Velvet Goldmine revolves around the hot-and-heavy relationship between fan and star--and at this moment, I'm feeling every bit the groupie. Seated next to writer-director Todd Haynes at a table full of critics in the banquet room of the Carlton Hotel, I'm close enough to...well, to fantasize that the auteur had been up late last night, basking in the glitter of his glam-rock masterpiece. Goldmine enjoyed its wham-bam premiere yesterday (May 23) at the Cannes Film Festival, and I, the fan, imagine Haynes facing the flashbulbs with dreamy actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers; sharing delicacies with exec-producer Michael Stipe; and slyly dissing Miramax big-wig Harvey Weinstein, who co-funded the film but clearly knows not what he has.
And then I wake up. Nevertheless, here in the "real" world of Cannes, the 37-year-old Haynes is acting quite the rock star: Dressed in a tight yellow T-shirt and red cords, sunglasses perched atop his tousled mane, he animatedly schmoozes a host of colleagues and well wishers, playing his self-styled celebrity aura to the hilt. Or am I just projecting my own private movie with the director as Ziggy Stardust? Again, per Velvet Goldmine, all of this is for the artist to intimate and me to embellish.
"The character of the fan was always there from the beginning," Haynes says, by way of explaining his film's distanced, flashback-laden, Citizen Kane-like story of a reporter's investigation. "The last thing I wanted to do was take that insider's perspective of most rock bio-pics, where you're automatically behind closed doors and in the intimate lives of the rock stars. I just couldn't imagine doing that. I was more interested in that whole idea of the rock stars' kiss being photographed at some party, and then following the picture as it goes through the system--being reproduced and printed and handed out at the newsstand, where some kid picks up a copy, takes it home, opens it up, and falls into its spell. To me, it's all about how desire gets transferred in that way, how it ends up in the sweaty palms of kids all over the world. The sweaty palms were as important to me as the original kiss."
Indeed. So wipe your hands, my fellow fans, and read on. "At the same time, I wanted a mystery around the Brian Slade character," Haynes says of his fictionalized David Bowie, "a sort of enigmatic and contradictory perspective on him, pointing to a journalistic, Rashomon-like or Citizen Kane-like series of testimonies that don't all congeal." In that spirit, I should mention that I've been following Haynes for the last five months--not as a stalker, mind you, but as a critic covering Cannes, the New York Film Festival (where Goldmine made its stateside bow last month), and now the wide release of the movie by Miramax. Encountering the director at different points (and always from a considerable distance), I can't help feeling a bit like the movie's Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), the fan-turned-reporter whose obsession becomes his deadline. And when, in the climax of this meta-narrative, Haynes calls me at home (!) to go over the film's finer points on the eve of its opening, I wonder if I may have a lead on my Rosebud.
"I don't believe in giving you the right answer as a filmmaker," Haynes says, apropos of his dedication to ambiguity. "Still, I think Velvet Goldmine is an affirmative film by my standards, and certainly compared to my film Safe. If you look at both of these as movies that are ultimately about identity and the ways in which the world limits our sense of freedom about who we are, Safe critiques all the prescriptions for illness and doesn't really give you a way out. It asks you to find your own way out, and in the end I think that's the most radical thing a film can do, to ask the right questions. But Velvet Goldmine looks at a time when there were some answers being offered, some possibilities for change in the culture. That era's definitely lost to us now--in the film, too, as it's framed by scenes of this incredibly repressive society of the '80s. But it still gives you this hope that there was this time when things were loose and open."
Flash back four weeks to the New York Film Festival. Haynes is talking about how this notion of "'ch-ch-ch-changes'" provided the working definition of '70s glam--one that's rather shrewdly replicated by his own chameleonic appropriation of various moods, styles, and cultural artifacts. "This whole film is faux," Haynes says. "Everything in it comes from something, in exactly the way that glam rock emerged, with Bowie describing himself as 'a human Xerox machine.' I wanted to literally re-enact that. So Velvet Goldmine is Oscar Wilde, it's Roxy Music, it's Citizen Kane--a film that's already this sort of baroque, self-referential, artificial, hyperfake creation. It's fakeness on top of fakeness on top of fakeness. The trick is whether the end result feels emotionally real to you. That's the hard part."
Now flash back once more to Cannes. Haynes has just seduced this critic by mentioning faux-master filmmaker Douglas Sirk, whose '50s Hollywood soapers, like Goldmine, juggle artifice and emotion in such a way as to suggest the grand melodrama known as life. "Roxy Music is another example," Haynes says. "It's this ability to be camp and ironic and strike a pose, revealing the whole apparatus of theatricality that most of rock 'n' roll is wholly invested in concealing. But at the same time, the work maintains an emotional resonance. I mean, how can Bryan Ferry sing those, like, slow ballads on the first couple of [Roxy] records? You should be laughing at him, but you don't. Instead, you cry, sort of, while getting the wit and the references, and recognizing the pose. In the same way, film to me is artifice--it's not about conveying reality."
At this, the critic/fan offers three words to his idol, appropriated from Sirk and amounting to a sort of Rosebud: Imitation of Life. "Yeah," Haynes enthuses, "where you're totally involved in the story but you're also seeing the whole...thing. That's the best."
So it is.