Watching Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, put me in a Berlin-flecked, Isherwood state of mind last night. (by the way, not only is the film as beautifully shot as you’d expect, but Colin Firth’s performance as a man come undone by the death of his long-term partner is wrenching – especially when Ford allows the camera to linger on the actor’s face in extreme close-up.)
I’d never appreciated Christopher Isherwood until relatively recently. I was in Berlin for work – my first trip to the sprawling German capital – and was staying in Schoneberg, the old, leafy “gayborhood.” In search of breakfast one morning, I literally stumbled upon the house where Isherwood lived and worked on Nollendorfestrasse. The building served as a model for what is perhaps his best known work, Goodbye to Berlin, which was subsequently adapted into a play and later the film, Cabaret. Trying to decipher the plaque that marks the structure, it struck me how Isherwood was part of the gay pantheon, and yet I knew almost nothing of his work – only a few prurient details regarding his personal life.
I picked up a copy of The Berlin Stories soon after and was surprised to find a fresh, modern style of writing that would be ripped off and imitated frequently throughout the 20th century. The narrator functions as a camera – hence I Am A Camera, duh – observing the world around him in documentary fashion; and even more interesting (to me) the narrator’s true journey happens in camera; that is, in a private place – secreted away from the action. (I could pun on this for a while, so I’ll just put it out there how the word “cabaret” derives from the Latin “camera,” too.) Isherwood’s style of writing fundamentally altered our perception of how fiction could function, so it’s a shame he remains so under-appreciated. I hope the success of Ford’s film might pique a renewed interest in his oeuvre.
In addition to chancing upon Isherwood’s house, I also found myself living smack in the middle of Folsom – Europe’s largest gathering of leather enthusiasts. Somehow it seemed fitting that in the middle of this subdued residential neighborhood one taboo was being brought into the daylight while down the block an English writer was doing very much the same thing some 75 years earlier.