Watching the movie "The Single Man" with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore brought back my Christopher Isherwood phase, 25 or 30 years ago, when I read several of Isherwood's books. That was also the time of my Graham Greene phase, but that's another story.
After the movie "Caberet," I read Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," with the famous beginning "I am a camera." Then I read as much of his work as I could find, including "A Single Man." I liked his taut, old-school mandarian style, its sardonic, stylish tone unable to stop heartbreak and despair from breaking through. The interplay and conflict between the main character's high literary culture and British eduction and the glitzy, unrooted culture of Los Angeles and Hollywood charged the books with tension and foreboding.
Directed, written and produced by Tom Ford, the movie version of "A Single Man" gets closer to the heart of Isherwood's work than the overly sentimentalized "Caberet," which I still love. Colin Firth's perfomance as the grief-stricken professor George Falconer deserves the praise it received. Julianne Moore again shows herself a marvel.
The story takes place in November 1962, in the aftermath of the Cuban missle crisis. A major theme is the pervasive fear at the time over nuclear annhiliation, with the global Cold War with the Soviet Union reaching its zenith. Despite the characters' anxiety, the movie made me longe for the era. The movie evokes the time with its well-designed, lovely products, such as the vintage Mercedes that Falconer drives. The clocks, the furrniture, the clothes all speak of a sense of aesthetics and elegance soon to be blown away.
Firth's face changes from scene to scene. His English drawl recalls Michael Caine, and his thick glasses and lovely suits made me think of George "Superman" Reeves as Clark Kent. He also reminded me of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who would be slain exactly a year after the events of the movie. Like Kennedy, Falconer represents a world of culture, learning and refinement swept away by the '60s counterculture. This new cultural energy is brilliantly shown in the outstanding scene of the sad dinner party between Falconer and Julianne Moore's lovesick Charley. The tipsy couple get together to dance, and Charley changes the record from the jazz classic "Stormy Weather" to Booker T. and the MGs' "Green Onions." They awkwardly, then increasingly abandonly, do the twist, then collapse in exhaustion to the floor. That brief sequence embodies the huge cultural and social swifts of the next few years.
The film is loaded with literary references. One striking one is that George's class is studying Aldous Huxley's "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan." Aldous Huxley, also a member of the Britisith literary expatriates in Los Angeles who would dabble with psychedelic drugs and mystical religion. That whole mileu is fascinating; acute sensibilities bred in tradition and literary culture captivated by sensuality and psychic experimentation. Also there in the L.A. scene were such worthies as Thomas Mann and the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, seeking to transplant European culture to the far Pacific coast.
Isherwood's old chum W.H. Auden, who also left England for the New World before World War II, would remain in New York and cling to the old culture, finding solace in traditional Christianity. Watching "A Single Man" bids me to reread Auden's poems of the era, which evoke the same despair, the same sense of the poetic and literary mind beset by America's consumer culture, love of speed, power and new money. The two worlds could reach common ground: I first heard of Auden when I saw him on the Johnny Carson show.