27 December 2009

Review: A Single Man

Genre: Drama

Tom Ford's A Single Man, it is clear from the very start, is its director's film; pruned from the screenplay are all the traces of stodginess or disgrace that characterize the world of Mr. Isherwood's original text and planted in their steads are the bulbs of style - on the edge of a razor - that allows the story of George to breathe far more smokily than a more diligent to-film translation of the Isherwood novella ever could. As a result, that the two (the original and the adaptation) bear likenesses is almost more of a historical fashion, of shared ascendancy, rather than of a present compulsion, of direct descendency; whereas Mr. Isherwood spent much of his time focussing carefully on the complete battery of sensory nuances that flood his protagonist's fluid world, Mr. Ford spends much of his time focussing instead on the more immediate, more intimate, more concrete, and more punctuative sensory ties that anchor his protagonist amid the rush of his submerged world - a world, importantly, evoked as it is instead of as it would be, if as perversely reconstructed as the original George so frequently describes his hopes for it to be.

Those sorts of descriptive quotes (as, indeed, much of the complicating and developing ribbons of the original George's consciousness, that both inundate and reflect his world) are minimized within, if not eliminated from, Mr. Ford's new treatment of the character; environmental affectors, dispossessors, and stressors are relegated by the cinematic screenplay to being merely implied nudgers, inhibitors, and peeves that, though represented in frankness, feel exclusively peripheral to the central experience of George, in a way completely different from his experience in the novella. However, to say that Mr. Ford by treating George thus has effectively rooted out whatever lingering despondency that colored him from his audience's perception of him is to commit an overly ambitious error; for Mr. Ford's George, though he arrests himself throughout the day in order to take full inventory of the people and the events that he encounters in his quotidian and delimited life (instead of glancing over them as if over a continuous trail of variously impressed instances, as over braille), does not cheaply throw in the towel with any kind of exposed plaint like "carpe diem," as would typically punctuate such a life of loosely bound, intermittent, and otherwise heavy-handed arrests - not even, as such a plaintive message may be the inevitable masque that his perspective chooses to resemble in his 1960s' California. No, British Professor George Falconer is more tender than that bland triteness and less transient than his situation, and he manifests himself exactly in that way time and time again, as he falls hour after hour into the night of his day - falls, in a way that cinematically treats the medium of his ennui, which intervenes itself between himself and his experiencing the world, as capably as Mr. Isherwood's internal ribbons of conscious literally treat it. As a theoretical result, any minimization and/or elimination of Mr. Isherwood's original elements by Mr. Ford's new treatment exists only as a consequentially repositioned artifact of a story transferred from a subjective perspective, like that of a literary first-person narration, to an objective perspective, like that of a cinematic third-person observation; and any peripheralization, a collateral consequence thereof. Observation as by film allows these consequences inconsequentially, by requiring a vocabulary that transcends the need for any such staging in the fore, and Mr. Ford's treatment finds this vocabulary and utilizes it ulimately expressively.

Though it is clear to a viewer of the film that Mr. Ford is inexperienced as a director by witnessing his choices as the results of an obviously roughly translated (from fashion to film-making, still imagery to motive imagery) artist's toolbox, it is nevertheless also clear to any viewer of the film that an artist was at its helm: that - equally - Mr. Ford is an artist, using the tools as best as he knows how, to paint his intentions upon a canvas. Rough compositions, that stumble at first as a newborn foal stumbles, find their own internally consistent footing and from there compose scenes of elegiac beauty, wan distress, and quiet rapture to be savored. Colors, that at first appear overstressed as alternating bottle-green and pink-rose filters of the world, play a delicate and lilting, sinusoidal, emotional curvature; and fumbling focal points call to stand palpable echoes of George's own fading, as-if-trying-to-make-contact-from-behind-a-white-sheet condition. And dialogical phrasings, that jitteringly announce factors at beginning, only have positioned themselves, as satellites do, to best commit home factorial results at end.

Almost like a speeding train, with him chained to the front of it, George's day hurtles forth from the first word toward a fait accompli that comes to pass only in so many words. In the gaps, where both inevitability and Mr. Ford's artistry have not, the actors' performances, Mr. Korzeniowski's score, and Mr. Grau's cinematography fill. For the actors: Mr. Firth stands quite on point in George, in a poise and emotional register that he had been unable either by circumstance or by experience to display in films before; though it occasions that he may have used a bit more intuitive direction than he manages in some quiet instances - direction as could have been had, had there been a stronger or more knowledgeable director's guiding hand - he is otherwise as reliable a protagonist in this work as could have been imagined. Countering him, Ms. Moore is stunning, as usual - so much so that nothing else need be said for her, except that Mr. Ford's more savvy revision of her character quite suits her - and Mr. Hoult is critically sufficient, as all his rôle needed him to be. For the composers: Mr. Korzeniowski's score, bolstered by Mr. Umebayashi's undulous themes, is a strong and knowledgeable guiding hand in the utmost capacity where Mr. Ford himself for whatever reason could not be; rigorous, emotive, involved, confident, and transcendent, it is what music in film should be. For the cinematographer: Though I took issue at first with the liberality which which you allowed your director to color-bend your images, I appreciated nevertheless your overall use of color as direction, as well as your fleeting homages to the work of the likes of Philip Lorca diCorcia, greatly; though not always on its mark, Mr. Grau's final product does contain what are some of the year's best images.

All in all, by the time A Single Man does reach its end, it is utterly resplendent and aromatic even with captivating imagery, sounds, and performances. I cannot think of more that would be worthwhile to add to this review than the comments made of it by The London Times' Wendy Ide, who wrote:
It’s no surprise that the feature film directing debut of fashion designer Tom Ford is a thing of heart-stopping beauty. He celebrates the male form with a sensual reverence. He uses colour with the visual articulacy of Wong Kar Wai and frames his shots with elegance and wit. It looks like a Wallpaper magazine photo shoot styled by Douglas Sirk. But what is a little more unexpected, certainly for those who were suspicious of Ford’s background in the ephemeral world of fashion, is that this is no frothy, throwaway piece of pretty silliness. Rather it’s a work of emotional honesty and authenticity which announces the arrival of a serious filmmaking talent. There will be critics who will be unable to get past the director’s background, but rest assured: Tom Ford is the real deal.
Grade: A-, "the real deal," emotionally authentic and sensuous without ever pandering to gratuity, sublime.

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