Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

FAHRENHEIT OLD SCHOOL

When Francois Truffaut adapted Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” it may have seemed that the only thing we had to fear was censorship itself. But, watching the movie last night on TCM, I realized that what I had thought was a drop kick perfectly consistent ideological score for my side wasn’t quite as complete as I had thought.

The movie itself is a pleasure to watch. It’s got that French New Wave view of film, with lots of long shots, simple two-person shots, and simple, straight forward frame constructions. Repetition rules okay, I guess. I love the opening, after the series of menacing television antennas while a cold, dry voice intones the names of the actors. We cut to a firehouse, with men in futuristic, dark, blank uniforms slide down the familiar pole and walk rather carefully to their firetruck. When the truck emerges from the sliding door, we see it’s a rather minimalistic, eerie machine from the future. The men stand stiff as boards lined up on either side of the center. (I’m strangely reminded by the old Keystone Kops sequences here, though obviously those men didn’t stand so still; it’s not entirely coincidental that the scenes of the truck on its way are always devoid of sound effects.) Bernard Hermann’s score drops dissonant chords to remind us how odd this brave new world has become.

We are in some vague future shorn of almost any design not familiar to 1966 audiences, which I thought was an interesting choice. In retrospect, those giant, inelegant apartment buildings and those flat, soul-less track houses of the day were repressive enough. Why bother to recreate the dystopian wheel?

In this world, books have been banned. Possession of books is punishable by – well, we’re never really sure. But, definitely, any books which are found by these firemen are burned. See, all buildings are now fire-proof, so the only use for firemen is to burn books. (No word what they do about forest fires, since there are obviously woods left in this future, as we’ll eventually learn.) When the alarm is sounded, the firemen rush to the scene of the crime. They burst into apartments, and find the hiding places of novels, histories, biographies, mysteries. A favorite hiding spot is inside a fake television set. Once the books are found, they are thrown onto a pile, and burned with a flame-thrower.

In this future world, books have been replaced by television, and a particularly interactive form of TV. The main character, Montag, played by Oskar Werner, has a wife, Linda (one of two roles played by Julie Christie) who is a slave to this television, not to mention pills of both stimulant and depressive qualities. After she overdoses on the pills and receives a blood transfusion in a humorous set piece, she experiences an increase in her drives to eat and to have sex.

So, we see another way in which the population is controlled. There are no scenes of men entranced by the television or the pills; presumably, they still have jobs, and the jobs control them well enough. For those moments when they might otherwise be distracted at home, presumably the side effects of the way women are controlled provide sexual benefits for the men. Here we see a way in which the world of “Fahrenheit 451” differs from the real future which unfolded over the last 39 years. Sexual teasing on the television is used to distract both men and women. It wasn’t necessary to turn women into sex machines for male pleasure.

Anyway, Montag has met Clarisse, a neighbor woman who is Linda’s double, albeit with shorter hair. Clarisse lets on that she reads books, and intrigued, Montag begins sneaking books away from work. Naturally, he is brought to the realization that books are necessary to preserve, a conclusion obvious to anybody who reads “David Copperfield” and a dictionary cover to cover in a few days. Long story short, Montag becomes an outlaw, and ends up in a forest with fifty other readers.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. In a world where paper books are outlawed and the World Wide Web was not imagined, the only way to preserve our literature seems to be to have individual people memorize entire books. They become the books, and in fact introduce themselves by the names of the books they know. (My favorite bit here was the presence of identical twins who have split the difference on learning “Pride and Prejudice,” just so they can be known as one of each word.) Montag commits to joining this enclave. There are apparently others in the world as well. The movie ends with the fifty men and women, most wearing ratty overcoats and other unusual clothes to signify their roles as outsiders, wandering back and forth, hither and thither, muttering their books to themselves.

I’ve spent all these years believing that “Fahrenheit 451” was nearly as important as “1984” or “Brave New World” in telling the tale of resistance to government oppression. But, now I see things a little differently. Because the image that jumped to my mind as soon as I saw that final scene was the final scene in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” when the doctor was revealed to be the keeper in a mental institution, and all the patients were walking back and forth, hither and thither, muttering to themselves.

Preserving literature is vital to our culture, don’t get me wrong. But the model here doesn’t strike me as all that good. Once a person dedicates a life to memorizing a single book, the book may still exist, but it doesn’t do anybody any good. The memorizer becomes the equivalent of paper; he or she can no longer think about the meaning of the books, but must concentrate on retaining the exact words. And, they don’t really spend any time sharing these books with anybody else. This final scene is of a community of solipsists, united only by their equal passion for their individual selves. I’ve always assumed this was a hopeful scene, but it looks to share nightmarish qualities with the non-book society.

Then I got to thinking some more. What are the limitations of this non-book society? Is it a single country, or is it the whole world? There are intimations that things are the same everywhere, that every society has replaced its literature with television and conformity. But, what about the cultures where oral traditions ruled? What about African-American traditions? Wouldn’t the existence of the blues be enough to fuck up this whole system? Or, perhaps they killed every black person. Certainly, Truffaut didn’t hire any to appear in this film.

And, what about the choices of books to be preserved? Every book being recited at the end is a canonized classic, and of course, it’s all from the European culture. Are we to believe that the only chance we’ve got is to make sure we preserve an admittedly talented, but limited set of old familiar favorites. What would a world be like built on what “David Copperfield” has to teach it?

I haven’t seen Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but obviously, he plays off the name of this classic. The assumption is that George W. Bush and his cronies have created a culture that’s not too far removed from the one in “451.” As a society, Americans don’t read that much, and when they do read, they don’t read things which are all that deep. And, of course, Americans let television tell it what to believe – why else would Bush have been elected in November? I don’t want to deny the truths of Moore’s presentation. What I’ve read about it jibes with my own experiences and readings in a lot of ways. But, in retrospect, I wish he’d called his film “Brave New 9/11” or “1984 Plus 20,” or something which builds on a richer, more fully realized version of the horrors that governments united with media can unleash.

I do still like that firetruck, though.

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