Velvet Goldmine
Reviewed in November 1998
Read this book for my later, expanded thoughts on this film!
Director: Todd Haynes. Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Michael Feast, Emily Woof. Screenplay: Todd Haynes (based on a story by Haynes and James Lyons).

Photo © 1998 Miramax Films
Todd Haynes has already made two motion pictures that declare strange scenarios, introduce strange characters, and then film them all even more... strangely. Poison, his Sundance-winning debut effort, was a triptych of stories derived from the writings of Jean Genet, following with wild tonal diversity a young boy who spontaneously flies out his window, a scientist who concocts and mistakenly ingests a leprous serum, and a duo of prisoners who undergo—well, the plot of that one almost defies description, but at its center are two men's bodies that become the sites of both homoerotic passion and roundly discomfiting tortures and misery. Safe—which I listed as 1995's 9th best movie but is probably, in retrospect, its 2nd or 3rd—follows one suburban housewife whose sudden symptoms of illness are diagnosed and spookily treated as an allergic reaction to nothing less than the 20th century itself.

If one theme emerges from these two pictures—which actually feel like five, given Poison's three distinct narratives and Safe's bifurcation into an hour of disease and one of "cure"—it is the abject vulnerability of the human body to the physical and social world outside. Haynes complicates his projects, however, by frequently allowing his "real world" to be more mutable, more supernaturally elusive than we expect, so that our persons are being acted upon by forces we are powerless to control or even to understand. His films are audacious in design and rich with ideas, though he never erases the audience's room to turn off the mental burners and experience them as engaging, eerie horror stories of a singularly unpredictable bent.

All of which brings us to Velvet Goldmine, Haynes' third full-length film. Velvet Goldmine, rather than itself tampering reality, moves to a cultural-historical moment where fantasy and mirage were the informing conditions of a distinct, spectacular public scene: the glam-rock era of 1970s popular music. The world of this film is still a mighty bizarre place, but this time the weirdness is not a surprise—it's what legions of fans and misfit adolescents are paying to see on stage, or at least to hear on their vinyl turntables. And if mutable, changing bodies are what you want, as Haynes so often does, check out how insolently these performers reconstituted their selves. They were interested in codes of gender and other "biological" marks only to the extent that they subverted them profoundly. Ask yourself whether David Bowie is a man or a woman, and observe the impossibility of committing to either answer.

The central figure of Velvet Goldmine is Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers of The Governess), a performance artist whose heavily-synthed music and androgynously feline appearance draw an increasing legion of blushed-and-teased admirers through the 1970s. Slade's "music" is not much to be proud of, but nor is it ever the point of his routine. Rather, he conjures elaborate videos in which he impersonates slithery djinns and blue devils. He fills concert stages with lavender smoke and pillow feathers. He wears blue-mohawk wigs and covers his body in metallic, glittery paint. The nature of Slade's art is his very command of your gaze; like a less macabre but equally self-promoting godfather to Marilyn Manson, Slade hides beneath his pouty, self-serious expression the laughing janus-face of someone who knows he has nothing of substance to reveal. His act is the very state of being nothing more than an act. Whether or not they know it, Slade's fans seem attracted to the very ephemerality of his vision, its byzantine dazzle that signifies nothing.

In some ways, Velvet Goldmine holds forth glam-rock as the apotheosis of the uncanny, shimmering, sinister worlds that Haynes has always envisioned. As we have already seen, however, he is not a filmmaker who is ever content with telling just one story. The complement he composes here to the saga of Brian Slade is the sad, restrained story of Arthur Stuart, a journalist in 1984 whose assignment is to research what has become of Mr. Slade and his "Maxwell Demon" alter ego since the public embarrassment and ensuing disfavor of his self-staged "faux assassination" on stage a few years beforehand. Arthur, you see, was one of the poor sops in the concert hall who thought there was some method to all of this madness: that glam rock and its pansexual, ornamented idiom were not only saying something, but saying something to and about him, who was at that time a confused adolescent living with parents who cannot really see him.

Arthur buys a Brian Slade album and experiences the confounding, wondrous urge to touch himself while looking at Slade, posed as a nude odalisque on the record sleeve. Arthur wears outrageous clothes and takes unsanctioned trips far away from the house in a sheepish but urgent pursuit of whatever magic it is he believes glam rock is unlocking: the solution code to the total enigma presented to him by his body, his sexuality, his place in an adult world. Even with all of his rouge and mousse, there is a sad, Oliver Twist look to Arthur; he is definitionally sad, disappointed somehow, and we know in a strange way that his sadness will not leave him.

Clearly, the format of the journalist researching the life of a domineering, fallen-from-grace public figure recalls the layout of Citizen Kane, particularly when Haynes has Stuart visit the subject's estranged and bitter wife...on a rainy night and in an empty club that the camera enters through the skylight! Some critics have barked against the bald appropriation of Welles' model, while most others have generally derided the picture as an artifact as empty and as superficial as the rockers whose lives it follows. Haynes is such an intelligent filmmaker, you would think he would earn at least more benefit of the doubt than these lazy readings allow him.

In truth, the mimicry of Citizen Kane—which is unmistakable but doesn't really mean much—is a perfect formal approximation of the endless, empty citationality that comprised the entire glam-rock movement. Everyone copies everyone else for the sake of copying. A statement is made mostly by the prestige of what you impersonate, and the flair with which you do so. Superficiality is not the mar or pitfall of Haynes' film, but its stated subject and governing concept. The best way, to Haynes' mind, of recreating glam rock for a 1990s audience is not to simply buy the costumes and put them on camera, but to operate with equal ellipticism, self-consciousness, and empty fireworks of color and sound. Velvet Goldmine does something more difficult than biographing glam; it embodies it.

Nor is it fair to accuse this structure as a chilly stunt: i.e., so what if he films in the same derivative style as glam performers used on stage? Isn't that still a simple if clean and deliberate act of derivation, an outsize and sparklingly outfitted gesture of xeroxing? What flies right in the face of that line of criticism is Haynes' clear and extensive interest in Arthur's coming-of-age, which are almost incredibly poignant both when he is a struggling teenager and a wistful, prematurely world-weary adult. Arthur knows that when he goes back and recreates through his interviews his own memory of the glam era, he will be forced to recognize that what was so laden with import and impact for his youthful self was never more than a charade, a chimera.

Christian Bale, in a very moving performance, stifles Arthur's voice to a soft mutter and restrains his physical moves, in such contrast to the reckless sprints that conveyed him as a boy to the stadiums and venues where Brian Slade appeared. This is a character who has become cocooned; his melancholy is the permanent, inevitable cost to any naf who uses art as the mirror by which he perceives or constructs his own identity. There is ecstasy in Arthur's initial identification with Brian, and later in a physical consummation with Curt Wild, another headline performer played by Ewan McGregor in another magnetically (and literally) self-exposing turn. There is also, however, a great sadness to the eventual realization of how false that identification was. Brian Slade did not share, reciprocate, or articulate any of Arthur's jumbled emotions or feelings, because Brian Slade was a hollow ornament without any feelings or emotions at all.

Velvet Goldmine and its concentration on issues of copying and empty citation also take on added resonance and considerable emotional wallop when cast in the context of postmodern theories of sexuality and gender formation. Haynes, an explicitly gay filmmaker, recognizes here the groundbreaking work of scholars like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, who have written throughout the 80s and 90s about how all gendered and sexual identities—most obviously the marginalized "female" and "homosexual" ones—are the reinterpretations of inherited models, a cycle of repetition from which the origin point has vanished. You become a woman, a man, or a gay man (as three examples) by acting "like" or even slavishly against the image of Woman, Man, or Gay Man that you read within the culture. Velvet Goldmine must be aware of these revolutionary theories and the late 20th-century explosions in gay identity politics; how else do you account for a film in which the mid-1980s and the mid-1970s are seen as distant eras, an irrevocable shift in time? Bale's Arthur realizes now, more than ever before, that the glam-rock era was for some viewers like himself the most audacious, public acting-out of subversive gay identities: but it was also just a sparkling rehash of borrowed costumes and props that would themselves be handed down. It felt eye-opening, if you were a questioning adolescent, but it was no fuller or more substantial than any other "performance" of gender or sexuality can be. Brian must have known that, and he used it to sell tickets.

The issue of Brian's emotionlessness—which should not be confused with heartlessness, or apathy, since the character is cold but not cruel—is reinforced by Toni Collette's skillfully viperish performance as Mandy, Brian's ex-wife whom Arthur interviews. Brian was never much of a husband to Mandy, preferring instead the bed of McGregor's Curt Wild. Ironically, the affair between these two men is not a passionate counter-point to Brian's coldness to Mandy; there is nothing deeper about that liaison, which Curt comes to realize is only possible because he is as false, as soulless a creation as Brian himself. The "romance" between Curt and Brian is like the kissing of two shadows.

If much of Velvet Goldmine coheres more in mental reflection than in direct visual experience, one may in large part blame the absolutely bewitching visuals imagined by art director Christopher Dobbs and that sorceress of a costume designer Sandy Powell, whose outlandish ensembles arrest the senses and are impossible to resist. Poison cinematographer Maryse Alberti also returns to film all these carryings-on with great energy and kinetic aplomb. Curt and Brian's videos and live performances prove that Haynes was as attentive and observant a fan of these shows as he is a keen though nostalgic critic of what it all meant—or better yet, what it never meant at all. There is also a certain catch-22 factor, in that even a rigorous, carefully-crafted film about hollow acts and vanishing images will be hard-put to be remembered as anything more than the sum of its illusions, the cascade of its vivid displays. That Haynes succeeds as well as he does in this respect is a marvel, helped by his perfect selection of a humbly-imaged event to which he sends a virtual, teary-eyed love letter in the film's last few shots.

Velvet Goldmine is not a superficial music video but a smart and compassionate dissection of superficiality, and of the alternating joys and disillusionments experienced by its audience. The film is beautifully played (except for some excessively blank faced, CKOne-style sneers from Rhys Meyers) and wonderfully orchestrated by a handful of aces on the technical side. I am not positive that Haynes is saying anything that people have not said before, though they have usually done so with less formal virtuosity and daring, and I wonder if the picture will retain the same force three years later as Safe at least has proven to do. Whatever its shelf-life, it is captivating at the current moment, and more emotionally involving through Bale's performance than the material at first suggests. Velvet Goldmine speaks eloquently about the danger of hypnotic spectacles, but for all the right reasons one cannot look away from this remarkable film. A

(in November 1998: A–)


Click here for a shorter, capsule-length response to the film, included as part of my 2003 feature article, "Queer Folks in the Cinema."
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Best Artistic Contribution (Haynes)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Cinematography (Maryse Alberti)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Costume Design

Permalink Home 1998 ABC Blog E-Mail