In the fall of 1975, two girls brought glam gear to my suburban high school. They teetered in platform boots giddier than most people's, and slicked on makeup with a wittier hand. They'd hacked their hair into an approximation of Bowie's rooster shag, one girl's dyed black, the other's white-blond. My jeans-and-T-shirted schoolmates stalked them in the halls, whispering, "faggots!" I got to know them in art class, but didn't always acknowledge them elsewhere. We went out together once, to see David Johansen, and spent an hour afterward cruising the streets of Seattle, looking for the party. Then we drove those 20 freeway miles back to Lynnwood.
I don't know what happened to them. But what awesome bravery! And for what? you may well ask. Well, they did open a door, which I walked through a few years later, modeling my own torn and pinned psyche. This stuff serves as the raw heart of Velvet Goldmine: How pop culture makes the awkward person feel less alone; how it may even inspire him or her to wear that awkwardness flamboyantly; how those garments become a beacon for other misfits, a signpost to a subversive celebration that you create together and call home. I watched this sensual, seductive movie feeling not a little poignant. Because like those glam girls--and me for a long time--the women in Velvet Goldmine can't find the after-show party, the safe home that remains after the lights go up. Confused and disbelieving, they keep driving the same streets, repeating lyrics like prayers, as their beautiful courage turns tawdry.
To be sure, director Todd Haynes comprehends this other, and until recently hidden, cultural history. In Velvet Goldmine's glamadelica, as in the lives it fictionalizes, the star wife's story represents the circumscribed contributions of rock females in general. Mandy Slade, as Angela Bowie to Brian Slade's David, may play muse, mirror, sexual comrade, and domestic manager, but she's out of the creative/financial loop and, as such, not only expendable but unmourned. When journalist Arthur Stuart tracks down washed-out Mandy (an exceptional Toni Collette) at a dive, her wasted rant obviously echoes the bitter recollections of Citizen Kane's ex. More to the point, it draws from the forgivably vainglorious, often righteous testimony of rock "wives"--Angela, Patricia Kennealy, Marianne Faithfull--who have since published their versions of mythic pop events.
Indeed, Angela Bowie's piquant 1993 memoir, Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie, seems to have provided Haynes with quite a few major plot developments. Not to mention the tone, brassy and hurt, which Collette wraps around herself like a tattered leopard-skin coat. That said, Haynes has, from his elegiac debut Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), shown an intuitive and well-informed understanding of modern women's blues--a complex awareness evident as angry Mandy trades rapier insults with Brian, seeking some rationalization for his shoddy treatment of her. Brian only snorts coke and giggles, for he knows what Angela Bowie still doesn't: She looks silly because she doesn't grasp the rules--those that maintained the top of the rock food-chain as male, whatever the suggested attire.
Through Mandy, Haynes exposes the studied hypocrisy of glam, which celebrated the feminine though not the female, and envisioned cultural freedoms while ensuring one gender's material privilege. Unfortunately, when Mandy's tale ends, so does the critique. It's as if Haynes gets swept away by the yearning beauty of his boys: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers's luminous thief Slade, Ewan McGregor's volcanic Curt Wild, Christian Bale's gawky, sensitive Arthur. (They are lovely.) The film imagines a talisman, a green jewel supposedly belonging to Oscar Wilde; this symbol of heroic gender-bending artifice is grabbed by Slade, passed to Wild, and slipped finally to Arthur. Haynes's movie is colored with such nostalgic longing for these sassy boys and their poetry that I ultimately (and appropriately?) felt left out--like a woman could never hope to touch that cool green flame.
It doesn't help that no small amount of Velvet Goldmine's nostalgia has a fresher object than Ziggy Stardust. Haynes's assertions to the contrary, Curt Wild's physical and psychic resemblance to Kurt Cobain strikes me as deliberate and symbolic; his presence in this story is a posthumous rescue effort, a vision of the ways he might have convinced himself to live. Haynes isn't crassly suggesting that Kurt should've dumped Courtney for Michael Stipe (who executive-produces here). Rather that, embraced by a nurturing fellow-ship (there's that rock men's club again), he might've coupled his hardcore integrity with queer theatrics: In other words, he could have blown away his despised rock persona, not his brain.
It's a good point--one that might bear more weight if the movie hadn't already stressed, via Mandy's abuse, the difference between wearing a revolutionary consciousness and practicing one. Could Kurt have ever faked it so hard he'd be beyond fake? "A man's [sic] life is his image," pronounces Slade. Haynes knows, as much as Kurt did, that the line cuts two ways.
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