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The Tenderness of a Novice’s Hand

When Francis Coppola’s RUMBLE FISH was released in the early 1980s, I read a report that throughout the production the director would repeat, “This is my student film.”

I’m a former film student and ex-professor to film students, so I understand how that phrase crystallizes a unique aesthetic and precious experience in film viewing:  the blend of personal expression, the dignity of assuming an undertaking, and the heady endeavor of experimentation.  Two recent commercial feature films by rookie directors capture these qualities:  A SINGLE MAN and THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND.

Both — like many student films — are adaptations of lesser-known literary works.  Both have an urgency of effort in attempting to visualize long-held, treasured ideas; and both are testaments to filmmakers doing their homework.

There’s never the sour taste of production-by-committee that’s so prevalent in Mall Movies and Popcorn Flicks.  These films are singular in vision and craft.  To view them is like witnessing the first solo effort of a promising athlete or musician.  These films unreel the uncommon qualities of both artistic courage and lacerating intimacy on the screen.

For A SINGLE MAN couturier Tom Ford adapted Christopher Isherwood’s novel with a clear understanding of the interconnective kinetic powers of narrative and design.  (Ford studied everything from drama to architecture in undergraduate school.) 

With the sound off, A SINGLE MAN is definitely in the league with other formalist masterpieces of experimentation such as LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD and FLYING DOWN TO RIO.  Yet unlike those two films the content is terrifyingly deep, and Ford developed visual language to convey the subjective psychologies of grief and connection. 

Yet, as with fashion, there is a playful quality to the film.  Although the story is set in 1962, Ford has fun with the decade by making a Sixties Imaginary that’s a mashup of everything from the decade.  (A highlight of this artistic choice:  Julianne Moore — costumed and made up like Lynn Redgrave in SMASHING TIME — boogalooing to Booker T & the MGs’ 1967 anthem “Hip Hug-Her” in her Lincoln-Center-on-a-budget Beverly Hills crib.)

While Isherwood’s A Single Man has a direct (though highly interior) narrative, the previously unproduced Tennessee Williams screenplay of THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND reads more like one of his more challenging short stories than his venerated three-act plays.  If you can wrap your brain around works by Williams such as Desire and the Black Masseur then TEARDROP will deliver lots of cognitive pleasures.

But it’s much more than brain candy.  Memphis-born actress/director Jodie Markell transformed her actors into solid, accurate Southern archetypes represented in detail down to the body language of barely-viewable extras in the party scenes.  Equally incisive is the graphic language of the film:  before a line is uttered in TEARDROP the camera movement and screen direction give you the lilt and cadence that will be the movie dialog’s delivery. 

The Tennessee Williams screenplay was written in 1957 for Elia Kazan, a perfect director for the material as it deals with his frequent concern of personal resolve in the midst of one’s own awareness of his human frailty.  If it had been produced in 1957, the screenplay would have been castrated and homogenized, a type of end-product which I believe was the expectation of the reviewers and journo-crits who panned the movie.  It deals with the desire to escape and the desire to ground and commit oneself:  a conflicted and unresolved exploration for most of us because we desire them both yet question them too.

I chose the word “tenderness” in the title of this post because it’s a quality that can only be given through compassion, awareness and control.  It’s those qualities that these novice filmmakers use when handling the miraculous medium of film.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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4 Comments to “The Tenderness of a Novice’s Hand”

  1. Aiden R. says:

    Great breakdown of A Single Man. What a phenomenal movie, one of the best of ’09. Dig the site, btw. Keep up the great work.

  2. Doug says:

    Thanks for the encouragement! DB

  3. Ralph Benner says:

    An unlikely source of praise for “A Single Man” comes from Chris Matthews who on MSNBC’s Hardball applauded Colin Firth’s work as “the best performance of a homosexual since Peter Finch’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Coming from that movie-loving liberal blowhard, we might be tempted to over-hail Firth’s class act depiction of an early 60s closeted college professor who’s in sedate suicidal mourning over the loss of his lover of 16 years to an accident, even though we perceive early on that the aspirin intake quietly tweets a serious malady as plot linchpin. The dilemma, at least for me, is accepting Firth for what, exactly — his sexless trot to the grave? Director Tom Ford says that his movie début is about enjoying life’s senses to the fullest, but how can that be when Firth’s character is repressing the most vital ones when he refuses the services of a Spanish hustler who apparently has the assets to fully reawaken them. What man in his rightfully lusty mind would turn that away? The final day’s “clarity” of Firth’s teacher equals courteous rejection and subsiding death wish: the portrayal has a Fanny Hurst/Manuel Puig flavor of self-sacrifice filtered through Christopher Isherwood’s sensibilities. That in 2009 a highly respected gay artist would make a movie sponsoring denial over cuming is an appalling contradiction; there’s not a chance in whoever’s Hell that Ford himself would buy into the chastity he’s putting Firth through. It’s a betrayal; neither the material nor the audience deserves this retrograde oppressiveness, not when our own experiences reflect the reality that grief often propels the strong urge for sex. What isn’t sanctimonious is Ford’s compulsive/obsessive designer eye — he’s meticulous, almost methodically spot-on with details (the “light in your loafers” self-bio sequence), incidentals, very much owing to John Schlesinger and his “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Frequently, however, we have to remind ourselves that “A Single Man” is set in 1962, and we get help only occasionally from that Brigette Bardot wanna-be in Firth’s classroom, the mohair sweater worn by the Angel of Life, and Julianne Moore in a trashy Ann-Margret-as-Blanche-Devereaux bouffant. (Moore and Firth are a little like “Will & Grace.”) Up close, Firth carries a nipper of Christopher Hitchens, and in those nerdy glasses he conjures up Marcello Mastroianni out of “8 ½” and even Michael Caine. Matthews’ hosanna for Firth would be earned if it hadn’t been attached to an infuriating inference Ford seems to endorse — that the only good gay man is a dead one.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for the comments. I think the content doesn’t power A SINGLE MAN as much as the style. The narrative thrust and character development definitely take a backseat to the formal qualities, which are quite yummy and stunningly cinematic.

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