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Monday, January 24, 2011

Single and singular men (film reviews)

Every once in a while, life hands you a personalized film festival, grouping together special movies that have things in common--it might be historical period, cinematography, subject matter--and if you watch them more or less together (I saw these two on successive days, by happenstance), they amplify each other in interesting ways. Here are two such:

A Single Man (2009), directed by Tom Ford.

This film is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood. As the official website states, 
Set in Los Angeles in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, it is the story of a British college professor (Colin Firth) who is struggling to find meaning to his life after the death of his long time partner. The story is a romantic tale of love interrupted, the isolation that is an inherent part of the human condition, and ultimately the importance of the seemingly smaller moments in life.

Well, yes, it is a rather cerebral film just as that description might suggest, but it's also very affecting. This understated film grew on me as it progressed, until I found I was feeling quite unexpectedly moved and appreciative; I say "unexpectedly" since I'd almost given up and ejected the disc more than once during the first half hour or so. But as I realized later, I'd just needed to relax into the film's own pace. (If you can access the Director's Commentary included with the DVD, I recommend watching the film a second time with that sound track too. It offers many fascinating insights.)

This is a personal film in the sense that although it's set during a clearly etched historical period (early 1960's), it could take place at any time because the story focuses on an internal, emotional state. The main character has lost his lover, but he's living in a time when gays like himself are "invisible," so he can't grieve openly or receive support from the community. (In a key speech, which clearly though not explicitly references his own situation, he tries to instill in his students an awareness that many types of people are "invisible."). Indeed he lives largely isolated from human community--but on this singular day, his eyes are fully opened to the world's beauty. The payoff is magical, and worth waiting for.

There are some touches of humor in this starkly told yet richly felt film too; watch for them. As for the cinematography, it's both interesting and beautiful; the use of color, for example, comments on each moment and adds emotional depth. Overall, the film has a mood of restraint, a storytelling analog to the style of the hero's sleek midcentury-modern glass and wood house. His home is the perfect setting to reflect his internal state. But somehow the movie is rich and warm too, thanks largely to Colin Firth's nuanced performance which quietly and inexorably reveals, scene upon scene, the depth of feeling, and the complexity and intelligence of the character he shows us.

I'd just seen Firth in The King's Speech, where he was certainly brilliant in a much more outwardly dramatic kind of role (it won him an Oscar); but I didn't fully appreciate him as an actor until I saw what he did in this much more subtle and surely equally challenging characterization.

Little Ashes (2009), directed by Paul Morrison: The second film in my mini-festival is also about a gay man and the loss of his partner, the loss in this case due to betrayal: he's betrayed by his lover, by his best friend, and by his country. Like the "single man," he's also invisible in some ways, in his life and time. This story is set in a seemingly very different historical period, and a more colorful one: Spain, in the 1920's and 1930's. As with the first film, this one also owes much, visually and emotionally, to the cinematic portrayal of its time and place--and reaches deep down into emotional territory that transcends its time and place.

This tale is based on the personal connections between the poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran, in a heartbreakingly charismatic portrayal), the painter Salvadore Dali (Robert Pattinson), and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty), during the 1920's when they were students in Spain and then, later, after they parted ways, on into the 1930's. Reflecting actual events Garcia Lorca, the central character, stays grounded in Spain, remains politically active, and is assassinated by fascist thugs while the other two leave him, their politics, and Spain itself behind to pursue Surrealist careers in other countries (France, in the time frame covered here).

This film is alive with brilliant cinematography, from classic Spanish urban landscapes to sun drenched countrysides to shadowy interiors to moonlit Mediterranean swims. It's just stunning. (Interestingly, both films, though otherwise very different in visual style, feature underwater photography as a recurring motif.) All the performances are very fine too, particularly the two leads. I did have a hard time quite believing the passionate, charismatic, socially committed Garcia Lorca's great love for the thoroughly shallow, terminally insecure, selfish, and intellectually unattractive Dali, but there's no accounting for love, of course.

Film buffs might be disappointed that Bunuel's character gets relatively short shrift here. The story begins well after he and Garcia Lorca have established their student "progressive movement," at the point where the young Dali makes his first appearance in their lives (in a rather unforgettable scene/performance of the young artist in an act of self-creation). Bunuel at this point is already denigrating Garcia Lorca's poetry as "sentimental," and before too long he is also evincing a vicious homophobia at the sight of the other two together. Finally, he lights out for the Paris territory (as it were) to escape Spain's stultifying and dangerous downward spiral into fascism.

Bunuel lures Dali to Paris as well, and the two proceed to indulge their creative gifts in the Surrealist Movement and avoid the realities of politics back home. In one disturbing scene we see portions of a movie they have made together, and it seems very deliberately hurtful to Garcia Lorca; I'm not familiar enough with Bunuel's work to know how accurately this event is portrayed, but if there's any truth in it, it's a shocking betrayal. In fact there are hints that the two are a bit fascistic themselves in their inclinations, if I understood this film right (even if later Bunuel did work as a leftist).

Dali's painting Cenicintas, or Little Cinders, or Ashes
(the name of the film in Spanish). It shows
a rather troubled attitude toward physicality IMO.
Garcia Lorca wrote to Dali, "Remember me when you are
at the beach and above all when you paint crackling things
and little ashes.  Oh my little ashes!
Put my name in the  picture so that my name will serve for something in the world." 
Dali's actual person always seems a most unlikely and probably inauthentic character to me, even though of course he did exist--but it's his own fault; he crafted of himself one of those exaggerated Celebrities that Western cultural history is dotted with, more persona than person, such as Oscar Wilde or Andy Warhol. Robert Pattison offers a very good performance here, one that finds in Dali's character an essential insecurity or lack of confidence which is sometimes quite touching.

Despite this sympathetic portrayal it seems pretty clear that Dali is bound to be poisonous to anyone in his orbit, even if his touch of genius wins him a lot of latitude among those who can appreciate it. The same can be said of Bunuel too, I suppose. But of the three historical characters, as well as their film versions here, Garcia Lorca is the only one I can relate to with much empathy.

Actually, there's another remarkable performance in this film as well, by the cinematic Garcia Lorca's best female friend (and would-be lover) Magdalena, played by Marina Gattell--a smart, strong, wise, liberated woman who is straining against the limitations and restrictions of her society. But her inclusion in the plot, though sympathetic and resonant with Garcia Lorca's plight, is basically treated (or edited?) as parenthetical to the story as a whole. Still, her character was a sincere acknowledgement that women, too, had intellects and fought for personal freedom then, as now.

On a personal note, I was struck by the realization that between 1925 (when these young students were dedicated Modernists in pre-Franco Madrid) to 1969 (when my mother bought her cottage in barely post-Franco Mallorca) the time spanned was just a little under 45 years. Most of my life, I would have seen 45 years as as truly enormous--an era; several epochs; wars, generations, cultures, whole worlds apart! Then it hit me that just about the same amount of time has passed from my own youth in the 1960's until now. Good grief. The history of the 20th century and now the 21st are packed with so many earth-shattering events, wars, upheavals, that it hardly seems possible that so little time has really passed. And yet how much things remain the same. The means of freedom struggle and oppression change; the weapons and the arts differ in some respects; but people don't.

''With their souls of patent leather, 
they come down the road. 

Hunched and nocturnal, 
Where they breathe they impose, 
silence of dark rubber, 
and fear of fine sand.''
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), from Romance de la Guardia Civil Española.

So in that way, this movie, though it seemed to be about another time than this one, brought my own time, and my own life-span, strikingly home to me. It made me feel my own time in a newly fresh and disturbing way. Yes, the world of Orwell's cry against fascism--and his warning--is still very much with us. (Similarly, though in a more psychological way, the 1962 world of A Single Man still looks and feels very much like life here and now in every way that matters.)

So there are my film reviews, with a bit of personal reflection thrown in. Next, I'll take a a quick look--via the Internet, and a book I haven't read--at the three historical figures in Little Ashes. This might seem a bit of a cheat since I haven't read the book and might never get around to it, but if I don my librarian's hat, it seems fair to cite it as possible further reading for anyone seeking to pursue the subject; the author has very solid credentials, as a scholar and as translator of Garcia Lorca's plays.

Googling around a bit I saw that a book came out at about the same time as the film, and though the Wiki on the film doesn't list it for further reading, I should think it would be the next step for most people who would like to explore this story further. It seems very much in line with the story told in the film and in fact it's hard to believe there isn't some connection. It's Lorca, Bunuel, Dali: Forbidden Pleasures and Connected Lives (2009), by Gwynne Edwards. Here's the book's Product Description on Amazon:
Lorca, Buñuel and Dalí were, in their respective fields of poetry and theatre, cinema, and painting, three of the most imaginative creative artists of the twentieth century; their impact was felt far beyond the boundaries of their native Spain. But if individually they have been examined by many, their connected lives have rarely been considered. It is these, the ties that bind them, that constitute the subject of this illuminating book.
They were born within six years of each other and, as Gwynne Edwards reveals, their childhood circumstances were very similar, each being affected by a narrow-minded society and an intolerant religious background, which equated sex with sin. All three experienced sexual problems of different kinds: Lorca, homosexual anguish, Buñuel sexual inhibition, and Dalí virtual impotence. They met during the 1920s at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which cannelled their respective obsessions into the cultural forms then prevalent in Europe, in particular Surrealism. Rooted in such turmoil, their work -- from Lorca’s dramatic characters seeking sexual fulfilment, to Buñuel’s frustrated men and women, and Dalí's potent images of shame and guilt -- is highly autobiographical. Their left-wing outrage directed at bourgeois values and the Catholic Church was sharpened by the political upheavals of the 1930s, which in Spain led to the catastrophic Civil War of 1936-39. Lorca was murdered by Franco’s fascists in 1936. This tragic event hastened Buñuel's departure to Mexico and Dalí's to New York and Edwards relates how for the rest of his life Buñuel clung to his left-wing ideals and made outstanding films, while the increasingly eccentric and money-grubbing Dalí embraced Fascism and the Catholic Church and his art went into steep decline.

Actors from the movie; Garcia Lorca and Dali in real life
And from the same page, this blurb from a review:
"One can find numerous studies on each [artist] individually, but few scholars, if any, have dealt with the impact of their interconnected personal and creative lives. Edwards meets this challenge superbly. Thanks to his careful research, he clarifies many longstanding misconceptions and elucidates the sociopolitical circumstances in Spain that determined crucial personal decisions by each of these artists. An engrossing, noteworthy book." --CHOICE

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