Tuesday, March 9, 2010
In Which Trai Reviews 'A Single Man'
The Book: A Single Man
The Author: Christopher Isherwood
How I Found It: I saw the movie after learning it was based on a book by Christopher Isherwood, who really interests me. I tried reading his Berlin stories when I became really interested in Cabaret, as they are the basis, but got bogged down by the politics. I will have to return to them.
The Review: It is the early sixties, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. George, fifty-eight years old, is adrift after the recent loss of his younger lover Jim in a car crash. His goal is to make it through the day.
It is this day we follow George through-- his morning rituals, the class he teaches at a local university, his visit to a former (female) lover of Jim's, his visits with friends, and his connection with a young student who befriends him. It is the mundane things we observe that give us a look at George's psychology and the psychology of humanity as a whole.
To start with, there are differences between the book and the movie, but both are equally important to me. The movie is getting a tiny bit fuzzy in my head given that I saw it shortly after Christmas, but important things have stuck in my mind and I'll enumerate them below.
I do have an interest in the history of the movement for gay rights and just the history of gays in America in general. Their plight appeals to me and is important to me, merely because I feel they should not be discriminated against for something out of their control. I say all this to make clear why I was so deeply touched by the movie and the book.
The thing I loved about Isherwood's writing was how minutely his observations were recorded. The descriptions of George getting out of bed, George driving, were of the sort that made me say to myself, Yes, I do that, too.. I'm a nineteen year old girl, I'm living a good forty years after Isherwood, and I'm about as far removed from George's situation as can be, and yet there was a universal quality to the story that is really striking. Someone on Amazon had a good observation-- you can take the "single" in the title two ways. George is single after the death of his lover, but he is also a single man out of a larger society. It is partly this that makes his story universal.
He is grieving a loved one. I have experienced that and surely, so have most people, unless they are incredibly and unusually lucky. He feels alone in the world and wants some kind of connection with others. He is isolated. He is starved for love. These are things any of us can relate to.
I appreciated the book for how well it delved into George's head, for how it gave me a glimpse of the person George and, by extension, Isherwood truly were. I realized some time ago that Isherwood always put some part of himself in his novels; Don Bachardy, his longtime lover, has said it himself. I'm really interested now to read his others and see just what part of Isherwood's personality this one fit. Either way, I really related to the range of emotions George was experiencing and I could connect to him and want to cry for him sometimes.
Emotionally, though, the film really, really made me feel some fraction of what it must been like for George. I have to applaud Colin Firth with all of my heart for his performance-- if Jeff Bridges hadn't been the lock, I was rooting hard for Firth to win the Oscar. Tom Ford gave me something I hadn't realized I wanted to see in the movie-- a taste of the attitudes of the sixties towards gay men like George.
There are two truly heartbreaking instances in the film that resonated with me for a long, long time after I saw it. The first is when George is given the news that Jim has died by a relative of Jim's during a phone call. George asks if there is a service he could attend and the relative curtly responds that the service is for family only. The second instance was when Charley, a female friend and one-time lover of George's, asks George if Jim was ever a "substitute" for the love they could have had together. George breaks and yells at her that he was with Jim for sixteen years and that Jim was never a substitute for anything.
Seeing, really seeing the attitudes of these people on screen just broke my heart. The fact that George was not considered family when he loved Jim so deeply just killed me. Similarly, the fact that Charley couldn't understand what Jim meant to George made me angry. It was implying that Jim was somehow less than, that a person cannot truly love someone of their own gender because it is not fulfilling. While I felt Isherwood gave brilliant insights into George's mind, I believe Tom Ford gave equally brilliant insights into the minds of the society of the time. I came out of the film emotionally drained, but in a good way. I think the movie changed some small part of me by showing me what it did, and I'm grateful for that.
Overall, I really felt the book and the story itself were just beautiful. I appreciate Christopher Isherwood's efforts to show the world that gender does not matter in love-- it simply is. George grieves the loss of his love in the same way a person of any other orientation would. It is moving, it is beautiful, and it is deeply personal. For anyone with any interest in the topic, I really highly recommend the documentary Chris and Don, about Christopher Isherwood and his lover, Don. I saw it in 2008 and Don's story of their life together really moved me and my mom, who saw it with me. It's another story of a man grieving his lost love, but Don offered some really keen insights into his life with Chris and I remember being really touched at seeing how much he loved him. The same with this book-- it really showed me the universality of love.