Monday, February 01, 2010

A SINGLE MAN

Fashion mogul Tom Ford, in his film directing debut, turns Christopher Isherwood's sharp little "day in the life" novel into a "last day in the life" film. Isherwood's George goes about his day, a day like any other, filled with the thousand little indignities and annoyances that flesh is heir to. Annoying children from next door, condescending neighbors, (mostly) uncomprehending students in his literature class, etc. George's Englishness and his homosexuality give him an outsider's view on life in Los Angeles, and Isherwood acts as an invisible nameless narrator, supplying some good observation about George and his milieu. Isherwood's George isn't having the best day; he seems to be aware that he's just going through the motions, almost on auto-pilot, and it seems to have something to do with his recently deceased partner of 16 years, Jim.

In short, there isn't much plot in Isherwood's novel, and Ford can't be blamed for making George's seeming depression over the loss of his partner the focus of his film. Ford's George (played by Colin Firth, doing the best he can) is more than just bummed, he's actually preparing to kill himself. He leaves out the clothes he wants to be buried in, he prepares a series of Last Notes to assorted people, buys ammunition for the gun he keeps in his desk, and is shown throughout the day getting ready to check out once and for all.

Okay, well and good, not necessarily a bad notion in and of itself. The problem is Ford's need to make each scene, each shot, each bloody frame even, into a big display of every known cinematic technique, ranging from simple things like slow motion to the more advanced gimmick of manipulating the color saturation in the image to convey George's emotional state. One of the most tasteless moments in the film occurs in a bar when George is approached by a young man, cuing the color to go from muted but natural tones (George is Sad) to bright vibrant full color (George is Horny). It comes off less as an instance of an interesting use of color than as an instance of Directorial Authority Run Amuck. Clearly, this film is an expression of STYLE over anything as mundane as mere Life. Ford can't bear to show any disorder in the world he brings to the screen, every image is faultlessly composed and immaculately lit, hermetically created for maximum glossy photo-spread effect. Even a display of plastic pencil sharpeners in college bookstore is carefully arranged, with the little plastic items arrayed in precise color-specific rows. A scene of George unable to pull the trigger of the gun he has in his mouth, evidently out of concern for the damage he'll do to his surroundings, at first comes off as just a spectcularly ill-advised bit of black comedy, but unexpectely winds up being emblematic of the entire film. Suicide is one thing, but mess will simply not be tolerated.

There's more. It isn't enough for George to strike up an impromptu chat with one of his neighbor's children, whom he has unexpectedly met at the bank. The little girl has to have a stylish entrance, glimpsed in the reflection of an impossibly over-polished floor, followed by a slow shot travelling up her body from bottom to top, with music clearly inspired by Bernard Herrmann's score to VERTIGO on the soundtrack, yet. The entire movie is nothing but this kind of flourish, over and over and over, little nudges from Ford so we can applaud how "cinematic" his film is. The nudges start to bruise, before long, and the urge to nudge back can't be denied. The film feels completely unnatural and mechanical, so composed and created and finally phony that AVATAR comes off as a gay lark tossed off as an afternoon's merry diversion in comparison. It is difficult to give a damn about anyone in the film when they're just a bunch of carefully pretty immaculately groomed and dressed (and undressed) puppets. That this is true of even George's relationship with the late Jim (played by the pretty but useless Matthew Goode, who last annoyed as Ozymandias in WATCHMEN) is a particularly grave failing. The flashbacks we get of George and Jim together (reading in cozy domesticity, or sitting in carefully composed and overly styled B/W Bruce Weber-esque splendor on a picturesque outcropping of rock) are pretty standard romance novel stuff. There's no accounting for soul mates, I guess, but I think I'd have preferred not seeing Jim at all to the overly posed scenes we get here, which seem to have been cribbed out of an upscale gay magazine all-male resort ad.

It all just thuds and plods along, with a ponderous funereal air that really gets oppressive. The film hasn't gotten the complaints that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN got, that it offers too negative a view of Homosexuality As Misery, but I doubt that A SINGLE MAN will get enough popular attention to warrant many complaints. I'm tempted to dismiss the film as TERMS OF ENDEARMENT for the Project Runway crowd. I have to admit that I was glad to see an actor of Colin Firth's abilities being allowed to carry a film, one at least nominally intended for grown ups. To be fair, Firth's scene where he gets the Awful Phone Call about Jim's passing is most impressive, by far the most memorable thing in the film. But even Firth's performance falls into the black hole of Ford's style, as closeup after closeup of George displaying Subtle Emotions become as cloying as the film they had, up until then, been the best part of.

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