Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Velvet Goldmine

Dir. Todd Haynes

At what point does a life become absurd? When does a person quit being a human and become a persona or a personality, incapable of dissociating between their surrealist lifestyle and the likelihood that they are addicted to their own sense of escapism? In his brilliant 2007 fiopic on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, director Todd Haynes theorized that this happens only when some kind of trauma forcibly slices and bleeds through into an existence that has evolved into a social and cultural lifestyle: forcibly crippling the gaping hugeness of exterior recklessness and waking an interior humanity that can be covered up but never entirely forgotten about. What made that film incomparable was its blending of realities, its fractal poster of one of the best, and at the same time in a more literal sense, least, known figures in contemporary music, and its ungodly collision of pure fantasy and debilitating reality. Stepping back 10 years we see the roots of Haynes' unique vision of personality and his theme of identity that he would further develop in the 21st century with Far From Heaven and I'm Not There. Velvet Goldmine, which centers around the life of David Bowie (known as “Brian Slade” in the film and played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his relationship with Iggy Pop (“Curt Wilde” played by Ewan McGregor), does not pulsate as far out or as deeply as I'm Not There, but instead tries to unearth (and in a manner highly reminiscent of Citizen Kane's detective-esque narrative about uncovering the truth behind an infamous and controversial pseudo-historical figure) some kind of truth behind the glittery facade of the 70s glam rock movement in England and its affect on two of its most well known icons.

As with I'm Not There, Velvet Goldmine utilizes healthy doses of fiction and fantasy. Haynes' masterful and amazingly careful control over the artifacts in his films allows for these fables to blend with the written and oral history he is essentially remaking to create a picture that is almost entirely aware of itself in ways that its protagonists can never be. Velvet Goldmine understands its own mythology, and uses that knowledge (in the form of UFOs, pearls from Oscar Wilde, and impossibly well-timed meetings and introductions) to both undercut and underscore its own vicious and amoral landscape. Haynes designs Brian Slade as a gawky, awkward and troubled youth who, after discovering a passion for music, is inspired by an early performance by Curt Wilde in which the singer is seen jumping around the stage, removing his clothes, being aggressively sexual (in general, not towards a particular gender), and causing a scene that would ultimately lead to the basis of his character, Iggy Pop, being called the Godfather of Punk. It is the late 60s and Slade decides to take that idea and transform it into something mostly unseen before. As the film progresses Slade falls further into the deep, dark passages of his alter ego and stage persona “Maxwell Demon”, based heavily on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust image, and as he does so becomes further infatuated with himself and his status as the penultimate pop icon of the time.

The film cuts between retroactive memories of Slade, as told by former lovers (his wife, one-time manager, and Curt Wilde himself) in order to, in 1984, discover “what became of Brian Slade?” Christian Bale plays an English rock journalist, Arthur Stuart, and Glam Rock devotee on a quest to discover, in the ten years since Slade faked his own shooting at a concert, who or what he is now. It's hard to tell whether Bale is remarkable in this role or entirely miscast, especially during his flashbacks as a sexually repressed teen in 70s England, working himself up to embrace the glam trend by buying Slade's records and dressing in a mostly asexual manner. It is revealed that through traumatic childhood experiences, which find a mirror in the experiences of Slade (beaten up at school, early exposure to vaudeville and homosexuality) and Wilde (electroshock therapy to “cure” him of his early signs of homosexuality), Stuart developed an entirely confused notion of sexuality and its relation to popular culture. In dual explorations of Slade's past and his own, he finds that their paths, both physically and psychologically, have met before and continue in a bizarre sort of parallelism. The film vaguely resolves its extrinsic plot line by concluding that androgenuous sex icon Brian Slade has transformed into a generic 80s arena lounge-ish star Tommy Stone, who falls somewhere between Rod Stewart and Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry.

If this all sounds very confusing, bordering on esoteric, that's because it is. Velvet Goldmine turns in on itself a few too many times and there are certainly moments where it is difficult to maintain a static concept of time and identity. While the film is, like all the films of Haynes' that I've had the pleasure of seeing, chock full of personality and iconography (Velvet Goldmine's version of the early 70s is one of the best and most authentic since Kubrick brainstormed what the future would look like in Clockwork Orange) and brings together a daunting number of literary (Oscar Wilde is quoted continuously) and cultural (was that Alice Cooper?) influences, the fact remains that it is too much for an audience to handle. It is not that the film loses focus, but more that its focus is so wide that it's difficult to see anything very clearly and instead the viewer is left with memorable scenes and impressions of the characters, rather than cleaving at the grit of the characters themselves. In retrospect I can safely say that Haynes perfected this unique film style, the fiopic, in I'm Not There; tightening up potential lose ends and further embracing duplicity and confusion to make a picture that was more wholly organic. I'm Not There embraced a viewer perspective of not only the history of its central character, Dylan, but also of the film's narrative, leaving mysteries to be solved independently rather than explained. That film was more a character study and less an attempt at a linear tribute to highly personalized concepts of historic events. Velvet Goldmine paved the way for this sometimes indulgent, but immaculately exceptional film style, but ultimately could not decide between embracing its own curious and occasionally confounding nature or attempting to explain away what it spent painstaking amounts of time building up to be enigma.

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