Saturday, May 26, 2018
Too Much TV: FAHRENHEIT 451 (2018)
With all the talent involved it's stunning how bad the new version of Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic is, but 2018 is probably both the right and the wrong time for dystopias. The Donald Trump presidency has put a lot of people in a dystopian frame of mind, but that creates too great a temptation to turn any dystopia into a commentary on Trump and Trumpism, which are at most symptoms of potential dystopia rather than precipitating events. If someone uses "America" and "again" in the same sentence, especially as a slogan, as is done in Ramin Bahrani's film, it's all too obvious that you're saying something about Trump that isn't necessarily relevant to Bradbury's vision. Worse, however, is the new film's preoccupation with social media as the alternative to not only literature but all the arts, demonstrated mainly by using the fronts of skyscrapers as Facebook Watch style screens flooded with comment emojis (and words!) and constant invocation of "the Nine" as the place where everyone looks at everything. The story's message is muddled for no good reason by the idea that some of the classics, at least, survive in emoji translation, as if that somehow dilutes their dangerous potential. In general, Bahrani goes for a "day after tomorrow" look rather than the more futuristic vision Francois Truffaut aspired to in his 1966 adaptation, the Second Civil War that led to the rejection of books, on the ground that they provoke ideas that in turn provoke conflict, having happened only very recently from appearances. Bahrani's 451 is arguably more about 2018 than Bradbury's or Truffaut's were about the actual dates of their creation, to the new film's disadvantage. Its presentism arguably explains its abject failure as a dystopia, since it portrays a moment where the new order doesn't really seem to have sunk in, but must still resort to terror against a resistance (the "Eels") of uncertain scope. We never do meet true believers who take the post-literate order for granted, or at least we encounter none as important characters in the story. Instead, we get a villainous authority figure, the top "fireman" of Cleveland (Michael Shannon) who appears obsessed with text, writing excerpts from literature from memory on cigarette papers only to destroy them, even as he lectures his protege Montag (Michael B. Jordan) on the perils of books. This character is too ambiguous for the story's own good, while Montag himself, Bradbury's protagonist, is fatally detached from the ordinary dull society that actually alienates him; the scenes featuring his wife (Laura Harrier) were left on the cutting room floor for some reason. Perhaps Bahrani decided that her storyline and its preoccupation with status and conformity dated the overall story as a relic of the suburban Fifties. Whatever his reason, he reduces Montag to a loner who is, if anything, egged on to explore books by his conflicted commander -- and worse, he saddles the character with a hackneyed "fathers and sons" story in which flashbacks conveniently reveal long-suppressed truths about the elder fireman's fate. For an indie filmmaker who won acclaim for social-realist views of immigrant and working-class life, Bahrani is strangely determined here to reduce Bradbury's fiction to a collection of genre cliches, down to an inept climax involving a bird infected with the sum total of human knowledge needing to fly through a hole in a barn in a race against time with Shannon's slow-motion flamethrower, distracted by a Montag angling for martyrdom. As I recall, the Truffaut Fahrenheit is generally thought of as a failure, yet in retrospect it seems superior to the new Fahrenheit in every way. It shouldn't have been so, because it really isn't that hard to see how a consensus against uncomfortable ideas could arise in our time, and it shouldn't have been hard to translate that vision to film, yet the new film pays only lip service to how appealing and tempting that reaction might be in its rush to turn Bradbury's dystopia into just another action movie.