Sunday, February 07, 2010


If you Google image search A Single Man, and different combinations ("Colin Firth," "Tom Ford"), you'll see that stills don't crop up quite so readily—no, it's a panoply of aspect ratios, media screengrabs + publicity images, photographs from the set. At one moment I'm tempted to say that it's impossible one could have anything of interest to say without knowing a few things about how & why this movie was made; and then, I reverse, and I think that all of the important things about this film are immediately evident.

Possibly the most impressive feature fashioned wholly out of cologne ad aesthetics since Vittorio De Seta's 1966 Almost a Man (Un uomo a metà), I wouldn't say A Single Man is a masterpiece. But. It's much better than I would have ever expected it to be. I don't just mean pretty production design + good performances, although this is part of what constitutes the film's appeal. I think that A Single Man utilizes its painfully fashionable production design to interesting ends (one), and that it also bears mature witness to a certain cultural value system that would have been very easily to distort, parody, and dismiss (two).

What's lost, what's at stake, here? The historical conflict in Tom Ford's movie isn't the progress of gay rights—queerness is taken for granted as a fact of life—but cultural decline across generations. The high (and connotatively aristocratic) seriousness that underwrote camp sensibility is here viewed in its recto expression: seriousness, simply. Colin Firth narrates to say that it takes time for him to become himself in the morning. This could easily encroach upon the more heavily-trodden paths of mere masquerade—the same thing employed/parodied in Far from Heaven. But Firth's character, Prof. Falconer, isn't a social outcast hiding his "true" self—though self-fashioning is part of his identity (as it is for all of us). Falconer is, as a queer man of privilege, taste, and intelligence, privy to the masquerade in which we all partake. The painful part of his life is not a limit on his "self-expression," but rather all the rude and cruel impositions that a heteronormative standpoint would otherwise have one believe are reserved only for the normative elect. (Isn't your male lover really just a substitution for something else? -No.)

So what is interesting about A Single Man is that it deals, nostalgically, for a period and context of queer repression but the film does not even begin to define queerness by that very repression. The repression, its threats, are real; there are rules of seduction and of domesticity which one must perform for the sake of safety; but there is not a negative essence serving as the root of all non-normative desire, affection, love.

The team that designs Mad Men was behind the look of A Single Man, too. But where the acclaimed television show gets a lot of its kicks from pointing out how backwards the era was in the full view of something called Progress, A Single Man is rare because it doesn't valorize the ethos of 1960s "revolution" mythology—that is, the short navel-gazing rebellion of middle-class youth against their bourgeois parents.


Jaime said...

"But where the acclaimed television show gets a lot of its kicks from pointing out how backwards the era was in the full view of something called Progress"

That only covers only the first few episodes. After that, the show reveals that it has stranger fish to fry.

Joel Bocko said...

This has made me more intrigued to see the film - which I knew little about, and which I was surprised to see was directed by Tom Ford. I saw a book of his photos - and a magazine filled entirely with his pictures - a while ago and was extremely irritated by his combination of ego and fashionability. All dressed up with no place to go, etc. Is the more there than meets the eye, or is the fact that there isn't partially the point? I'll have to check it out and see.

ZC said...

Jaime - I've still only seen the first season, but while I'd argue that the strain carries through beyond the first few episodes, you're right that there's more going on--I didn't mind to imply that Mad Men is wholly predicated on this conceit.

MM - I don't have anything special to say about Tom Ford. And he's way too cool for me. Have you seen the Terry Richardson photos for him? They're not worksafe, but ... ah, interesting.