Sunday, 10 May 2009

Fires Were Started

Reeling from shock at finding an interesting and rarely screened film being shown on ITV the other week (yes, I know, I’m such a snob) I set my video to start recording in the early hours of the morning. The film was Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel. It was his only film made in English and it has to be said it’s not one of his best, but it’s not without interest. It’s a strange project for a film-maker to take on, particularly someone so evidently steeped in cinema as Truffaut was, given that the novel demonstrates a marked preference for the written word over visual media, which it portrays in a far from complimentary light.

The opening sequence of the film, with its rooftop skylines of television aerials and colour tinting forming the backdrop to spoken titles related in a cold and emotionless monotone is a clever introduction to the world we are about to enter. This is a future society in which the written word has been banned and in which every home is dominated by large television screens which provide a distorted view of the world through their rose (or yellow or green) tinted glass.

The colour palette of the rest of the film is very muted. Most of the settings are the grey concrete of post-war brutalist architecture which seems to be the vernacular of this future world. The opening raid of the book-burning firemen takes place around the complex of flats which comprise the Alton West Estate on the edge of Richmond Park. A perfect blending of concrete and verdure which suggests an isolated, cold and controlled environment. The only primary colour which makes itself inescapably felt in this world is the vibrant red of the fire brigade. This is by extension the red of the totalitarian authority for which the firemen act as secret police. Although there’s really nothing secret about them, as they have the power and the inclination to intrude on people’s lives at will. The intrusiveness of the bright reds in otherwise drab backgrounds is a visual indication of the all-pervasive penetration of state authority into people’s lives and of the lack of any sense of privacy. It's a colour which it's difficult not to notice.

The failure of the film (and it’s generally perceived to be one of Truffaut’s worst) maybe partly due to flaws in the original novel, which is, despite its reputation, not one of Bradbury’s best. He was better at shorter length (his other famous ‘novel’, The Martian Chronicles, is in fact a collection of related stories) and the attempt to sustain a novel length narrative shows signs of strain. It also shares the problems of schematic dystopias (or indeed utopias) which predicate their future societies on one fundamental change from the world as we know it. This leads to a simplex rather than complex (or even multiplex) view of the world which tends to focus rather narrowly on one aspect, thus leaving the creation as a whole crumbling from a lack of any convincing foundations. The firemen are the one political force we see in this world whose central tenet seems to be the burning of books. Obviously Bradbury is keen to make a point about the dangers of illiteracy, but it is scarcely a plausible basis for a dominant ideology. In a genuinely fascist society, the burning of books is merely one side effect of a more general repression of knowledge and management of information.

The central characters are played by Oscar Werner, Jules in one of Truffaut’s best known (but not in my opinion best) films Jules et Jim, and Julie Christie, who takes on a double role. Werner plays the fireman who grows to question the regime under which he has flourished. The European accents which he and Anton Diffring, who plays his suspicious colleague, sport make the location of this country difficult to place. It also gives his character a rather distracted air, which rather detracts from the intensity which he should be bringing to this central role of conformist turned rebel. Christie’s twin roles are also disappointing for admirers of the actress (amongst whom I count myself). Both characters are pallid, literally so in the case of schoolteacher Clarisse, who looks like she could do with a good hot pie. They are clearly meant to be seen as opposites, with Werner’s wife Linda being a passive and docile consumer of whatever the airwaves feed her and Clarisse providing a more questioning and nonconformist viewpoint. But the latter is very much in the mould of 6os childlike naifs, open and gauche but ultimately in need of comfort and protection. Clarisse for some reason feels the need to bring Werner’s character along to her school to try to get her job back, but turns heel when a small boy avoids her eye and runs away. She instantly breaks down in tears as a result, which shows a marked lack of resolution on her part.

The film does have many incidental pleasures, however. Bernard Herrmann’s score is up to his usual standard, a blend of his themes from North by Northwest, Vertigo, and with the celestes and vibraphones from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Visions of the future are often a more accurate reflection of the age in which they are dreamt up and this happily is no exception. As mentioned, it is a very 60s landscape of concrete, in which the idea of space-age public transport is an overhead monorail with unfolding stairs. The transmission of television signals through Coronation Street style rooftop aerials obviously dates it now. There are many bibliophile pleasures which root it in the 60s too. Many of the books which are burned are the orange backed penguin paperbacks of the era. The camera lingers on titles as they burn, and Truffaut manages to sneak in a fair few French classics. There is Madame Bovary, Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal, Zazie Dans Le Metro, a novel called ‘Le Monde Acote’ by one Gyp, a Serie Noire pulp paperback, a book called ‘Gaspard Hauser’ and one by someone called Paul Gegauff, and some Cocteau and Balzac. We also get a clear shot of the firehoses dousing Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography, perhaps Truffaut’s comment on its contents. Controversial books are seen burning; Henry Miller’s Plexus, de Sade’s Justine, JD Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye and Nabokov’s Lolita. It’s odd that a film with its primary reliance on visual imagery should place the written word as being so much more important. Perhaps Truffaut is emphasising the need for a good script as the starting point for any great film. Truffaut, as one of the original Cahiers du Cinema writers turned directors (and screenwriters) would have equal respect for word and image. Indeed, a copy of Cahiers Du Cinema is amongst the pile of literature burnt in the old woman’s house. It has a picture of Jean Seberg on the cover in Godard’s classic new wave film A Bout de Souffle, made from a script by one...Francois Truffaut. There is something sensual about the word writ large, its physicality upon the magnified page. Fibres are visible at the now rough edges of printed letters as Werner reads from Dickens. The books look beautiful as they burn, too, pages like curling leaves as they are consumed, as they if they are giving up some living spirit contained in their print.

The final scenes in the country give visual relief from the assault on the senses of the primary reds in the urban settings, particularly when the snow falls on this lakeside woodland community of living books. Some commentators have interpreted this as a downbeat ending, seeing the circling recitation of the books’ contents as being little different from the mindless absorption of the pacifying images beamed into people’s homes back in the city. But they are preserving this knowledge for future generations while these dark ages last, just as monks and Arabs preserved classical learning during the historical Dark Ages. This act of memory, whether its accompanied by understanding or not, is an implicit act of curatorial hope, envisaging as it does a future where learning and the written word will return. It also shows that these stories and ideas have a life beyond the physical objects which we have seen going up in flame. This may be the winter of the world, but spring must surely come.

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