Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Since a new version of this story will be appearing on HBO next month, I thought that now would be an appropriate time for an analysis of this 1966 movie. Let’s start with the problems surrounding this film directed by Francois Truffaut, his only English language movie, based on the Ray Bradbury novel. The work comes off rather stiff, with no fluid transitions. Truffaut cast his Jules and Jim star, Oskar Werner, after actor Terence Stamp dropped out, not wanting to be on the set with his ex-girlfriend, Julie Christie. Werner’s thick Austrian accent bogs down the dialogue because he delivers the lines quickly and in a low tone. (If you want to see a terrific performance by Werner, check out The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). IMDb notes that Werner and Truffaut were at odds as to how the character of Montag should behave, and Werner felt he should appear robotic in this futuristic programmed world, which accounts for some of the stiffness of the performance. Added to that problem, we have the English-challenged Truffaut working on the screenplay. Also, the crew was not French, which added another barrier to making things mesh well in this production. There are occasions when we know some time has passed, since Werner’s Montag goes from acquiring one book, David Copperfield, to having a whole library stored in his house, but it feels like nothing has happened in the interim.
Of course there were dystopian science fiction stories before this one, and certainly many since. They work if they have an interesting focus, as we do here. In this futuristic upside-down scenario firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Their jobs are to burn books. (The film’s title supposedly refers to the temperature at which paper burns). The logo on the firehouse wall is a dragon, a monster that burns its victims, an appropriate symbol to generate fear. Totalitarian rulers always seize control of a nation’s communication systems so they can dispense their world view and dictate who is to blame for society’s ills. They maintain power by propping themselves up as the ones who can keep the citizens safe by eliminating the so-called enemies of the state (usually nonconformists and certain ethnic groups). Dictators set forth the proper way to think and act to prevent any deviation from the mandated norms of behavior. Books foster discussion and personal opinions, which can lead to questioning the rules in place.
The movie opens with shots of TV antennas, and instead of being presented in written form, the credits are read aloud. This technique is consistent with the world we encounter here, since writing associated with artistic expression has been banned. The verbalization of normally written words also predicts the end of the film. The close-ups of the antennas emphasize how a modern government can spew out its propaganda quickly and widely. It’s not called “mass”media for nothing. There is the sound of the firemen crunching the stones as they march up the driveway of the house they are targeting. It has the feel of storm troopers trampling on the security of individual freedom. They find books hidden behind a false TV screen, in a light fixture, and under a radiator cover. As Montag says later, as does his boss, Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack), “to learn how to find, one must first learn how to hide.” Of course that is a flaw in the system since a fireman can evade capture if he wishes to do some reading himself. The owner of the house receives a warning phone call, which shows that there is an underground resistance movement in existence. A crowd assembles to watch the torching of the reading material. A child holds one of the books, and an adult reluctantly takes it from the boy and throws it on the pile. The shot stresses how the destruction of the printed works also undermines the imagination and curiosity of the young. The deliberate way the adult takes the book shows his fear for himself and his child, which also shows  acknowledgement of the harm the firemen are inflicting. (We later see firemen invading a playground, doing a literary shakedown, searching baby strollers, and frisking a pregnant lady, again emphasizing the assault on innocence and privacy). Montag puts on protective clothing and napalms the books. The Captain mentions that Montag may be up for a promotion, which pleases the fireman. He asks Montag what he does when he is off duty. Montag says he mows the lawn. The Captain then says, “And what if the law forbids that?” Montag’s response is, “Just watch it grow, sir.” This brief exchange shows the degree to which the state imposes its will upon its citizens.


Montag encounters Clarisse (Christie, sporting short hair) on the monorail train. She says she recognizes him because he is a neighbor. She seems like an outsider in this environment, since she loves to talk, says she is a “well of words,” and is social. She is a school teacher. She is probably more interested in learning that indoctrination because she was called into an interview and fears she may have said something “wrong.” That means she is afraid she did something that does not comply with the rules. Montag is hesitant to communicate with her, warning her that she shouldn’t talk to strangers, echoing the atmosphere of fear present. She says he smells of something that burned, and he says it is the kerosene from the burning of the books. Montag calls it his “perfume,” that he acquires from his job. Again, in this upside-down world, the harsh odor of kerosene takes the place of something that would normally be a pleasing scent. Clarisse says that she heard that long ago firemen put out fires. Montag says that can’t be because houses have always been fireproof. His statement shows how the government has rewritten history, which can occur when one entity controls the access to information. Clarisse asks Montag if he is interested in reading, and he says it is “rubbish.” He says that books make people “anti-social” (probably because they require people to withdraw away from others in order to read them, and what is expressed in  books may not be consistent with dictated policies). Reading also may bring about unhappiness (most likely because literature can evoke emotions that are not always consistent with contentment, and they could suggest what’s wrong with the reader’s current life). Montag says he is not interested in reading, has better things to do with his life, and, besides, reading books is forbidden. When asked if he is happy, Montag says that he is, but his demeanor is sad.

When Montag arrives at his house, we can see that he is not content with his home life. His wife, Linda (Christie again, now with long hair), is mesmerized by a large “wall screen” TV (sort of like most of us today, although our hypnosis is also mobile as we can also stare into our cell phones). That Christie plays a dual role suggests that there are two ways that people can act, one which is emancipated, and one that is subservient. He is annoyed because she barely listens to what he says. If promoted, Montag says that he would like a second wall screen, and the analogy is made to a family growing, entertaining objects being the substitute in their relationship for children. The news on the TV provides a report of the number of books burned, sort of like body counts in a war, but here the enemy is truth, beauty, and knowledge. Linda is thrilled because she says that she has been chosen to participate in a show on the TV. However, it is a sham, as Montag points out, as the actors stop, turn to the screen, and ask “Linda,” which can be any of multiple women named Linda tuning in, what she thinks about some domestic questions. When Linda doesn’t respond quickly enough, the appropriate answer is provided anyway. Linda is upset with Montag for spoiling the illusion that she has been welcomed into the TV “family,” and would rather be in denial of the truth.

At work, Captain Beatty berates two trainees for sitting next to each other despite orders not to do so. Montag sees Beatty yelling at the two. Could this anger be directed at the possibility that these two men might give the impression that they may be gay? Beatty tells Montag to foster participation in sports, not only because being on teams makes individuality secondary to group activity, but also because it keeps men “busy,” which translates to not giving them time to think. The Captain also likes it that Montag doesn’t speak much, which also implies a lack of a desire to express personal thoughts.

On the TV, we see a policeman stopping a youth who has long hair. Since his appearance does not conform to a standardized look, the cop cuts the hair, because it shows individual expression. Again, when almost every aspect of one’s life is predetermined, there is no need to engage the thought processes, and no need to question anything. The female TV narrator notes the laugh track accompanying the boy’s shearing, and says that law enforcement can be “fun.” The attempt here is to turn something brutal into a an entertaining event by altering the context.
The state also dispenses pills to pharmaceutically control the populace. Montag comes home and finds Linda has passed out because of the combinations and doses of her medication. Montag calls the emergency number, and the medical team basically pumps out old blood and transfuses new fluid. Linda sort of gets a circulatory reboot. The emergency medical men say that Linda will now have a strong appetite for food, and also for sex. She is very amorous with Montag, but he later looks let down because he knows the passion wasn’t genuine.
We’re not sure how much later, but after Linda goes to sleep, Montag leaves their bedroom and starts to read a copy of David Copperfield, using the TV screen without selecting a channel as a night light, thus allowing Truffaut a visual rebuke of the preference for watching television. He reads slowly, pointing to every word, which shows how he has not been trained in reading thoughtful material. The next scene shows Montag going to work, and he is followed by Clarisse and an older woman, so we know that they have targeted Montag as someone they believe will help them in the resistance. Clarisse catches up to Montag and appears distressed. They go for a cup of coffee and she informs him that she was dismissed from her teaching job because she did not stick to the class timetable. Since she did not conform to the rules, she is a threat to the regimentation of the society because her actions show resistance to established guidelines. While they have their coffee, they observe a man near a red box with a flashing light. It is where people can inform on acquaintances and relatives by dropping off names and addresses. The man seems to be agonizing as to whether to deposit the information, but eventually inserts the paperwork. Montag says that sometimes people just want to get rid of individuals in their lives. One can consider this “naming” of people as similar to what occurred in the McCarthy era, when, out of a fear or a warped sense of patriotism, people accused other citizens of being disloyal just because of their ideas.
Using Christie in dual roles to show alternative ways an individual can behave is illustrated here because Clarisse pretends to be Linda, and calls Montag’s office to say he is sick and can’t come in. She wants him to go with her to her school because he is outraged that she was not properly told why she was let go. When they go to the school, her students run away from her, a teacher locks her door so Clarisse can’t confront her, and her belongings are slid down the hallway so that her nonconformity will not infect others through personal contact. Montag sees how badly Clarisse is treated and sympathizes with her, promising to confront the principal after he is promoted. She asks why did he become a fireman since he seems different from those in that job. He says that she previously asked if he wanted to read books, and he now confesses that he read one the night before. We are not told why he began reading. Perhaps it was because of disillusionment with his family life, or his meeting Clarisse, but we know that he was already questioning the TV programming, and the informant system that exposed book readers.

Montag becomes more reckless as he continues to read at night and has several books out in the open. Linda wakes up and is distressed to find her husband reading. She says she doesn’t want them in her house, like they are some kind of vermin. She says that the books frighten her, because that is what she has been brainwashed to believe. Montag says, “You’ve spent your whole life in front of that family wall,” referring to the people she watches on TV. He says, “these books are my family.” It is noteworthy that they do not consider themselves as making up their own family. Montag now feels the need to consume the books, in a nonflammable way, because he has been deprived of their intellectual and imaginative nourishment. He realizes that the state has banished knowledge of the past, so he must read, “to catch up with the remembrance of the past.”
The firemen get a call to go to the home of the woman who was with Clarisse when they followed Montag. The house is filled with books. The Captain even discovers a hidden room that is like a small library, and he almost sounds orgasmic in his delight at the find, mirroring the psychology of some pyromaniacs. He spouts the party line about how books make people unhappy by suggesting the possibilities of invented lives that are alternatives to their own, and which can’t be obtained. The captain criticizes differing philosophers because each one thinks he has the right way of thinking and thus the others are wrong. He likens their beliefs to changing fashions. What he and the authorities are against are an exchange of ideas, and discussions, which allow people to make up their own minds about what to believe and how to act. What democracies call freedom of thought, the totalitarian societies label chaos. The Captain preaches that happiness only occurs when everybody thinks the same way, with all beliefs shared and all questions answered. He acknowledges that all firemen get the itch to read, to taste the forbidden fruit (and we wonder if he has done just that because he seems to know a great deal about the various books discovered). However, he continues his rant against reading, but the satire is evident when he says that they had to burn books that warned that smoking caused cancer because they upset smokers, thus making people unhappy. The thrust here is better to promote the “ignorance is bliss” belief, rather than divulge to the public disturbing truth that may also alert them to dangers to their health.

Captain Beatty’s words fall on deaf ears as Montag grabs and hides a book from the pile. The firemen pour flammable liquid all over the house and they have received word that the house as well as the books must be burned. This order seems to perplex The Captain, as he says, “Burning the books is one thing, burning the house is another altogether.” His attitude shows the prevailing priority of valuing material things over intellectual pursuits. The woman will not be arrested, takes control over her own fate, and drops a match, wishing to die with her “family” of books, whose words make them alive to her. The camera focuses on books featuring the work of Salvador Dali, a surrealist who definitely would be a criminal in this country for his nontraditional art.

Montag returns home to find his wife with her friends engaged in watching a TV program that deals with fashion and other superficial topics. A now animated Montag calls them “zombies,” going about in an unthinking existence, denying the truth of their world. He tells one of them that her husband is a soldier in a real war, where people are killed, but the “fake news” dispensed by the government is that there have been no casualties. Montag begins to read from a book, and the words are moving because the emotions elicited are genuine. But, real feelings can be disturbing, and as one of the women cries, the others blame Montag for upsetting them.

Clarisse is awakened by her uncle with whom she is living, and is told to get out because the firemen are coming. She is able to escape as the uncle buys her time by dealing with the firemen. When Montag sees the house boarded up, he asks a neighbor if she knows what happened. The neighbor points out that Clarisse and her uncle were different, implying dangerous, because they did not have a TV antenna on their house. Thus, they were suspect because they would not allow the altered truth to enter their home. Montag breaks into the captain’s office to see what happened to Clarisse. He is surprised by The Captain, who has the arrest reports with him, and he informs Montag that Clarisse is still at large. The Captain assumes that Montag is interested in obtaining Clarisse’s house. However, he does wonder how Montag broke into his office, which he did by picking the lock.
Meanwhile, Linda says that she can’t live with the books, and says she will leave Montag if he doesn’t get rid of them. We see her jumping when a book falls from behind a picture, acting as if a giant spider surprised her. She goes to the red box and informs on her own husband. In the meantime, Clarisse approaches Montag at the train stop and asks for his help. They go to her boarded up house to retrieve a hidden piece of paper that lists members of the resistance. Montag says he can find it, because, “It was my job.” The use of the past tense is important here, since Montag no longer sees himself as a fireman who burns books. He finds the list hidden in a vase. Clarisse tells him to burn the paper. Now he sets a fire to protect those who love books. Clarisse confesses that her meeting Montag was not an accident. The resistance had been observing him, and thought he might be someone who could help them. Montag says he suspected as such, because of Clarisse’s connection to the lady who set fire to herself. He did not want to confirm Clarisse’s connection to the resistance because he did not want to compromise her if he was made to talk. Clarisse tells Montag that her uncle told her of a place in the woods where there were “Book People.” They break no laws, except that they memorize books so they won’t be lost. Clarisse wants Montag to go with her to live among these people, but Montag says they must part. He says he will plant a book in each fireman’s house, expose the “pyromaniacs,” which will cause the system to collapse.

Montag informs The Captain that he is quitting, but his superior begs him to stay on for just one more day. It is a ploy, as the fire truck pulls up to Montag’s house. Linda has packed and is on her way out. She tells Montag she just couldn’t bare living anymore with Montag and his books. The Captain sarcastically tells the firemen to let Montag find the books, since he knows his job. He complies in a feverish manner, throwing books out onto the floor of the house. However, The Captain’s arrogance causes him to make a mistake by giving the flamethrower to Montag to destroy the books. First, he burns his bed, which shows how he feels betrayed by his wife. He then torches the TV wall screen, demonstrating his rejection of the banality and false information that it was used to dispense. He does then set fire to the books. We watch the destruction of admired works by Melville, Kafka, and Dostoevsky, among others. We feel anger toward The Captain as he opens his hands near the blaze, as if warming himself at the cremation of beloved friends or family members, and talks about being drawn to the destructive fire, instead of warming to the creative powers that produced the books.
One of the fireman, who has been spying on Montag, informs The Captain that Montag took one of the books and hid it on his person. The Captain grabs it, asks if it is Montag’s favorite book, and says it must burn with the others, after which Montag will be arrested. Montag takes the book back. The Captain points a gun at Montag, and cocks the weapon. Montag then fires the napalm at The Captain, and as he burns, we remember the woman who ignited herself and her house in defiance of tyranny,  and we experience a sense of poetic justice. Montag becomes a fugitive. The rulers use the TV’s to command the public to come out of their homes and alert the authorities if Montag is spotted. The houses of the citizens are identical, attached to each other, in this scene. The people exit their homes looking like programmed robots. There is no individuality here, only subservience to what is dictated.
Based on Clarisse’s information, Montag is able to reach the location of the Book People. The Book Person (Alex Scott) who greets Montag introduces himself as the title of a book, The Life of Henry Brulard. He shows Montag how the ex-fireman was supposedly hunted down and “killed” on TV. There is no close up of the face of the person used to impersonate Montag. Brulard says the state couldn’t have the people believe that anyone can escape their rule. He tells Montag that the audience must have a satisfying “climax” to the story. There is a sexual connotation here, as if the citizenry must be given a “happy ending,” that is pleasurable, with no unsatisfied loose ends. Brulard introduces others there by the names of the books that they have memorized. The residents have “become” the books. To show the extent of the resistance, Montag learns that one member was once the wife of a chief of police. Another person ate his book before he could be caught (a sort of “reader’s digest”?). There is some humor here in this serious tale, as twin brothers are referred to as “Pride” and “Prejudice” since they have committed to memory parts one and two of the Jane Austen novel. There is even a nod to the author of this story, as one Book Person has become Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
Ironically, Brulard says that they must burn the books once they are committed to memory, so that they will not be arrested, and the literature can live on. These people are like the ancient poets who passed on their stories orally. He tells Montag that there will be a day when the current regime will no longer be in power, and they will be summoned to recite what they have held inside of them. The books will again be published, until next “dark age,” and the process will be repeated. Brulard sees history as a repetitive process of repression and enlightenment, pessimism and optimism. There is an old man who is dying. He must recite his book to a young boy who must remember it before the man expires. The scene shows how knowledge and art can be enjoyed by many generations.
The book that Montag rescued contains the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. He reunites with Clarisse here, who has memorized her book. The young boy finished his task as the old man dies. The last line he says refers to the snows of winter. There is a nice segue to the snow falling on this library of people. The ending is very moving as the residents walk about, reciting their books. The image tells us that the written words come alive when we read them, and literature lives on in us.

The next film is Training Day.

1 comment:

  1. Nice collection I read the story and tit seems good. I am so excited to watch Full movie. Your blog post make me crazy about to watch this movie. I will watch later when I got time from my busy schedule.

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