6 January 2005 | Jonny_Numb
Go figure that I had the privilege of seeing "Fahrenheit 451," for free, on a big screen a few years back (an independent Illinois art house had gotten hold of what was allegedly one of the last surviving prints), and at the time hadn't the foggiest concept of how PRIVILEGED an event it was. Sitting in a theater crowded with college students on a budget with nothing better to do, I watched this diverting little retro item, appreciated its subtlety, nuance, bold visual style, and 'got' the message that if we're not careful, we'll be mindless drones having our desires dictated by The Tube (in current times, that's hardly a profound statement).
Francois Truffaut's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel is a bold visual feast that presents a time that might seem 'retrograde' in the eye of a modern pop-culture snob, but ultimately projects what a conceivable 'future' might look like (and not that CGI malarkey served up in "The Matrix"). Interiors of houses are awash in odd colors and give shelter to appliances that don't look dissimilar from our own; TV screens embedded in living-room walls play programs which vacuous housewives interact with sometimes. The film is so relentlessly confident in its appearance that it withstands the test of time.
Though if "Fahrenheit 451" only had its storybook style to rely on, it would fade and be filed away as a mere technical achievement. Truffaut, working from strong source material, concocts a riveting parable about ignorance and the things we, as humans, take for granted. The story follows Guy Montag, an Everyman who is employed as a fireman--a connotation which entails ransacking residences in search of books (reading and writing have been outlawed in this world) and burning them. He has a medicated-smile wife (Julie Christie), a quiet home life, and is in line for a promotion, until a neighbor (Christie again) inspires him to question his motives for working such a sordid job.
One character argues that books cause depression, making people confront unpleasant feelings. "Fahrenheit 451" sometimes runs the risk of lending truth to that statement--in some ways, it is a bleak commentary on civilization, but at the same time grounded in a benevolent humanity that offsets Orwell's brutal, pessimistic world of "1984" (though both texts and films share similar themes). This humanity is underlined in an upbeat, even comic ending (the details of which I won't divulge here).
"Fahrenheit 451" is a spellbinding work of art, in good company with other incendiary works ("A Clockwork Orange" and "Fight Club" come to mind) that have defied the constraints of time and age.