23 January 2010

Take These Valium and Watch 7 Hours of TV a Day and You Should Be Fine

In the antebellum South slaves were discouraged from reading. Oppressive limits on slave education were imposed as a reaction to Nat Turner's 1851 Slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. The murderous nature of the insurrection caused shock throughout the South. It had a particularly far-reaching impact on education over the next three decades. The fears of slave insurrections and the spread of abolitionist materials and ideology led to radical restrictions on gatherings, travel, and—of course—literacy. The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders. Not only did owners fear the spread of specifically abolitionist materials, they did not want slaves to question their lot; thus, reading and reflection were to be prevented at any cost.

It's difficult for a bibliophile like me to imagine a more horrific world than the one depicted in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Based on the novel of the same named penned by Ray Bradbury, the film depicts a world in which books and all other printed material are banned. Any books found are burned on the spot and their possessors arrested.

It is a compelling movie for its subject matter. But at the same time awkward in the way one might expect from a film made in English by a French director with a star and  director at odds. Truffaut and Oskar Werner differed on how Werner should play Guy Montag, the ambitious "fireman" who discovers a love of books. Werner played Montag as somewhat of a robot reasoning that this was, after all, science fiction. Truffaut wanted more passion out of his lead, especially in his discovery of reading books which was quite a leap for someone charged with their destruction. Truffaut was right. We simply see Montag mechanically sit down with a book and read, then develop an appetite for more. Witnessing the transformation would have been perhaps instructive, and definitely better cinema.

Be that as it may Fahrenheit 451, which I watched for the first time today, is a fascinating look at a future that's not so unimaginable. No, one doesn't expect books to be forever banned and destroyed, but they are already being crowded to the fringes of a society obsessed with instant information in bite size form. Meanwhile we have a significant segment of society that, if it reads at all, only bothers with the occasional political tome (and at that ones which re-enforce their existing beliefs) and eschews novels and philosophy --  the most despised books in the world of Fahrenheit 451.

In F451 TV dominates the home, with wall screens in the living rooms and smaller sets in every other (welcome to the future)! Indeed TV is family with on air personalities cousins. Content is totally sanitized for mass consumption. It helps that the entire population seems to be taking one form of sedative or another at all times. This is a scary future world.  People taking addictive drugs that, rather than stimulate thought, deaden the senses. It's all not hard to envision what with the prevalence of all manner of mood stabilizers in use today. And it's no stretch to say that our TVs serve a similar purpose. There are scores of channels featuring mindless dribble in the form of "reality" shows, cookie cutter sit coms, dramas that resonate all the way until they're closing credits (if that long) and political commentary meant to rally the forces, not stimulate discussion. We have a population of docile citizens constantly "vegging out" in front of the idiot box, only occasionally stirring  if spurred by their TV.

Books are reviled in F451 for their supposed propensity to make one sad. Point taken. Books do cause one to think and we all know the hazards of utilizing our intellect. Books open up entire worlds to us and God knows that many of those worlds are rife with tragedy and heartache. But how reading stirs the imagination! What insight is to be gained, what visions of worlds that are no more, worlds we'll never see, but most importantly worlds that could someday be! And what a wonderful way to explore the human condition, to understand those alien to us and to recognize the commonalities we enjoy (or suffer). Reading is the antithesis of a world where TV does our thinking for us.

Books provide adventure, excitement, romance, knowledge, opinion and perhaps best of all feeling. To really read is to feel. We engage our heart and minds and best of all exercise our imaginations in the accomplishment. A world without books is a world where corporate-approved factoids reign supreme over the intellectual process.

451's Montag is a believer in his world (don't we all want to be? I mean wouldn't be nice if the established order had nothing but everyone's best interests at heart?). But when he dares sample the forbidden fruit, he hungers for orchards.

Montag starts with David Copperfield (excellent choice!) and there's no turning back. We know that Montag will eventually be found out and can only hope that before being caught he'll find his way to the pockets of resistance. These are not groups of people who fight back. However, they not only do not tote guns, they don't even possess books. They become books. Each person commits a book to memory then destroys it so that he'll not be subject to arrest.

One person is Machiavelli's The Prince, another is Plato's The Republic, identical twins are both volumes of Pride & Prejudice. They all thus aim to preserve these books for a time when future generations may someday revel in the printed word.

Julie Christie plays two parts in F451. She is Montag's TV and drug addicted wife and Clarisse, Montag's neighbor who seduces him -- with questions, books and stories of the human literature. Would that Werner's performance was as interesting as hers.

Despite some basic flaws with the film, it's message is powerful and timeless. Now if you'll excuse I'm smack in the middle of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tools....

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