Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The curves of your lips rewrite history.

This is my contribution to Nathaniel's Musical of the Month at the Film Experience.

You can count on one hand the pop soundtrack cues that match the exhilarating high of Brian Eno's soaring "Needles in the Camel's Eye" played over images of throngs of young, tarted-up glitter kids in perpetual motion, serving as track 1, side 1 of Todd Haynes' glam rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine. The movie hits the ground running and never loses momentum - Haynes depicts the glam scene as no less than a teutonic shift in our cultural and sexual identity. Of course, the real heyday of artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and T. Rex was nowhere near as huge as depicted here; Bowie was essentially a cult star who found his biggest success in the '80s with "Let's Dance," and much of the music from the period is largely dismissed as pretentious and silly today (at least by many of the passengers in my car). But the genius of Haynes' film is that it treats its subject as big, capturing the thrilling immediacy of being part of (or wanting to be a part of) a subculture, the feeling that your own revolution is - or can be - everyone's.

Named after Bowie's horniest song, Velvet Goldmine starts with the delivery of an infant Oscar Wilde to earth via spaceship before jumping to the staged assassination of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a Bowie-inspired, androgynous pop idol who has his own Ziggy Stardust in alien persona Maxwell Demon. Ten years after the hoax and Slade's disappearance, rock journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is assigned a "Where are they now?" piece about Slade; his investigation starts a Citizen Kane-like story where we learn pieces of the Slade story from those who knew him. At the heart of the film is Slade's doomed romance with American rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) - two parts Iggy Pop and one part Lou Reed, Wild gleefully wags his privates for his audience one moment before setting fire to the stage the next. The combustible affair between the openly bisexual Slade and the sexually malleable Wild, and the breakdown of Slade's relationship with wife Mandy (Toni Collette)* set the stage for Haynes' kaliedoscopic, visually stunning meditation on sex, performance, identity, drugs, celebrity, genderfuck and - above all - music. Haynes correctly identifies glam, wedged between the misogyny of the "free love" '60s and the defiantly aesexual rise of punk, as the moment when sex was a means of personal revolution. That this sexual revolution was rendered superficial through its contrived nature is arguable, but Haynes uses surfaces to argue for a deeper truth; when Wild and Slade, driving through a light show, serenade each other with a lip-sync of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love," the moment becomes swooningly romantic precisely because of its obvious unreality.

Velvet Goldmine is filled with precisely such surface pleasures, from the wonderfully over-the-top costumes by Sandy Powell to the marvellously intricate sound design. Haynes is, above all, an aesthete; having studied semiotics at school, his films are like two-hour lessons in signs and signifiers, only they're actually fun to watch. When Haynes appropriates the out-of-time editing of Nicolas Roeg, the visual excesses of Ken Russell or the long-abandoned use of the zoom lens (Oh God, the zooms! Why did they ever go out of style?!), it's more than mere homage. Velvet Goldmine so thoroughly reenacts the sonic and visual textures of the period that each shot, each cut takes on an erotic charge. To the charge that the film is too cerebral, I can only respond that thinking can be very sexy - this is part of glam's appeal, descending not just from Wilde but from Rimbauld, the idea that the divide between introspection and experiential realities is a false one. What I mean to say is that this movie is really fucking hot.

To access the emotions of the film, one has to pay attention to Bale's journalist - the film is punctuated by Arthur's memories of the early '70s, as an awkward teen prone to hiding in his room listening to The Ballad of Maxwell Demon. When Arthur, watching Slade at a press conference on tv, imagines exclaiming "That's me!" to his parents right before Slade opines that we're all bisexual, it reminds all of us of our own adolescent identification with a particular rock star, and what it taught us about ourselves (if you claim you never obsessed over a rock star, you're probably lying). When the film arrives at a tryst between Wild and a young Arthur that may be real or imagined, Haynes doesn't shy away from the intensely personal attachment one can feel towards an artist who, in a sense, deflowers us (the scene is also bound - and Haynes couldn't have anticipated this - to take on special meaning to slash fiction fans as a visual record of Obi-Wan Kenobi buggering Batman). Velvet Goldmine is, more than anything, about what it feels like (to borrow from Almost Famous) to love some silly piece of music so much that it hurts. More than any movie I've seen, it captures the pure high of playing your favorite record (as the opening titles demand) at maximum volume.

* Sidenote: McGregor, Bale, Meyers, Collette - might this be the sexiest cast ever? I couldn't find a way to fit this into the review proper, but it's worth noting.

4 comments:

NATHANIEL R said...

if it's not the sexiest cast ever it's close. but it might be. It helps that their playing such randy characters. The roughly contemporary cast of Talented Mr Ripley (jude law, cate blanchett, gwyneth paltrow, matt damon) is pretty too but they just don't dive into the sexcapades with as much force or defiant enthusiasm. Guilt and confusion just aren't that sexy.

Bemis said...

I think guilt and confusion can be pretty sexy, but in a more, um, confusing way. I saw The Talented Mr. Ripley on a huge screen when I was 15 - the scene where Tom asks Dickie if he can get in the tub made me feel quite odd.

Jenny said...

Ooh, I just rented this movie two weeks ago: very good stuff. Although I heard Bowie didn't like it cos it was pretentious. However, I also dunno if the glam rock was entirely contrived: Bowie in fact had a lot more sophisticated influences than the media let on. Either way, I think glam rock was still pretty damn important; it was escapism to be sure,but it also allowed people to be a bit more open about sexual orientation.

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