In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Friday, January 29, 2010

22. A Single Man

The Presidio
The Presidio opened in San Francisco's marina district in 1937 not as a first-run movie house, but, according to Jack Tillmany's book, as a third-run theater, complementing the nearby Marina and Metro. San Francisco theaters, depending on the eras in which they persist, tend to follow a general trend: live theater, first-run movies, second-run movies, vaudeville, adult movies, demolition. Only a very few recover from the economic circumstances that initially turn them away from first-run movies. The Presidio, by opening as a third-run theater, already had two strikes against it, yet by the 1990s it had come back from the brink, joining the city's ranks as a first-run theater.

The first thing you might notice about this theater is the haphazardly-colored marquee. Black and red letters are intermingled, suggested that there is some enigmatic code waiting to be decrypted.

The box office accepts electronic payment, but on my visit the card reader wasn't working. The attendant was able to tell me where my nearest bank was, but there is also an ATM machine in the theater's lobby (with a $2.00 service fee). Sitting on the box office sill are business-card-sized promos for $2.00 off on Tuesday and Wednesday admissions. The theater's web site advertises a series discount of 5 tickets for $40.00, allowing patrons to lock in the matinee price of $8.00 per ticket.

The lobby contains a cute, old-style candy counter that sells vegan cookies and hot tea, and has yeast ("Nutritional Yeast Healthy Toppings For Popcorn").

A kiosk in the lobby corner offers many advertisements for local shops, but also a copy of Movie Facts, the pamphlet I first saw at the CineLux Tennant Station in Morgan Hill. At the time I thought the pamphlet was unique to that theater, but now I see that it is a subscription service, whereby descriptions of upcoming movies (that won't necessarily play in the subscribing theater) is augmented with local advertisements and information specific to the subscribing theater. The Presidio is owned by Lee Neighborhood Theatres, who also operate the Marina Theatre across the street and the 4-Star Theatre out in the Richmond district. The pamphlet is the same for all three theaters, and is color-coded by month.

When my best friend and I first visited the Presidio in 1997 for The Fifth Element, it was still a single screen theater. In 2004 it was subdivided. The lower seating is still part of the main auditorium, but the upper seating has been sectioned off into two auditoriums (the seat where I once sat in the upper section to watch Titanic on the big screen, is now in a separate auditorium). A small screening room was also added to the side of the theater. Cinema Treasures puts the total seating capacity at 828. Screens 3 and 4 are not wheelchair accessible.

All four screens are entered from a central hallway that once lead directly into the main auditorium. Large movie posters line the hall, showing off current releases. In an eco-friendly touch, there are trash cans in the hallway labeled for compostables only.

The main auditorium is attractive, but it has several peculiar qualities. Almost all the seats are too close to the large screen. Only a handful of people attended this showing of A Single Man, and we all sat in the back four rows. Anything closer and you might get the IMAX experience, but without paying extra. Also, auditorium 3 actually juts out into auditorium 1's space, claiming half the seats the right-hand side of the room. It left me feeling a bit claustrophobic, with walls bearing down on me from the back and side, threatening to annex my seat.

The pre-show consisted of two car commercials, an ad for an HBO movie (Temple Grandin), and an unintentionally humorous Sprint ad in which three skiers, riding on a ski lift, are each entertained by their various mobile devices. I had hoped this meant the sure-to-be-dreadful thriller Frozen had been pared down to commercial length, but no luck; it's still slated for a February release. My friend Mica turned to me and asked, "So you're on a ski lift and instead of enjoying the beautiful scenery you're texting someone?" Too true. Does Sprint want me to think that it's more fun to organize my photo library than take in the sights with friends?



A Single Man
Not that Colin Firth needs any help in being more appealing, but there is something very romantic and attractive about a man grieving for his lost love. First, his grief makes him emotionally unobtainable, and we always want what we can't have. Second, it demonstrates his capacity to love. When you see a man on the street you can know in an instant whether he is physically attractive, but can he love? Does he give a damn? And third, he is loyal, not one to quickly get over the past, but rather to wallow in it, to suffer without his partner, to prefer miserable isolation to the companionship of anyone else. In all of this it is romantic to imagine oneself as the source of the man's grief. To be missed so, the lost lover must have shared a remarkable relationship with the grieving man, and who doesn't want that intensity in their own life?

A Single Man bears witness to a day in the life of George (Firth), an English ex-pat teaching literature at a college in southern California. At some point in the past (a month? a year?), Firth's lover Jim (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident. Jim's immediate family doesn't bother to notify George of Jim's death (an uncle secretly communicates the news), and doesn't want George at the funeral. George must grieve alone, his only comfort coming from longtime neighbor and friend Charley (Julianne Moore).

But that sad event is in the past. The film's emotional peaks and valleys all exist in flashback. In the present, George is drained of life. He is functioning, but without purpose. The movie uses a lighting filter to drain most color from George and everyone he interacts with, except at particular moments, when George sees in someone else something that reminds him of Jim, and for that instant, the person's lips or eyes or skin, and George's entire face, suddenly flush with vivid reds, pinks, and blues. It's as if George walks deadened through his life, only noticing those details that might allow him to piece together some new memory of Jim.

George's day consists of waking, dressing, teaching class, eating, and going to bed. Today is like that, but George intends for it to be his last. He makes meticulous preparations for his imminent suicide (cleaning his office at school, updating financial documents, leaving a tip for his housekeeper, etc.). And herein lies the problem for me as a viewer. George seems to have only two goals: to love Jim forever, and to bring Forever to its inevitable conclusion. The movie, as any must, is intent on frustrating our hero's goals, but usually we know that eventually, ninety minutes later, our hero will win out. Is that true here? Could this movie be promoting (or at least promising) suicide?

I begin to suspect not, and yet I have already identified with George's plight. I wouldn't wish this sort of absolutism on a living person, but it's different for a fictional character. I want George's love (and fidelity) for Jim to survive the romantic interests (attacks) of the other characters. I want George, if he so chooses, to off himself. Every moment he delays increases the chance that someone will foil his plan. And so I find myself uncomfortably at odds with the good intentions of George's students and neighbors. If the film wants me to wish long life for George, it needs to work harder to show this would be a preferable outcome.

Firth does a good job. When the script calls for him to be emotional, he delivers; the rest of the time, he is reserved and lifeless, to good effect. Moore and Goode are both under-utilized; this is basically a one-man movie. As such it is sad, sometimes enjoyable, but mostly hollowing.

(The American Humane Society "monitored some of the action. No animals were harmed in those scenes." So just don't invite the Humane Society to the set the day you shoot the "dogs die in a car crash" scene, and you're all set.)

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