Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2018

Fahrenheit 451

All smoke, no fire

On the dubious value of high-rise broadcasts, the insignificance of a burned book, and Ramin Bahrani's inability to turn Fahrenheit 451 into any kind of statement

Fahrenheit 451
HBO Films
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Screenplay: Ramin Bahrani and Amir Naderi, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Michael Shannon, Sofia Boutella, Dylan Taylor, Khandi Alexander, Martin Donovan, Keir Dullea, Warren Belle and Cindy Katz
TV-14 / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 1.85:1
Available on HBO
(out of four)

So many screens, so little content.

The images ascend from the ground to the top of every high-rise in sight, live broadcasts of the firemen setting a newly discovered stockpile of books ablaze, or busting a cabal of digital smugglers uploading banned publications to the dark web. When the raid is done, and the (immediate) sentencing is handed down, those towering screens just go back to being the sides of buildings again.

The buildings might as well disappear with the broadcasted images. And the people. The neighborhoods, too; the bars, the cars. What Fahrenheit 451 never answers - strike that, never asks - is what world it even lives in. Its conception of its dystopian future more or less boils down to, "There was a war a while back, and now we burn books." But the society left in the wake of that conflict doesn't, on any tangible level, exist. Essentially most information is banned, not just books but music and paintings and movies and history, too. Cameras are ubiquitous, of course, monitoring - along with a virtual intelligence called Yuxie - everyone's behavior.

But beyond those few obligatory details, the filmmakers don't actually have a future in mind. They never approach the void left by the cultural conflagration, never think to look and see what society became. Or what its people are like. Its politics, its religion, its economy, any social structure whatsoever. There's nothing. It's all a blank. The screenplay doesn't ask and the direction doesn't tell. Lest this be misconstrued as a comment in itself - a world without books/art/culture is no world at all - the film in fact never bothers to even conceive of such a world. It frames its premise as a sociocultural tragedy, but gives us nothing to mourn. A nonexistent society cannot, by definition, lose anything. Removing books from this Fahrenheit 451's world is like dividing by zero. What good would books do in this world? There's no one around to read them. No places in which to read them, no homes in which to keep them, no communities to congregate around them.

Director Ramin Bahrani gives us a lot of close-ups of classic titles burning and melting away, but those titles have no context here. At most, it's a detached what-if, seeing the books we love - or even the ones we don't - turn to ash. But there's no way of connecting our relationship to those books to anything, or anyone, within the film itself.

Which brings me back to those screens. Larger-than-life transmissions of the firemen dramatically administering law and order. The thing is, the job is mostly done. Most copies of books, we're told, have already been eradicated by now. An occasional raid snuffs out a small stockpile or two, but aside from those relatively rare circumstances, the firemen are mostly concerned with maintaining - and embodying - order. Those big screens on those big buildings are an example of an exceedingly common visual idea - for sci-fi in particular. (It's not so different from Times Square anyway.) But Fahrenheit 451's employment of the idea is curiously irrelevant, if only because, most of the time, there's nothing to broadcast. Skyscrapers light up when something's going down, but otherwise? The erasure of movies, music, television, or any other form of creation takes the mass-media element out of the equation. Bahrani has taken a standard sci-fi visual without realizing that his entire conception of this narrative renders said visual moot. Those broadcasts have no power. (Even as tools of propaganda, they don't land; they're too blandly straightforward.)

Then again, they're also practically the only time we see actual people, standing frozen like mannequins watching justice be done, tiny silhouettes at the bottom of the frame. Beyond that, cameras seem to exist for no other purpose but to broadcast people's own actions back to them - their images reflected and refracted from all directions, on every wall and mirror. (Which had me wondering: In this world do people, like, have to directly talk to each other more? If so, this entire interpretation of the story has a pretty remarkable upside. I mean, except for losing all of the world's culture.) Bahrani's modern reinterpretation of the Bradbury novel seems like it's only thought-through halfway. He retained the screen motif but removed its purpose.

What he does concentrate on - to the extent that he concentrates much on any particular thing, which is debatable - is the reasons why this dystopian America has come to be as it is. In recounting how the book-burning developed, and how it was justified and eventually codified into society's governing structure, he indicts - as Bradbury did - both the people in power directly responsible for its implementation and, more damningly, those merely complicit in it. One group of people is upset about this book, it gets banned; another group is upset about another one, it gets the same fate. Sooner or later, the voluntary language policing ballooned into an entire society philosophically based on limiting the exchanging, or even articulating, of ideas or information. No artistic statement is innocuous enough to risk keeping it around. And the whole of society is built on keeping its own fabricated peace.

Michael B. Jordan takes the Montag role, and the film focuses primarily on the father/son-like relationship between him and Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon). Beatty has served as Montag's mentor and parental figure since the death of his father, and the two have worked side-by-side together as firemen. With Beatty on the verge of a major promotion within the Ministry, his protégé is next in line to take over as Captain. It's bad timing, then, that a serendipitous meeting with one of Beatty's sources causes Montag to rethink - or perhaps consider for the first time - the reasons and implications of what he does for a living, and why, and what kind of world he really lives in. The source is Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), a convicted Eel (outlaws fighting to retain and spread banned works and overthrow the current governing order) who, unbeknownst to Beatty, is still working in secret with a large group of fellow Eels. He begins meeting her at her apartment - cameras are nowhere to be found on these outskirts - reading Notes from Underground, learning about what the world was before the fire took it.

But there's not nearly enough time, nor depth, to make Montag's arc work. It operates entirely from narrative obligation - forced, barely rationalized - rather than from a thoughtful, psychological place. Fundamentally, this is all about his choices, his intellectual and political awakening, his memories, his confusion, his longing. But to the movie he's just a plot engine. Jordan does what he can with it, but the film insists on treating his life-altering moments as obligatory screenplay checkpoints. The whole movie is pretty resolutely fixated on plot; Montag, Beatty and Clarisse are essentially the only characters, and collectively they have about a storyline-and-a-half, plus a couple of lip-service glimpses of their interior lives. (Virtually all other characters, including appearances by pretty noteworthy character actors like Khandi Alexander and Martin Donovan, are left with one or two thankless scenes.) 451 keeps hinting at the growing intimacy between Jordan and Boutella, yet it doesn't even have the time to explore it. They just stare and almost-kiss each other a lot. Because god forbid characters actually be permitted to enjoy themselves. (Say what you will about the dance/sex/Zion montage in The Matrix Reloaded, at least it was human.)

Fahrenheit 451 continues a curious pattern for Bahrani, who established himself with poetic, loosely plotted character dramas Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. His expansion into more traditional narratives - sort of halfway mainstream - has been wobbly to say the least. With At Any Price and 99 Homes, his unique ability to find ecstatic grace notes within the lives of his characters took a backseat to bizarrely unimaginative, clunky, obvious narrative choices. If Fahrenheit 451 is any indication, the rare skill set that defined his early works seems to have been extinguished altogether. Or at least buried. Despite its references to modern concerns, this film is a hollowed-out shell, tackling no less than the whole of human expression and conflict and creation, and finding absolutely nothing to say about any of it.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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