Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Ford Philosophizes in and on Film: Carpe Diem—with Style!

Review of 

A Single Man

a  2009 film directed by Tom Ford

Tom Ford: fashion designer, perfume house creative director, provocateur ... film director? Yes, indeed, his début film effort, A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and also featuring Julianne Moore, has established that the creative director of Tom Ford Beauty is also an accomplished film director—and a screen writer to boot!

I must confess that I came to this film with rather low expectations. I was very pleasantly surprised at how good the work ended up being. Critics have grumbled that A Single Man is "boring". They lament specifically the lack of plot and the hyper-aestheticism, but those are precisely the central themes of this film. The naysayers somehow missed in their visceral disdain that A Single Man, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, is on its face and by intention much more about style than substance.

The message of A Single Man is a simple one, and for that reason some may find it banal: Carpe Diem. Live each day to the fullest, as though it might be the last. Tom Ford's embellishment of this cliché—if indeed it is one—is to focus on all of the aesthetic minutiae of which every life is filled, provided only that one has eyes to see. And, of course, a nose to sniff.

Perfume appears in only two short segments of the film. Near the opening, what looks to be a bottle of none other than Tom Ford perfume sits on the protagonist's vanity. The bottle is turned to the side, so we are left to guess which member of the Private Collection George Falconer, the troubled English professor played by Colin Firth, might be wearing. One thing is clear: he does not have the entire collection but a single signature scent, along with two bottles of what look to be classic cologne or after shave. One of the “goofs” of this film listed at the IMDB database is that the bottle of spirits consumed by the protagonist was created in 1999, but the action takes place in 1962. No one seems to have noticed that Tom Ford Perfume did not exist at that time, either. In fact, Tom Ford himself was born in 1961!

The second scene in which perfume is briefly referenced is when the professor is speaking with a departmental secretary, whose beauty he is praising in a rather inappropriate way—and not only because he is gay. George is enraptured by the woman, whose physical beauty is enhanced by her scent, which he recognizes and identifies outloud: Arpège.

This scene effectively conveys an idea sometimes lost sight of: that sex and aesthetics are two completely different things. George, being a gay man, has no physical attraction to the woman whose beauty he admires. He finds her to be an exquisite sight to behold, something to gaze upon in awe, an object of reverence, not desire.

Some would say that women should be regarded as neither sex objects nor art objects or repositories of aesthetic value. But that sort of view supposes that human beings have essences. I favor a more existential approach: that people are what they choose to become. If a woman decides to focus on aesthetics or to render herself physically attractive—whether as a work of art or as an object of desire—that can be a perfectly valid choice, it seems to me, provided only that it is a genuine choice. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. Work with what you've got.

The problem with beautiful women is not that they are beautiful, but that for most of the history of humanity, women have been excluded at the outset from roles beyond those of sexual partner, mother, and aesthetic object. More recently, as women have been afforded the opportunity to do other things as well, those three roles have become (and remain) choices for some.

My impression is that "beautiful" men have to deal with many of the same prejudices as do beautiful women. Stated starkly: many people have a hard time believing that a person can be both comely and intelligent. It's fine to be one or the other, but handsome, intelligent, and talented all at once? That would be way too many good genes concentrated in a single set of chromosomes!

Charlotte or "Charlie", the woman played by Julianne Moore in the film, has spent her life in the role of the beautiful young woman. She was married for nine years and raised a child. Her husband eventually left her—the implication being that he moved on to someone younger and more beautiful than she. Charlotte aged over the course of the decade of their relationship to become someone other than the woman she appeared earlier to be.

Charlie is the classic example of the woman who dedicated everything to her husband and focused primarily upon her beauty and his needs. She has no career, and now that her husband has abandoned her, she finds herself without moorings, a wealthy middle-aged woman who drinks heavily and wonders what she should do now that she is no longer a nubile young thing, and her child has also left the nest. (It is a bit unclear in the film, but the child may have been from a previous marriage.) Charlie never developed her talents nor pursued a career because she was too busy being the beautiful wife of her husband and the mother of a child.

The film is set in Los Angeles in 1962. At that time, women had many fewer options and opportunities than they do today. It is becoming more and more rare to find women like Charlotte in that sort of predicament, although it certainly does happen and is far more common in other parts of the world. But none of this is really what A Single Man is about. This becomes abundantly clear in a scene where George and Charlotte lie juxtaposed on the floor, wallowing in their respective state of despair. George is a college English professor. Having this credential, a successful career outside of the home, has done nothing to save him from his fate.

Charlotte may never have experienced true love, but George did, and he lost the love of his life after a relationship of sixteen years. The film focuses upon the existential despair of George, not Charlotte, though they are friends in part because they share the very same plight. Both have been left bereft: Charlotte because her husband abandoned her, and George because his long-term partner, Jim, has died in an automobile accident. The very identities of these grieving survivors have become bound up with people who are no longer a physical part of their lives but continue to dominate them psychologically from afar.

One appealing aspect of A Single Man is that it is intentionally and repeatedly ambiguous about a wide range of provocative questions regarding homo- and heterosexuality. Tom Ford leaves enough unanswered questions to allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about the meaning of the bare facts of the story. To some, the fact that George and Jim were truly in love, and Charlotte never was, may be interpreted to mean that the love between two males is somehow higher or more exalted or more authentic than the business-like relationships which so many heterosexual marriages become as couples balance the demands of child-rearing and household maintenance.

In some ways Charlotte exemplifies the stereotypical “fag hag,” who ardently wishes, against all physical reality, that her gay male friend might finally see the heterosexual light. (They did have a physical relationship in the past but it did not work out—because George was really gay.) Yet the message in the film is not unequivocally that women are somehow inferior or incapable of true love. Heterophobes may read the text in that way, but a more catholic interpretation would be that love is very rare, between any two people, whether two men, a man and a woman, or two women.

Tom Ford manages to depict the relationship between George and Jim as one of true love, but also as natural as can be. While that sort of depiction may no longer seem revolutionary, given the recent social advances on this front, there was a time when homosexual love was regarded by a swath of the populace as pathological, something to be hidden and corrected or cured.

Homosexual love is presented as normal in this film, while the so-called normal “all American” family is depicted as somewhat unbalanced. George's next door neighbors, a typical suburban family of the early sixties, are cast in a rather negative light. In one brief segment, the young daughter, a blond child with a Rhoda Penmark-like demeanor (see The Bad Seed), catches a butterfly and destroys it between her hands by rubbing them together, crushing the delicate creature's wings to dust. (Animal rights lovers rest assured: the Humane Society monitored the production of this film and has certified that no cruelty was done!)

The juxtaposition of this somewhat boorish and coldly brutal family with the gentle homosexual couple next door seems to be a way of objecting to the erroneous attribution to homosexuals throughout history of psychological and sexual perversion. Again, a heterophobe might read too much into such examples, but a more liberal reading would perhaps acknowledge that cruelty and pathology transcend all demographic and gender-orientation lines.

The film offers a “sexual-preference-less” conception of love (analogous to “color blind”), though the only two characters who achieve true love happen to be two males. The message is not that every liaison between any two men is automatically better than any relationship between a man and woman. This becomes clear as George is confronted with two prospective “replacements” for his long lost love, but neither can fill the void in his soul. Jim was not just a sex object for George, as becomes obvious when he rejects the repeated advances of two different and very attractive potential suitors.

A Single Man plays out over the course of a single day. George has decided to end his own life, and he moves through the morning, the afternoon, and the evening with this idée fixe in mind. He goes to the bank and removes his insurance policy and other papers from a safe deposit box, returning to his home and laying everything out with the suit in which he wishes to be dressed while lying inert in his coffin. He attaches a note to the necktie to make sure that his last sartorial wishes will be respected: tie in a Windsor knot

He leaves a stack of money in a loaf of bread for his housekeeper, and cleans out his office at the university in preparation for his final departure from this world. Once all of the arrangements have been settled in his mind, George attempts repeatedly to shoot himself with a pistol in various parts of his home. 

He is unable to settle on the appropriate arrangement, where he should be when a bullet from the gun fires through his mouth into his head. 
After multiple failed efforts: sitting on the bed, lying on the bed, standing in the bathtub, and even buried within a sleeping bag, George gives up in exasperation, distracted by the phone ringing, which he knows to be his friend Charlotte, who has been awaiting his visit, bottle of Tanqueray gin in tow.

Eventually, after spending some time with a student who has been pursuing him relentlessly, George finally renounces his plan to take his own life. 

It is not quite clear in the film whether the two men slept together or not—the sequence of floating in water could be a reflection of either a physical experience or a dreambut something about the time spent with this sensitive young man changes George's view. 

He replaces the gun back in the desk drawer and turns the key to lock it in, ending what seemed to have been his inexorable quest to commit suicide. George then makes his way back to his bed, where immediately after experiencing a neo-Leibnizian "best of all possible worlds" epiphany, he proceeds to suffer a fatal heart attack.

This dénouement, like the rest of the film, can be read in a variety of ways. One is that what George and Jim had was sacred and should not be desecrated through George's involvement with another, younger man. Another way of understanding the film is as a profound expression of romanticism: that George and Jim's life together was complete, and once Jim had departed, it was George's turn to follow, not by his own hand, but by a force beyond his control. He died not because he was too weak to face the world without Jim, but because it was time for him to go.

Every single shot of this film is perfectly composed, not because Tom Ford was attempting to be artsy-fartsy, but because he really is. The extreme attention to detail, to making sure that every single thing is in its place and properly arranged with balance and symmetry, is an expression of an aesthetic vision of life. The highly stylized quality of this film reflects a desire not only to control the environment in which one spends one's time, but also to be able to gaze upon all within one's view in awe of the beauty to be found in even the smallest of things.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Report from the Tea Trenches: There are Thousands of Others Like You!

Of late, I've been spending a lot of my online time at Steepster, which is basically the tea lover's analogue to some intersection of Fragrantica, Parfumo, and/or Dnotes. I suppose that since there is no content beyond tea profiles and tea tasting notes (reviews--or comments relating to the same author's previous reviews), the closest comparison would be to Parfumo. 

People who love tea convene at Steepster to share their tea experiences. It's quite clear that some members spend the whole day drinking tea, and writing about drinking tea. So that's a bit different from the online perfume community experience, because few people write more than one review a day, and many people write nothing at all--aside from interacting in the forum boards.

Tea lovers, like perfume lovers, enjoy talking about their recent purchases, their struggle to "contain" their collection, and their desire to expand it at the same time. All of these dynamics are quite familiar to those who have fallen into the bottomless vortex of perfume acquisition, with many of us resolving each January to refrain from buying any more bottles until _____________ (fill in the blank). My favorite resolution is to not buy any new bottles until I have reviewed everything in my house--bottle, decant, and sample. I usually make it a month or more before breaking the resolution. I believe that my record may have been 2013, when I recall having lasted at least through the month of March! 

One relevant difference in this regard between these two obsessions is that tea costs a lot less than perfume and can be consumed several times a day--or all day long! Perfume, on the other hand, is generally worn for several hours, which means that even very prolific reviewers don't write about several different perfumes in a single day. With all of the aromachemicals swirling about in the air these days, that might not even be safe!

What are the other differences between "fumeheads" and "students of tea"? One may be that people who write about their tea experience do not appear to be advocating for the tea. I suppose that one could consider raves to be a form of exhortation and negative remarks a form of dissuasion. But more than anything, people who write about tea seem to be simply sharing their personal experience with a particular brand, style, and harvest of tea. Some people prefer blends; others prefer single-origin leaves. 

There are five major families of tea: black, oolong, green, white, and pu-erh, and different people tend to greatly prefer some of these over others. (In China, yellow tea is considered a sixth major category, but I have never tried it!) Some people prefer herbal infusions, which are not really "tea" at all, for they contain nothing derived from the tea plant, camellia sinensis. In navigating one's way through the vast and kaleidoscopic world of tea and tea-like brews, subjectivity is key: something not to be overcome but to be celebrated. 

No one seems to have any problem with a person who finds jasmine or oolong teas headache-inducing, for example. We are different people, and different people like different things, including different types of tea, in large part as a result of not only physiological factors, but also cultural habits acquired over time. Sencha is the number one tea in Japan. In Argentina, the "national infusion" (defined by law!) is maté. Is one of these beverages better than the other? In a referendum, the Japanese might insist that sencha is superior, but Argentinians would certainly demur!

There are groups of tea lovers who all seem to be patronizing certain very popular tea emporia, many of which would be absolutely unknown to the average person. There are also "controversial" tea providers--above all, Teavana--whose business practices elicit anger and denunciations reminiscent of some of the vitriol slung by perfumistas at houses such as Bond no 9, Creed, and Montale, among others which are beloved by many but scorned by others. In these and many other ways, the social world of tea and the social world of perfume seem to have many parallels.

There are many different levels, qualities, and kinds of tea within each family--indeed, more than there are of all perfumes taken together! People tend to like or dislike certain "genres", just as with perfume. In Japan, there are undoubtedly imbibers of maté (an herbal infusion packing a major punch of caffeine), and in Argentina, there are undoubtedly people who prefer sencha (a green tea with a clean, vegetal taste). 

Some tea drinkers add sugar or honey and cream or lemon to their brew; others regard such "adulteration" as akin to an act of desecration! In all of these matters of taste, the cultural milieu in which we are raised affects us without fully determining our preferences. How else could I, sherapop, who grew up in a perfume-free home, have become so obsessed with perfume? Why am I, sherapop, the only person in my family who even knows what bancha and pu-erh are?

In the school of hot cups, I have found less snobbery and less tendency to indulge in hype as a way of justifying one's tea preferences than I have sometimes witnessed in the spaces frequented by perfumistas. I believe that this may have something to do with the difference in price between fine tea and most niche perfume. If an ordinary (working) person drops $300 on a 50ml bottle of perfume, it had better be good. Very good

For the last couple of months, I have purchased little perfume and a ton of tea. Yet each order of tea, often containing up to a dozen--or more!--different varieties ends up costing less than a single bottle of perfume. It occurred to me that since tea is an intrinsically rich olfactory experience, in addition to being a healthy habit, given that the body and mind function best when well-hydrated, more perfumistas should perhaps look to the opportunity for olfactory enrichment readily available to them in what looks from afar to be a modest and mundane cup of tea. 

In truth, once one cuts through the packaging and perfume marketing hype, looking for the olfactory experience within the genie bottle--not the seduction of associating with the sorts of people who use, advocate, and advertise perfume--it becomes obvious that the sniffing in one case (the fumes emanating off the surface of a cup of tea or from a packet of dried leaves) is not really any different than it is in the other (the fumes wafting off one's neck or wrist--or ankles!). 

In fact, my fragrant friends, I have discovered that many of the most annoying aspects of the perfume industry in the twenty-first century--including the removal of natural substances from perfumes and the increasingly abstract and synthetic compositions being fobbed off in kitschy bottles as fine fragrances in their stead--are altogether absent from the world of tea. 

I exhort you, therefore, to consider expanding your olfactory horizons by opening the door to the multifaceted universe of tea, not only for the potable pleasure which it affords, not only for the health benefits which it brings, but also because of the olfactory adventures which await you in the exquisite range of teas carefully cultivated, harvested, roasted, steamed, dried, and blended in endless ways to produce a near infinity of flavors and scents all beckoning you to enjoy!