was the first sci-fi film to be directed by an important international film director, Francois Truffaut, perhaps best known for his 1961 classic JULES AND JIM! You’re in for a treat aurally as the score is by the great Bernard Herrman, which, IMHO, is his best score ever! It’s akin to spooning ice cream directly into your ears!

Bradbury was proudest of FAHRENHEIT 451, declaring it his “only work of science-fiction” – all his other stories and books, he maintained were fantasy. He had a special tombstone made prior to his death, which simply read RAY BRADBURY – AUTHOR OF FAHRENHEIT 451.

The story is a simple one – in a nightmarish dystopian future world, all books are banned, and the “firemen” in this world START fires, specifically burning books! FAHRENHEIT 451 is the temperature to which paper burns. One fireman, Montag, is asked by a girl on his monorail commute, “Do you ever read the books you burn?” The question sets him off on a journey of self-discovery!

Here’s something you didn’t know: Ray Bradbury DETESTED the fact that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore appropriated the title of FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Bradbury was adamant that Moore’s anti-American creed was little more than Cold War paranoia turned inwards, and was forthright in denouncing Moore as an “asshole!”

One thing never adequately explained: Since this is a post-literate future, with even labels on boxes of cereal reduced to numbers, how does Montag suddenly start reading? Here, the Goon Squad is set to incinerate some moldy old paperbacks!

One sees hesitation in Montag's eyes as he scorches another personal library. "Who am I to deny someone their right to read what they wish?" This question is lost on some very important people still operating in the world today, alas.

After a hard day of work, Working Joe Montag takes the monorail home to the suburbs, and into the arms of his drug-addicted, TV watching fish wife!

Austrian Oskar Werner, ne Oskar Josef Schliessmayer was a hot-shot international star in the Fifties and Sixties. He plays the lead as Montag, the fireman with a hidden intellect. Oskar's last film was VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED in 1976, and he passed away far too young at the age of 61 in 1984.

The beautiful Julie Christie plays dual roles in this film, Clarisse, the book-loving underground intellectual (pixie cut) and Montag's wife, Linda (long hair)! Is this Truffaut's clever way of saying that the thoughtful, intelligent Clarisse and the selfish, pill-gobbling Linda are the two sides of the same coin? Or that all women are alike? Julie is still working today -- she had a plum role in the Johnny Depp vehicle FINDING NEVERLAND as recently as 2004!

Back at home to watch a little telly. The one thing filmmakers did get right about the future was those giant TV screens in the walls!

In his production diary, director Francois Truffaut said he was displeased with the art direction in the film, in particular the one in Montag's flat. He said he wanted a chilling contrast between the ultra-modern and the antique, and what he got was mostly Swedish Modern looking stuff with carefully applied kitsch here and there, like those retro-telephones on the wall!

Like most jobs, the firemen are great gossips moving up the corporate ladder. Some things never change, even in dystopian futures, do they? On the left is top fireman Cyril Cusack who plays The Captain.

The firemen make a "book sweep." With their fashion sense borrowed freely from Benito Mussolini, coupled their stern, Reichstag German accents, the firemen provide a visual and aural reminder that such things HAD happened on the European continent previously.

Raiding an old lady's flat, the Captain and Montag find an extensive library of books ripe for burning! It is here that the Captain makes some powerful arguments AGAINST literacy -- philosophy, after all posits that the author is right and everyone else is wrong! "Tom Sawyer" offended the blacks; Nietzsche’s philosophies offended the Jews, and let’s not forget a shocking little booklet called "Mein Kampf." READING IS BAD.

Tired of a husband who can read, Julie "shops" Montag to the book-burning authorities! Gotta love that Technicolor Red!

Montag gets sick and tired of the captain's shit and lets him have it! YEAH! We've all felt that way at some point in our lives.

The word gets out about the murderous fireman and the police take to the streets with loudspeaker-equipped cars. Little boxes made of ticky tacky, Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same. There's a green one and a pink one. And a blue one and a yellow one, and they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

Evading the clutches of his nefarious totalitarian state, Montag is killed by proxy on state TV for the benefit of the cowed populace!

Montag high-tails it to the outskirts of the city, where a whole hippie commune dedicates themselves to memorizing books in order to preserve the world's literary heritage!

Montag meets Clarisse once again, and finds a new purpose in life, in which he preserves -- rather than destroys, individual thought.

Ending on a note of fairy tale beauty, FAHRENHEIT 451 is a timeless story about intellectual freedom that needs to be rigorously protected -- regardless on which side of the political, religious or social side of the coin its adversaries spring from. One final factoid: while this is a film on very important subjects, Truffaut said he wanted to replicate the silly escapist fun of his childhood favorite DR. CYCLOPS (1940) with this title! In either case, this movie needs to be revisited.


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Douglas McEwan said...

Certainly a great movie from a fine book, though I suspect Ray will be remembered more for The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Here's something you didn't know: You should never preface a comment with "Here's something you didn't know," as you have no way of knowing what your readers do and do not not know, and some of us get insulted and annoyed at being assumed to be ignorant. In fact, why would you just assume ignorance on your reader's part? Do you assume your readers are all uninformed yahoos? Why? At worst say "Here's a fact you MAY not know."

Bradbury's baseless lawsuit against Michael Moore was all over the news at the time and I, and millions of other people, especially those of us who love Bradbury's and/or Moore's work, or who jst read the news, are well aware of it.

Nor was Moore's film in any way "anti-American," quite the reverse, it was an attempt by a patriotic American to open America's eyes to how we were had by high-level crooks, how democracy was stymied and a war engineered by evil persons at the highest levels of American government, exactly the sort of people Bradbury's books denounce. In any event, you can not copyright a title, and so Moore's paraphrase of it, which was actually a compliment to Bradbury's work, albeit one that Ray was unable to appreciate, was legal, and Ray's suit hadn't a leg to stand on and was rightly thrown out of court.

The very, very sad fact is that in his later years, Ray's mind politically was going. In the last decade of his life, his family would beg interviewers and moderators of panels where Ray would be publically speaking not to bring up politics, and that if politics came up, to please steer the discussion away from it. Ray was leaning way to the right of Glen Beck, and making embarassing remarks, like how a woman should find sexual harrassement complimentary, to cite a single example. It was very sad.

Ray was the first professional writer I ever met, back in 1966 when I was only 16. He was abig part of inspring me to become a writer myself. I love his books, I found him personally gracious, accomodating and kind. His defining characteristic was not so much imagination, though he had that in gigantic amounts, but rather boundeless enthusiasm. He was always an inspiration to me. That he mentally lost it on politcal and social matters in his last decade makes me very sad, but I will never cease loving him.

The most hilarious-yet-loving tribute to his passing I saw was Stephen Colbert's brilliantly ironic gesture on his TV show, of burning a copy of Fahrenheit 451. This is a strangely forgotten movie, but it's a damn good one. I vividly remember seeing it the week it opened, and I saw it again only two years ago. Its flaws are slight. It holds up.

Anonymous said...

How odd that Ray Bradbury and Rodney King's deaths were in such close proximity!

Greg Goodsell said...

While I appreciate the amount of time and effort in your missive, Doug, your statement -- "That [Bradbury] mentally lost it on politcal and social matters in his last decade makes me very sad, but I will never cease loving him," seems to highly controversial. Was Ray's political and social feelings INCORRECT by YOUR standards? That's something that the firemen in FAHRENHEIT 451 would agree with! The book took great lengths to show how books could be banned from a humanistic, leftist point of view, and the withholding and repression of ANY thought or opinion is inherently wrong. The protection of unpopular thought, speech and writing is what this nation is founded on, and don't you forget it! Other than that -- thanks for writing! And no one went broke underestimating the intelligence of the general public.

Douglas McEwan said...

Funny that, while the movie got the big flat-screen TVs of the future right, they still had TV aerials, as in the first photo in this column. When was the last time you saw TV aerials on a roof? Sattalite dishes, yes, but aerials? Not in ages. (For the opening shot of the musical remake of Hairspray showing the rooftops of Baltimore a veritable forest of aeirals, all the aerials had to be CGI'd into the shot.)

Eegah!! and Tabonga! said...

Looks like it's about time to break out the dueling pistols! Now you guys know why I always avoid politics! You know what they say about opinions!

Exeter said...

Thanks for reminding me to watch,
"CRAP" I don't have it on a list! I must have this somewhere, maybe in the tub marked, "VHS tapes I'll never have time to watch". Great film!

TABONGA! said...

Ex - got this copy off TCM!

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Douglas McEwan said...

Mark Evanier, who knew Ray well,far better than I, for decades, and who moderated many a panel with Ray at Comic-con and other venues, wrote this a few days after Ray's death on his blog:

"[Ray] did have some political views he wanted to express but his daughter and others close to him asked me to, for God's sake, do what I could to steer him away from those topics. They were...odd. And obviously the result of advanced age, medical problems and emotional responses to some personal tragedies. I suppose they would be called right-wing viewpoints, though every smart Conservative I know would race to distance themselves from Ray's views on, for example, how a woman should feel honored if a strange man came up and pinched her ass. There were others that were well into Glenn Beck territory ... though Ray not only clearly believed what he said, he believed the mere fact that Ray Bradbury said it meant it had to be so. I took to telling friends, 'If you wrote The Martian Chronicles, you may be a redneck.' It was one of those jokes you say to try and wring a smile out of a situation you find troubling. I finally had to beg off the interviewing job. I admired the man so much and felt such gratitude for past kindnesses that I couldn't bear to be around him in that condition. It was for the same reason that I won't attend a funeral with an open coffin."

So yes, I stand by my Ray "lost it" on political matters in later years comments. I loved Ray and his work with all my heart for decades. My stack of signed Bradbury books (including my signed copy of Faharenheit 451) will always be precious to me. Whenever I would be with Ray, he would make a big deal out his middle name being "Douglas" and so he considered us bonded in the "Brotherhood of Douglases". That was sweet of him. He always had time for younger writers.

But I took to avoiding him in his last decade, passing up opportunities to spend time with him because his deterioration, both physical, but especially mental, made me too sad.

And puh-leaze, it is ALWAYS the right-wing who turn into book banners and burners.

And yes, my statements could be deemed "highly controversial." So? That's a good thing. Controversy is healthy. As the great Larry Gelbart repeatedly said and wrote: "If what you've written is not likely to offend anyone, go back and start over." Trying to eliminate or forbid controversy is just another means of trying to control thought, the very thing Fahrenheit 451 is adamantly against.

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Anonymous said...

Finally -- a movie review that does not whine about how this movie was "nothing like the book". What movie ever is? Also thanks for mentioning the late-great Oskar Werner. As film fans of his know, he and Truffaut had a major falling out during production because Werner wanted to bring more sympathy to the character of Montag and Truffaut didn't. Also, Werner was originally set to play the fire captain's role (eventually played by Cyril Cusack) and at the last minute was asked by Truffaut to take over for Terence Stamp (who turned down the role of Montag when he heard Julie Christie was given the dual roles -- he feared her screen time would take over the film). But, as you can see, Werner not only more than held his own with an actress who had two roles in a movie, but put his own indelible stamp on the character of Montag. In the Criterion edition for this film, Julie Christie provided a commentary and specifically mentioned the "actorly intelligence" Werner brought to his role.

Dr. Theda said...

on his short-lived TV "anthology" series..."Ray Bradbury Theater" ... He did one called "Usher II" this was his sequel to "451".... with Patrick Macnee ... Very well done story and well worth a viewing...

Anonymous said...

What no pictures of the movie's "atomic dog"? You remember -that robot sniffer hound made especially to find those illegal things called books.

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