Saturday, June 5

Fahrenheit 451

While awaiting the release of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in the U.S., I decided to watch François Truffaut's English-language Fahrenheit 451, which appeared in 1966. As you know, 451 is the degree at which paper burns and, in Moore's figurative extension, 9/11 is the "temperature at which freedom burns." I won't develop a review of Truffaut's film here but wish to suggest a few things about it, obliquely.

The biggest contrast it marks with Michael Moore's latest work is that it is largely suggestive, elusive, and untimely. Apparently, Truffaut's film received a tepid reception. It has been suggested, however, that the film has gained in power over the years as people have learned not to confound it with the sci-fi films that were produced in abundance during the same period. The real achievement of the film, I think, is that it withholds certain sci-fi aspects of Bradbury's narrative so as to produce a passionate championing not only of books, but of human language and of the human impulse to remember. It made me think in particular about the precious but vulnerable medium of online communication, and of how the conventionally understood contrast between "books" and "computers" is not so radical. For one, so much of the language we use in speaking of computers, such as "page" and "bookmark" and "notepad," etc., comes straight from the world of books. But the inheritance is more than linguistic. The very shape of our computer screens retains the memory of rectangular paper. And one could develop this inheritance at great length (which is something Jacques Derrida does in Papier Machine, Galilée, 2001).

Anyone who liked Truffaut's Jules et Jim should know that Oskar Werner, who played Jules, here plays the lead role of Montag, the fireman whose job it is to burn books, in what is a similarly quirky and sensitive performance. And if you can rent the DVD, know that it includes an excellent short documentary about the making of the film.