"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Subtle Anticipations in Film Narrative: Foreshadowing in A Single Man

Tom Ford’s approach in screenwriting and directing his first feature film, A Single Man (2009), which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same title, can be characterized as thoroughness oriented to the use of film as art not merely for visual storytelling, but also to probe the depths of human meaning and present the audience with a thesis and thus something to ponder. As Ford reveals in his oral commentary to the film, that thesis is that we should live in the present, attending to it more closely, because today might be our last day of life. George, the film’s protagonist, supposes that in intending to commit suicide at the end of the day covered by the film, he chooses the final day of his life—hence retaining and exercising some control over his otherwise hackneyed daily routine. Though an exquisite use of foreshadowing that subtly and vaguely anticipates his death, the film gains a depth of meaning that operates at different levels. The underlying meaning is nuanced, even multivalent, rather than entirely opaque and transparent. In this essay, I take a look at Ford’s use of hints anticipating George’s death. Being salient in the script, they serve as a good illustration for aspiring and even accomplished screenwriters who want to touch the unconscious as well as awareness.


The most transparent foreshadowing takes place at the beginning of the film, in the morning before work, in the kitchen. George’s heart disease suddenly clenches and he winces in a quick spat of pain. In Christopher Isherwood’s book of the same title, which Ford adapted for the film, the fit is a spasm—a mere cramp that George has on a regular basis.[1] The film begins closer to consciousness.

“I don’t see my future,” George says as our narrator at the beginning of what would turn out to be the last day of his life in spite of his last-minute decision not to kill himself. Sitting in his modern, Frank Lloyd Wright-based house in Malibu, California on November 30, 1962, he knows he plans on killing himself—an intent that is entirely missing in the book. The professor is genuinely perplexed, as if the lack of any envisioned future would be any surprise on his last day on earth. He is inexplicably stupefied even as he goes over his plan to commit suicide. In the book, George tells Kenny at the bar late that night, “The future—that’s where death is.”[2] It is all so open-ended, as if a blank screen so bright nothing on it can be seen.

Just as vaguely, George says “I’m going away” in answer to a hustler’s suggestion of “Maybe another time?” as the two look into the setting golden sunlight after work. Later that night, George answers his friend Charlie’s desire to get together again real soon with, “I think I will be quiet this weekend.” In the book, George nearly falls down stairs going out from Charlie’s front door, very nearly falling “ten, fifty, one hundred million feet into the bottomless black night.”[3] In retrospect, these remarks are chilling, even ominous, for they imply an insufferable, terminal void into which even a person’s consciousness and thought dissolve; and yet, as George lies prostrate on his bedroom floor, dying of a heart attack just before 3 a.m., his voice narration informs the audience, “And suddenly it happened.” Another foreshadowing, perhaps, though this one is for the viewers, who in answer to the anticipated void at the end of their own lives dare to hope.

The foreshadowing is also done by substituting awkward inexplicable reactions in place of the expected. The effect is to open up the narrative, as if pregnant with new-found potential directionality. Looking at George during cocktails before dinner at her stylish house, for instance, Charlie observes, “Darling, you don’t look well; remember that heart attack you had?  You don’t look so hot.” Even though George intends to put a pistol to his head later that night, I find it odd that he barely registers a reaction. To be sure, he has no incentive to run to a hospital for a stress test.

After dinner and an enjoyable dance, George lights two cigarettes and hands one to his former lover. “It’s not like smoking will kill me,” he deadpans. Charlie, her own drunken state doubtlessly being a factor, does not take the hint as she should. Is George unconsciously crying out for help? Rather than two people connecting, the two alcoholics are talking past each other even as they presume (and crave) emotional intimacy. George lost it a year earlier when his partner Jim died in a car crash in Ohio, and life was in black and white for him ever since—except for that last day, when George found himself amazed with the beauty in the ordinary and then unexpectedly connecting.

After leaving Charlie’s house, George goes to his neighborhood bar. Finding Kenny, a student clearly obsessed with his professor, curiously there (pensively waiting, in the book’s version), George confides to him (hence establishing emotional intimacy), “You know the only thing that has made the whole thing worthwhile, has been those few times when I’ve been really, truly been able to connect with another human being.” The question is thus whether this new, unforeseen connection will mean a suspension or cancellation of the current plan.

The answer is not delivered directly or all at once. Once again, the narrative has depth, and thus reaches out on more than one level using foreshadowing. Back at his place with Kenny after their short swim in the Pacific Ocean after drinks at the bar, George realizes that his watch has stopped. “My watch seems to have stopped,” he says—again, strangely perplexed. A hint for us that time has run out for George, only he does not realize it even though he still intends to end his life that night; he is still under the impression that he is in control of when his life will end. Besides being a neat-freak, George has nearly suffocated himself tightly in controlling his interior and exterior, yet as a functioning alcoholic he is anything but in control of even himself.

Minutes after realizing that his watch has stopped, George passes out as Kenny looks on. In his recurrent dream of drowning, the depressed, still grieving professor finally gets to the surface and can breathe. This awakens him, and he finds and locks away his gun, no longer intent on ending his life.  No doubt the emotional intimacy with Kenny—finally connecting with another human being again—has brought color back into George’s life. Ford cleverly varies color saturation to distinguish the pallid world of George’s depression from Charlie’s liveliness and Kenny’s emotional connection. In fact, Kenny plays a savior role, rather than merely that of an obsessed student—even keeping his professor safe by holding the gun while sleeping on the couch after carrying George back to bed. According to Ford, although it is not clear that Kenny is interested in men, he willingly offers his body to George when the two return earlier from swimming.

Kenny has indeed saved George, at least in terms of suicide.  Yet the Fates, intimated for the audience by the sight of an owl taking flight as George opens his front door to glimpse the nearly-full ruddy moon, will have the last word in this affair we call life. As Ford points out in his commentary, the owl has long stood for death being not long in coming. George is in a state of suspended animation, for he finds himself ensconced in one of his rare, fleeting moments in which the universe and everything in it, including his own life and even his partner’s crash, make sense. “A few times in my life,” he narrates, “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; it’s as though it had all just come into existence.” Burning the suicide notes he had written to Charlie and someone else, he concedes that he can never make such moments last. “I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I’ve lived my life on these moments; they pull me back to the present.” With that, the thesis is transparent: live in the present, for today may just be your last. Such alignment is suddenly undercut, however, as George gets his wish even if he is no longer willing it.

Realizing that “everything is exactly the way it’s meant to be,” George reaches out for to his bed stand for water only to feel himself in the clutches of a fatal, all-consuming heart attack. Ford says George is even wrong about everything then being just right in his life. How cruel it is of the Fates to cut into one of those rare conditions of insightful equilibrium. The Fates will not be denied by what little control we think we can muster, or perhaps George pulled the trigger with all the years of smoking and drinking—a subtle and gradual means of suicide.

As he lay on the floor barely alive, we hear the slowing clicks of his alarm clock. The clock stops, and George sees his deceased partner lean down and kiss him on the cheek—the kiss of death—for “just like that, it came.” Suddenly the overhead camera shot turn to black and white; there is no longer any living in the now for George. We are left with what is perhaps the deepest level of meaning in the film—what now?

With George narrating his own death, his soul must exist in the film’s story-world. “And suddenly it happened.” People don’t usually say that death came. So I suspect that given the sense of amazement in “just like that,” George experienced something liberating, or at the very least a sudden change or transformation into another realm of existence in which his emotional pain could not go. He does not mention his dead partner, Jim, so I suspect that whatever suddenly came, it was existential rather than restorative in terms of human relationships. In effect, death relativizes them such that seeing earlier departed loved ones is no longer important.

Narrative visual art can indeed plumb the mind’s depths and thus register as substantive instead of superficial eye-candy. Films that leave an audience thinking and feeling deeply for a sustained period of time are themselves multi-layered, with multivalent symbols placed at various degrees of subtlety throughout the narrative to foreshadow. Such films register at various depths of human meaning and reflect its complexity through the use of linguistic and visual symbols, each of which contains by its very nature more than one loosely-related meaning. They play even with time by lending to human nature more omniscience than it has a right to. It as if the screenplays have been written as orchestral pieces, with more than one instrument group—each at its own level of subtlety and duration, and yet likely simultaneous with various others at foreshadowed intervals.


[1] Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man , (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1964), p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p. 157.
[3] Ibid., p. 145.