Emphasis on the Eye in “A Single Man”

The rhetoric of film ought to be different from the rhetoric of literature.  A Single Man underlines the persuasive eye of cinema, sometimes with eyeliner. Basic film theory emphasizes looking as desire — voyeurism –, and A Single Man oscillates between giving the audience time to watch a single scene closely and giving the film’s characters the necessary space to note visual details, including people’s eyes, their eyeglasses, their gazes.  See whether you can help from being struck by Kenny’s (Nicholas Hoult’s) eyes in the film. Or whether you can prevent yourself from noticing Janet Leigh’s eyes as she looks out from an advertisement for Psycho. Janet Leigh’s eyes remind viewers of one of the film’s themes: fear.  Here is the opening of the novel:

Waking up begins with saying “am” and “now.” That which has awoken then lies for a while staring upward at the ceiling and down into itself [here too is the twin visual movement, looking outward and within, and the film recapitulates this movement] until it has recognized “I,” and therefore deduced “I am, I am now.” “Here” comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called “at home.”
But “now” isn’t simply now.  “Now” is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.  Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past “nows” obsolete, until — later or sooner — perhaps — no, not perhaps — quite certainly: it will come.
Fear tweaks the vagus nerve.

A speech about fear takes place in the main character’s (George’s) classroom, and I want to say it is a better, truncated speech from the one you will find in the novel.  The speech in the novel covers more ground, takes a few more risks about matters that the film version leaves unsaid.  The novel offers up a line that might have helped the speech that ends up in the film: “No threat is ever quite imaginary.”  Read this as: no fear is ever quite imaginary.  Imaginary fears, for instance, we might categorize as phobias, and those can be debilitating for some people.  Imaginary fear can take physical form, even as a film.

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3 responses to “Emphasis on the Eye in “A Single Man”

  1. I just saw ‘A Single Man’ tonight, and not having read the novel wanted to see if I could dredge (i.e. google) up any information on the use of eyes as a symbol within the book, since Ford, places such emphasis on them in the film.

    The many shots of eyes, animate and inanimate, reminded me of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg from ‘The Great Gatsby.’ I’d never particularly related those eyes to fear, as I think you rightly relate the use of eyes in ‘A Single Man’ to fear.

    I also like the connection between the fear of external observation, of being seen, and the fear of introspection, of looking too deeply within oneself. It’s funny how people who often have the most to hide end up living in glass houses of one sort or another.

  2. Actually, I was a bit baffled by his neighbors, particularly the first scene, with the mother, daughter and son out in the yard. I can’t remember what the daughter was doing, but the son had the metal detector, and then they find something (gold coins?) in the yard, and the father in his spiffy suit, leaving for work, looks quite disgruntled with the whole affair. The scene seemed rather over-stylized to me (perhaps just because I didn’t understand what was going on). I was reminded of the opening scenes of David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet,’ which opens with a similar montage of 1950s America, the too-white picket fence, a passing fire truck, and then descends into some Gothic craziness (a man loses control of his hose, and then the camera eventually descends toward the very green grass, through the dismembered ear, into the earth, which is crawling with insects).

    The later scene, in the bank, where the young girl talks about her brother who might be “light in the loafers,” made me think back to the scene the yard, and the father’s displeasure with his son’s discovery (or the impropriety of digging into the earth and getting dirt on one’s hands?).

    What’s your take on all this?

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