Tuesday, 27 May 2008

DVD: Fahrenheit 451

Lowdown: Ignorance is not bliss.
Francois Truffaut is one of those directors that bewilder me. For a start, why couldn't they just spell it "Franswa Trifo" the way it's pronounced and help me avoid looking his name up before typing it here? Second, and more importantly, I can testify that although none of his films shook me like, say, the first two Indiana Joneses did, all the Truffaut films I have had the pleasure of watching were truly a pleasure to watch. There is no way around it: the guy was a brilliant and original director whose every film was a work of art. Fahrenheit 451 is no exception; it proves how a good and original film can be made despite poor means. It doesn't take money and it doesn't take an abundance of special effects; it takes a true artist.
The first thing that strikes you about 451 are the opening credits. Or rather, the lack of opening credits. Instead, what we do have is a harsh voice over reciting the opening credits over shots of TV aerials. You see, 451 is based on the famous Ray Bradbury book, and this made in 1966 film tells the story of a society were the written word is abolished.
That's not the only thing about 451's society. People are narcissistic to extremes, going about hugging themselves; houses are fireproof; and firemen are employed to burn books instead of extinguishing fires. They go about their job with much passion indeed, running special schools teaching trainee firemen how to locate hidden books, maintaining a secret police like regime where no one can be trusted, and carrying special equipment to burn the books with.
As if to remind us of another society that used to burn books we're quickly acquainted to a character portrayed by the German accented Oskar Werner. He plays one hell of a fireman, a guy who is so good he's up for promotion. However, one day, on his way back from work, he's approached by a neighbor, Julie Christie. She turns out to be a teacher who got fired because she was actually teaching instead of doing the reciting she was meant to be doing with/to the kids. Christie asks Werner a simple question that ignites the rest of the film: "Do you ever read the books that you burn?"
Werner then returns home to his wife, Julie Christie. She is the complete opposite of the train Christie (which goes to show how brilliant the dual casting idea was): she is so dumb and occupied with herself she can't even remember when she and her husband first met. All she does is watch the stupid crap that's on TV all day and do as she's told and as she's expected to do. Werner, on the other hand, starts doubting.
Fahrenheit 451 is so well made it would make Hitchcock feel inspired. To be honest, it borrows a lot from Hitchcock: the editing and the colors seem to have that Hitchcock flavor, reminding me a lot of Vertigo. The dominant soundtrack was composed by the Hitchcock regular, Bernard Herrmann, and it is as impressive and as suiting as a soundtrack can be. Sure, the special effects are well and truly bad, but who cares when the film is so good? It's rare to see such a film where every shot is so well composed and so well edited. Every shot is a work of art, often deploying unconventional means such as blackening out the irrelevant part of the screen to emphasize the action.
The thing about 451 is that it is a very relevant film to the world we live in today. As the current war in Iraq started, for example, most Americans said they thought the war was just because of Iraq's involvement in September 11. You see, ignorance is a problem in today's world, and the problem is not limited to the USA alone; Australia joined hands with the USA in its war with Iraq, and Australia was led at the time by a guy who openly said he wanted to make the people feel comfortable. So comfortable he was reelected almost two years after the unpopular war was started and despite the war's lack of popularity, simply because Australians did value their own comfort the most.
Warnings aside, Trauffaut makes Fahrenheit 451 a true ode to the joy of the written word. So much so he made me want to go out and finally purchase his book, "The Films in My Life".
Best scene: The scene to remember, apart from the opening credits, is the scene where Werner first burns books in front of us. The ceremony that takes place with the burning is so well directed it's quite a feast to the eyes, making its point very well delivered. If you look at it carefully you will notice it was shot in reverse, which is what makes actions like wearing gloves appear so pompous.
Technical assessment: Picture quality varies significantly and generally shows the film's age. The soundtrack is mono, which is a shame given the great score.
Overall: Look, Fahrenheit 451 is not the most exciting film ever. However, compare it to the trash you get nowadsys - say, look at the previous two posts in this blog and the one that will follow it soon - and you will see why 451 stands out not just as a film but as a work of art. 4.5 out of 5 stars, it shows there's more to good art than just star ratings; there are some qualities I cannot measure yet, such as brilliance, and 451 is full of it.

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