Saturday, March 13, 2010

Notes Towards a Reading of 'A Single Man'

1. Influences. Not having read Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel A Single Man, I can't say to what extent it was influenced by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). However, Tom Ford's 2009 film version of Isherwood's novel strongly echoes Mrs. Dalloway in its concentrated time frame (both take place over a single day), its attempt to capture a particular moment in history (London in the aftermath of World War I; Los Angeles during the Cuban Missile Crisis), and Ford's style, which finds cinematic correlatives for Woolf's stream of consciousness narration in its use of dream sequences, flashbacks, and various camera techniques to place us inside the mind of its protagonist, George Falconer (Colin Firth), although unlike Woolf's novel, the film restricts itself to the point of view of a single character. Coincidentally, the film occupies the same mainstream literary adaptation/queer cinema cultural niche as The Hours (2002), which is based on a 1998 novel by Michael Cunningham that's explicitly an homage to Mrs. Dalloway (a connection reenforced by the presence of Julianne Moore and the Philip Glassian score by Abel Korzeniowski).

2. Narrative. The film is bookended by two dream sequences. In the first, George comes upon the scene of the car accident that killed his longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), eight months earlier, and lays down beside his corpse in the snow. (We discover later that George wasn't present for the accident, but learned of it by telephone.) Distraught by Jim's death, George intends to commit suicide. Late in the film, George, who teaches literature at a university, runs into a gay student, Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult), at a bar, and the two decide to go for a late night swim. George nearly drowns, and the bond between them is sealed when Kenny pulls him out. Since it's his friendship with Kenny that convinces George not to kill himself, it's as if Kenny saved his life twice in one night. However, when they go back to his house to dry off, George has a heart attack and dies. In the film's final scene, Jim appears to him to deliver the kiss of death.

In between these two dream sequences, the film follows George as he goes through the motions of a normal day. As he gets dressed in the morning, he says to himself in the mirror, "Just get through the goddamned day" (that's what they'd call in the screenwriting manuals the statement of goal), before commenting wryly in the narration, "A bit melodramatic." The opening scenes establish five main lines of action. In the morning, George takes down from his bookshelf a copy of Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer (1939), which I haven't read, in preparation for a class. As he's doing this, the ringing of the telephone triggers the first of five flashbacks spanning sixteen years, which recount George's relationship with Jim in reverse chronological order, ending with their first meeting in 1946. While rereading Huxley's novel on the toilet, George looks out the window and sees his neighbors, the Strunks, on their front lawn. The phone starts ringing again, and this time George answers it. It's his best friend, Charley (Moore), calling to invite him for dinner at her house. Lastly, he packs Huxley's novel and a revolver in his briefcase before leaving for work.

3. Minorities. An Englishman, a homosexual, and an intellectual, George is a minority thrice over. In class, he departs from his planned lesson on After Many a Summer to talk about the fear of minorities who pose an imaginary threat to the majority. On the surface, he's talking about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany in response to a student who believes he's found a veiled anti-Semitic remark in Huxley's novel. And George's allusion to minorities who can make themselves invisible might be interpreted as a reference to the Jews, since not all Jewish people have quote-unquote "Jewish characteristics," which is why the Nazis made them wear the star of David; the idea was to make them more visible. But on a subterranean level, George is clearly talking about gays--another group targeted by the Nazis--albeit in a kind of code. Overall, his comments don't go over very well with his students since only Kenny is capable of cracking the code. After class, Kenny asks him why he doesn't talk so candidly in class more often, and George explains that he has to be cautious about what he says, because not everyone would understand. Later in the afternoon, when George meets a gay street hustler, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), in the parking lot of a liquor store, the two men converse in Spanish, which in this context functions as another means of sending coded messages.

However, being invisible cuts both ways. The first flashback in the film is to an evening eight months before when George received a phone call informing him of Jim's death. The call is made by an empathetic cousin without the knowledge of Jim's parents, who didn't think George deserved to be notified. When George inquires about the funeral, he's told that the service is for "family only." Jim's parents are treating George as if he were invisible by refusing to acknowledge his very existence.

After hanging up, George runs over to Charley's house in tears. Later in the film, when he goes there for dinner, as he walks through the door, there's a sudden flashback to him collapsing on her doorstep. After dinner, Charley asks George if Jim wasn't a substitute for a "real" relationship, which understandably causes him to explode. These are the only two scenes in the movie where George loses it emotionally, and in both, the other party (Jim's parents, Charley) is denying the validity of his relationship with Jim. Appropriately, the call that triggers the first flashback is from Charley.

4. Time. The film begins with a title card, "Friday, November 30th, 1962," that's only slightly less specific than the one that opens Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Indeed, at one point in the film, George parks his car in front of a giant billboard for that very movie. Throughout the film, there are inserts of clocks which betray the influence of Wong Kar-wai. (It's not a coincidence that the movie features music by Shigeru Umebayashi, who composed the scores for In the Mood for Love [2000] and 2046 [2004].) And when George has a heart attack, as he falls to the floor, he knocks his alarm clock off his bedside table. On the soundtrack, we hear a loud ticking that abruptly stops at the moment of his death. This emphasis on time points to another one of the film's themes, which is letting go of the past.

In the opening narration, George says that, for the first time in his life, he can't see his future as he simply can't imagine living without Jim. And Charley is likewise stuck in the past. ("Living in the past is my future," she quips at one point.) A fellow Brit who evidently has no other friends in Los Angeles, Charley is a boozy divorcée with a cheerfully vulgar sense of humor who would feel right at home in John Cassavetes' Faces (1968). In flashback, George explains to Jim that they were once a couple in London ("Doesn't everyone have sex with women when they're young?"). And Charley evidently still has feelings for him. In anger, she shouts at George that if he hadn't been such a "poof," they'd both be happy. (George might not be, but she would.) What keeps both of them from moving on with their lives is the memory of a past relationship.

In the closing narration (as George burns the suicide notes he's written), he describes having moments of total clarity that bring him back to the present. Accordingly, for most of the movie, the colours appear faded except when George has one of his moments of clarity. The first time this happens in the film is when George arrives at the university. There, he compliments a secretary (Kerri Lynn Pratt) on her beehive hairdo, and when she smiles, the red of her lipstick instantly becomes much brighter. Given the film's debt to Martin Scorsese, which is evident in Ford's taste for high angle shots and slow motion, I wonder if Ford wasn't inspired by the desaturated colours in the bloody climatic sequence of Taxi Driver (1976), where the colour was taken out so the film could get an R rating.

5. Appearances. George is very guarded about his emotions. Even though his heart is (literally) breaking, he keeps it all bottled up, as if it would be impolite to bother anyone with his problems. Similarly, the Strunks are at pains to keep up the pretense of being the perfect family. In the morning, George looks out his window and sees Mrs. Strunk (Gennifer Goodwin) playing with her three children on the lawn. The only crack in the facade is when Mr. Strunk (Teddy Sears) walks out the front door, and he and his wife appear to have some argument. (Like George, we can't hear what they're saying.) Later, while at the bank to clear out his safety deposit box, George is approached by the Strunks' young daughter, Jennifer (Ryan Simpkins), who repeats to him some of the homophobic comments her father makes behind closed doors. We gather that Mr. Strunk has a rigid idea of what's normal, is making his wife and himself miserable by attempting to impose it on their marriage, and he fears and despises gays because they don't fit into his narrow view of how people should behave.

The film makes a point of George being highly observant. In complimenting the secretary, he observes that she always looks beautiful, and the extreme close-ups of her eyes and lips imply a close, scrutinizing gaze. Following Scorsese's example, Ford uses slow motion to suggest heightened concentration, as when George, while talking to a colleague about the Cuban Missile Crisis, becomes distracted by the spectacle of some shirtless college boys playing tennis. (For George, who's already planning to commit suicide anyway, the potential annihilation of the entire planet is a great deal less immediate than his feelings of lust for athletic young men.) Conversely, in the sequence where George is staring at the Strunks, Mrs. Strunk sees him at his window and waves a friendly hello, reversing the gaze. Caught being a peeping tom, George immediately tries to hide from sight. After class, when he's clearing out his office, George appears to be alone. But as he's getting into his car, he's approached by Kenny, who saw him packing up his things and wants to know if he's going somewhere. Like George, Kenny is unusually perceptive and senses that the older man could use a friend. Later at the bar, George tells him that he's exactly as he appears to be--if you look closely.

6. Conclusion. I've only seen the movie twice, so these comments are preliminary rather than exhaustive. I haven't said anything, for instance, about the contrast between Jim, who's carefree and an anti-intellectual, and George, who's just the opposite, or the significance of dogs in the film. And in discussing the film generally (its basic structure, some major themes), I haven't done justice to the sensuous experience of its moment-to-moment unfolding--particularly, the rather astonishing performance by Firth, but also the subtle jump cuts, which I only noticed on second viewing. Like its protagonist, it's a film that merits a closer look.

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