Velvet in Furs: Velvet Goldmine
by Kyle Turner
Alien. Otherworldly. Beyond the heavens. However you could describe David Bowie, all he had to say was, “I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.” For the artist occasionally known as Ziggy Stardust—preceding the artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga—Bowie was aware of his presence as the amalgamation of the unspoken desires, hyper consumerist tendencies, and longing to upend conventional notions of identity of his audience. But Bowie never intellectualized his art in the way that someone like Gaga does, or more incisively, the critics and writers who were moved by him. If there is a detached quality to critical writing about art (guilty as charged!), or critical art about art, it may stem from a struggle to reconcile that the art does move us with how to articulate that in conjunction with how it intellectually stimulates us. But director Todd Haynes, who studied Semiotics at Brown, is one of the few “academics as filmmakers” whose work is as emotionally raw as it is intellectually invigorating.
While some may accuse Haynes of embalming his films, replete with esoteric references about queerness and culture (including Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, and Venus in Furs in Velvet Goldmine), seldom is he recognized for how childlike his wonder is for the application of those ideas (which only recently grabbed some attention in Wonderstruck). In Velvet Goldmine, his Citizen Kane-like exploration of glam rock and stardom in the ‘70s, it’s not only about the bold faced, “This movie is about performance in gender, media, and life.” There’s a clear love and fascination with who these people are, real and not real, and all that they do up on the stage. Although Brian Slade and Curt Wild are fictional (heavily shaped by musicians of the era, like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, etc.), Haynes dives so deep into the lives of these fictional recording artists that you could get lost in their obsessive, malignant relationship with their own fame.
The key, for Velvet Goldmine at least, is Christian Bale’s Arthur Stuart, a journalist investigating the fake death of Brian Slade, whose exit from public life was predicated on spectacle. Shot on stage in a concert during a slight lull in his artistic endeavors, Stuart’s reportage works both as a way to explore the relationship between the United States and Britain with regard to popular art, and more literally the music of the era and how the characters navigated that scene, but perhaps more importantly, an excavation his own trauma and desires. The grandiose scale of certain set pieces is levied by Bale’s winsome, sensually sad performance. Questions and answers curl and unfurl in unsatisfying ways, revealing more of the asker. What are you looking for? we might ask him. When Stuart interviews incidental or important characters in Slade’s life, Haynes pays attention to the slightly vacant look on Bale’s face. What’s behind those eyes? Who is he?
It’s not wrong to assume that the film is concerned with “who” Brian Slade is, and how his fluctuating public identity, and that it fluctuated at all, was subversive. But Haynes is as interested in interrogating Stuart, and paints the character as someone who restrained himself from entering Slade’s universe. There are strands of DNA here also found in Haynes’ PBS short film from 1993, Dottie Gets Spanked, about how a young boy interprets trauma and repression through popular culture. In Velvet Goldmine, Arthur’s fascination with Slade as personality, and as key to his own unbecoming, is a careful unraveling of who he thinks he is. Though he exists on a different plane and within a somewhat different context than Slade does, with worldwide notoriety, Stuart is still forced to reconcile the liminalities of his own identity and desire.
Although the trajectory of Todd Haynes’ career as a director would allow him to tap deeper into a palpable sense of emotion and empathy with his characters, arguably beginning with his adaptation of James M Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce (Haynes’ greatest work, for HBO), the “essay films” of his earlier career are not without those qualities. Julianne Moore’s Carol in [Safe] is still sad and and enigmatic, the decimated family of Far From Heaven is still clinging onto the remnants of Connecticut branded stability, and Dottie Gets Spanked is one of his most tender and sensitive works. But Velvet Goldmine is striking because of how Haynes frames his performers naked on the stage: their drag is that of spectacle, and it’s figuring out how to articulate and embody vulnerability and finding trust in an audience that serves as the core of the film. What’s that space for them, these queers, in front of us? On the stage? Or somewhere else entirely?
What Stuart and Slade have in common is a need for trust and comfort, things that have been apparently absent from their lives. For one moment, glorious and sad, the wild and glamorous and alien music transporting two people into another realm, Arthur Stuart finds comfort and discovery not precisely in Curt Wild, but in the space that Brian Slade’s music creates for them. Queer music creates queer space, and finally, Stuart feels safe again. Whole. From another planet.
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a contributor to Paste Magazine, and his work has been published in Slate, The Village Voice, and Esquire. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.