Monday, 16 August 2010

Stillness of the mind

I realise I have not had time to comment on what has been hailed by many as the best soundtrack of 2010, that of Tom Ford's film A Single Man. Contributions on the soundtrack come from mainly two composers: Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi.

Korzeniowski, a Polish composer, has worked with a front figure of horror film music, Krzysztof Penderecki, who was commisioned to compose the score for Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining (1980), starring Jack Nicholson among others.

The score, however, bears no resemblance to or signs of Penderecki's mentorship, but instead focuses on the portrayal of George, a stern and grieving gay English professor living in 1960's California, where the impending doom of a possible nuclear aftermath to the Cuban Missile Crisis looms in the air.

George is silently grieving the loss of his partner, and the film (based on the fine novel by Christopher Isherwood) portrays a day in his life. The viewer is shown a rather atypical day in George's life. Tom Ford first decides to show the viewer how little George feels a part of his domestic neighbourhood. The gentrification of what (we are told) used to be an area of bohemians and intellectual has resulted in what George seemingly perceives as a dull and uneventful community of child-rearing families. Umebayashi encapsulates the sterile but also pristine setting in George's Waltz.

George can be seen as neither interested in the comic hystericism of his contemporaries regarding the purchasing of bomb shelters in case of a nuclear attack by the perceived Communist "enemy", nor in the blasé attitude of the youthful students he lectures on English literature. He is an outsider in every way of the word: A single male living in gentrified Los Angeles, an Englishman living in America, too old to engage with his students on a social level and constrained by rigid norms and attitudes towards sexuality.

We are shown a day at the university where George lectures. Tom Ford uses his own background as a fashion designer to interject small but interesting details, such as George's attempt at guessing what perfume the female secretary in his office is wearing: "Arpège?" George asks subtly while attempting to hold onto the experience of the smell.

A certain emphasis is placed on George's decision not to spend the day's lecture on Aldous Huxley's novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan but instead on discussing the notion of minorities (which both concerns himself very much, but also in the wider context of the silent war being waged against Cuba).

Ford shows us the more mundane aspects of George's life: A trip to the bank and a trip to the liquor store. At the bank George encounters Jennifer, the daughter of his neighbour mrs. Strunk, who, in a very innocent manner speaks to him about her pet scorpion, and how they feed it moths and other smaller creatures every night. The furthering of the theme of the alienation of the minority is quite well situated here, and yet George seems more concerned with meeting someone who will not judge him. The encounter is beautifully delivered in Umebayashi's A Variation On Scotty Tails Madeline. As the track title reads, this is a reinterpretation of Madeline from Bernard Herrmann's score for Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).

George goes to see his lifelong expat friend (and former lover) Charley, who appears quite trapped in dwellings about former glory: "Living in the past is my future", as she bluntly remarks. The score captures both the dancing and the dwelling, with Etta James' Stormy Weather and the more edgy Booker T. & The MG.'s Green Onion. Their collective nostalgia for (better) times is fully conveyed by Jo Stafford's haunting delivery of Blue Moon, a relic of the wonderful years in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Kenny, a student of George who for unclear reasons has been chasing him down all day turns up in a bar with a clear intent of talking to George. The naïvety of the character Kenny ("Sir, I had a hunch that you were a romantic", "the future is death") allows George for once in the day to escape the stiffness of his life and do something unexpected and rather grand: They go swimming together in the pitch-dark sea, a climatic point wonderfully vowed together by Korzeniowski in Swimming; one almost feels 17 again just from listening.

Without giving too much away, a final and very underrated track is Korzeniowski's Sunset, a truly victorious day for violin music. The rough end-stroke of the violin is so sensual and earthbound that it finds proper placement near the end of the film. Script alterations have happened between the film and the original 1964 novel, but this final quote not found in the novel is still quite interesting:

"A few times in my life I've had moments of absolute clarity, when for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh. I can never make these moments last. I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I have lived my life on these moments. They pull me back to the present, and I realize that everything is exactly the way it was meant to be."

The score is mesmerising and subdues the listener very quickly. The intertwining of nostalgia with stringency - strings with soft rock - yields a miniscule but appreciable picture of what the 60's were for someone like George.

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