Monday, January 11, 2010

A Single Man

A Single Man arrives courtesy of Tom Ford, allegedly a fashion designer. I looked him up and found that his only previous accomplishment that I'd heard of was being that guy on the cover of Vanity Fair with a naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson. Tough act to follow.

Ford is the co-writer and director of the film, and he spends the entire running time trying to upstage a terrific cast. The story and performances, full of understated quiet, are juxtaposed against a schizophrenic combination of saturated visuals and staccato editing with a sub-Philip Glass score that throws harsh, repeating strings at your ears until you think you're watching a sequel to The Hours (and there's Julianne Moore to make the resemblance even more uncanny). Perhaps the disorienting miasma of nonsensical stylistic choices is meant to somehow capture the directionless loss of the film’s hero, but I think more likely Ford just doesn't know what he's doing. It feels a bit like watching an artist throw a bunch of paint on a wall to see what sticks. There are those that would call this art and pass out awards.

That hero is George, a gay British professor of English in Los Angeles (poor guy) grappling with the accidental death of his partner of sixteen years. It's 1962 and America is caught up in the Cuban Missile Crisis, though whether this is meant to lend gravity to George's forthcoming suicide or render it meaningless I have no idea (I doubt Ford has, either). The film follows George over the course of a single day, during which he goes to class, cleans out his office and bank account, ties up loose ends, buys a box of bullets and encounters several different people - men and women - who would like to have sex with him. Whether any of these consorts will inadvertently convince George not to pull the trigger I might as well leave unspoiled, but rest assured the ending the film decides for him is preposterous.

Played by Colin Firth, George is full of an intense emptiness. It’s easy to feel Firth’s sorrow, but then so much time is spent extolling the dignified pain of a man with nothing to live for, you begin to wonder what it is you’re watching the movie for. Dying is easy, man.

Three major encounters color George’s day. First, there is a student nursing a nasty crush on his professor that’s probably mutual. Then, on his way home from school George finds himself maybe accepting the services of a Spanish prostitute who wants to be James Dean and lingers outside a liquor store. Finally, George must say goodbye to his longtime beard, a fellow Brit named Charlotte, played by Julianne Moore with her trademark stinging desperation.

Ford allows each of these pairings a spare moment in which we are briefly concerned with the drama unfolding and the hint of a spark between two maybe-lovers. These moments only become frustrating for what they might’ve added up to in the hands of a director who doesn’t feel the need to suddenly ruin them by draining the color palette, cuing the violinist and smash-cutting to a close-up of somebody’s eyebrow.

The episode in the liquor store parking lot, essentially a fifteen-minute flirtation, is framed by a giant advertisement for Psycho made up of a blue-tinted tight shot of Janet Leigh’s eyes, widened in terror. As a subtle nod to The Great Gatsby, this might’ve been pretty cool, especially given that our protagonist is an English teacher. Here, it’s just meaningless decoration. Psycho came out two years before the events of the film: set the thing up high and weather it, Mr. Ford.

The film is a series of like missed opportunities.

As we slog from one scene to the next, it’s tough to discern any kind of structure - kind of remarkable given that Ford at least had the sense to contain the film within a single day. With each passing dialogue, any message or meaning is muddled into nothingness. Between film to audience or character to character, there really doesn’t seem to be a point. George lives in a glass house but it turns out his lover was an architect or something. An admittedly well-though-out first act monologue about “invisible minorities” is rendered meaningless by the fact that everybody George interacts with seems to be not only aware of his homosexuality but also perfectly fine with it. The only concrete thing we’re left with is that losing the person you love really sucks, which is hardly justification for all the weighty texts referenced in the film (Kafka, Huxley’s After Many a Summer). In adaptation, the film fails to find any drama from the page and becomes a feature-length vignette about a saddo who starts sad, stays sad and finishes sad. This strikes me as boring, but I imagine the Oscars will feel otherwise.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!


  1. This review sucks. It reads like it was written by someone who would find Where the Wild Things Are to be deep and meaningful.

    If I've read this right, you're pissed because (among other things) the movie: a) mentions famous texts but delivers only a depiction of intense despair; b) the people who interact with the main character don't care that he's gay; and c) the film's symbolism (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Psycho advertisement) seem hollow.

    The point of the symbolism, I thought, was not comment on the meaning (or lack thereof) of George's life, but rather to reinforce George's point that fear pervades ordinary life. And it adds a touch of irony to the story: early in the movie, George rails against such fear, but he has essentially succumbed to fear himself - but of a different sort. Everyone else is afraid of those who are different - Jews, communists, gays - but George is afraid of what he knows best: his own existence.

    I want to follow this point up by noting that this isn't a movie about being gay. It's about intense despair. George's homosexuality has exacerbated his despair - he couldn't even see his dead lover's body - but it is not the cause of his despair. That's why it's not important for Ford to give us a scene or two in which George deals with the standard conflicts over his homosexuality. (Though, to be fair, you fail to mention the scene in the bank with the neighbor girl.)

    Finally, I'm pretty baffled by your criticism that the topic isn't weighty enough to justify the appearance in the film of certain classic texts. The film is a meditation on extraordinary, existential despair. (Or, as you put it: about being a "saddo.") What about this topic is unworthy of the literary greats? I'd use the very same words to describe great swaths of Kafka. Huxley, too, is no stranger to such themes.

    So, your criticisms strike me as pretty shallow. Your flippant tone and self-congratulatory contrarianism is entertaining enough. I just don't think they work unless they're accompanied by some serious insight.

  2. I can't believe the grief I'm getting from the Ohio contingent over what I thought was a relatively moderate take on a film I really didn't think was all that terrible. Boring, not terrible.

    I never faulted the movie for not being "about being gay". I merely said that George's homosexuality felt irrelevant to what the thing is really about, which is loss and emptiness, which made all the stuff in the film that WAS about him being gay seem pretty trite. What do the sexy tennis players have to do with the existential dilemma?

    My problems are all in Ford's kitchen-sink aesthetic. Devices like that score and that color-filter wash-out are italics where italics aren't necessary. It took me out of the film and annoyed me.

    As for the Huxley, there's no actual reference point. It's just a decoration to make the film seem informed.

    Regardless, accusations of flippancy and contrarianism from you are both welcome and ironic.

  3. Well, what you in fact said is that George's monologue about fear was "rendered meaningless" by the fact that no one had a problem with his being gay. That's an extreme claim, and one unsupported by any actual attempt on your part to *interpret* the film.

    It's not the criticism itself that I mind - though I do think it's wrong. It's that your claim is hard to comprehend when you've done nothing to help your readers understand the film beyond a vague, hand-wavey gesture at a plot summary: George is "full of an intense emptiness."

    The sexy tennis players didn't seem trite to me. I took that scene to pretty sharply emphasize how consuming George's anguish is: his colleague is trying to talk to him about possible nuclear war and George focuses on the tennis players, who no doubt serve only to remind him of what he has lost. Again: I'm not convinced that that scene was, as you say, "about him being gay." It, like many others, is about George's "loss and emptiness."

    I also continue to find your criticism of the appearance of Huxley to be bizarre. I'm not sure what you mean when you say that "there's no actual reference point." Do you mean that Huxley's book is unconnected to the plot of the film? Or do you mean that the film never itself reveals the connection? If the former, then I think you're wrong: the book is about a man terrified of death. If the latter, then I wonder how quickly you would have accused the film of heavy-handedness had Ford actually had to explain the connection.

    For Christ's sake, the guy's an English professor and you're pissed that there's a scene in which he's teaching Aldous Huxley.

  4. My point about the "invisible minorites" monologue is that, since he's visible to pretty much everyone in the film, I don't understand what he could've been talking about.

    Yours is the best argument I've yet heard for it and actually makes me want to go give it another try. However, you continue to leave untouched my main point about the film, which is that Ford really has no idea what he's doing, and plenty of decent actors (and a powerful crisis of being, too, I guess) are lost in the swill. If what you're talking about is there, it's reduced, not amplified, by that score and the technicolor perforation and all the damn naked boys drowning.

  5. Just a comment on the formal structure of the movie, which is not adequately addressed in the review. He's a single man, living through a single day, which he has selected to be his last. While living through that day, he experiences things that prompt him both to confirm and to question that choice. These experiences are well-signaled with the colors and music and detail close-ups that the reviewer disliked. Given the fact that the day does turn out to be his last--though not, in the end, by virtue of his own free will--the single day ends up paralleling an entire life. From his awakening/birth in the morning, through his rebirth (underwater) in the evening, to his sleep/death at night. I found the aesthetic choices that the director made to depict this single man/single day/single life appropriate and affecting. Finally, the reviewer says that he doubts Ford (or Isherwood?) has any idea himself what the role of hte Cuban Missile Crisis is in the setting of the story. Surely he means for this global crisis, which led to a distinctive global anxiety, to reflect the existential angst felt by the single person at the center of the movie.

  6. Okay, good. Now we can get to the main problem with your review. You are happy to make claims like "Ford really has no idea what he's doing," but you absolutely fail to support them in any intellectually serious way. How could I argue with you? All you've done is make a sweeping negative claim in the broadest possible terms. What kind of argument can be had without more detail in support of your claim?

    That claim is categorical, but all you do to argue for it is say that various aspects of the movie are "meaningless." Not only is this a cowardly way of arguing for your point - there is hardly a word more meaningless than "meaningless" - but it is also bullshit: they very fact that you're arguing over the meaning of these aspects with me proves that.

    I would take this review more seriously if you'd done the hard work of actually thinking through the story and then framing your criticisms as points about some confusion or hollowness or failure in light of your claims about how the film ought to be understood. Unfortunately, you don't do anything like this. Instead you decorate your review with the broadest possible descriptions of the story and categorical, but unsupported, criticisms, some of which are ad hominem attacks on the director. It's hard to see serious film criticism as ever slipping to this level.

  7. Lisa:

    In light of your reading of the film as feature-length retelling of "The Riddle of the Sphinx", I'd like to tackle the following series of events:

    1) George engages in a slapstick routine wherein he attempts to pose himself for the more aesthetically appealing suicide. Is he still planning on going to Charley's, or is he standing her up? Because...
    2) ...then Charley calls him to make sure he remembered the gin, and it really seems like he wasn't planning on going, but then he does anyway. He seems put-off. Where does this fall in your birth-life-rebirth structure?
    3) At Charley's, their fragile friendship falls apart. She's cruel about his gay love having been a distraction from her, he tears into her and leaves, never to see her again, both by his own determination and his body's.
    4) George runs into Kenny, who leads him into rebirth.
    5) *After* the rebirth, (and if this is how the movie is consciously structured, the movie should be over here) George takes Kenny home for a twenty-minute game of sexual chicken. Is this the awkward pubescence of George's rebirth, or what?
    6) He dies, not by his own hand, but by his broken heart's.

    If this all comes down to the specific appeal of performances and cinematic techniques (Jim returning to shepherd George into death, for example, I felt was pretty ham-fisted), then we'll just have to agree to disagree. You like the colors, I did not.

    But structurally, that whole final act feels pretty sloppy.

    As for the Cuban Missile Crisis, you and Dai seem to make contradictory statements here. You say the global anxiety is there "to reflect the existential angst" or George. Dai says the global anxiety is referenced to underline just how distraught George is, such that in the midst of "possible nuclear war ... George focuses on the tennis players, who no doubt serve only to remind him of what he has lost." Someone correct me.

    And Dai:

    Thanks for putting me through the hard work.

    I won't deny being perhaps overly glib in this review, but your take-down of my critical style here strikes me as a pretty decent example of the very same fallacious arguing of which I'm being accused. You want me to go back into the review and highlight specific points I made about specific aspects of the film? Because they're there.

    You're not *quite* making me a straw man, but if my review is so intellectually unserious and broadly dismissive, can't I make the same point about your comment that "the very fact that [we're] arguing over the meaning of these aspects" proves that there is some weight to my opinions?

    Both of you:

    This is fun! Thanks.

  8. A few quick points. During the scene when he is testing various spots for his suicide, he is practicing for later and at that point fully intends to go to Charley's. He is practicing, I take it, not for aesthetic reasons but b/c he doesn't want to inconvenience his housekeeper too badly. (There was some earlier foreshadowing of this when they discussed her having changed the sheets that morning.) And so at this point, he is still planning on ending his own life at the end of the evening, after spending time with Charley.

    The rebirth comes later. His encounter with Kenny is not meant to be sexual. It is about him seeing himself through the eyes of a younger man, or remembering his own younger self, and coming to the realization that he wants to (try to) live again. Also, if I am right that the structure of the movie is of a single day meant to parallel a single whole *life* then obviously, the movie can't end with a rebirth, but must end with death. The fact that that death is in the end beyond his control is poignant and illustrative of the underlying existential themes. (One can only escape angst by perceiving oneself as in control, endowed with free will to choose how to live and when to die, even if such control is in fact an illusion.)

    Also, I don't see the slightest contradiction in those two ways of reading the Cuban Missile Crisis: I put it in terms of existential anguish, Dai in terms of being distraught. Same point.

  9. He's practicing for the housekeeper's sake? Ha! That makes the scene even funnier. Well done. That's even more of a laugh than putting the money in the bread in the freezer.

    If he has let go and wants to live again, then what's with Jim showing up to plant that awkwardly-shot kiss?

    Is this ending intended to be tragic or ironic?

  10. My main complaint is that you are extraordinarily quick to dismiss, but can't be bothered to attempt a serious reconstruction of the film's plot - something that might provide some context for your criticisms.

    I honestly don't get your retort that I'm open to the same criticism. I didn't write a review of the movie, so I don't think my comments are accompanied by any expectation of thoroughness. Notice, though: in my comments, I've at least attempted a charitable reconstruction of what might have been going on in the parts of the film in question. You never do anything like that. You just dismiss things.

    I would find the review more interesting if your criticisms were accompanied by some serious attempt to figure out what Ford was up to. Consider some possible interpretations. Reject them if they're incoherent or implausible. Anyone can be a hater, Todd.

    Finally, the fact that we're disagreeing about the movie doesn't prove that your opinion is weighty. Disagreement about whether something is *meaningful* might refute the charge of meaninglessness (that was my point in a previous post). But arguing for a view doesn't refute the charge that the view is dumb. I don't see an analogy between the two cases.

  11. The practicing scene *is* supposed to be funny. I never suggested otherwise. Again, it's all about his attempt to feel in control, even of the mess (literal, figurative) he's about to create, which is ludicrous given what he's preparing to do.

    Jim kisses him goodbye (or hello?) because at that point he is actually dying. Just as in the first scene he imagined himself with Jim upon Jim's death, so he imagines Jim with him upon his own.

    I don't read the ending as either tragic or ironic. It's the end of his life, which is quite wrenching and sad given that he seemed to have found a way to want to live again. But what is wrenching and sad is not necessarily tragic (certainly not in the classical sense). And it is certainly not ironic.

    I think I'm done with this discussion. Ciao!

  12. So George lets go of his demons, says goodbye to his dead lover and readies himself to live again. Then he has a heart attack, dies, and gets reclaimed by his dead lover.

    Yah, no irony there.