Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Second Take: A Single Man

Not long ago, one of my reviews engendered the uniquely wrathful, accusatory breed of reader comments that really make you think twice. In response to my dismissal of A Single Man, I was called flippant, self-congratulatory, and ignorant of theme, structure and symbol. I defended my stance as best I could against a pair of philosophers intent on the idea that Tom Ford's film is a "meditation on existential despair," "paralleling an entire life" from an "awakening" to "rebirth".

I am a staunch believer in the idea that even a film you hated might be given a second chance. Though the piece itself will be the same, the viewer, his mood, his baggage and the venue may all affect it one way or the other. Thus I was compelled to watch A Single Man for a second time.

And you know what? I liked it less.

But at least I came away with what a little more ammunition to defend my opinion. This is not intended as a personal attack against those moved by the film; it's merely a defense of my own self against the criticism that the movie flew so far over my head that I sank to "decorate [my] review with the broadest possible descriptions of the story and categorical, but unsupported, criticisms, some of which are ad hominem attacks on the director."

I admit: I was a bit glib.

So here, under a Code Red Spoiler Threat and without an 800-word limit, I would like to take another pass at analysis of the film's failures.

Let's begin with this idea that A Single Man is structured as a feature length version of the Riddle of the Sphinx, in which George Falconer's single remaining day parallels the entire life of a man from birth to rebirth. I'm perfectly willing to accept his dip in the ocean with the chiseled young Kenny Potter as a "rebirth" - especially given that he almost drowns and must be pulled out as if from the womb. However: while the film adheres to a basic unity of time, it is lazily perforated by several flashbacks of dubious worth. If George is "born" in the morning simply by waking up and going through a meticulous (and well-designed) routine to create "the perfect George" and then dies ironically at the end of the day, the weight of this movement escapes me. I also fail to see how the film's episodic midsection informs any of this. In addition, I might add that the film violates one of the fundamental tenets of dramatic temporal unity in setting the events eight full months after Jim's death: there's no inciting incident. Why is George finally suicidal now, today?

Speaking of those flashbacks, there are three involving George's deceased lover Jim and one in which George gets the phone call informing him of the fatal accident. Two of these are blatantly expository - though the phone call scene at least comes early enough in the film that I haven't yet tired of Firth's tireless emoting. The other two, depicting first a night at home with a pair of books between the two lovers and second their first meeting sixteen years prior, serve no purpose whatsoever except to remind us (had we only forgotten) that the two men were very much in love and that Jim's death is really really sad.

The most useful of these flashbacks is the other exposition, in which George and Jim (in black and white for no damn reason at all except, I guess, to match that steamy nude candid) discuss Charley. George's words about her here - explaining that he loves her dearly but only as a friend even though yes, they did once sleep together back in London - go a long way towards setting us up for the big showdown at Charley's house later in the evening.

The psychological blue-balling that occurs between Charley and George in their single substantive scene together is by far the most interesting dynamic in the film but it serves only to drain me of my sympathy for the film's one necessarily sympathetic character. Here's this guy who's been in a committed relationship for sixteen years and he still has this girl on a string from before that relationship even started? The only word for Charley's reliance upon George is 'pitiful', and the only word for his dependence on her steadfast support is 'cruel'. Charley cracks a joke about her vagina having "lovely breath"; George cracks a joke that she might try her hand at lesbianism. You could make a whole movie about a fascinating, fucked up relationship like this, but here it's just an episode and an imprecisely executed one, at that.

"If you're not happy being a woman, stop acting like one," George tells Charley. It's funny how completely unaware of each other's true selves these two are after however many decades they've been BFFs. This harks back to the film's recurring motif of "invisibility", a theme so overwrought, overexposed and over-discussed that I really can't make heads nor tails of what it's supposed to mean. "Life is tough," maybe, or something like that.

Early on, we get to witness one scene of George at work, teaching Huxley to his class. He begins the discussion by asking how the title (After Many A Summer Dies The Swan) relates to the piece. We hear part of a response from one of his students ("It doesn't. It's about a guy who's afraid of death...") before the film cuts away into George's head for another butt-tastic drowning fantasia. When we are, along with George, jolted back to reality, it is by the classroom erupting into laughter; but it's not clear what they're laughing at. You think for a second they're getting a kick out of George lapsing into daydream, but then the 'discussion' continues unabated - were they just laughing at the joker who didn't understand the title? Another student quotes a line from the book and extrapolates that perhaps Huxley was an anti-Semite, to which George responds that no, he wasn't, and that maybe they should "put Huxley aside for a minute." He says, "I can see I've lost you."

That's it? No kidding, Professor. When I stated in my original review that the film fails to make any use of the weighty texts its characters are seen ignoring, this is what I'm talking about.

From here, George goes off on a monologue about how "fear is being used as a tool for manipulation in our society" and how the scariest minorities are the invisibles. I don't happen to have a transcript of this, but I think it's telling that everyone in the class looks terribly confused except for Kenny in the angora sweater, who just looks hot and bothered. He chases George out of the class to ask why he doesn't always talk to them like that, to which George replies, "I didn't think it went over very well."

Oh, now we're getting to the meat of the thing, because Kenny tails George all the way to the campus store (or rather, George tails Kenny, as it turns out) where he offers to buy him a pencil sharpener. The little plastic utensils are available in red, yellow and blue. Kenny offers George his choice. When George selects yellow, the following exchange occurs (dialogue not verbatim, but I'm trying my best):

KENNY: I would've thought you'd pick blue.
GEORGE: Why's that?
KENNY: Blue is spiritual.
GEORGE: What makes you think I'm spiritual?
KENNY: I don't know, sir. What does red stand for?
GEORGE: Oh, lots of things. Rage, lust...

The meaning of George's yellow goes unstated, but I'm guessing yellow here symbolizes horseshit. Later that night, after being followed to the same bar where he met Jim sixteen years ago, George and Kenny continue their nails-on-a-chalkboard flirtation. Kenny talks about how little he understands the world, how he feels invisible, and about his desire to grow up, and George talks about how he's actually gotten "sillier and sillier" and Kenny suggests they go jump in the ocean. Later still, after their prolonged game of sexual chicken has come to a bizarre, drunken end1, George VOs about his rare moment of clarity, during which he watches an owl2 take flight from a branch, waxes nostalgic about the beauty of the world and passes out dead to the sound of a ticking clock.3

Obviously, for all the talk about invisibility, with the big-eyed Psycho poster and the fogged up mirrors in Charley's apartment, this is a movie keen on being about how people see each other and themselves. George and Jim lived in a glass house and every single character is aware of their lifestyle, even as Jim snickers, "Drapes, old man." So the idea, then, with his final moment of clarity, is that George was somehow blind his whole life, or invisible to himself, or deeply afraid of himself? Is he afraid merely after Jim's death? According to his opening monologue, George was always disgusted with Jim's optimism.

Another funny thing that strikes me is that, after taking several minutes of my time to get dressed and put his face on, everyone George encounters tells him that he doesn't look very good. What's changed today? (Right, the suicide attempt has been scheduled but why?) Is the idea that everybody could see George for who he is except for George himself? In that case, why do we have to listen to him pontificate on the matter for an hour and a half before he comes up with anything philosophically viable? There's a decent arc hidden in this mess: man blinded by fear of self achieves peace, then dies. But I was told by one of the film's vocal defenders that there is nothing ironic about the ending.

Finally, in a weird alterna-verse that looks like 1960s Los Angeles but is filled with humanoids who do nothing but complain about how nobody sees them or understands them, you'd think at some point this collection of ciphers would wake up and take a goddamn look around.

I admit it: I'm confused. You've lost me, professor Falconer.

1.) Surely Ford's implication in this scene is not that Kenny drugs George and fucks him while he's passed out, but it's almost too easy to read it that way: all day Kenny has been throwing himself at him, offering drugs, companionship and physical intimacy, and George has been playing it cool. Finally George tells Kenny to get them both another beer, and after sipping the open container Kenny hands him, his vision goes fuzzy and he passes out in his easy chair ... only to wake up later in bed in the next room with a satisfied Kenny dozing on the couch holding George's gun under the blanket.[back]

2.) What does the goddamn owl symbolize? I vote, again, for a big nothing.[back]

3.) A ticking clock. It ticks louder and louder and then stops. Really fucking epic moviemaking, this.[back]

I am introducing a new, sporadically recurring feature on My Favorite Gum Commercial. It will be known as "A Second Take," and I will produce one whenever someone convinces me I might've missed something. Argue at me (please) and, time permitting, I will go give any given piece another shot with your comments in mind.


  1. So I'm currently writing a paper on this movie, and stumbled across your post while trying to find an exact quote. And OH MY GOD I HATE THAT OWL SO MUCH. But yeah, I actually like the movie a lot. I just wanted to agree with you on the owl thing.

    Also, here's my theory on the black and white scene: So if we say that the coloring of each scene is symbolic of George's emotional involvement in the world or the intensity of his feelings or something, which I can definitely accept because it's the subject of my paper, but I guess you don't have to- anyway, if we accept that, then we can read the black and white scene as George trying to relive the past and finding it difficult to get emotionally invested in his memory.

    Or, you know. That could all be total bullshit. Which is more likely.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Zoe! I'm glad we can agree on the owl; here's to hoping whomever you write this paper for doesn't read too much into your choice of subject matter.