A Single Man (2009) – To Be or Not to Be?

You don’t understand me.  Nobody does.

When the dust has settled, the books have been closed and the time has come to write the intellectual history of the later stages of the twentieth Century, Historians will speak of two separate schools of thought.  Born on opposite sides of the world and yet joined at the hip.

From America, we have the cult of the individual, born of political ideology, carefully nurtured by a fledgling advertising industry and sanctified by a generation of psychologists, therapists, counsellors and psychoanalysts.  This school of thought stresses the importance and the potential of the individual in the face of endless pressure from the faceless masses.  Masses, of course, composed of equally heroic individuals.  In such a climate an act of individualisation, no matter how insignificant or trifling, is heroic.  What brand of coffee do you buy?  Are you a Mac or a PC?  Did you take in the BFI’s Ozu retrospective instead of going to see Avatar?  Under this world-view, the individual is not merely a building block of a larger society, he is an irreducible force.  A spiritual, political, moral and commercial monad.

From Europe, we have the phenomenology of self.  The Second World War swept away all certainties, even those of the Enlightenment.  There was a need to return to source.  To build again.  Where better to start than Descartes’ maxim?  The ultimate philosophical slogan : I think therefore I am.  We cannot trust old certainties, all that we know is that we are and that we think.  But where the Enlightenment used this as foundation stone for the construction of a new world of knowledge, the post-War philosophers took it as a boundary.  A limit.  An end.  And so emerged a need to fetishise the cogito.  To stress the importance of the subjective not only to philosophy but to our conceptions of self.  Under this school of thought, we are imprisoned within the walls of our own subjectivies.  Not only alone but utterly distant from those around us.  Our experiences and feelings suddenly so different to people of the same class, the same up-bringing and the same education that we might as well be speaking a different language.  Other people are utterly alien.  As Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation demonstrates, we can now sit in a crowded Japanese bar and be utterly alone.

So you see… nobody understands me.  Or you.  Not really.

Tom Ford’s mesmerising debut A Single Man – an adaptation of a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood – is an examination of this school of thought.  Its title refers not only to the marital status of its protagonist, but also to the pervasive idea that our psychological states are somehow unique and that this uniqueness separates us from other people.  The reality, of course, could not be further from the truth.

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