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Velvet Goldmine
Writer-director Todd Haynes (Safe) delivers this film about a glam-rock icon, and his rise and fall from fame.

Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, Ewan McGregor...  View more >

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[--- See Now! ---]by  
Jan 25, 2000
The Importance of Being Glamby John "bj" Demetry

"Velvet Goldmine" stands as the first queer great folly in cinema, as expansive, mad, and exhilarating as Griffith's "Intolerance" or Bertollucci's "1900." Although the film spins out of Todd Haynes' control, its ambitions to create an epic of queer identity realized as pop wet-dream affects this viewer as grandly, movingly beautiful. Itself a paean to the reflective and transformative power of beauty, in it a young man finds history to tell his own story. And I find his story to be mine. Portraying the queer role in society as, at once, dangerous and beautiful, subversive and necessary, Haynes creates a magical fantasia of the relationship between artist and audience. It plays self-discovery as orgasm. Even its rough edges turn you on. Haynes draws upon a tradition of queer cinema buried in Hollywood subtext or consigned to art-house explicitness, from the gender-bending camp of Vincente Minnelli musicals ("The Pirate") to the subversive kitsch of Douglas Sirk melodramas ("Imitation of Life") to the fantasy political tirades of Derek Jarman art films ("Edward II") to the homoerotic pageants of Jack Smith experimental shorts ("Flaming Creatures"--the name of a band in the film, and the basis for the characterization of Jack Ferry). Tying it all together with a glam-rock bow, he trusts our imaginations to open the intoxicating package and discover ourselves inside. Who would have thought that Haynes would be the filmmaker to finally bring queer culture out of the closet and into the pants of popular het culture? Although much has been made of Haynes directing "Velvet Goldmine" in a different style than his earlier films, "Superstar," "Poison," and "[Safe]," I see it as an expansion of the techniques utilized in them. As with those films, he transcends the genres of musical, science fiction, fantasy, melodrama, and experimental film as assuredly as this film examines the transcendence of gender in glam rock. Haynes retains, while glamming up, the extreme formalism of mise-en-scene in "[Safe]," but he bursts into "[Safe's]" static, distant compositions with the energetic zooms and pans of "Velvet Goldmine." While "[Safe]" unifies genres with cohesion of style and theme, "Poison" unifies its three stylistically-divergent short films with stream-of-feeling crosscutting. Haynes utilizes this crosscutting style within "Velvet Goldmine," playing memory, fantasy, media, performance, and history against each other. It's hard to tell "real" from "fake"--and that's the whole point!--but the music gives the cross-cutting sequences an evocative, overwhelming pop-pull. "Superstar" underscores the artificiality of TV melodramas by playing out the real life of Karen Carpenter with Barbie Dolls. Haynes includes an hommage to "Superstar" in "Velvet Goldmine" that expresses the subversive aesthetic power of artifice, an alluring mirror to the secrets of the soul. Sounds so very Oscar Wilde, doesn't it? Well, it is, and Haynes explicitly acknowledges the influence; he even casts a young Wilde as the Godfather of Glam. "Velvet Goldmine" paints a picture of its own Dorian Gray, another blank, a walking work of art, whose exterior beauty hides a dangerous ugliness. To cast the role of Brian Slade, Haynes employs Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who, when painted up as "Maxwell Demon" singing "Tumbling Down" in a marvelous faux castle, is the most ravishing creature ever to saunter the screen. The camera reveals this set-piece in a single movement from rooftop sex between a gay fan and a glam-rock star, as played by screen dreams Christian Bale and Ewan McGregor, both discovered themselves through Slade. This sequence constitutes the enrapturing mise-en-abime of the entire film, a mirror upon mirror culminating as we catch ourselves amidst the infinite reflections. Wilde, himself, captured this sense of complex mirroring in his masterpiece, the play "The Importance of Being Earnest." Characterized by beautifully witty language and the stylized manner in which it's performed, both "Earnest" and "Goldmine" examine the self-construction of identity to escape the confines of society, enabling the realization of one's desires. In a conversation with a grad film student, I stated, in typically declaratory fashion, "Lars Von Trier ["The Kingdom," "Breaking the Waves"] is the most important filmmaker in the world today!" He answered, "Probably in Europe, but I think Todd Solandz or Todd Haynes in America." I replied, "It's too soon to tell with them." That was before I saw "Happiness" and "Velvet Goldmine." What these Queer-American directors are doing, knocking us out of our theatre-seats of complacency, revealing the secret desires of our souls, reinvigorating our relationship to art and cinema, is truly revolutionary. With the most magical film experience of the decade, Haynes accomplishes this by showing us the importance of being glam.

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