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Ziggy Stardust Memories 

Todd Haynes' heady new film

Wednesday, Nov 4 1998
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Velvet Goldmine is a celebration of the '70s, and of the fact that for a fleeting moment there was a seamless blend of lo-fi sci-fi with the gay underground, of the vibrant sexual avant-garde with feather-boa glamour and mascara. It was a moment in which rock & roll was pushed hard into the realm of identity politics, in which subtext and text flipped back and forth constantly, and gender roles were demolished. Sexuality was liquid, and queer had meanings beyond simple faggotry. And the soundtrack - David Bowie, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Marc Bolan - was glam.

Directed and written by Todd Haynes, the film - a brainy boy's love letter to that cultural flashpoint - galvanizes us partly because it jolts us into asking, "Could things have ever really been that amazingly free? Could there have been a moment in which the feeling of anything-goes possibility was captured and sold in a glittering, perfumed bottle - and yet still felt like something other than mere product?" There's a dazed hum vibrating in Velvet Goldmine - a sense of spiritual hangover specifically located in scenes set in the '80s - a measured lament that answers, yes, there was such a moment, and it's gone.

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It begins with a spaceship dropping the infant Oscar Wilde off on a doorstep in 1854 Dublin, a small, ornate broach pinned to his blanket. The film then cuts to him as a young boy in school, with the teacher asking what he wants to be when he grows up. "I want to be a pop idol," responds Oscar, positioning himself as the founding father of glam. With his dandy aesthetic, his flair for the well-tuned epigram, his manner of cloaking stunning subversiveness in a style-over-matter approach to art and life, his self-destructive bent tucked inside his arrogance, and given the scent of doom and romance that continues to waft from his mythology, Wilde wrote the manual on how to be a rock star. His influence is all over Velvet Goldmine. And, like a Wilde play, the film offers up a cast of characters who spout finely polished lines, celebrate artificiality and use lies to get at the truth.

The story proper is told through the eyes of multiple characters, but it's narrated by 20-something Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a British expatriate living in 1984 America and working for a big-city newspaper. He's been assigned a story on the long-vanished British glam superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), who 10 years earlier staged an elaborate publicity stunt to kill off his rock persona, Maxwell Demon, only to have the ploy backfire. The enervated Stuart (Bale's face is a mask of blanked-out despair) sets off on a quest that has the potential for delivering Stuart to himself as much as for recovering the man who was once his idol, a figure very much "inspired" by David Bowie.

The film takes the shape of a knotty Citizen Kane sci-fi musical faux-documentary thriller, one in which the recollections of Slade's first manager; his first wife, Mandy (Toni Collette); a debauched American idol named Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor); and the reporter himself compete for space. When the reporter's journey begins, he finds Mandy - an American girl who crash-landed in London in the late '60s and fashioned herself into a darling of the nightlife - is now a boozy wreck. She recalls that when she first met Slade, she thought she'd found a kindred free spirit. She encouraged Slade's slow shaping of his androgynous persona, her payoff being drugs, money, orgies . . . and unceremonious dismissal. Mandy gets some of the best lines in the film ("It's funny how beautiful people look when they're walking out the door"), including an exchange with Slade that perfectly replicates a conversation from Wilde's own life. Wilde and his friend James Whistler, the painter, were once at a party when Wilde, overhearing a comment made by another guest, remarked, "How I wish I had said that." To which Whistler replied, "You will, Oscar, you will."

Wild, stitched together from the mythologies of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, is a walking tragedy - talented, fuckable, doomed - a muse ripe for the picking. McGregor exudes both fury and an impossibly sad romanticism, making even dopily romantic lines ("The world has changed 'cause you're made of ivory and gold - the curves of your lips rewrite history") go down sweetly. Rhys-Meyers' Slade, in contrast, is all cool surfaces; genuine emotion is the very thing that bores, frightens, intrigues and - in many ways - destroys him. The actor fully inhabits both the sexless alien of the concert stage and the alternately confident and cracking human being who lives - just as theatrically - offstage.

When the two men finally meet and Slade propositions Wild, he does so as both fan and Svengali, innocent and mastermind. A spark of recognition flies between them, flaring into a sexual energy that they feed off as they transcend musical styles and cultural differences to become lovers, and partners in creation. Wild's primal, American blue-collar energy helps transform Slade's fledgling Brit folk-chanteuse into a dazzlingly theatrical, sexually daring creation; it gives him courage as an artist and a man.

What Haynes is after in Goldmine is less a historical film about glam than an elegy for a time of stylish revolt, stripped of didactic politics and dolled up in open-ended ambiguity. What interests him is what has interested him from his earlier films Poison, Safe and Dotty Gets Spanked: the complexity and construction of sexuality; notions of authenticity (where so many white-boy rock & rollers strap on black culture's bluesmen in pursuit of that elusive ideal, Haynes tips his hat to the lipsticked Queen of Rock & Roll, Little Richard); the origins of art and desire; and the heroism of those who refuse to make the banal distinction between fantasy and reality.

It's a heady film.

In the end, though, if Velvet Goldmine is about anything, it's about the power of pop culture to transform our lives. It's about the circular nature of the relationship between fan and star, about the projection of fantasies and desires, and how that energy is what feeds celebrity in the first place. Velvet Goldmine remembers a time when the exchange promised - or threatened - to change the world.

There's a scene in the film, set in a nondescript living room in early-'70s London, in which the teenage Arthur sits watching television with his parents when Maxwell Demon begins to perform. "That's me!" shouts the boy, gesticulating wildly toward the TV. "That's me!" The camera moves in close to the set as Demon commits an act of transgression that, had the boy been watching by himself, would have served a kind of spiritual fellowship between idol and fan. But watching with his parents, Stuart - whose teen angst and alienation seem to leak from his pores - is trapped between horror and ecstasy. He'd only wanted to explain himself a bit, to bring identifiable form to his fumbling existence - not have desires that dare not speak their names clarified before folks who'll never understand.

Velvet Goldmine travels fluidly back and forth across time and space, shuffling genres and styles, offering nods in the direction of avant-garde traditions as well as to classic Hollywood convention. (Haynes even throws in an homage to his own cult film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.) It's an absorbing, sexy, weighty work - and disgesting it is akin to digesting a delicious 12-course meal. That's due in large part to the fact that Haynes still makes movies like a precocious first-timer who's afraid he won't get another chance: He shoots the film as if he has to cram in every idea he's ever had, commit to film every image he's ever imagined. As with Oscar Wilde, he's studied across disciplines and brings all he's learned to bear on his art. Unlike Wilde, though, he hasn't yet learned to synthesize it all. Still, what Haynes has undeniably accomplished is a movie with pure glam-star attitude. Where so many current films nervously hop into theaters begging you to love them, Velvet Goldmine saunters in - self-aware, self-involved and rightly convinced that it's the most dazzling creature around.

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