Tuesday, October 09, 2012
There are times, usually when I'm caught right up in the middle of one of his pictures, that I'm pretty sure Todd Haynes is the best filmmaker we've got going at the moment and into the imaginable future. A cooler head prevails days and weeks later and then I'm less sure, with misgivings and natural second guessing about my overheated response. Then I look at another one of his movies again.
Safe is probably the best, objectively speaking, Far From Heaven is just a wash, and I haven't seen the HBO Mildred Pierce yet. My favorites are the fables of pop mythology, which find any number of ways of blowing up history and reassembling it into cultural zombie form in order to get at the base essentials. His 43-minute meditation on Karen Carpenter from 1987, Superstar, is famous for the way it uses Barbie and Ken dolls to enact the roles and tell the story with sensitivity and a surprisingly touching way. The Carpenter family has never granted rights for the music, obviously central to the story, so it's been available over the decades only as a bootleg. It can be seen via the YouTube link below. (The strategy with the dolls is briefly reprised in Velvet Goldmine and I've included a link to that clip too; I think it's actually amazing how well Haynes can make it work.)
Before I get any further into details of Velvet Goldmine (and I'm Not There.) I should make an attempt to explain my attraction to this kind of thing. Something very similar appeals to me enough in Grace of My Heart, after all, that I listed it here as my #39. Steven gave it a look and came up skeptical, arguing that it "tries to stuff [in] lengthy looks at several periods in music history."
But for me, that's pretty much what makes it work. It's as if these filmmakers have so immersed themselves in pop history that they are practically drunk on it. This is a feeling I know—hearing things, watching things, reading things, finding myself in them, sorting out what works and what doesn't, and sometimes why, whether it's rational or irrational, profound or silly, and above all tracing the connections that crisscross them. In Grace of My Heart and Haynes's pop-music movies I see attempts to reproduce the peculiar ecstasies that the experience of their cultural wellsprings affords—the music, the fashions, the indelible moments, and most importantly those feelings of connection. I get a contact high just from the surging ideas.
If Allison Anders tries to take on everything in pop music from about 1958 to 1971, Todd Haynes casts an even wider net in Velvet Goldmine, traveling all the way back to the birth of Oscar Wilde in 1854, which he insanely portrays as a gift deposited by aliens from outer space, and then stitching together various threads in rock 'n' roll and cultural history, for example by way of Little Richard, that led to glam-rock. As with disco and Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (which also fits with these), it's arguable that Haynes makes way, way too much of the glam-rock moment. But these are not documentaries—or rather, they are documentaries not of historical events but instead of deeply personal experience.
When I say that Haynes's scope is broader than Anders's I'm not kidding. All of glam-rock is in Velvet Goldmine one way or another, pale and ghostly, with the elements distorted and confusing—most conspicuously David Bowie and Iggy Pop (and you will note the sly way that Ewan McGregor's uncanny resemblance to Kurt Cobain is casually exploited along the way), but also Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter, Slade, Roxy Music, Eno, Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders, and a host of others.
What's more, the narrative structure is a virtual note-by-note rip-off of Citizen Kane, arguably the granddaddy of all modern art film. Narrative textures of key sequences also borrow heavily from 1984 (the novel and its various film treatments, including the 1984 Super Bowl Apple ad). Did I mention there are aliens from outer space?
I find as well some key links here to another film I've previously named, High Art, with the role of Radha Mitchell in that picture corresponding to Christian Bale's here. Both are journalists affectingly in over their heads, connected deeply and sincerely to the objects of their veneration, and virtual calms in the eyes of the storms they are weathering. They represent points on which viewers may anchor. Bale's interior moment of recognition, in the clip below, lasts only five seconds, but it's one of the most powerful moments in the whole movie.
I'm Not There., Haynes's 2007 biopic of Bob Dylan, is similarly crazy, breaking down Dylan into six separate constituent parts, played by Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Heath Ledger. I'm still trying to get my head around it, but I have a feeling it's going to end up high on a list like this one of these days, when I have some perspective.
Caveats: When Velvet Goldmine was new and playing in theaters I dragged practically everyone I knew to see it, and more often than not they came out of it a little disappointed and unsure about me and where I was coming from. It may (or may not) be a picture of greatest utility only to rock critics. In fact, I was worried myself when I sat down to take another look at it recently after many years. Along about the introduction of Curt Wild, however (seen in the first clip below), I found myself feeling pretty sure that Todd Haynes is the best filmmaker we've got going at the moment and into the imaginable future. As always with these things, of course, YMMV.
[A headnote at the start of Velvet Goldmine says, "Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume." Perhaps needless to say, the same applies to this clip.]
Christian Bale: "That is me!"
"You don't have to say it, mate."
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Phil #14: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) (scroll down)
Steven #14: The Earrings of Madame de... (Max Ophuls, 1953)
This week my turn to be the iconoclast, but in some ways I feel I am actually the opposite, because sometimes I get the feeling Velvet Goldmine rightfully belongs in my top 10 and I just don't have the guts to pull the trigger (although in fairness #14 is snugging up there pretty tight at least). In fact, in the current version of my revised list of 50 with which I will regale you at the end of this, it is ranked #39. O cruel travesty of self-imposed peer pressure! I saw The Conversation earlier this summer for the first time in many years and was impressed all over again with the sound design, the way they used the shotgun microphones in multiple locations to record the fragments of conversation, and how that conversation sounds as it blurs into clarity, it's just so cool to watch that fall together, and has a nice brisk introspective mood about it too. Really good one, I think. I still need to get to the Ophuls again. I remember liking it (some 25 years ago now!) but very little else. In the stacks, in the stacks.