I am beginning to think that Ray Bradbury may well be the ideal author to have his works adapted for the screen, considering my apprehension regarding Truffaut's adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, a book I am very fond of, it was a pleasant surprise to find a film that completely embraces and properly appropriates the world and themes of Bradbury's seminal novel. Of course, I have only read this singular novel by the sci-fi giant, but when I discovered that The Illustrated Man was an adaptation of a Bradbury short story I had considerable degree of excitement, only furthered by the excellent cover work on the DVD copy I obtained. It is difficult to fully break down what is excellent about this film because it is not necessarily linear and has layers of stories intersecting and is certainly not a perfect film. However, considering that it was made in 1969, it adheres to a certain stylistic construct to which I am quite fond, one of heavy lighting in a natural setting and experimental match and jump cuts that help capture the viewer within a dreary and dreamlike trance. While I would never suggest that The Illustrated Man exists on the same plane of brilliance as, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, it does seem to commit to the same degree of grand introspection and evocative imagery. What The Illustrated Man does brilliantly is take a set of themes, most of which center around notions of unity, authority and a sense of loss and disconnectedness in an increasingly modern world, much the same as Bradbury's collective works. However, where his novel and adaptation by Truffaut entrench themselves within the optimistic, The Illustrated Man is a highly pessimistic piece, taking careful strides to note that somewhere in the near future people will simply wander about seeking their own sense of self worth, and while doing so they will constantly run the risk of encountering people who sensibilities favor the highly violent and are completely willing to destroy in the name of self-understanding. Of course, there is the more blatant level of the narrative, emphasized in the obvious visual elements of the film that reminds viewers that to truly where your past on your skin, is a jarring and disconcerting thing to encounter, even for the most progressive and idealized of individual.
The Illustrated Man technically falls within the narrative space of a single valley, assumedly somewhere in the Midwest of a futuristic America. While this world is covered in dirt, brush and a bit of water, the evasive cinematography and generally stark state of nature suggest a dystopic future scape. It is in this world that we are first introduced to Willie (Robert Drivas) a young man who has taken it upon himself to wander about America in a quest to find himself before meeting up with a family member to get a job. During a moment of rest he is approached by a hefty man named Carl (Rod Steiger) whose intrusive nature is bizarre on its own, yet when he becomes increasingly evasive and inquisitive, Willie accepts that his presence will not go away soon. As they begin to talk, Carl shows off his "illustrated" body, which he makes sure Willie knows are not tattoos. A bit confused as to its relevance, Willie is quickly told that the illustrations were acquired from a elusive woman, while Carl was working as a carnie, each tattoo having a story, such as the one with a rose, which he obtained from the as reminder to carry her in his hand. These illustrations are more than simple body art, as Willie quickly realizes when he discovers that simply staring into any of them will result in the world of the artwork literally unfolding before his eyes. One story focuses on a futuristic child's playroom that allows them to play in various dangerous worlds whether they be medieval castles or African savannahs, while another considers the plight of astronauts who have crashed on a planet that is in a constant state of torrential rain. The final story considers the ethical issues of two parents who have been informed of an impending natural disaster and the choice regarding whether to poison their children in their sleep to avoid suffering. It is this sense of loss and death that seem to tie the narratives together, both within the illustrations, as well as in regards to Carl's own story as he recollects the tattooing woman and how she inexplicably disappeared when he awoke after receiving the illustrations. Willie, now being witness to the various stories, envisions his own death as taking up a patch on Carl's unpainted body, leading to him attempting to kill Carl to no success, thus fleeing in fear. However, Carl, seemingly immune to physical pain, arises and begins a slow chase of Willie.
The film is chocked full of varied and detailed social critiques, which is not really a surprise considering that it is lifted from a Bradbury short story. However, the one that seems to be the highest concern, at least in regards to the adaptation, is the idea of the sensory experience of the present being ignored in the futile quest to understand the future. While I am not sure if this is entrenched within issues of drug use, or simply a consideration of technology as evolving to placate the human body and its ability to experience events, it is rather clear that at no point does a sensory experience seem to be an enjoyable thing. The most blatant case of this comes in the way of the astronauts whose entrapment on a planet that continually rains is not so much an issue of health regards to catching a cold, as much as it is a result of their psychological breakdown as a result of being harmed by the dampness of the rain, or going deaf and eventually insane from the constant pattering of rain drops inside of a cave. The closing moments of this particular vision witness the captain of the ship finding shelter in a "sun dome," which is a lavishly designed modernist house where sensory pleasure is placated by a sterile environment. In this case it appears as though the film suggest that modernity has led to man's complete disconnect with the natural, so much so that to step outside of their technological shell is to assure their slippage into insanity, or worse death, which given the wired-in nature of our society at the moment, I would suggest that Bradbury made a rather astute observation. However, Carl seems to be the exception to sensory suffering in his relationship with the illustrator, one needs to know very little about tattooing to be aware of its truly painful nature, and as Carl openly notes he has been tattooed everywhere from head to toe, suggesting that some incredibly sensitive portions of his body were marked. It would seem as though he is callous to such sensory pain, in which case the drug element of the film seems to emerge, particularly since for all intents and purposes the work simply manifests itself upon his body, perhaps in the form of a non-physical vision, as opposed to an actual tangible piece of artwork. If one is to read the extension of the sensory to the non-physical state, it helps to explain Willie's vision of his own death at the films closing moments, as the imagined entering into the real in a very intense and destructive manner, perhaps, again, as the result of some psychotropic experimentation.
Key Scene: I want to note the overall degree of experimental cinematography in this film, it was what helped push this film from simply being excellent, to being brilliant and worth heavy consideration, there are moments that could rival Welles in their composition.
This is a magnificent film, but it is also one that has suffered from distribution rights issues. As such, I would suggest renting it until a cheap copy becomes available, although the twenty plus dollar price tag on this film is well worth the investment.