For Art, as Plato saw, and not without regret, creates in listener and spectator a form of divine madness. It does not spring from inspiration, but it makes others inspired.
--Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist"
I hoped it would be like those trippy movies you'd go to and then analyze with your friends; buy the record and play it over and over again and ponder its meaning.
--Todd Haynes on his film Velvet Goldmine
Named after a rare David Bowie B-side, Velvet Goldmine is the ultimate pop-culture fetish object--a tribute to the transformative power of art and, as such, a corrective to this year's cinema of cruelty and its punishing "realism." Perhaps the most important point to make as preparation for the movie is that it's not "authentic" in the least, nor could it be considered, um, a straight treatment of the early-'70s London-based glam-rock scene that produced such flaming creatures as Ziggy Stardust and Gary Glitter. Flaunting a distinctly queer perspective on (rock) history, Velvet Goldmine identifies mainly with the (rock) fan--and it is to that fan's euphoric feeling of community with his beloved artist that the film is thoroughly, erotically true.
Even more than this, Velvet Goldmine, like the music it celebrates, bids to alter one's consciousness--not simply to blow your mind or make you come, but to make you come out, in every sense of the phrase. About an hour into this dense, vibrant, high-volume rock opera, there's a long, slow, completely silent kiss between glam-rockers Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a.k.a. Iggy Pop/Lou Reed/Mick Ronson, and Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a.k.a. David Bowie. Listen carefully during the screening and you'll hear audience members swallowing hard.
Still, one could easily suggest that the film's most sensual scene is the one in which young glam fan Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) wrests Maxwell Demon (think Ziggy Stardust) from the confines of a brown paper bag, slides the platter atop the turntable, drops the needle (pop!), spreads open the gatefold image of the nude Demon lying upon a bed of crimson velvet, and props a chair against the door. Made fearless by the grand piano chords and queer, space-age lyrics of "Hot One" ("I'm glad I caught you on my view-screen, sailor"), the shoegazing Arthur steps out, dumps his plaid coat behind a fence, and walks the streets with his head high, sporting a turquoise T-shirt with ample glitter across the chest. (This coming-of-age climaxes, so to speak, with the fan gazing intently at a newspaper photo of the aforementioned kiss.)
"Identity" and "empowerment" are the sort of words that have arguably been cheapened by a decade of overuse, so let's say instead that Velvet Goldmine charts the transfer of energy from star to fan in such a way as to suggest a certain liberating potential--like, "she started dancin' to that fine, fine music, you know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll." Writer-director Todd Haynes's bid at bringing it all back home is clear: Velvet Goldmine literally begins among the stars (in outer space, amid the satellite soundbites of history, à la Contact), and ends with the upturned faces of earthbound kids yearning to fly, followed by the image of their vehicle--a radio. The medium is the message, and the message is: We are not alone.
Forgive the fan-boy hyperbole, but Velvet Goldmine makes it official: Todd Haynes is the smartest and most politically minded feature-filmmaker in America. Born in 1961 and raised in the San Fernando Valley, he majored in art and semiotics at Brown University, which explains his self-conscious approach to cinema and his particular appeal among buffs, critics, academics, and anybody else who's interested in how one presents himself within a conservatively coded world. Haynes's 45-minute Barbie doll bio-pic, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), made his career--a remarkable feat for a film whose unlicensed use of Carpenters tunes prevented it from ever being released. (Its reputation grew from its circulation as a bootleg party tape, although the film also managed to earn Haynes some NEA money--back when such a thing was possible.) His first two features, Poison (1991) and Safe (1995), brilliantly extended his subversion of film genres and forged his identity as an artist who reads popular history as a political tug-of-war played out on the body. To Todd Haynes, America is a movie, written and directed by committee and starring the unbilled masses, otherwise known as Barbie dolls.
But Haynes is a humanist, too: The profound tragedy at the heart of Safe, for instance, is that its afflicted homemaker keeps being told to calm down when what she really needs to do is act up. Personal metamorphosis is central to Haynes's work, and with Velvet Goldmine, he's doing some role-playing himself--not just in terms of his elaborate appropriation of visual tropes from Welles, Kubrick, Roeg, and Scorsese, but in his attempt to bring a Todd Haynes movie to the masses. Actually, the appearance of commerciality is yet another facet of Goldmine's brilliant disguise, because what Haynes has really done is employed certain marketable elements--Ewan McGregor, "David Bowie," the '70s, sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll--to secure Miramax financing for a $7-million cult film, one that's bound to pass quickly through the mainstream before securing its rightful place as an eternal headphone movie for the open-minded.
In other words, the risk is theirs and the pleasure's all ours. Flashy and flamboyant where Safe was chilly and controlled, Goldmine swirls around the mystery of Brian Slade's apparent murder, the film's tantalizingly opaque style formulated through all manner of dreamy songs, surreal sets, lavish costumes, and cheeky camera moves. The pointedly fractured narrative (can anyone really know a rock star?) keeps starting over from scratch, like a record with a dozen tracks and a variety of characters taking turns on the mic. A young schoolboy named Oscar Wilde confesses, "I want to be a pop idol"--and a hundred years later, Brian Slade continues the tradition. The rock star's spurned wife (Toni Collette) and former manager (Michael Feast), along with his TV biographers and his pseudo-confessional (and Bowie-esque) songs, all fail to fully explain him, which is no doubt how he would want it. "What are ya, a mod or a rocker?" one kid asks the pre-stardom, omnisexual Slade. "Six o' one, half-dozen o' the other, and whatever else" is his answer, embodying the film's own bold refutation of either/or definitions.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde in his essay "The Critic as Artist": The artist creates the work, but the critic (or fan) creates the meaning. Thus, the key to this mystery lies in the hands of the sweaty-palmed Arthur--who, by 1984, has become a newspaper reporter assigned to discover what happened to the late citizen Slade, and to the '70s spirit of personal, sexual, and artistic experimentation, his own included. What happened, of course, was the 1980s, represented in the film through an Orwellian landscape of worker-drones transfixed by Tommy Stone (Alastair Cumming), a corporate arena-rocker whose satellite of love beams fatuous platitudes, product sponsorship, and plugs for the president to his vast, anonymous audience. (Anyone recognize the Live Aid-era Bowie here?) Clearly, it isn't (just) sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll that caused the Death of Glitter, and if Haynes seems to spend an inordinately long time lamenting the movement's downfall in his film's stunning, increasingly abstract second hour (akin to the side-long suite on a double-album rock opera?), it's because he has become the investigator looking for lipstick traces. Where did all that subversive energy go? Might we bring it back to life?
In interviews, Haynes has answered these questions pessimistically: "Glam rock," he has claimed, "was the product of the last truly progressive decade we've seen in the West"--which is to say that there's no bringing it back. Velvet Goldmine, however, explicitly proposes that to change oneself is to change the world--provided the changer doesn't pay too much attention to that world. As the film's fictionalized glam movement nears the end of its slow, sad fade, a fan and a performer celebrate their communion in a sex scene so tenderly dreamlike as to suggest an allegory of the tryst between any art lover and his fetish. Velvet Goldmine is one for the ages--and in that sense, its promise of freedom will, as Brian Ferry sang, fade away never.
Velvet Goldmine starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.