Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’, creative responsibility and modern film making

I just finished watching ‘A Single Man’. I first watched the film on its own, then watched the ‘Making of’ and then watched it again with the Director’s commentary on – it just kept me so interested, asking questions, and thankfully some of them were answered the second time I watched it. It’s a quirky, but at the same time down to earth film, telling the story of a single day in the life of a man – which is also his last day alive. He’s planning his suicide throughout the day, trying to let go of the past and its painful memories, then changes his mind because of all the beauty he experiences, but his body can’t take it and he finally dies from a heart attack. That’s the technical facts, but they are not really what the film is about.

‘A Single Man’ was Tom Ford’s first film. He wrote the screenplay (adaptation of his favourite novel), then went ahead, produced and directed it. The name did sound familiar to me, and while watching the Making of I realised why – that’s the fashion designer Tom Ford. Who just happened to receive a few awards and nominations for ‘A Single Man’ – his first ever film. He does have a good track record of being successful, and also learning his way to success.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Tom’s development in the creative industries – from an Art History drop out, through acting in TV commercials, then getting a degree in Architecture and later on joining Gucci. He didn’t just become part of the company – he was the person to re-establish it and to re-position the brand in the fashion world, as well as strengthening its business. Later he established his own fashion brand ‘TOM FORD’ – starting with glasses and beauty products, and gradually getting to clothes. Then he went into filmmaking and created ‘A Single Man’.

It was interesting for me to read about his journey – there are a few key moments where he took big leaps and brave decisions, and then also a few periods of very diligent and conscious learning, structured and persistent effort – and a lot of hard work.

His film, ‘A Single Man’, is very different and unique in the way it was constructed. Now, the treatment of some scenes and lots of creative decisions feel naive and too literal at times – however, the film in its wholeness works quite well, and tells a beautiful story. If you want to read about all the bad decisions of a first-time film maker, here’s a review: http://www.slantmagazine.com/dvd/review/a-single-man/1768. In the meantime, let me try and focus on the creative expression and storytelling that we see in the film, however bad some of the scenes are.

One of the very unique features in ‘A Single Man’ is the use of colour. It is constantly changing from the bland, de-saturated colours of the mundane everyday life to the vivid, almost psychedelic, highly saturated scenes of real emotion and appreciation of life. Colour has such a key role in the way the story was told, it almost works like an additional character.

A few times in the commentary, Tom mentions the film had a tight budget. The only thing that made it clear for me that they had to make some compromises, was the sound treatment. For example, there is a not-so-key scene in the film where a car leaves a parking lot and the sound is cleverly panned from the left to the right channel, but then there were dozens of scenes where sound was too literal, or masked with music. A classic example are scenes with rain, where cutting from wide-shot to mid-shot and / or close-up means the sound levels suddenly change, which always sounds unnatural and a bit clumsy. Yes, the viewers are suddenly closer to the action, but the differences are not that dramatic in real life. Though, in all honesty, the film wasn’t about sound at all. Yes, maybe it would have felt more ‘complete’ and ‘polished’ with better sound design, but the main point in ‘A Single Man’ is that life is about the little things that are beautiful – it is unpolished, just as life itself.

The set and costume design in the film were, expectedly, given a lot more thought. Each scene had a very clear purpose, and the set reflected it. All the details were making a point, and gave a bit of extra sense of realism and believability. Tom Ford made a huge amount of research (which, I believe, he thoroughly enjoyed), making sure the cultural references were truthful to the period portrayed. His background in fashion design and photography gave the film a unique feel – all the shots were very well framed, the light treatment, colour combinations and textures were all well planned and designed. Of course, at some points this goes a bit over the top and exceeds the level of necessity to a level of fetishism – but, with a director so obsessed with design, it is expected.

The storyline itself was multi-layered, there were lots and lots of flashbacks helping to get the point across. There were times, though, when it wasn’t quite clear what is ‘now’, what is a flashback and actually happened, or what is a dream / daydream that is just a vision.

The relationships between the characters, and their place in the story were established very well, they were developed, balanced, again, looked believable. This was of course made a little bit easier by the fact both the screenplay and the novel it was based, on were autobiographical – either for the author of the book or Tom Ford himself – and it is always a little bit easier to tell a story about something you’ve been through. Although I have to admit, most scenes that puzzled me and left me with the question ‘Hm, how does that fit with the story?’ were the scenes Ford later explained came from his own life. Which, however meaningful they were in his own personal experience, weren’t always justified in the film.

What really caught my attention though, especially in terms of the story, was how it was not in any way relying on the exotic / curious / cliche portrayal of gay men. I think this is actually the first film I’ve seen where being gay doesn’t change the way the story and the characters develop. It was a very human and touching story, about connecting on a human level, and some characters just happened to be gay – but if it were a story between a man and a woman, everything would have been exactly the same. All people have a similar experience of being in love, or feeling isolated – it is part of the human condition, and not part of being ‘straight’ or ‘gay’. Of course, both Tom Ford and the author of the original novel are gay so they are relating to their own experience as opposed to authors writing about gay men while being straight. But the main point was how being gay is left out of the equation and the story becomes just a story about love, isolation, and life.

Back to Tom Ford making this film, I think a lot can be said about control. This is not ‘a Colin Firth film’. This is not ‘a film about life’. This is a Tom Ford film. From beginning to end, from screenplay to colouring, he was in charge and got involved with all stages of the production. It was his screenplay, based on his favourite novel, which he produced, he directed, he coloured; he made all the creative decisions, and it is manifesting and just screams ‘TOM FORD’. There’s two sides to this – you can call him a ‘Control freak’, or you can argue he’s owning his vision and insisting on having the creative control – so he can tell the story the way he sees it. Control brings great responsibility – but also, a great sense of accomplishment once the product of your efforts is done. It is a reassurance that you can do it, that your vision is alive, that you’ve made your point and people understand it. It is, also, I think, a good place to be in as a creative – if the audience can understand your idea, straight from your head to their minds, it gives you reassurance as an author and communicator.

Two other successful recent examples come to mind – one is Debbie Isitt’s work on ‘Nativity!’ and the other one is Louis C.K.’s self-produced and self-promoted recent production. In both cases, they kept their creative control, putting their vision and artistic integrity before anything else. They believed in their ideas, and didn’t mind it being ‘unpolished’ and ‘not perfect’ – the main point was they did things their way, appreciated their own ways of doing things, not giving up their values. This approach is all about responsibility – if you’re not listening to what the established way of doing things has to say, you need to take responsibility for your actions – whether the results are good or bad. While if you’re listening to what ‘the established experts’ have to say about it, there is a risk that you lose your integrity and become someone who just ‘delivers’, as opposed to someone who has a vision and communicates it.

One of the worst examples I can think of, showing what happens when you are only playing it ‘safe’, is the film ‘Friends With Benefits’.

A 90-minute advertisement of American films, NYC and LA

This is a film where cliches and conventions were everywhere, it was using all the working formulas, it met viewers’ expectations, there was no element of surprise. The film was a 90-minute advertisement of NYC and LA, and the story was just there to help sell the idea. The perfect, polished, easy to digest pop-culture product that goes with lots of pop corn and soda drinks, fills your head with intense, meaningless images, and puts you in a buying and consuming vibe. A big contrast to ‘A Single Man’ where the film leaves the thinking to yourself and asks more questions than it answers.

‘A Single Man’

What do you think? Do you prefer watching films where all your questions are answered, or you like films that leave questions unanswered? Or is it a mixture of both worlds?

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