Can a blackboard be beautiful? A liquor store car park? What about a sleeping bag? In Tom Ford’s hands the answer is always, “yes, darling”. When Colin Firth’s single man, Professor George Falconer, weaves his way to work through a catwalk throng of pristine students (not one fatso, not one freak), he reaches a lecture room of aesthetic rapture, a Mondrian-like portrait of black, white, and teak. When he later drives to a local store, a dusky sun transforms the parking lot into a glowing Eden. Even the sleeping bag, in which Falconer tries to kill himself, has a certain earthworm chic to it, particularly when jumpcut with enough art-house guile.
You’d think this prettification, this ability to make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear, deserves an Oscar alone. But you’d be wrong. According to the critics, Tom Ford’s A Single Man is way too beautiful for its own good. Even those who’ve praised the fashion designer’s debut have felt the need to distance themselves from its glossy chic. And those who came away unmoved have sought to skewer the film’s aesthetic good behavior. The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw thought the film “an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste”.
Hang on one minute? Good taste, style, beauty: since when have these been pejorative terms? Since when have you ever heard anyone deliver a stinging rebuke with the words: “You tasteful ****!” No, nor me. So why is stylishness an attribute when levelled at a person and an assault when directed at a movie? Why are critics so snooty about cinematic good looks? What’s their beef with beauty?
Bradshaw would probably point out that, in conflating beauty and style, I am confusing two very different things. On the one hand you have the flotsam of style—Professor Falconer’s glistening specs, his immaculate draws, his catalogue kitchen—a transient, flighty, whorish companion to fashion, a shiny but low-grade thought, a take-away ideal. On the other, there’s beauty: permanent, higher, greater, more profound and more searching. Style is about getting things to look right; beauty is about sometimes getting things to look wrong. Style is the fluffy pink Angora jumpers that Falconer’s boy-candy sports, beauty is Beethoven’s Fifth. A very false distinction, I’d argue. Or at least the two ideas used to be much closer companions.
Renaissance art was fixated with style. For Renaissance artists the idea of omitting stylistic details, fashion trends, a glossy appeal, the idea of not getting the right capes or coiffures, would have been absurd. Today, the transient tics that the great Renaissance works by Raphael and Titian would have had (like Ford’s au courant tiny collars and tight shirts) have worn off. A Titian can now simply irradiate wisdom and glow, in a way that A Single Man could never do, so weighed down is it with the stylistic arguments of its times.
Yet don’t think for one second that it wasn’t fashion that originally dictated the composition, the shape and line of the great Renaissance art. The rules that patrol artistic beauty are the same as those that dictate style. (Style is just a young beauty.) The rules for a beautifully composed lecture room, liquor store car park or, yes, even, sleeping bag are the same as those for a finely composed landscape. An investigation of line, proportion, context, and history are the principals that lie behind each and every great aesthetic endeavor.
In the 1950s we understood this. In the heyday of Hollywood, no one questioned that style had substance. No one tore down directors for their over-attentive eyes. It was a given that style was beauty. That the manicured rooms of the pent-up little cinematic gems by Douglas Sirk, his Magnificent Obsession or All That Heaven Allows, both provided candy for the eye and a resonant image for the brain. Some of Sirk’s combinations of lines, shapes, colors, and contours offer up a sensory experience that very clearly, very atmospherically, very mysteriously reflect that which is going on around them. Some don’t. Some just sit pretty, looking right. As does so much of A Single Man. And there should be absolutely nothing wrong with that.
We like to think in this age that we have gone beyond the beauty of rightness, beyond the beauty of correct proportions. We’re in an ironic age, an age in which we laud the beauty of wrongness. Ford’s A Single Man is therefore not just a pretty film, it is a bold attempt to reassert a noble and time-honored pursuit that has almost completely been expunged in the past hundred years: a pursuit of pure beauty.