Sometimes it takes a non-filmmaker to come in with a fresh perspective on acceptable filmic modes of expression and shake up the way we see and think about the movies. Orson Welles, perhaps the most famous example, was a stage director and radio star before he got the chance to tinker around with films in Citizen Kane. François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were French film critics who put their money where their mouth was when they birthed the Nouvelle Vague with The 400 Blows and Breathless, respectively. Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day's Night, one of the breeziest and most carefree movies ever made, had only previously worked in TV beforehand and made things up as he went along. The examples are practically endless, but the point remains the same: sometimes, when a vision or ideology is strong enough, traditional and formal cinematic direction isn't necessary. Watching a director experiment with the medium can often times be just as illuminating as watching an old pro do the business over and over again.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that director Tom Ford deserves to be in such esteemed company yet. But if A Single Man is any indication of what Ford has to offer, give him another film or two and he may just live up to his promise. A Single Man is not a perfect movie. However, it is one of those rare movies where perfection would have detracted from what makes it ultimately work. A Single Man is a film of raw emotion. With every tightly composed and constructed shot, Ford's personal connection with the story and George (Colin Firth) is immediately felt and unexpectedly affecting. But this film isn't a self-centered masturbation exercise; the emotions he conjures up on-screen are universal. Ford does wonders with loneliness and isolation, but one of my favorite moments of the entire movie was also one of the most simplistic: George and Charlotte (isn't it great to see Julianne Moore laughing again?) are in her living room dancing to 'Stormy Weather' when Charlotte suddenly, in a fit of inspiration, puts on new, more contemporary record. She starts doing this ridiculous dance, obviously picked up on a youth-friendly show like American Bandstand, and starts urging George to join her. Initially, he laughs her off but eventually gives into temptation and lets loose for the first time in the movie. This moment, while hardly revelatory, simply feels spot on in the moment. I can just imagine doing this some of my best friends 20 years from now, just forgetting ourselves for the moment and doing something silly. Ford captures the irrepressible bond old friends have, the way they can laugh at old stories and make a fool out of themselves without giving the slightest shit.
Many have accused Tom Ford of over-beautifying the images and mise-en-scene to the point of distraction. While I can see where they are coming from, I think, if anything, the shockingly gorgeous imagery only deepens the film's themes of loneliness and isolation. George may be surrounded by a world of perfectly designed houses, crisp tailored suits, beautifully manicured lawns and extraordinarily good looking people, but that does not curtail his emptiness or make missing Jim any less painful. All the prettiness the world can muster will not bring Jim back from the dead. I find it interesting that Ford chose to represent it this way when there were so many more traditional ways he could have taken it. But that is precisely what is so fascinating about A Single Man: nothing about it feels particularly safe. Ford is experimenting with the medium, having fun with its numerous possibilities. Some of his ideas don't exactly pan out--I still don't know why that owl was there--but when he gets it right, boy does he get it right. A big shoutout goes to editor Joan Sobel for taking Ford's blankly beautiful film and making it even more coldly arresting. Another of my favorite moments of the film is when George is in the classroom giving a lecture and as he leans on his desk, listening to one of his students ask a question, his mind goes adrift with quick cutting images of people around the room, including the above shot of Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) and his bombshell girlfriend Lois blankly puffing on a cigarette and extreme close-ups of Kenny's eyes. I can not even begin to decipher what Ford truly means with this imagery, but the way it lingers on the brain is truly intoxicating.
I must say, I do not exactly understand the argument that A Single Man's beautiful imagery is nothing more than empty stylistics. Conceding the fact that narrative drive does not exactly come first, there is a real heart beating deep within the film that the images expand on. For me, those emotions and feelings are more powerful and lasting than an expanded, beefed-up story could have shown. A-