By: Logan Geissler
(The film “A Single Man” (2009) is currently on Netflix)
Queer film can be represented through many facets from flamboyant males to butch lesbians and everything in between. In A Single Man, George is a non-stereotypical gay man in that he is masculine, and not portrayed as a sissy or overly feminine. I believe the fact that he hid his sexuality and was very closed off portrayed the sense of the single man, the man without a partner.
I invited a group of friends to watch A Single Man and later had a discussion about our thoughts on the film. I felt comfortable watching this film with them because we have become closer and the majority of them identify as LGBT, which helped me to see different perspectives on the film. I knew that the queerness of the films would not be startling or new, but I was still interested to hear what they had to say.
George, played by Colin Firth, is struggling to find a reason to live without Jim—his partner of 16 years—who passed away 8 months prior to the start of the film. He is again a single man when his partner parents don’t notify him of Jim’s death. The family was going to shut him out of any funeral arrangements because of his sexuality and relationship with their son.
There are actually many moments when we can see his singularity portrayed; he is now without a partner in his life and he must live alone and cope. He is also alone in society, the fact that he is a gay man in the 60’s means that he is unlike most people of the time period. He must hide who he is, and while hiding can’t open up or find others like him. This changes when George meets Kenny, a young man in George’s lecture class, is one who is able to open up to George and relate to him, giving George a friend and someone he can talk to as well.
The 1960’s were a time of much turmoil and questioning throughout the nation. The McCarthy era uncovered secrets and judgments that would not have promoted gay or lesbian rights, mainly because this was another piece of evidence against the solidarity of the nation. The gay rights movement wouldn’t happen for another two decades, so these men were left to hide their innate sexuality from everyone around them.
In his class, George talks about fears of the Jews during the war, and those of the American people during the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. He speaks about the Nazis and how they had a cause to hate the Jews, the cause just wasn’t realistic or agreed to by the large population. He speaks so familiarly about fears–fears that can shape minority groups. I felt this entire time he was speaking to his background and his life in the queer community and how he hid in fear of others judging and hating him. He has struggled with fear ever since he knew he was gay. George and Jim didn’t have to fear each other, that is one reason George is suffering so greatly.
George is set on committing suicide that evening. Being meticulous, he lays out insurance information and even takes out some money for his housekeeper. He writes letters to friends and gets bullets for his gun. He understands and feels that suicide is the only way to get back to Jim, back to when he was happy. George plans the positioning and even how to contain the blood (in a sleeping bag on his bed). Another interesting sign is the way George won’t commit himself to events or dates past that night, probably because he doesn’t think he will be around to enjoy the company and spend time with the people. For example, one of his neighbors finds him at the bank when he is cashing out his insurance policy. She invites him to their house for a party and he declines, saying he has plans. She offers another night and he brushes it off and thanks her.
He is afflicted up until his moment of clarity when at his home with Kenny. Kenny found him alone at Jim and George’s favorite club, and convinces George to come be with him. They run around the beach and swim together and eventually George opens up and they go to his home to dry off and spend some time together. After some flirting and showering George is hit, metaphorically, with this serendipitous moment.
George tells us through his narration that in his life he lives for these “moments of clarity” when the silence drowns out the noise and he can think clearly about who he is. During this particular moment he came to realize that suicide would not make him feel better, he would not be a better person for doing it, and he may not get to be with the people he realizes he cares for. Sadly, the only person he can think about is Jim and how much he lost with his death.
During the film there are flashbacks where we see Jim and George having a grand time together, loving each other through thick and thin. These moments are what help us see the rest of his life, why he suffers, and what he wishes he could have again. Once George is in this moment of utter clearness he goes and opens a door to the backyard. You can sense that the cool night air, another sense of clarity and crispness, is brushing over him. He starts to realize then that he must continue on, for there are far better things to do with his life than killing himself.
There are other signs, visual and metaphorical, that lead us to believe he has changed his suicidal beliefs. The duration of the film is interspersed with dreams of him in dark blue water, trying to find the top to breath. This metaphor shows his feeling of overbearing depression and sense of defeat. One of my favorite scenes, and a moment of clarity for myself, was when he finally broke through the water in his last water dream. I felt this showed his ability to move on with his life. The water in his dream was a dark blue, but once he came to the realization the water became a reddish orange, symbolizing the change and rebirth. The last sign that I noticed was how his flashbacks were no longer of what he wished for about Jim. They had become memories from his much-needed night with Charley and Kenny.
In general we were in agreement to the representation of queer people and the attitude of the movie—we all really enjoyed the film. When starting the discussion after the movie I wanted to get a general consensus of what people liked and disliked. My friend Scott who is a transgender male loved the use of colors, which everyone agreed with. In this movie, the filmmakers were able to bring out more colors at certain moments throughout the film to show the connection between George and other characters. When he talked with friends or someone in his life the film, and his entire outlook, seemed to brighten. I believe this was showing the connectedness he felt and the realization eventually not to kill himself. Once he had had his moment of clarity his life seemed a little warmer and brighter. We all also really liked the flashbacks, especially since the movie was only focused on one day of his life; the flashbacks showed us who he used to be.
As an audience, we were pleased to see a non-stereotypical gay man as the main character. Colin Firth plays a closed off character, very subdued and not feminine how other gay men can be portrayed. In the discussion, it was brought up whether he was “out” as gay or if he was still hiding that aspect of his life. My roommate Kereth saw him as a hidden gay man, only because of the time period and how difficult that would have been for him, especially since he was a professional. I could see this being true since he was quiet when talking with Kenny about getting a drink and then when together they were not on the campus at all. My friend Simon thought that George could’ve been out because the neighbor man says he is “light in his loafers”-a reference to his sexuality and how George is somewhat flirty with Kenny. I was in the middle, there were traits of him that could’ve been either side.
There were a few instances that were uncomfortable and that we as an audience didn’t like. For example, Scott didn’t like the possible hook up between George and Kenny since it felt like a trivialization of his relationship with Jim. It could have brought shame to what he had been a part of for 16 years. I actually liked that George was headed towards something new, even if the relationship didn’t last he was still moving on and enjoying the company of another man. Simon and Sky shared Scott’s perspective and were just a little uneasy about the possibility of George taking advantage or Kenny not wanting to hurt his reputation at the school. There were also moments in the film when George would be looking directly into a character’s eyes and you could feel this judgment from the characters. Scott called it paranoia and I would agree, George is constantly looking to see what others think and if they can tell what he is hiding. For example he looks into his secretary’s eyes and is wary of what she knows. An interesting twist is that in his class he is looking at Kenny in this way, but that all changes later in the film when he realizes Kenny is interested. I was also a little concerned, and always will be, about the relationship between professor and student in any school setting.
Because everyone, but Kereth and myself, identified as queer I wanted to know how they felt queer people were represented. As a group we felt very good about the gay population shown in the film because they were a mix of men. George was masculine and drawn back, Kenny was flirty and young, Jim in the flashbacks was a bit more feminine and sexy, and Carlos the new friend was very sexually interested and curious. One thing we did notice was this was a gay movie, less over reaching for a queer film because there were no lesbians or trans people.
One of my favorite discussion questions from that night that I had come up with was: How would this film be different if it was set in our time period? We had a lot of great ideas, especially about his relationship with Kenny and how unethical it could be in today’s culture. I also felt that it could be creepier today because he seemed like a mentor to Kenny and perhaps that could show George taking advantage. Kenny could have found out more about George through Facebook and the Internet before approaching him. There would also be more consequences for his actions through the university if rumors were to spread. The fact that Jim’s family was not accepting may not change at all because they could be religious or conservative; there are still people who are not accepting. Jim was a Navy man, which could have complicated his relationship with George. He may not have made any move on George had he been a Navy man today with the fear of being harassed or removed from duty all because of sexual orientation. On the bright side with the new legislation for gay rights Jim and George could’ve been married, which means that there could have been more say in a funeral from George. He also could get more help with depression since many people have gone to counseling and therapy, more so than in the 1960’s.
Our last conversation was about relating to the character of George. I framed it as: other than sexual orientation, is there any trait that he has that you also share with him? For myself, I felt connected to his planning and preparedness, not so much for suicide but in life in general. Scott felt that he could relate to the accusing eyes and paranoia of wondering who knew about the gay life he led. Scott has dealt with pressure and judgment from family and friends for his transition from female to male. Kereth felt similar to George and other characters in the sense that they could be open about their fears and open in general with friends and family. My other roommate Liron understood where George was coming from with depression and coping after the death, not because she has dealt with either, but the character portrayed was relatable. Sky felt she could identify with the idea of sticking to your gender norms, like when George says he used to live with his “friend” instead of lover, and dressing masculine. Sky is now freer to dress how she likes, but she used to try to dress more feminine even though, as a lesbian, she would like to dress more gender neutral or masculine. She really identified with the hidden reality of George’s sexuality and gender comportment.
After such a deep movie it was great to be able to discuss it with my friends who all seemed to enjoy it, giving it an average 8.5 out of 10 rating. This movie really opened my eyes to the grief and suicidal aspect of relationships, especially those of gay men. Even though this film was set in the 1960’s I can see how many of the ideas could be current today. Not once was the movie dull—always thrilling and forward moving. In class, I don’t get to lead the discussion and this was a great way to hear new and different takes on what the movie meant to queer identifying and straight audiences.