- Tom Ford and His Kind
Style, as even the most unstylish among us can recognize, is at the heart of A Single Man, Tom Ford’s 2009 film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name. In terms of the film’s reception, both Ford’s fans and his detractors agree that the film’s claim to our attention rests in its style. Whether they run hot or cold, his critics are uniform in regarding the film as an exercise in cinematic mannerism or mood. “All art and no direction” is how Stephanie Zacharek describes the film on Salon, “less a finished, fleshed-out movie than it is a mood board, one of those collages of images and colors that designers sometimes use to help define and fine-tune the vibe they’re going after in their creative ventures.”1 In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane finesses the same point: in Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, Ford’s film reveals “two strong actors refusing to be tight-laced by a director’s exercise in style: here is a mood piece looking for a fight.”2 Once associated with art-house distribution and formalist critique, mood is no longer a desirable cinematic quality but the kind of thing that gives a film a bad name.
To put it succinctly, mood has gone to market. The term mood piece currently designates any sonically wrapped montage of images designed to convey the emotionalism of a brand, product, or service provider. Initially big-budget productions associated with luxury goods and high-end fashion houses such as Gucci, where Ford was creative director for most of the 1990s, mood films are now ubiquitous in the world of corporate identity and client communications. To call Ford’s film a mood piece, therefore, gets straight to the heart of its stylistic ambivalence and the tension it performs between the personalization of feeling—gay feeling in particular—and the framing of that feeling within a larger aesthetic and commercial system marked by impersonality and the extension of creative property rights into intimate domains—namely, the Tom Ford brand. This tension is not exclusive to Ford’s film but indicative of a wider cultural investment in gay style and emotionality that taps homosexuality’s [End Page 21] dual personalizing and politicizing effects in order to reinvigorate established social conventions, representational genres, or commodity forms. A parallel phenomenon would be “Same Love” (2012), hip-hop artist Macklemore’s rap defense of gay marriage and its accompanying video that, assisted by Mary Lambert’s lesbian vocal hook, movingly reveals the life narrative of same-sex interracial love interspersed with archival footage of civil-rights demonstrations from the 1960s.3 But, whereas “Same Love” is explicitly tagged to the issue of marriage equality via the artist’s support for Referendum 74, the bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in Washington state, A single Man’s sentimentalizing qualities are both broader and more specific in their application. The peculiar organization of personal and impersonal effects evidenced in Ford’s film, and its imaginative recasting of notions of authorship, biography, and the celebrity sell, have the capacity to tell us something new about homosexuality and style as they write themselves across the contemporary mediasphere.4
By uniquely combining the personalized discourses of character, biography, and celebrity, Ford’s mood film relaunches homosexual style, once a coterie fashion, as an aspirant brand that bestows cultural and emotional capital on its cosmopolitan fans who, no longer divided in terms of their sexual orientation, can be addressed as a single diverse demographic. Rather than being simply another exercise in heritage cinema, a style of filmmaking Richard Dyer has identified by its capacity to evoke, “especially through clothes,” the “utopian pleasure of a vision of integration even in homophobic societies of the past,” Ford’s celebrity-driven film successfully retools homosexual feeling into an on-trend sensation hovering on the brink of mass identification and uptake, like self-carbonated water or reusable shopping bags.5 Unlike these two ecoexamples, however, homosexual feeling doesn’t necessarily translate into affirmative actions or the retraining of everyday habits as part of the general swerve...