Friday, August 13, 2010

Tom Ford's Newest Line: A Single Man

| by Allan Stackhouse |

I had a feeling that I should have just went ahead and bought A Single Man but no, I played it safe and clogged my Blockbuster queue. Tom Ford, who hasn’t even done a short film, has just schooled every gay director that made a film about his or her own kind.

Much unlike The Wolfman and Eclipse, there is an intelligent use of color. Upon finding something that triggers a memory of Jim in George, the picture is flooded with color. The gray and washed out pallets that are representative of George's despair blooms with warm flesh tones and a brilliant scheme. When Jennifer, the little girl, approaches George at the bank, the camera slowly pans up to reveal Jennifer's bright blue dress, ribbons, and eyes. The lead-in to this particular sequence is also visually captivating: an overhead shot of George going through his bag to find his identification while his gun clearly protrudes in the bag's side pocket. The gun is clean so even with the dark brown case over a bland bank's scheme, it stands out. And for the reverse shot to Jennifer, the pigment in George's face becomes so rich and alive. Dialogue is the default indicator of emotion but color can serve the same purpose. It is so rarely intelligently used at the level of this film.

The film was not so bold as to make sad scenes black and white. Tom Ford knows this too well. This attention to color and knowledge of its importance in human expression stems no doubt from Tom's longstanding career in high fashion. Instead of tailoring, fabrics, and dyes, Tom designs with angles, focuses, and color.

Not as pleasing to my senses is Nicholas Hoult's American accent. Nicholas is an amazing actor with his own natural accent but with his California accent, the emphasis on certain syllables made his performance less than believable. Perhaps Tom saw something in Nicholas as a director that I do not but an actual American actor or at least an actor who could more accurately speak with any American accent would have provided a much better scene partner to Colin Firth. In comparison to Matthew Goode's solid lack of any of his own English accent as Jim, I found the character of Kenny (Nicholas) very protrusive. Another unpleasant accent was that of Julianne Moore. This woman just was not born to do accents. She might look nice in a silk or satin gowns but her accents are simply atrocious. She mixes up the different kinds of English and Australian accents. Do not get me started on her Boston accents from 30 Rock. If I were from any place where she is drawing the accent from, I would be either embarassed or bowled over in laughter.

Just as unpleasing to my senses are the fake tans on Colin Firth and Nicholas Hoult. Their fair English skin looks absolutely ridiculous in the orange hues made by spray tans. Perhaps bed tanning would have been a more time consuming option but it was awful to the point that it took me out of the movie for a bit. As Kenny strips to convince George to swim in the ocean with him, even in the darkness the fakeness of the appearance of their skin color was very distracting. In all the day scenes where Kenny is speaking to George, I was just as equally distracted.

Among the wonderful things in A Single Man is its conflict. George is grief stricken from the death of his boyfriend Jim. In a hauntingly beautiful scene, George removes the gun from his wardrobe, examines it, and brings it to work with him. The conflict at that point could be called soft but if we’re really paying attention, we as viewers know that George is still planning to kill himself. Just to fully make the audience aware of his intentions, the gun makes a second appearance when George begins to remove it from his bag while in his car. Sadness from the loss of a spouse is communicable in any language and the fact that this particular relationship is between two men makes no difference in the story. Jim and could have easily been female characters and the story would not have been any less good. The fact that Jim and Kenny were men does add a certain element to the film since there are so few films that will feature these types of relationships.

The cinematography in this film is so enveloping in even just the simplest of shots. As George sits in his chair after being informed of Jim’s death, the camera picks up the red in Colin Firth’s face. His skin, in such a close shot, manages to provide a soft contrast from the fabric of the chair. Returning to the gun scene, these objects are treated as things of beauty. It’s not enough that we just see these objects. They are shot in a fashion that takes note of the detail and importance of these objects, people, location, etc.

Those who don't recognize Carlos, the prostitute at the liquor store, might not think anything of him but this is a nice bit of reverse sexism. Female super models have been cast in films just for their faces for many years and I'm sure it was a purposeful wink at women and gay men to have a male super model simply there to be pleasing to the eye. He, oddly enough, said some of the most memorable lines in the film: Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty. and Lovers are like buses, you just have to wait a little while and another one comes along.

Besides nice lines and use of color, the film has nice visual storytelling. After going to the bank, George returns home and neatly lays his affairs out. His instruction on a piece of paper reads, “Tie in a windsor knot.” That is significant in that it pokes fun of the pretense in fashion but also visually telling of this man's despair from Jim's death and desire to end his life.

The single (ha) flaw of A Single Man is the ending; unfortunately, that's a big deal. To make it worse, it's not a small flaw. The ending manifests itself in a horrible exposition. Had the film ended just two minutes prior, it would have been amazing. I know this is a flaw because having gone to film school, this was a common thing that students, including myself, made. It was an amateur mistake, one that I was not expecting Tom to make. Everything before this travesty of an expository ending was brilliant in terms of color, cinematography, and story. This providing the last taste in my mouth is tragic. George's voice overed speech was a cop out. The drama was never heightened to any particular point and if you're going to end a dramatic movie like that, which is not uncommon, you do not cheat the audience by telling them the signifance of the scene. Instead, why not challenge them with a cliffhanger or an open ending that would leave the audience to make an ending in our own minds. The end did provide some irony in that just upon his decision to not kill himself, he has a heart attack. Perhaps narratively, this worked out. In the book, it might have worked extremely well for the last chapter or two to have page after page of George's last thoughts but that does not work in this film.

Tom Ford, in an absolutely brilliant first venture in the world of film, has succeeded with A Single Man. I am crushed that the ending was such a blatant display of amateurism. What saves the film is the brilliant use of color, cinematography, and story. I highly recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of cinematography or tragedies. If you can look past the ending, which I am growing to do, you may enjoy the film even more than I have.

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