27 December 2009

Single Men: A Look at Three Men of Film, Unmarried and Unattached (Damn it!)

I've recently seen three films that feature single (unmarried and unattached) adult males. All in very different circumstances coping with degrees of pain, angst and frustration. The films are A Single Man, The Bishop's Wife (1947) and 500 Days of Summer. I saw them in a theater, on TV and on DVD, respectively. Here's an examination of each of these men and their circumstances.

A Single Man. Colin Firth is George. He has been mourning the death of his "domestic partner" for eight months when we are introduced to him. The year is 1962. Because George's lover , Jim, was also a man and this is well before most gay men had so much as a toe out of the closet, he is very isolated in his grief. In fact, he was not welcome at Jim's funeral -- family only. George has a nearby friend, Charley (Julianne Moore) with whom he had a brief fling many years ago. She is very much alone, except for George's now exclusively chaste visits, and an ever present alcoholic beverage. Her company can in no way fill the void left by Jim's death in an auto accident. George and Jim were together for 15 blissful years. George is meticulously planning his own suicide. We wonder if the prospect of a relationship with a student (George is a college professor) will alter his plans. George is the very embodiment of the single man. The kind who used to be very much part of a couple. There is no solitude to compare with that suffered who has permanently lost a love. A relationship terminated so suddenly and cruelly causes wounds so deep that time will not heal them. We watch a man trying to just go through the motions, but life, as it does, keeps intervening. How hard is to to "just go about our business" to make our plans to execute them. How hard to wallow in our sorrow when the truth is that no man is an island. Firth wears the weight of his character's sorrow so deeply that he seems to be submerged, swallowed by an ocean of emotional pain. The pain is only greater because of the necessity of keeping that love private from an intolerant world.

The Bishop's Wife. How cool would life be as an angel? Talk about having a super powers! You can save baby's from oncoming traffic, provide an old writer with a magic elixir disguised a sherry and skate like an Olympian. No, you're not a crime fighter but just as important you're a problem solver and a do gooder. If you're handsome, witty and sophisticated like, oh say, Cary Grant...well, what could be better? Hmm, how about being human? You'd think that Dudley, the angel in The Bishop's Wife so charmingly portrayed by Cary Grant would be as happy a being as you'd ever met. And in fact to all outward appearances he is. Unflappable.. Nattily dressed. As warm an inviting, as wise and kind as you please. But folks, he's miserable. Like many a non human he wishes nothing more to be one of us. Why on Earth (no pun intended) would anyone want to be human? The minuses include: No magical powers, growing old, illness and losing loved ones. But Dudley sees the biggest plus and he longs to experience it: love. In answer to a prayer he is helping a bishop (David Niven). Said bishop is quite happily married to a handsome woman, Julia (Loretta Young). Much of Dudley's work requires him squiring around Julia. Not surprisingly he falls head over heals. Tough luck, angel. Ain't gonna happen. Here's an loneliness that we can relate to, even those of us who aren't angels (I'm guessing a majority) forbidden fruit, or perhaps more accurately, inaccessible fruit. Dudley can see, touch and hear, but not have Julia. Worse, he can have no one else. This is one of Cary Grant's great performances. We're used to the slick and sly, but we also get the pain. The more you watch the film the more you see it in his eyes as his work is done and he must leave. Leave a love he can never have. Ever and who knows eternity like an angel?

500 Days of Summer. It always bothered me when at the very outset of relationship a woman would tell me she "wasn't looking for anything serious." So let me get this straight. If you meet the perfect man it ain't gonna happen because you're not "looking for" it? And it some later point in your life you'll think, "say, I'm ready for 'serious' relationship so I'm gonna start looking." I often assumed that what they were saying was in code and really meant: "you're cute and we'll have fun, but don't expect this to go very far." And I wondered why they couldn't just say that from the beginning. In 500 Days, the character named Summer (Zooey Deschanel) delivers the line to Tom Hansen (James Gordon-Levitt). One problem here for him is that he is looking for something "serious." It is no spoiler to tell you that she dumps him. And it seemed so perfect! (To him.) Speaking for my fellow males, we can relate. I reckon we've all been dropped like a bad habit just when we thought "things" were going great. Who can figure women? Us guys are smelly, stupid and grouchy but we're generally like a good dog. We sniff around a lot but are loyal and love affection. James Gordon-Levitt captures the all encompassing melancholia that envelops the jilted male. The increased cynicism, the bouts of depression, the self destructive behavior, the inability to accept attempts to bring us cheer. His face does the happy clown to sad clown switch and its utterly convincing. There is the dull glaze to the eyes, the general stupor in all movements and the world weary voice. But he is young and soldiers on. We almost always do, eventually. I did numerous times until I met the woman of my dreams and the poor lady's been saddled with me for decades.

Firth, Grant and Gordon-Levitt play three very different men (hell, one's not even a man) and capture in their own ways the worst that we can experience in life -- being alone. None go into rages, none rely on theatrical emotions. All are mostly contained and let their faces, especially their eyes, speak for all that pain and isolation. They seem to me particularly challenging roles accomplished by men at the top of their games.

1 comment:

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