Film: We were all in glitter, looking at the stars
Todd Haynes missed glam. But not Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde. Hence `Velvet Goldmine'.
Thursday 15 October 1998
Take his last film, Safe, a chilling drama about a Los Angeles housewife who becomes allergic to her own environment. The movie was structured like your typical disease-of-the-week TV special, from the first flourishes of illness to the acceptance of New Age remedies. Everything was set-up for the victim to recover. Only she didn't; she got worse. The key to the film's devastating power was in its enigmatic visual language - it gave you all the wrong signals: it promised redemption and delivered nothing of the sort. "All movies lie," Haynes has said, "but Safe is a film that lies on purpose." An artist who is so in control of his material, who programmes his viewers to reject pre-determined emotional responses, can easily provoke confusion or animosity in those who prefer directors to provide their answers for them. Safe suffered widely from misinterpretation, whether from the trade paper Variety, who gave the film a text-book mis- reading, or ordinary cinema-goers like the woman I overheard at a screening of the movie in Oxford, asking her companion as the end credits rolled "so did she have asthma, then?".
When I tell Haynes this, he gives an appalled guffaw. Perhaps he has enough distance now to find it funny. Besides, he has another outstanding piece of work to discuss - Velvet Goldmine, his exhilarating hymn to, and analysis of, glam-rock. Another wildly original movie. Another opportunity to be misunderstood.
So far, Velvet Goldmine is proving almost as perplexing as Safe did. Admittedly, it isn't from areas that hold a great deal of sway - The Face ("nice soundtrack, shame about the film"), Select("was it worth the wait? Er... "), and Q ("tripe"). No, these aren't the places you turn to in order to find out about cinema. But it says something about the nature of Velvet Goldmine that it hasn't appeased the youth and music magazine market, who were perhaps anticipating a Trainspotting in platform shoes. The film is nothing so conveniently marketable. It unfolds in flashback as an Eighties journalist tries to piece together the story of Brian Slade, a glam superstar whose career ended abruptly with a faked assassination. The structure may be pure Citizen Kane, but the influences and allusions come from all over the shop, the resulting jamboree bag of textures and tones neatly reflecting the subject matter.
"Safe had a highly controlled, diminished surface," he explained, "whereas glam-rock is this baroque hotch-potch of elements. It affects every level of how the film works - the masses of scenes, the constant tone changes. I tried to enact something comparable to what I see glam-rock doing at the time: pulling from fact and fiction. Glam stars literally lived out their own fictions of themselves. We can never really know what went on in their lives; what exists in the world are these images that the artists concerned were heavily investing in producing. They were dressing up in the role, claiming to get lost in the characters and then having to shed them in these dramatic ways.
"Velvet Goldmine doesn't lie to you in the same way as Safe. It's more at the level of content that the film is about artifice. The whole idea of speaking the truth by wearing the mask - that when you dress up and disguise yourself you are in a position to be at your most honest. It's something that Oscar Wilde was promoting - this attack on notions of truth, authenticity, and depth, and what Bowie and Roxy Music were doing is a comparable thing."
The literary reference isn't an arbitrary one. What makes Velvet Goldmine such a dynamic film is that Haynes doesn't content himself with simply recreating the glam era. He begins the picture with the birth of Wilde, identifying the writer as the great unsung progenitor of glam, before flashing forward 100 years and using the story of Brian Slade, not only as a way of defining the elements of glam-rock, but also to underline the emancipating effects that pop music can have on its fans. Haynes himself is a little too young to have experienced glam-rock directly, though he remembers it "poking through the comforts of suburban life".
If Haynes felt emancipated by any images or icons at all, it was the ones he absorbed from movies. "When I was seven, I remember being struck by Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, just the whole sensuality of it. I started having dreams about my classmates taking off their tops to reveal these Olivia Hussey breasts. Deeply affecting. I became this snotty, Shakespeare kid and my first big film project, when I was nine, was Romeo and Juliet. I played all the roles except Juliet. Way before that, when I was three, I saw Mary Poppins and it just blew my mind. I was obsessed, I drew Julie Andrews pictures everywhere." All of which is likely to chime with anyone who has seen Haynes's melancholy short film, Dottie Gets Spanked, in which a child becomes obsessed with a TV comedy star and draws her constantly, much to his parents' concern.
"My father's reaction was a little like that of the dad in Dottie Gets Spanked. I was drawing women exclusively. I drew Cinderellas, Snow Whites, while the Prince Charmings were always on the edge of the picture looking somewhat womanly themselves. One day I went to the market and asked for a pad, and my dad said `only if you draw men'. Which is amazing, given how supportive he's been and how close we are. I guess it seems obvious now - I was drawing girls constantly, and paying real close attention to the dresses and shoes."
Haynes's interest in strong female characters undoubtedly informs Safe and also his first film, the short but controversial Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, in which the singer's tragic life was told using a cast of Barbie dolls. As kitsch as it sounds, the film was surprisingly sensitive, and used the image of the woman-as-doll to comment on Carpenter's anorexia and the larger issue of female beauty.
I think that's what excites me most about Haynes's work - the most simple concept opens up a wealth of opportunities and possibilities for him. That was the sensation you took away from his 1991 feature debut Poison, which inter-cut three unrelated stories about social outcasts to beguiling effect. And it's there in Velvet Goldmine too: a feeling that film can be epic in scope without necessarily being epic in budget. "What I was trying to do with the film," says Haynes, "was to make the kind of experience that I had when I saw 2001 or Performance, films that would take you somewhere unknown. That's much less of an option these days, given that a film can't even be made unless it resembles whatever the last hit with Will Smith was.
"A friend of mine said `Todd, this is a film which teaches you how to like it'. That's obviously a good friend, who liked the film a lot." Those averse to adventure need not buy a ticket.
`Velvet Goldmine' opens on 23 October
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