Fahrenheit 451 (1966) – Francois Truffaut (Dir.), Oskar Werner, Julie Christie
And now we get to see me truly live up to my twitter handle (@filmicignorance – huzzah for self-plugging!). Seriously, if we discuss basic camera movements, directorial choices, mis en scene, etcetera, ergo, ad infinitum, I can bullshit rather successfully. But when it comes to actual knowledge of cinematic history, I’m a fish out of water. And much like that trout you’ve just tossed into a hilarious situation, I shall flounder and splutter, make up words and bellow opinions. However, in the end, I don’t know shit about French New Wave. And wikipedia can only get you so far. Well, with that said, let’s dump this piscine writer out of his natural aquatic habitat.
This film came about as a suggestion from a good friend and secret pretentious ass, Guy. He’s a hair stylist. He reads a lot of books. When we discovered that Ray Bradbury had passed away a week or so ago he demanded, nay, ordered me to watch this movie. It was on the list. Julie Christie was in it and it had a fancily named director that seemed familiar. My response was ‘sure’. So, after a night of heavy, heavy drinking, returning to my house at 5am and splitting my new jeans in half, I decided to take a gander at this handy little adaptation of a Sci-Fi classic.
Firstly, to those of you who don’t know…you fucking should. Ray Bradbury was a badass. They force children to read his books in school. I’m sure you have skimmed the spark notes of Fahrenheit 451 or maybe Something Wicked This Way Comes. If you have not read these books FOR SHAME. For SHAME on you, sir or madam. Bradbury, unlike many Science Fiction writers, could actually fucking write. I know, it’s a novel-ty (see what I did there? Haters gonna hate). His tales of dystopian futures, foreign planets and stepping on butterflies in the past not only force some extremely poignant and disturbing questions on what place technology has in society, but he also manages to meld each of these with a constant exploration into the disenfranchised and isolated adult male. I recently went back to read Something Wicked, hoping for a crazy/scary/juvenile romp through an evil circus…only to find all these sad middle-aged assholes longing for something deeper and more from their suburban lifestyles. So, no matter how much I wanted evil dwarves, sand witches, illustrated men and bearded ladies with meat cleavers, I was left with the question of…”When I’m fifty, will I regret my life?” And that was a fucking kids book.
So what happened here? Fahrenheit 451 is a fascinating, if deeply-flawed, concept of the future. One without books. In fact, books are illegal and firemen are those whose job it is to dispose of said contraband. With fire. (Since regular firemen no longer exist because all the houses are conveniently ‘fireproofed’, not taking into account organic food stuffs, paper and, you know, human beings). So…everyone’s illiterate? Apparently not. But there are robot dogs that are amazingly terrifying and underground book traders and funny uniforms and…well, you get the gist. It ain’t that complicated but it raises serious concerns about the direction society at large has taken with the advent of television and film… I wonder what Mr. Bradbury thought of Kindle. Probably, “Fuck Kindle.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.
This movie was inevitably going to receive the ‘film’ treatment. Much like Something Wicked (Pam Grier…what the fuck do you think you’re doing?) and A Roll of Thunder (Ed Burns, why do you still have a career? And Ben Kingsley, you should be ashamed for, well, everything except Gandhi), this one has some major dramatic potential. Well, let’s make it Francois “Father of French New Wave and Doesn’t Speak English” Truffaut to direct. Amazing! He’s an Artist with a capital ‘A’! And let’s get Julie Christie, a woman so beautiful, we’ll cast her in both main female roles! But of course she can play more than one character! And let’s piss off Terence Stamp (who was going to play the awesomely named ‘Guy Montag’) and replace him with a German dude who couldn’t pass for English if he lathered himself in bad teeth and warm beer. And let’s make it Truffaut’s first English-language movie! And his first color movie! What can go wrong?
Apparently, everything. From what I understand from wikipedia-ing for about 10 minutes (because, honestly, who reads anymore? Come on.) French New Wave was a style of film that employed extremely naturalistic settings, almost documentarian in nature, as well as clipped scenes, natural light and diegetic sound. I suppose the objective is to construct a new, stripped-down way of making films to avoid the over-elaborate nature of operatic film scores, special effects and general falsity. Well, like that dude who gets killed at the beginning of The Warriors, I can dig it. In fact, Goddard’s Breathless was crafted in this style, a movie I’m itching to finally see. Truffaut wrote that. He’s the father of the entire movement (one of them at least).
Well, like a father, pulling up his terribly-washed jeans, Truffaut wanders over to his children playing the latest video games with their friends, asks to join and then throws the controller across the room when he realizes none of it makes any fucking sense. This isn’t his ground. He is out of his element, Donnie. You can’t make a movie in a dystopian future using found costumes, found locations and found objects. Why? Because in the future, it’s going to be fucking different. I love that Truffaut gathered up real, in-use books to burn on set. I love that the costumes, other than the hilariously terrible ‘firemen’ are cut right out of Vogue 1965. Here’s the problem, it is almost 50 years later and no one dresses like that…unless somehow, during this uprising, the hipsters overcome the rest of us and demand that we return to the fashion of 1960s England. The kicker is that some of the people are costumed, some of the sets are made. It’s as though the art director had a heart attack halfway through his designs or was mysteriously bumped off and his body was never found at the base of the stairs of Pinewood Studios and chopped up into little pieces and then hidden in the walls… I’ve said too much. (It’s murder. What do you expect? Truffaut is French. If at least three affairs and two murders don’t occur on a French film set, then the whole project is an abject failure. That’s science.)
Also, the man doesn’t speak English. He wrote the script. IN ENGLISH. No wonder everyone sounds like they just had a lobotomy with a complimentary bottle of wine (aka, French Lobotomy). The only point that I need make on this matter is this: the actual tagline for the film is “Aflame with the Excitement and Emotions of Tomorrow.” How did this man manage to make a science fiction film sound like a prostitute’s yeast infection?
This mis-applied film style pushed this movie to the halfway point of crazy. There were two things that knocked it over the line. One: color. It looks like Van Gogh puked on this movie. Everything is so goddamn eclectic and bright, I almost had a seizure. That and the random bouts of slow motion, frantic zooming and inexplicable panning, I was ready to spew. Well, that might have been the hangover. But, as in all things, I blame the French.
The second force yanking this confused beast into the land of bat-shit is the acting. Firstly, we have Julie Christie who, though she is really pretty, speaks lines as though she just discovered the English language and is excited to tell you all about it. One of the more interesting choices on the part of the director was to have Christie play both female lead roles, Montag’s wife and the rebel who leads him to the book-side of things. What this does is reinforce the idea that Montag, as he falls from grace within the cutthroat world of fire-manning, doesn’t leave and change sides simply because of a pretty face. She has the same face as his wife, you know, the lady he is legally obligated to bang. The girl is simply convenient, a lubricant, if you will, to encourage his slippage through the revolutionary birth canal. Woah, that metaphor got weird fast. I apologize. Anyway, the whole thing would have worked if Julie Christie knew how to play anyone other than Julie Christie. She smiles, gasps, speaks words and all the rest of that stuff in exactly the same way at all times. The only thing that changes is her haircut. Thank god, otherwise this would have been confusing as hell.
Christie is one thing. Incompetent, perhaps, but serviceable. Who really steals the shit-show is Oskar Werner. As the story goes, Truffaut was all lined up to have resident badass and only-person-on-earth-who-could-make-Michael-Caine-nervous Terrence Stamp to play Montag. That shit would have been amazing. But…Stamp had already slept with Julie Christie and was worried she’d upstage him. I wish I could have gone back to 1966, taken him aside and said “Terry, bubby, look at me. Christie couldn’t upstage a fucking tree. At least a tree changes seasons occasionally.” But, alas, time travel hasn’t been invented yet. And if it comes about during my lifetime…then obviously I attempted and failed in this endeavor. So, future Andrew, I’m sure you gave it your best. But…you suck. Anyhoo, back to the point: Truffaut thought, (in French, so imagine him wearing a beret, holding onions and twirling his mustache) “No Stamp. This film is set in England? What is the most sensible thing to do? Hire another English actor? OF COURSE NOT. That would be far too predictable. I shall have a German.” And so, Oskar Werner was hired. The man is about as British as Idi Amin is Scottish. Not only is he German, but the guy does not give a fuck. Not a single, solitary, crying alone at night, orphaned fuck. Again, according to wikipedia, Truffaut and Werner hated each other. Thus, Werner attempted to drive the film into the ground. Well, good job buddy. You won. This thing couldn’t be more into the ground if it were Anne Heche’s career (younger readers might ask ‘who?’ and I respond with ‘exactly’.)
Now, this movie, though an utter mess, still has some formidable artistic merit. I do believe that there is a worthy adaptation of this tale out there. In fact, a remake might be the perfect treatment. Get some actual art direction, a terrifying robot dog and a director who doesn’t have both thumbs up his anus (of the thumb-in-anus category: Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, Peter Berg, etc.) and you could make something truly worth watching. This movie is worth a gander. Past all my pissing and moaning, there were several truly haunting and affecting scenes lodged in amongst the mess. The part where the old woman sets herself on fire? Awesome. Also, Bradbury enjoyed this adaptation solely because of the final scene. We’re left with all of the rebels who, in fear of losing the books they truly adore, memorize every single text and then burn the evidence. We’re left with dozens of people, wandering aimlessly through the snow, repeating the words of poetic greats over and over, each of them stripped of their humanity and reduced to nothing more than literary titles. A living library. With no other purpose than to remember their text.
What’s the point of loving books if you can’t enjoy them? What cost did these people end up paying? What’s the end? Just remember until you die and pass it on to someone else? Well played, Mr. Bradbury, well played.