A Single Man

Waking up begins with saying am and now…

Last night we saw A Single Man, the first film from Tom Ford who directed from his own screenplay. This adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, had been a pet project of Ford’s and he has lavished much care and attention to detail on it.  It is a very fine film indeed, very much in the tradition of intelligent American movies like Magnolia, American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Milk.

Colin Firth’s performance as George, the bereaved college professor living out the last day of his life in November 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis as the backdrop, is outstanding. He has lost his gay partner of 16 years, killed in a car crash.  All the performances are excellent; the script is finely-crafted, and the film (though criticised by some as overly-glossy) was, I felt, superbly visualised, with scenes shifting from beige or grey monochromes to rich and brilliant colour, reflecting George’s interior state. This is a powerfully life-affirming film, though it might not seem that way from the ending.

There’s an important sequence in the film in which George confronts society’s fear of the outsider, the minority.  His class have been reading Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, and a student asks:

MYRON; Sir, on page 79, Mr. Propter says that the stupidest text in the Bible is: “they hated me without a cause.” Does he mean the Nazis were right to hate the Jews? Is Huxley an anti-Semite?

GEORGE : No, Mr. Huxley is not an anti-Semite. The Nazis were obviously wrong to hate the Jews. But their hating the Jews was not without a cause… But the cause wasnʼt real. The cause was imagined. The cause was FEAR.

Letʼs leave the Jews out of this for a moment and think of another minority. One that can go unnoticed if it needs to.

[George looks directly at WALTER, a slightly effeminate young man, who turns away embarrassed.]

There are all sorts of minorities, blondes for example, but a minority is only thought of as one when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority. A real threat or an imagined one. And therein lies the FEAR. And, if the minority is somehow invisible……the fear is even greater.   And this FEAR is the reason the minority is persecuted. So, there always is a cause. And the cause is FEAR. Minorities are just people. People……like us.

I can see that Iʼve lost you a bit. You know what? Letʼs forget about Huxley today. Letʼs just talk about fear. Fear, after all, is our real enemy. Fear is taking over our world. Fear is being used as a tool of manipulation in our society. Itʼs how politicians peddle policy and how Madison Avenue sells us things that we donʼt need. Think about it. Fear that weʼre going to be attacked, fear that there are communists lurking around every corner, fear that some little Caribbean country that doesnʼt believe in our way of life poses a threat to us. Fear that black culture may take over the world. Fear of Elvis Presleyʼs hips.(beat) Well, maybe that one is a real fear. Fear that our bad breath might ruin our friendships… Fear of growing old and being alone.

I argued the film is life-affirming.  Why? Because throughout (to the irritation of some critics) Ford has underscored those moments when George, who believes that this is his last day on earth, recognises the riches that life affords – by shifting from washed out monochromes to vibrant colour. There is a crucial passage towards the end of the film that renforces this. In a bar, George has encountered Kenny, a student from his class:

KENNY: Your class is great. But somehow we always seem to get stuck talking about the past. The past just doesnʼt matter to me.
GEORGE:  And the present?
KENNY: I canʼt wait for the present to be over. Itʼs a total drag. Well, tonightʼs the exception…
GEORGE: So if the past doesnʼt matter and the present is a “total drag”. What about the future?
KENNY:  What future? I mean Cuba might just blow us up.
GEORGE: Death is the future.
KENNY: Iʼm sorry. I donʼt mean to be depressing.
GEORGE: Itʼs not depressing, itʼs true. I mean, itʼs not necessarily your immediate future, but itʼs what we all share. Death is the future.
KENNY: Youʼre right I guess.
GEORGE: If one is not enjoying oneʼs present there isnʼt a great deal to suggest that the future should be any better.
KENNY: Yeah, Iʼve thought that before. But the thing is, you just never know. Look at tonight.

There’s a lucid review of the film by Philip French in The Observer today which it is worth quoting these excerpts:

Christopher Isherwood was one of the great prose writers of the 20th century, a man of complexity, honesty and wit, and the fashion designer Tom Ford, making his carefully stylised directorial debut, has done an altogether admirable job of bringing to the screen what many regard as his best novel.

Born in 1904, Isherwood grew up with the cinema, was fascinated by the relationship between literature and the new medium, and his most famous line occurs his most celebrated book, ­Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Over the years he worked frequently on movies (his masterly novella, Prater Violet, was based on his experience of co-writing the 1934 Berthold Viertel film Little Friend), and when he and WH Auden left Britain just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden settled into the literary world of New York while Isherwood travelled west to be close to Hollywood and to California-based students of ­eastern religions.

Isherwood touched on Hollywood in The World in the Evening, his first novel set in America, and satirised it in the adaptation of Waugh’s The Loved One that he made with Terry Southern, which he spoke of as his most enjoyable experience in the cinema. He can be spotted as a party guest in his friend George Cukor’s final film, Rich and Famous (1981). A ­Single Man, however, published in 1964, while as semi-autobiographical as the rest of his fiction, has no reference to Hollywood. Its background is a very specific time in America: the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 when the nation seemed on the brink of annihilation, but before the escalation in Vietnam and the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s. And its setting is that rootless, lotus-eating southern California, where conformity and eccentricity painfully coexist and where anything seems possible. Several generations of British homosexuals, from the film director James Whale in the 1930s through Isherwood in the 40s, to the screenwriter Gavin Lambert and the painter David Hockney (both close friends of Isherwood) in the 50s and 60s, found a liberating freedom there.

The central character is the openly gay George Falconer, a 58-year-old British exile and professor of literature at a middling Los Angeles university, living a few minutes from the beach since 1938. He’s played by Colin Firth with an unforgettable intensity. Observing the world through horn-rimmed spectacles in an apparently detached, ironic, quizzical manner, he’s a camera with its shutter open and appears as coldly fastidious and un-Californian as his immaculate suit, white shirt and tie. But George, like Isherwood at that time, is concealing an inner turmoil. Isherwood was worried about losing his young partner, the American painter Don Bachardy and thinking of a move back to England or to the more relaxed San Francisco. George is in a state of anguish over the recent death in a car crash of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 13 years, whose family ignored George’s existence. He also finds increasingly infuriating both the homophobia of the political right and the bland understanding of middle-class liberals, and regards his time as a teacher wasted on a new generation of shallow students.

When the book appeared in 1964 the novelist and critic Stanley Kauffmann noted in his perceptive review striking resemblances between A Single Man and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and he even suggested it might well have been called “Death in Venice, Cal”. This dramatic thrust has been further emphasised by Ford and his screenwriter David Scearce, borrowing, consciously or unconsciously, from a French movie dating from around the same time as Isherwood’s novel, Le Feu Follet, where the protagonist, at odds with a distrusted world, carries with him everywhere a Luger, with which he proposes to commit suicide. Likewise, George has a gleaming black revolver that he similarly fetishises, buys bullets for and thinks of using.

While engaging in reveries and flashbacks, George goes about his business as a teacher, conducting a class on Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and challenging his students to think about conformity and prejudice. He has two particularly remarkable encounters, one with an old friend, the other with a young student. The old friend is Charley (the excellent Julianne Moore), an English divorcee considering returning to London, with whom he has an extended, boozy dinner. The student is a sensitive outsider, the insecure bisexual Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). Both penetrate George’s carapace, bringing out a frankness and vulnerability he’s tried to ­conceal.

Exposed to searching close-ups throughout, Colin Firth gives the performance of his career as George, and subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, gradations of colour and visual texture reflect and complement his changing moods as the day goes on. This is a self-conscious, superbly crafted, deeply felt movie.

The final words of Isherwood’s book are stark:

Throttled out of its oxygen, the heart clenches and stops. The lungs go dead, their power line cut. All over the body, the arteries contract. Bit by bit we watch the body close down.

And if some part of the nonentity we called George has indeed been absent at this moment of terminal shock, away out there on the deep waters, then it will return to find itself homeless. For it can associate no longer with what lies here, unsnoring, on the bed. This is now cousin to the garbage in the container on the back porch. Both will have to be carried away and disposed of, before too long.

The film ends:

And just like that it came.

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