Saturday, April 11, 2009

Essay - Fahrenheit 451: At Once Real and Fake

Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 is not so much about the censorship of literature, but about modern society's lack of interest in books, an apathy born from a preoccupation  with television (and film, similarly). So it is a contradictory exorcise to adapt this book to the movie screen, the very medium (visual story-telling) that the text accuses as it's murderer. This contradiction is epitomized by the fact that the filmmakers had to actually burn books to illustrate the horribleness of burning books. When it is read on the page, the books only burn in your mind, but to put the image on screen, the action must actually be carried out and photographed. This paradox reminds us of the inherent exploitative aspect of filmmaking. The actors must actually cry. Cars must actually crash. Punches must actually be thrown. The act of putting oneself on screen and performing things one would not otherwise do is some form of ritual sacrifice. Baring the soul to the world. In a book, we read that she and he kiss, and there is only the words and the harmless, victimless image in the reader's head. But on screen, he and she are real people, and their real lips really touch, and our eyes are provided with the real image of a kiss, no imagination required. These real people, pretending to be fictional people, are likely not really in love, and therefor the kiss is at once real and fake. When projected from the page to our mind, the kiss is in a way more real because the only people involved are the characters, who really are in love, yet at once it is not happening at all, save in the mind. But on screen, the physical act of two mouths meeting is real, there is proof, it is documented. However, it is more fake, for the kiss is only happening for show. 
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was french auteur François Truffaut's first foray into color film, and his only film in English, a language he understood very little of at the time, as is evident from the sparse and stilted dialogue which he foolishly wrote himself. 
Austrian actor Oskar Werner is protagonist Guy Montag, a "fireman" (bookburner) who begins to question the system he is a part of. British beauty Julie Christie is on double duty, both as Montag's conformist wife, and as a rebellious school teacher who dares to illegally keep and read books. Christie is the star here, pulling off these disparate roles expertly and with flare. Werner is another story. His Montag is stiff, emotionless, and at some times appears on the verge of narcolepsy. Perhaps his Austrianess is to blame, or maybe his onset animosity with the director. Having seen none of his other work, this reviewer cannot say. 
From it's unfortunately ironic existence, to it's independent filmmaker's ill-advised and jarring transition to Hollywood, to the reported onset arguments and clashing of ego's, Fahrenheit 451 is a perfect example of why some books should not be filmed, and how moviemaking can be so absurd.

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