Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Single Man

Tom Ford has been criticized by some for being too heavy handed with his first cinematic effort. I really don't think that this criticism is warranted. In this case of this film, Tom Ford's fashion status is his downfall because it gives naysayers an access point to disparage the beauty of his craftsmanship. I mean, yes, he makes a career out of using beauty to sell things. But that doesn't mean he can't make a great debut film. While there were some cringe-worthy moments, A Single Man offers much more than vacuous formalism. Although, I've only read one such opinion, and to be fair, I haven't read a review of Firth's performance that was less than glowing. So at least everyone is in agreement that A Single Man has one good thing to offer: a truly fantastic performance by Colin Firth.

Returning to the point though, I feel like so many critics (and acquaintances of mine) nowadays have a tendency to label as self-indulgent or pretentious anything that challenges the idea of cinema as strict entertainment. Anything that too closely approximates art is anathema. Even the most popular auteurs of the moment, like the Coens and Tarantino shroud their artistic tendencies in comedy or samurai sword-fighting. Not that I think that films should not be entertaining. And unlike some people, I hesitate to consciously distinguish between the words "film" and "movie." But movies that are slow and haunting, perhaps more about mood and philosophy than narrative should never be considered self-indulgent.

There are some really beautiful moments in A Single Man. These are greatly augmented by the scoring, as well. The film follows one day in the life of English expat professor George, around 8 months after the death of his lover of 16 years. I am a sucker for beautiful imagery, whether or not it is well integrated into the themes of the film, and Ford knows how to do pretty, even if he once in a while steps over the line and into fragrance commercial territory. My favorite moments in the film are when George is interacting with his neighbors, a picturesque family unit with a young boy and girl. Representing the epitome of American suburban bliss, they are shot in a dreamy halo of light, often in a graceful slow motion. In contrast, the bit with the disconsolate Charley (Julianne Moore) is wonderful too, as the two misfits come together to drink heavily and wallow in their miseries.

Cinematography and direction aside, Colin Firth is still probably the best reason to see this film. There are some elements that are a little much. The images of the submerged man that insinuate both drowning and rebirth are shown maybe a few too many times. Ford's use of color to portray George's changing perception is polarizing. I didn't mind it, probably because I think of the changing palette as that simple, and not, as some have intuited, a meter that records whether an event might make his life worth living again. It is a device that would have been infinitely less contrived if George did not spend the entire film planning his suicide.

The reviews have largely been favorable, at least, if the T-meter on Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed. There have, however, been a few diatribes. I guess I just hate to hear anything that aspires to artfulness in the age of the blockbuster labeled as pretentious. I haven't read anything of the sort about Up in the Air, for instance. It pounds its themes heavily enough, yet no one wants to label it as self-indulgent. Neither Up in the Air or A Single Man is a perfect film by any means, but I still prefer the latter.

There are some good things about Up in the Air. It is pretty entertaining. It is pretty heartwarming for a while there. Also some great performances in it.

photo one, two

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