Monday, September 21, 2020

Todd Haynes | Velvet Goldmine

by Douglas Messerli

Todd Haynes (screenwriter and director) Velvet Goldmine / 1998

It is rather intimidating, I must admit, to write about a film that pretends it is not portraying what it truly is. You’d think that having written on dozens of pre-1960s movies in which LGBTQ behavior was hidden underneath and within narratives that claimed to be about heterosexual behavior I’d find no difficultly about speaking of gay director Todd Haynes’ 1998 extravaganza, Velvet Goldmine, in which sexuality—whether gay, bisexual, lesbian, transsexual, or undetermined—is quite openly portrayed—would be a simple matter.
      In this case, however, director Haynes, having planned to celebrate the glam rock scene of the early 1970s through a character very loosely based on David Bowie and his friends, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, was stymied in his attempt by Bowie’s threaten to sue if he went through with it.
     Bowie, as we all know, had long since passed on to several other personae and was surely disinterested in his more than indiscriminate past. By 1984, the time in which this movie is set, Bowie had moved far away from his flamboyant and androgynous Ziggy Stardust alter ego to become a serious film star and to collaborate with yet another gay icon, Queen, in his 1981 album Under Pressure. By 1998, the time of the release of Haynes’ film Bowie had shifted to soul, jazz, hip-hop and, most importantly, electronic music of Black Tie White Noise and The Buddha of Suburbia (both 1993), and “Let’s Dance,” before working with Brian Eno on Outside (1995) and was quickly moving on to aging celebrity status by being in inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and “awarded” a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1997.
      How would it help him to now be reminded of his crossdressing jumps into the sack with Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, and god knows how many others, as well as his drug addiction and his declaration in 1972 of being gay (in a interview with Michael Watts in Melody Maker) and his reassertion of the fact in his 1976 interview in Playboy: "It's true—I am a bisexual. But I can't deny that I've used that fact very well. I suppose it's the best thing that ever happened to me."? By 1983 Bowie had rethought the whole issue, suggesting in an interview in Rolling Stone that his public admission of bisexuality was "the biggest mistake I ever made"; "I was always a closet heterosexual."
      Just a few weeks before the shoot, according to actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, his character was transformed from a Bowie-like figure to an amalgam character, Brian Slade, patterned after Bowie, Jobriath and, to a lesser extent, Marc Bolan. Moreover, there would no longer be any music by Bowie accompanying the story.
    Yes, Slade, like Bowie shacks up in Berlin with his now favorite singer, Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor)—a character now incorporating elements of both Iggy Pop (who like Wild grew up in a trailer park) and Lou Reed (who was sent by his homophobic parents to get “cured” through electroshock therapy)—totally unphased by dropping to the ground, going nude, having sex, and taking drugs in the middle of his concerts, totally wowed the as yet unestablished Slade, whose dropped-jaw appreciation of Wild’s on-stage nudity he expressed to his wife: "I just wish it had been me. I wish I'd thought of it
      Slade, still seeking a persona for himself develops almost a worshipful relationship with Wild, while, in reverse, by taking on the Iggy/Lou figure helps to return some sense of stability to Wild’s life—even if it ends with Slade’s ultimate rejection.
       But then Slade eventually feels the need (just as Bowie obviously had) to reject himself, hiring a mock murderer, Jack Fairy (Micko Westmoreland) to assassinate him at the height of his career. Is it any wonder than ten years later, when the truth comes out, Slade’s fans have nearly all forgotten him?
       Enter British reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), now working for a US music rag, whose editor suddenly assigns Stuart to dig into to Slade’s past in an attempt to discover whatever happened to the dead man who still, apparently, is living—which might be read almost as an enchiridion or even a method book on how to read Haynes’ film, which, like its characters, in turn is itself beholden to the books of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, both pleasure-seekers who help to destroy themselves.
       At first simply irked that he has been yanked away from another story to write about Slade, perhaps simply because he is British and younger that the rest of the staff and is expected to know all about “that stuff,” the reporter sets out on a journey paralleling Orson Welles’ character Jerry Thompson in Citizen Kane. Like Thompson on the trail of the meaning of “Rosebud,” Charles Foster Kane’s last word, Stuart sets out to interview the figures closest to Slade, including his wheel-chair bound manager Jerry Devine (Eddie Izard), reminding us of Joseph Cotton, Slade’s performer friends such as Jack Fairy, and Slade’s former wife, Mandy (Toni Collette), who like Kane’s wife, Susan Alexander Kane, is no an alcoholic willing to spill her guts in a nightclub where she sings.
      Through these interviews we gradually get a vague kind of portrait of Slade and his alter-persona Maxwell Demon, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring a lot a great music from numerous musicians with whom Bowie worked and by whom he was influenced (Little Richard, T. Rex, Venus in Furs, Roxy Music, The Stooges, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Steve Harley and more), while also gradually coming to the recognition that behind Slade, just as Ziggy Stardust, there was no real person dressed up in the outrageous costumes, dancing out the sexually charged motions, and plaintively singing those anthems. Slade-Demon-Ziggy, perhaps even the Iggy of those days had to die because they never truly existed. Like the glam heroes of Haynes’ film, they were all fictions.

      Yet what these celebratory chimeras accomplished was a complete sexual and social revolution for their audiences. In this film the sexual energy behind those performances is conveyed in Slade’s and Wild’s—as well as the fictional duo and Meyers’ and McGregor’s—18 second on screen kiss (others, not me, have timed this), not to ignore their playing out of their newly-discovered emotional relationship, as in Haynes’ film The Karen Carpenter Story, with Barbie dolls.
      But the “real” action so to speak, was always on the other side of the stage, screen, or whatever other world they momentarily inhabited: in the nubile bodies and newly opened-minds of their fans, represented by the “Rosebud” of this picture, the reporter Stuart himself, who we gradually discover, as a homosexual kid dared to purchase a Slade record and dress up in glam-like drag, awkwardly entering his private real world as a transformed being instead of the weak faggot his father assessed him to be.
     Stuart’s later encounters with Wild, his adult meeting with the washed up singer who insists upon presenting him with a ring given him by Slade that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, and a brief youthful sexual coupling with the same man—may or may not be fantasy.
      It doesn’t matter, figures like Wild and Slade have long ago passed into his body. By the time he realizes what happened to Brian Slade, his New York editor has nixed the essay, reassigning him to follow the new singing sensation Tommy Stone (Alastair Cumming), who Stuart has come to recognize is a lesser version of the man from which he has been reincarnated.

Los Angeles, September 21, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).  

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