I dreamt of terrorism last night. In my dream, I was in the elevator where I work, but there was no light in the elevator. This has happened to me once before, when an after-hours conductor beckoned me to get on before I realized there was no illumination. The sensation of being in pitch blackness as you're descending is completely disorienting; it was like my breathless descent on the similarly lightless stairs from the same building the day of a big black-out a few years back—it felt like being a sentient creature with no body, no sense of where I began or ended.
The rest of the dream was more literal, about a giant building across the street from where I work being demolished by a car bomb. I could see police in cars screaming for everyone to evacuate the sidewalks. I walked home and yet another bomb went off in the Hudson, leading to surprisingly speedy "tourrorism," masses of people taking souvenir pictures of the destruction.
What caused this paranoid dream was a sliver of the film A Single Man, directed, co-written and co-produced by designing man Tom Ford, which I saw at a screening last night. In it, gay college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), who is nearly enveloped in grief after the unexpected death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car crash far from their Los Angeles home, lectures his class on the ways in which fear is used by corporations and governments to control our lives. This shockingly modern theme was not out of place in the film despite its early '60s setting, and it had caused me to dream up a fear that most Americans have been encouraged to have, and that most New Yorkers have based on the likelihood that something like this will happen again.
My brain had taken the opposite message of the character's speech and of the film itself; maybe the fear that's harder to overcome than the propaganda fed to us by potential oppressors is the fear we dream up ourselves. We can be our own worst enemies. Certainly George Falconer must overcome himself more so than any other dreadful barrier as he sets out to determine where a sentient being like he begins and ends in a world recently clouded by darkness.
George lives in a cozy L.A. suburb, sticking out like a sore thumb among paired-off heterosexuals and their inquisitive children. His sexuality is an open secret, yet still a secret. Curiously, he lives in a modern glass house designed by his late partner, an architect, making his external life more transparent than his internal one.
Giving fag hags a good name
His closest friend is fellow expatriate Londer Charley (Julianne Moore, working an accent), whose love for George blurs the lines between bosom buddy and hopeful suitor. They've made love in the past ("Doesn't everyone go with girls when they're young?"), but it meant too little to him and too much to her. They're kindred spirits in their displacement among the Americans, but the closeness is an illusion—Charley really doesn't understand George in the way she thinks she does, another potentially alienating factor in George's life.
For George, it's about a boy
Things get interesting for him when his attention (and maybe more) is aggressively pursued by Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a young student of his who's fascinated by or concerned about his professor, and who seems as easy with his sexuality as George is cautious with his. Kenny is a challenge, and over time it becomes more and more obvious the questions he poses could have the power to bring George clarity, the thing he seeks.
Boys on the rock
An unabashedly existential, character-driven film, A Single Man is not gay—so says Ford:
"The movie is about loss and loneliness. It could be the same story if it was George's wife, instead of his partner, who had died. This is a love story and one man's search for the meaning in his life. The theme is universal."
And so says The Weinstein Company, which appears to be marketing it while daring not speak the name of the love that informs every frame of it.
If Ford wants to demur on his film's gayness for artistic or commercial reasons, so be it. It's too bad he thinks the story would be the same without George's homosexuality; it quite clearly wouldn't. Part of the film's potency comes from the fact that George's ruminations are all the more solitary due to his position in society as an invisible man. Had his girlfriend been the one who'd died, George would've gone to her funeral and not felt nearly so alone, as just one example.
Instead of saying that gay doesn't matter, I think it's more true to say that gay matters, but that it does not make this film exclusively understandable by gay people in the same way that George's contemporaries needed to be told that grief was not the exclusive domain of heterosexual people. Grief, death and the meaning of life are universal themes that this film explores in the context of a gay relationship, a core element of the story that enhances the overall message. Ultimately, I'm not sure I care about how this film is marketed, so long as it's seen by as many people as possible. This is not a case of a book with gay subject matter being de-gayed—rather, A Single Man is a gay love story, a gay tragedy really, written by a gay man and brought to the screen by a gay man.
I've never been a big Tom Ford fan. Fashion mostly eludes me and he's struck me as cartoonishly egomaniacal—indeed, he recently referred to the film as autobiographical, meaning himself and not author Christopher Isherwood (whose lover Don Bachardy can't be overlooked as the inspiration for Kenny). I wondered if the film would be aesthetically overwhelming, which can sometimes leave movies feeling hollow, like music videos or cologne commercials. But I have to give him all credit—the film does feel like a highly personal expression of the novel (he's changed it considerably), and while it is visually immaculate and even exquisite, it's never, ever precious and never becomes so enamored with beauty for its own sake that it loses sight of Falconer's journey, or of our own.
In fact, Falconer's occasional indulgences—in the familiar smell of a beloved breed of dog, in the beauty of a young co-worker's hair, in a cold beer or an impulsive skinny-dip in the ocean at midnight—and Ford's breathtaking documenting of them only serve to inch the viewer along toward the central premise, that life is all about these things, that everything else is a distraction, and the sooner we realize this the more time we will have left to enjoy them before the last reel ends.
Colin Firth feels like an Oscar front-runner for his amazingly empathetic performance; when he is informed, coldly and yet charitably, on the telephone that the love of his life is never coming home, his reaction is as real as anything you'll get in a movie, and it gathers all your concern and support so that his every other move throughout the film matters as deeply to you as if you were one of his friends. He's also able to make George—stuffy by nature—undeniably sexy even in a film filled with competing sensuality from all corners, whether it's an affecting encounter with an aggressive rentboy (male supermodel Jon Kortajarena), a lazy dog's shift in position on the carpet or Charley's painstaking application of warpaint.
Moore, too, should have no problem earning a nomination for her supporting role. It's not showy and bombastic like Mo'Nique's in Precious (nor is it nearly as important to this film as Mo'Nique's is to that film), but it's beautifully controlled yet utterly natural. She, like everyone in the film (including Ginnifer Goodwin in a small role), is photographed like she's a work of art—and she is—and without ever looking too perfect or idealized. The beauty Ford finds is endless, and it's perfectly coupled with a flawless score by Abel Korzeniowski.
Hoult is a part of the film's beauty, and his take on Kenny is mesmerizingly angelic.
Everything is so dead right (even a nude snapshot of Jim looks completely vintage and authentic) that the only moment in the film to take me out of the story really bugged me—a passing reference by George to something being "not a good look for me." This unfortunate and obvious anachronistic expression was the only thing that felt off about the time period...but if that's the biggest flaw I think you know you've got something special.
I can't recommend this film strongly enough. It might, as Kenny attempts to do for George, remind you of what's important, or might at least offer proof that there really are other people in the world besides you who care about the meaning of life.
A Single Man opens December 11 in limited release and expands December 25