This is my theory and I’m sticking to it: if more things were more beautiful, everything else would be way better. Even in this age of fiscal cholera, beauty for the sake of it is it’s own sacred reward.
But as Americans, we’re saddled with the Protestant curse and the attendant pathologies of fetishizing plainness, respecting the mediocre and being in thrall to outright ugliness, whether that manifests in strip malls, lip-warping Restylane or mind-rotting Rush. We could all use a bit of Stendhal syndrome, that most wonderfully strange of
psychosomatic ailments that causes the individual to experience rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even hallucinations when exposed to beautiful things.
And so: a list, where I don’t worry on a genre or platform and instead celebrate ten people, events or ideas whose beauty shook me of the uglies in 2011.
1. Alexander McQueen, "Savage Beauty," The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 4 – August 7
Experiencing "Savage Beauty" was a ravishment and reminder that form is just a means, and that for Alexander McQueen, fashion, film, hologram, robotics and sculpture were all just avenues to transcendence. McQueen was expert in them all, even if he did make his mint in high end couture.
McQueen had the soul of a Romantic and a Gothic, and the sense of humor of a postmodernist who could contain and cross-reference Scorsese, Corman and Kubrick, Scottish nationalism, man versus and fucking machines, angels in water, angels in light, The Birds, and nature triumphant always. McQueen’s runway shows were performance art mixed with Oscar-worthy short films where nature, death and mourning fused.
As you walked the Met’s reverberant, church-like spaces, you encountered Poe in the thousand hand-placed raven feathers of a dress; HAL 9000 reborn in twisting machines that ejaculate clashing colors on a spinning model; the Alien as phallic chrome spine-jewelry; a hologram box of Kate Moss floating in an eternity-loop in what looked like snowy high fashion seaweed. Georges Méliès would have wept.
McQueen was on the verge of creating a new species in style, a hybrid of anime and aquatica glimpsed in Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance video. But after a protracted depression, the designer of the early 21st century took his own life at age 40.
2. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
On July 22, 2011, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officially started the process that would end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on September 20, 2011.
It is beautiful beyond words to know that, because of Obama’s kept promise, unknown thousands now live and serve without the virus of shame eating their guts away as a country begins the process of joining the civilized world.
3. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese
Good God, what a fourth act Hugo finds the 69-year-old Martin Scorsese in, taking the Stendhal-inducing gorgeousity of Kundun and triple-upping it.
There isn’t an inch that isn’t gorgeously fussed over to beautiful purpose. You could take any frame from the film and have the best artwork in your home. And yet it isn’t simple-minded pictorialism. Every image powers the one coming while advancing the narrative (exactly like a McQueen runway performance, although Scorsese’s an
Sandy Powell’s wool-heavy designs are almost pornographically gorgeous in a mid-period Gaultier way. If gorgeous imagery mixed with deep-bone-felt humanism were food, you could feed a family of five for a month on a screening of Hugo.
4. Alex Kingston as River Song, Doctor Who
I remember Alex Kingston from ER: sassy, brassy, British – what wasn’t there to love? But, well, it was ER, you know? Limitations were the order of business.
But then came Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat’s resurrection of Doctor Who, which gave life to Kingston as River Song, a gleefully amoral time traveller who, unfortunately, is travelling in the reverse time direction as the good Doctor she dearly loves.
The result: every time she sees him, he remembers her a little bit less until, ultimately, he will recall her not at all.
As an elegantly painful metaphor for Alzheimer’s in particular and entropy in general, it’s hard to beat. But this is Doctor Who, for fuck’s sake, so there’s also River Song as butt-kicking, quip-popping action hero in the finest of couture. Being in kissing distance of 50 just adds some could-give-a-fuck Helen Mirren to the mix.
5. Timothy Olyphant's shoulders, Justified
It's been a really long time since a star's physiology symbolized his meaning so elegantly, so beautifully. The gold standard of this sort of thing was John Wayne's gait, which in three steps told you all you needed to know about his essence.
On FX’s Justified, Timothy Olyphant's shoulders do a Wayne sort of thing. The beauty in those shoulders is not just their sculptural appeal. It's how Olyphant, playing a modern day sheriff in white trash Kentucky, elegantly cleaves space, shoulders-first. He's carrying on those wide shoulders the weight of an angry man who must corral that rage with a moral code he most certainly did not inherit from the terrible father who betrayed him. When he's with the women he loves, his head sort of bobs down between his shoulders like a boy in trouble – which he is, really.
Along with the sadness of this new, angry, decent lawman, Timothy Olyphant’s shoulders announce a new, softer iteration of the recent masculinity-in-crisis craze (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Terriers). “I’m willing,” those shoulders say, “and I want to be very, very reasonable. But I will hurt you if you fuck with me. And it pains me how much I will enjoy hurting you.”
6. Janelle Monáe
McQueen lived long enough to base his last collection around Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. It’s a terrible tease to imagine what he no doubt would have done with the wonder that is Janelle Monáe and any song off her album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). They are, after all, drinking of the same wells – Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Goldfinger, Ziggy Stardust, Philip-K.-Dickian simulacrum erotica – to which Monáe adds her amazing Cubist Afro/deco space-waitress look and her musical splashes of space-age Afro-funk, spazzy semi-metal, big band
played by a few people. There’s nobody on Earth even faintly in her league; the rapture is in listening to her Technicolor dream-trip mind flipping out at warp speed.
7. Lady Gaga, “Judas” music video, 0:44
Look at her face. The secret is she’s just…nice looking, possible looking, and she’s on this great adventure – that’s why they love her. And in this second and a half we see her at the precipice of the true beginning of the unfolding of the legend she co-wrote, programmed, played, sang, engineered. Unprecedented control. And here’s the release of joy. She may never quite have that expression again. It is ecstatic and pure.
8. The ascendancy of e-reader culture
As the uber-cheap Kindles rolled out this November, the elegant beauty and ascension of e-reader culture became undeniable. At a low entry price during the worst economy, a book lover now gets anything instantly, and in so doing, everyone – the reader, the retailer and (God forbid!) the writer – profits.
I like – I need – to get books at slashed prices. I love supporting my friends’ books or small presses, and I love avoiding snide clerks, battered copies, sitting on dirty floors while I try to read sample chapters or discovering that only volume three of a six-volume series is available.
It’s a windfall being able to choose between biographies on Isabella Blow (the visionary who discovered Alexander McQueen) or books on black metal, or finding fantasies like the Hunger Games books, which
really are quite good, dammit. Having access to informed criticism saves more money and time.
The bookstore as community hub, zine and subculture publication distrib is still vital and needed – Baltimore’s Normals is a best-case scenario – but for first run books, e-books are simply, quantitatively better.
9. Black metal invades (finally!)
Black metal was originally defined in the early ‘90s by low-fi misanthropic bursts of fast-picked, super distorted guitars, blast-beat drums and throat-slashed screams about sundry Satanic miseries. It was seriously niche.
But as it cross-pollinated with ambient, new folk and soundtrack music (see Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising), it morphed into something blatantly beautiful. Hopped up on highly processed guitars, echoed drums and washed out keyboards, I imagine the Cocteau Twins if they'd been born on 9/11, which is probably subliminally part of the picture.
Brooklyn's Wolves in the Throne Room suggest deep space, narcosis and sudden metal attacks. Agalloch, a Portland outfit, are more pastoral: they sound like the prettiest trees ever falling into the most lovely of icy rivers. The documentary Until the Light Takes You made black metal’s ascendancy official, but bands like Agalloch, Wolves, Havnatt, Alcest, Nadja and tons more proved the new breed’s sell is based entirely on a savage glacial beauty. You get it where you can.
10. V for Vendetta masks
Released in 2006 at the peak of the new bellicosity, V for Vendetta’s anti-fascist/Christianist allegory was nobody’s idea of a hit or artistic success, but it did have the blunt-tool power of real political class rage you never, ever get in an American-bankrolled film.
That the film’s sardonically anonymous Guy Fawkes masks should become the 99 Percenter’s fashion accessory of choice was a beautiful bit of intuitive mass pop-political alchemy. The mask wouldn’t define the 99% movement, but a crowd without a few Fawkers just doesn’t feel quite right, you know? Talk about revolting into style.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.