All That Glitter Allows

CITY PAGES: More than anything, Velvet Goldmine is about the relationship between fan and star. Since you came to this project as a connoisseur of '70s glam rock, I'm curious to ask: Were there times during the research or the shooting of the movie where you met an artist and thought, "Oh, my God, I can't believe I'm sitting here talking to..."?

TODD HAYNES: Yeah. It kept happening, in fact. Although I have yet to meet [David] Bowie, I can give you a couple of great examples, starting with a dinner I had with Brian Eno and Brian Ferry while we [were] just beginning preproduction in London. And you know, [the excitement came from] the very fact that these two artists had parted ways in '73, rather acrimoniously, and had only started speaking to each other in the last five years--and who really represented, between the two of them, a musical sophistication that is at the core of what interests me about this era. The early Roxy Music records that Eno was a part of, and the few that followed, sum up the most interesting dualities between this highly referenced, ironic, tongue-in-cheek kind of musical presentation and, somehow, this incredibly emotional quality at the same time. That combination still baffles me, and it's something that I tried with all my gumption to bring to the film itself.

CP: That's cool. Who else?

HAYNES: Well, I had an amazing conversation on the phone with Iggy [Pop]. Although we didn't need to contact him directly to secure rights to the Stooges' music that we were using in the film, I felt that it was really important to make a personal connection and let him know what we were doing, to keep him from ever feeling excluded from it. And he called me back immediately in London and he was so incredibly warm and enthusiastic. And he knew my films--he said he'd seen Safe in L.A. He was like [in a gravelly growl], "I saw Safe at the Laemmle, man--packed house, you could hear a pin drop!" Which meant he'd gone to see it within the first couple weeks, you know [laughs], since the film didn't last too long in theaters. So all of that was incredibly flattering. It blew my mind.

CP: Getting back to those first Roxy records and that balance you described between artificiality and emotion: It seems like much of the rest of rock 'n' roll, especially during that period, had been so dedicated to covering up that whole vibe of theatricality and artifice. And you certainly see that kind of covering up in this year's cinema, too, in terms of the new wave of film "realism" that we're in the midst of--whether it's the "documentary" style of Saving Private Ryan or the ne plus ultra cruelty of films like Your Friends & Neighbors. Why do you suppose there's such an interest in claiming "realness" these days--and what are the effects of it?

HAYNES: Well, I think it goes way beyond this year's films. I think it's basically our way of understanding ourselves as a society--in terms of very fixed notions, in terms of models based on nature. And ultimately that boils down to notions of identity that are about a sort of organic, authentic sense of self that we are supposed to find and stick to [laughs]. And that goes along with a consistent sexual orientation as well. Films have always been about finding the appropriate codes for naturalism or "realistic" storytelling--which, of course, change, from era to era. So if you look at the films from the '20s and '30s, and their codes of realism don't work for us today, because they seem dated, then that goes to show that the "realism" in these films is actually quite coded, invented, though not acknowledged as such.

Conversely, it's very unique voices like Oscar Wilde, and this weird little departure in rock music known as glitter rock, that begin to reveal the language that we like to think of as invisible and natural, and make that the point of what they're talking about. It's not accidental that there's an element of homosexual history that fuels some of these works that look at the world in a different way--because gay people, and other minorities, are not given the same access to these codes of realism and authenticity that the society likes to give out. So we are forced to read the world against the grain and to look at those structures and those codes that don't exclude us.

CP: In terms, then, of the ability of some of these works to have it both ways--to speak very strongly to a particular audience and succeed commercially in the mainstream--I'm really curious to see how Velvet Goldmine develops, as a work that's being widely released to multiplex art houses. Do you have any guesses about how the film will fare, commercially or otherwise, in this context?  

HAYNES: I feel slightly devilish about it [laughs]. I'm delighted and I feel kind of sneaky at the same time that this film, with its [queer] subject matter and content, is being given a fairly major release for a film of its kind. Perhaps it's ridiculously major, particularly in today's market, where films, by necessity, in terms of their financing, have to resemble a previous year's hit. The kind of films most people go to see [these days] are those in which viewers expect to see something they've seen before. In a way, that's become the pleasure of filmgoing: having a slightly cynical way of expecting what the film is going to be like--that Will Smith is going to blow something up in the next act or whatever.

And [Velvet Goldmine] is a very different kind of film. It's really inspired by films that came out of '60s drug culture, like 2001 and Performance and A Clockwork Orange--films that invited you to go somewhere completely unknown. And I guess in a way those films were my glam rock--they were the invitation toward a kind of self-exploration that I just don't see being offered as much to young people today. I've always hoped that Velvet Goldmine could be that kind of film. And that's where I'm the most excited and hopeful--about the film's potential to reach the youngest filmgoers, those who didn't even live through the '70s and aren't bringing some of the baggage that people my age [37] might bring to the film.

CP: I love the quote of yours from Sight and Sound where you say, "I hoped [Velvet Goldmine] 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." What that sounds like to me is, basically, a cult film, you know--of the '70s, almost. And the context, the environment for such films has just changed so much in terms of the demise of the midnight movie, stemming in turn from the demise of independent theaters and campus film societies and rep houses--it's hard to have that kind of collective experience with a movie anymore.

HAYNES: Yes. It's frightening to me. I mean, I wouldn't even be making films if it weren't for arts grants--in other words, without the realization that there's a kind of filmmaking outside of the commercial market that needs to be supported. I would never have begun to push my script for Poison [1991] around to the traditional financing sources in either mainstream or independent film circles. At the time it just seemed ludicrous to me because I was coming from a completely different perspective. At that time there were still grants to be gotten--and on the, sort of, strength of my film Superstar, I was able to get grants to make Poison. That's completely dried up now, as have the venues for experimental film. They don't teach experimental film in film school anymore; they don't show experimental film in art centers anymore because those art centers are often drying up, particularly those related to film. So it's really a total demise of so many important traditions that have paralleled the dominant film industry for years.

CP: What do we do?

HAYNES: I don't know, I really don't know. I think some of the new technology is encouraging, because it puts the apparatus back into the hands of the consumer. You can make films on video, cheaply, and I think that is taking place now. Video is not as beautiful as Super 8 and 16mm [laughs], but it at least gives people the hands-on ability to experiment and try stuff and not necessarily think about where it's gonna go. What's sad is that kids don't seem to want to experience things that aren't part of the industry. It's a cycle, and you don't know where the cycle begins, but I hear from friends of mine who teach that there isn't the interest or the patience or the curiosity that there's been in the past--that our focus is getting narrower and narrower.

CP: It almost makes you hope that things will get even worse in order that they might get better and turn the other way, in that kind of continual, cultural tug-of-war that happens over time.

HAYNES: Yes, exactly.

CP: You know, everyone naturally talks about Velvet Goldmine in relation to Citizen Kane, which you were obviously thinking about a lot when you made your film, and it's funny that, at least in Minneapolis, Citizen Kane is being re-released on the very same day that your movie comes out.

HAYNES: Oh, really? Citizen Kane? I know Touch of Evil is out but I didn't know about Citizen Kane. I wonder why they're re-releasing Citizen Kane.  

CP: I think it's the whole American Film Institute thing, you know. [Citizen Kane was recently voted "the greatest American movie of all time" by the AFI.] But what's really interesting is that another film coming out on November 6, also in re-release, is The Big Chill [1983], which I watched the other day and found so striking in relation to your movie--partly in terms of the treatment of vinyl records [laughs]. You know, one of the most remarkable scenes in your film is that incredibly tactile, beautiful, sensual scene of the journalist character putting on the [Maxwell Demon] record, and for him it's this liberating, almost activist kind of spiritual awakening. It's everything to him. And in The Big Chill, when the Kevin Kline character puts on records, it's always to preempt thought and discussion, political discussion especially. The records provide this kind of pure escapism.

HAYNES: Right. It's different forms of nostalgia. And I guess "nostalgia" is a sort of pejorative term. People sometimes ask me, "I know your film is not nostalgic, but..." And Velvet Goldmine actually is nostalgic. Some kinds of nostalgia are more invested in a kind of activism--there's something you want to learn from the past to make you, perhaps, galvanize the present or rethink the present. And then sometimes you just want to escape the present.

CP: Do you see that kind of galvanizing artwork happening elsewhere these days? To use just one example: Are there current manifestations of glam rock that strike you as progressive? Some people have suggested Marilyn Manson as a torchbearer in these terms--or is that something else entirely?

HAYNES: I don't think it's possible to go back or to apply these same ideas to our culture today. I think there are things we can continue to learn from the transgressions of glam rock, but we're such a different society today. Although we are more "aware" of history because it's already happened, and there's a sense, in this sort of postmodern world we live in, that you have access to everything at once, and everything is available, the political meaning and the notion of a real "left" and a real "right" has so changed. I don't think these artistic experiments are invested with the same implications or the same potential.

CP: You've said that Velvet Goldmine is the most "affirmative" film that you've made--and then, in the next breath, that this is sort of scary to you [laughs]. I wonder if you could elaborate on that a bit: In what way do you think the film is affirmative? What can it do? What do you hope it can do when it meets the audience? What can it say to a young audience, in particular?

HAYNES: Well, I don't believe in giving you the right answer as a filmmaker. 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.

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, when the popular culture posed a lot of important questions and gave a multitude of answers that you could choose from.

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