Saturday, December 25, 2010
A Single Man
I don't know how to explain it. While reading the novella, I kept thinking how it was vastly different from the movie. But then I can't help but suspect that this story is utterly un-filmable, that a faithful onscreen adaptation would have been unwatchable. Nevertheless, the book and the film seem to be two very different things with some rather tenuous connections.
The movie was OK. It did not work for me nearly as well as it did for a lot of movie critics. It seemed a bit overly sentimental in a calculated way. It tried too hard.
What Ford and co-writer David Scearce did was to take a few elements that are merely suggested by Isherwood and extrapolate them into a more sentimentalized, digestible movie. I cannot accuse them of perverting the author's intentions, but then why is my impression so different from theirs?
Many years ago I read the Chinese translation of "Sally Bowles," one of the stories in Isherwood's collection "Goodbye to Berlin," based on his experience as a young man living in Berlin in the early 1930s. In the tradition of Maugham and Greene but perhaps going further, he has a way of erasing the line between fiction and reality. The story read more like astute diary than fiction.
I was thrilled by the story. At the time I was a teenager who had never met a "foreigner" in my life and knew utterly nothing about the decadence of Berlin teetering on the edge of Apocalypse. I had no idea homosexuals existed; therefore the homosexual stuff (including the narrator based on Isherwood himself) in the story totally went over my head. Yet I knew with dead certainty that it was real, that Sally and all the crazy, stupid, self-destructive things she did were all palpably real.
Isherwood had a laser-precise way of describing things and people. Yet his intentions/themes/meaning are very difficult to pin down, perhaps because of his utter refusal to reduce characters and situations to types. So-and-so is an airhead. So-and-so is a dreamer. So-and-so is a bitch. So-and-so is in love. So-and-so is depressed. With the precise realism comes the full ambiguity of people and life.
Compared with the earlier Berlin stories, A Single Man has maintained Isherwood's impeccable observation and lack of reductionism. There is perhaps less warmth and sympathy toward the people he writes about, yet this hardening does not come from cynicism marinated in age, but rather a philosophical acceptance (of an indifferent universe, I guess?).
Ford turned the story into one of romance, one of love and grief. It is not wrong, but this sentimentalization seems to trivialize the story, in which grief is there but not nearly as pervasive or central. The movie was almost entirely about George grieving Jim, but the first half of the story was more about the omnipresent death and mortality --- Jim's, George's own, Jim's one-time girlfriend's, and the threat of world annihilation (Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962). Not unlike 1932's Berlin, 1962's California could have easily been teetering on the edge of the abyss too. And the second half is something else --- I am not sure what, but again the tone is completely different from the movie's, even if a lot of the adaptation is faithful on paper.
The more complicated, ambiguous elements in the story were excised, perhaps for fear of confusing the audience. Charley, for example, was transformed from a childish, lonely, recently-jilted housewife who symbolizes George's hopeless link to the home country, to a lonely sad woman who loves a homosexual man and, as the filmmakers hint, has been destroyed by her unrequited feelings. (Isherwood has a real knack for drawing childish, silly women.) Another stark departure is how much more repressed George is in the movie than in the story --- Look how this homosexual man is victimized and persecuted by the world and therefore has to hide his true self. Well, yes and no. In the story, George makes no effort to hide his "deviant sexuality." What he hid was his grief. Not quite the same, is it?
What is Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man about? It is quite difficult to pin down. For such a short novel, it is surprisingly rich and complex. It is about death and doom --- the death in the past (Jim) and the inevitable end of everyone, sooner (nuclear war) or later (old age) or unpredictably (heart attack). It is about the past (Charley and England, Jim, memory of the war), the future (Kenny and other students), and now, where one struggles to not only stay alive but rather to live. It is the present moment that we are all trying desperately to hang on with white knuckles.
The story is also full of humor. At the beginning was a hilarious episode describing the physiological and psychological mechanisms of driving in Southern California that had me in stitches. You really have to have driven on these freeways day-in and day-out to realize how true and astute this is.
The story's ending has absolutely nothing to do with the movie's, even if they share a superficial similarity. Isherwood's ending is pure mysticism. Odd, isn't it? A mysticism grew out of his brand of merciless realism, as hard and sharp as a diamond knife.
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