Friday, May 27, 2011

Notes On "A Single Man"

Portrait of Christopher Isherwood
Don Bachardy
Acrylic on paper
29 7/8 x 22 3/8 inches
courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

That man of funky letters, John Waters, once wrote that Tennessee Williams saved his life—in the public library. For me, it was Christopher Isherwood that saved mine. A perceptive high school teacher gave me a copy of A Meeting By the River. I was a sophomore or junior, so what could be better than a novel about being gay and spiritual? Isherwood soon became my patron saint of the fulfilled queer life.

Of all his writings, A Single Man (1964) was said to have been Isherwood’s personal favorite, according to his lover, the painter Don Bachardy. We rented the 2009 movie adaptation the other night and I can’t get it out of my mind. Director, writer, and producer Tom Ford has claimed that it isn’t a gay film, and weirdly enough, after thinking about what defines a queer film, I think he’s right. So, what constitutes a queer film?

Perhaps the first feature-length queer film I ever saw (albeit inadvertently) was Cabaret (1972), based on Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. In the edited-for-TV version, Michael York, as Isherwood’s Brian Roberts, has his queer line deleted, but if you were a hip high schooler, you understood Brian’s bisexuality anyway. Despite the film’s lack of overt queerness, Isherwood’s pre-WWII experience of Berlin came through. Of course, it also featured Joel Grey at his queerest best.

There was no pretending that the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1972) was anything but queer. In a very underground ‘70s way, the open sexuality and pot smoking in public was all part of the movie-going experience. We thought ourselves so brave to be attending the midnight show on Powell Street, where we smoked joints in the theater. We were suburban teenagers committing a revolutionary cultural act.

Clearly, 1972 was a big year for queer-oriented films. There was the made-for-TV movie, That Certain Summer, with Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook. I have always loved Martin Sheen for taking on that role when he was so young and vulnerable. And he ends up becoming President! But it was still too early for an out-and-out queer love story in mainstream movie houses. Ten years later there was a mediocre film, Making Love (1982) that played in theaters all across the country. I admit my pride (and pleasure) in seeing Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin in bed together even if that Angel, Kate Jackson, was awful. When I saw Philadelphia (1993) in downtown Berkeley (of all places), the crowd gasped when Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas kissed. The progress during the two decades from my early adolescence to adulthood seemed slow indeed. But things sped up after that, in part because of TV sitcoms like Ellen and Will & Grace. It is hard to admit that sometimes liberation has popular culture to thank.

Despite this long relationship with cinema, I am still one of those people who would rather read the novel than see the movie. Isherwood, of all people, understood that whenever a novel is adapted for the screen, a lot gets changed. But although it has been thirty years since I read A Single Man, Tom Ford’s adaptation, with its lushness and beautiful quotes from the novel sent me back to the book, and back to Isherwood’s life. He wrote the novel after a trial separation from his partner Bachardy provoked fears about being left alone. Yet they reconciled and lived together in a cocoon overlooking the Pacific until 1986, when Isherwood died at age 81.

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968
acrylic on canvas,  83 1/2 x 119 1/2 in.

In the novel, fifty-eight year old George Falconer lives in a small modest hillside home, not unlike Isherwood and Don Bachardy’s own home in Santa Monica. The literary George is not as debonair or wealthy as his film counterpart. Despite Tom Ford’s incredibly good taste in architecture (early Lautner, natch), décor, clothes, and cars, something gets lost in the film translation. It is not only that George lives in modernist architectural splendor and his gal pal Charlotte’s home recalls Ted Graber’s Beverly Hills, instead of the rickety canyon bohemia of Isherwood’s novel. Tom Ford operates in what some call a “post-gay” world: everybody knows someone gay, and if you live on the coast, you act like half the world is queer.

Santa Monica Canyon

Ford’s introduction of the suicide theme is akin to modern gratuitous violence. If there isn’t a revolver somewhere, we don’t feel alive enough. Of course, Isherwood didn’t need a gun; his text carried the urgency and the radical rage of the voice within, something he was always working with by removing some layers and not others. In the film, a potential suicide stands in for the rage—a sad and angry gay man would be too subtle without a pistol in today’s contemporary world.

A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company
A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company
A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company

Ford takes the most beautiful scene in the novel—a swim in the ocean—and turns it into the visual leitmotif for the film. After his lover dies, George is always suspended in a kind of non-reality, turned upside down and sideways, but not quite drowning.

In 1964, few stories were as bold and took such a strong stance against the heterosexist hegemony as A Single Man did. Even today, save for some minor details, Isherwood’s novel could stand in as a contemporary indictment of the repressive right wing. But in Ford’s hands it feels like a nostalgic and luxurious film about an era when gay partners weren’t invited to the funerals but could still live very comfortable and tasteful lives together. Indeed, the thrill of the secrecy from the pre-Stonewall era has been replaced by Southern California movie affluence. Tom Ford can afford to make a film that floats beautifully above most of the world’s repressive queer reality.

In one of the film’s earliest scenes, adapted slightly from the novel, a child beats a bathroom scale with a hammer. This is the kind of fury that is just beneath the (proper British) surface of the novel, but for the most part it is lost in this all too pretty film. I wouldn’t mind the fabulous Lautner house or the vintage Mercedes, but I would have left the pistol in the drawer.

A Single Man
courtesy The Weinstein Company


  1. All too pretty is exactly right.

    Mark Doty comments perceptively on the writer's craft that "... the attempt to render visual intricacy makes words feel unwieldy, like sacks of meaning that must be lugged into place, dragged here and there, then still don't feel quite accurate." Yet it is this inaccuracy that Isherwood left us to grapple with, not the clarity that a movie enforces.

    Ford's recreation of the story is limited by the camera and its angles, the need for star power, the audience and its attention span, by the marketability of the final product. My own imagination faces no such restrictions and is a far richer experience as a result.

  2. So should I read the novel or watch the movie first?
    You are a lovely writer.

  3. Poetic as always. I am almost afraid to read the book or see the movie because I only want this take on the experience