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.