Next Friday, March 27, the IU Cinema will run a program of two films based on Ray Bradbury’s classic and still widely read novel, Fahrenheit 451. One film is a production from 1957 by Playhouse 90 called “Sound of a Different Drummer.” This television movie was directed by a young John Frankenheimer and has a story so similar to Fahrenheit that Bradbury took legal action against the producers. The other film is far more famous: Francois Truffaut’s cinematic version of Bradbury’s novel.
Truffaut’s film is interesting to me for two particular reasons: first, the film followed Bradbury’s novel very closely, perhaps reflecting the amicable relationship the director and novelist had; and second, the film almost seemed to undermine the auteur theory of movie criticism and filmmaking that Truffaut had help launch as a young critic in Paris.
These two points are connected. I have a particular interest in the arrival of the auteur theory in the United States because it marked a special moment in the history of American film criticism. In the late 1950s, auteur critics in British and American journals that specialized in film criticism taught moviegoers to indulge their obsessions with those magicians of the screen, the director. In a memorable passage from a famous essay by long-time film critic Andrew Sarris, we find a rationale for that obsession: “How do you tell a the genuine director from the quasi-chimpanzee?” Sarris asked. “After a given number of films, a pattern is established. Only after thousands of films have been reevaluated will any personal pantheon have a reasonable objective validity.” In short, Sarris explained, “Sometimes a great deal of corn must be husked to yield a few kernels of internal meaning.”
That metaphor ignited a caustic reply from Pauline Kael, a sworn enemy of auteur critics: “Perhaps a little more corn should be husked; perhaps, for example, we can husk away the word ‘internal’ (is ‘internal meaning’ any different from ‘meaning’).” Thus began a relationship that defined the golden age of film criticism. Sarris and Kael clashed over the role of aestheticism played in justifying love for movies. Sarris favored a more technical, theoretically driven approach; Kael argued for movies as art in their own right, because of–not despite–their popularity and access. Where Sarris sought to create a criteria to help moviegoers understand the “movieness” of film, Kael dismissed such musings as little better than the socio-psychological analysis of movies that had driven interests from censors to advertisers.
But there was an irony lurking underneath this feud over movies as art–movies were mass art and mass culture and held the prospect (if not the evidence) of flattening out aesthetics and subsuming debates about art in general. In other words, not only did both Sarris and Kael hope to push discussions of movies beyond the confines of morality–did a movie promote “good” values, did it reflect and suggest a “good” society–but they also fought with each other and other critics to push such conversations toward a new understanding of art. They just had two different ways of expressing their hope.
An illustration of a tension within that conversation can be found in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, a filmmaker, not incidentally, who both Sarris and Kael admired. Referred to as the French New Wave’s “ringleader” by film historian Richard Neupert in his book, A History of The French New Wave Cinema, Truffaut made his name by playing against filmmaking conventions, especially older Hollywood styles seen in gangster films and slapstick comedies, and eschewing any commitment to social commentary–his characters often seemed devoid of pretension or reason.
Yet in making a movie from Bradbury’s novel, Truffaut did something rather un-auteur, he followed the lead of a novelist and played to the social conscience of the film. Bradbury told his confident and agent Don Congdon: “I believe it is a fine film, quite moving, and, in the aggregate, excellent. I think it will cause much talk, be damned by some, be praised by many.” In his second volume of his projected three volume biography of Ray Bradbury, Jon Eller quotes Truffaut from a journal he kept while making the film: “In point of fact, this film like all those taken from a good book half belongs to its author, Ray Bradbury.” However, the other half of the film, the one that Bradbury assumed many would damn, came from a gamble, as Eller puts it, that Truffaut made.
Truffaut’s film received mixed reviews, those that were negative or ambivalent commented on the coldness of the characters. Rather than focus on the relationships between the characters or the development of the characters (and therefore in stark contrast to the style Truffaut had taken up in his earlier films such as 400 Blows and Jules and Jim) he settled on the very unstylish subject of books. “Throughout the filming,” Eller explains, “Truffaut steadfastly maintained his position that the books were, collectively, the film’s central character; this proved to be a magnificent gamble, but one that Truffaut ultimately lost at the box office.”
If the auteur theory depended on an encyclopedic understanding of previous films, allowing a filmmaker to reference those films and their styles and play upon them, then Truffaut proved that inspiration for filmmaking could come from very different sources. In another passage from his account of the filming of Bradbury’s novel, Truffaut made a telling observation: “The subjects of films influence the crew that make them…Right from the start of Fahrenheit 451 everybody on the unit has begun to read [the books used for the film]. There are often hundreds of books on the set; each member of the unit chooses one and sometimes you can hear nothing but the sound of turning pages.”
In an age of hyper-awareness of the power of movies and mass culture, Truffaut made another iconoclastic turn. He, the auteur, had memorialized the power of the author.