There are movies that, 40 years after they were made, look even more fantastic in comparison to the swill that passes for contemporary cinema. There are movies that are truly eerie in the prophesies they seem to ooze out of every prescient frame; as if they were made to tell the future. And then there are those rare movies that were truly ahead of their day and are now even more so. Fahrenheit 451 is one of those movies. Based on the Ray Bradbury book of the same name, Francois Truffaut's only film in English is a jewel.
Made in 1967, Truffaut's first color film uses the neutral landscape of European winter to great advantage. The red of the fire truck, stripped down to a rocket ship-like shape, awakens the gray streets as it speeds to a call. Sharply dressed firefighters stand guard on the trucks' edge, long leather gauntlets punctuating the red. These firefighters are not on their way to put out a fire, but instead to start one. This futuristic society fears books, and the imaginary worlds they have to offer. The government has banned them, and when found they are publicly burned. A great display of how the best science fiction adeptly casts past and present horrors into future hybrids, and then lets the viewer decipher the moralistic tale.
Viewing this film 40 years after it was made, many of its side plots take on a fresh caution. One night after work, Montag, the protagonist firefighter, sits by as his wife "interacts" with a large screen TV. The television asks her to be an actor from the comfort of her living room. Montag points out the ridiculousness of the televised responses, and suggests it's not real. Isn't this a freaky parallel with our society's love affair with viewer participation a la American Idol and inter-active comments? And even though the film's sets are 60's mid-century mod fabulous, the oversize screen looks no better on their walls than our behemoths look today.
I won't spoil the film's ending, but I will say that it is slightly different than the book, a little more beautiful, and possibly more hopeful. I suppose rather than fear our government banning books, we have to fear the marketplace threatening the continued production and protection of books. Used and Independent book stores keep alive varied versions of books, giving us a window into the graphics and interests of another era. As these smaller stores lose out to the internet and chain stores, we will lose much of the diversity of the written word. In New Jersey, desperate politicians are looking to cut spending by shrinking money to libraries. Fahrenheit 451 was written when Bradbury was a struggling newbie, and we have the public library system to thank for the typewriter rental that allowed Bradbury to get that manuscript to print. There are those that prefer the elan of a coffee shop for today's writing room, but guard your free libraries or they won't be there when you need them.