A Single Man (2009) is yet another period piece that fails to relate to a contemporary audience. Much like Revolutionary Road (2008), another film adaptation of a novel written in the early 1960s, some of the once-progressive dialogue tends to sound cliché or trite to a millennial ear. Yet while some of the subject matter has certainly endured the test of time, I’m starting to grow weary of the tragic gay love story. Why must we torture ourselves with depressing accounts of closeted homosexuals, inevitably doomed to a fate of death and destruction? Am I the only who would like to see a more positive representation of queers in popular culture? Don’t get me wrong, I love a little Colin Firth and as always, Julianne Moore, both of whom give incredible performances. Brokeback Mountain was yet another guilty pleasure. I enjoyed watching Health Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s stellar performances as lovers. Yet when all is said and done, we could use some more empowering gay imagery.
Todd Haynes makes a similar attempt with his film Far From Heaven (2002), which also stars Julianne Moore. Like Tom Ford in A Single Man and Sam Mendes in Revolutionary Road, Haynes invites us into a world full of censorship and taboo, effectively exploring themes that were once revolutionary in their day. Far From Heaven is effectively a modern interpretation of several Douglas Sirk films, the latter of whom pushed cinematic boundaries during the era of the Hays Code. According to Olivier Caïra in Hollywood face à la censure, the Hays Code prohibited the explicit depiction of “sex perversion,” such as homosexuality, or “miscegenation,” the term used for interracial relationships between blacks and whites. It also prohibited the explicit representation of adultery in terms of upholding the sanctity of marriage. Moreover, it restricted “excessive and lustful kissing.” Haynes inserts blatant critique where Douglas Sirk could only infer within strict boundaries. As Hollywood was packaging and, in turn, exporting its own brand of Americana, these critiques—in both film and literature—were essential. Yet unfortunately, these messages do not resonate as they once did. What once seemed radical yesterday can easily sound flat today. Moreover, while it is important to confront the horrific reality of the past, such period pieces featuring homosexuality or interracial dating, in all their melodrama, tend to leave audiences with a sense of relief that society has somehow ameliorated itself. In reality, we all still have some work to do. Ironically, these cinematic reminders could well be holding us back. Once one stops seeing oneself as a victim, there becomes greater opportunity for growth and empowerment.
Nevertheless, A Single Man proves a successful directorial debut for fashion designer Tom Ford. The film is aesthetically pleasing, with a lovely pace. His production design team, also responsible for the meticulously designed sets of Mad Men, skillfully envelopes you into the world of Southern California, circa 1962. Despite all my talk of cliché dialogue, it still offers ideas that resonate today. Set against a backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, issues of fear of the other or of the hidden minority are still extremely relevant within our own context of the War on Terror. All in all, the film is sprinkled with wonderful moments that are filled with endearing characters and engaging homilies. Yet, somehow these beautiful little gems do not a movie make. Although I really wanted to love this film, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something missing.