Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
#2: Velvet Goldmine|
(USA/UK, 1998; dir. Todd Haynes; scr. Todd Haynes; cin. Maryse Alberti; with Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Micko Westmoreland, Eddie Izzard, Michael Feast, Emily Woof)
IMDb // My Full Review // Leave a Comment
For Leora, Irene, and Casey, and for Sara Wasson, and for Shirleen and Anna, and for Jim and Brendan, and for Derek, and... well, for so many people. This movie touches everything.
November 1998. My friend Leora and I buy opening night tickets to Velvet Goldmine, on the eve of taking the GRE in English. Inconveniently, having floated for months on the misapprehension that this was yet another fusillade of analogy, vocabulary, and reading-comprehension tests, we discover at lunchtime that this exam is a content-based inquiry into the history of English-language literature from Beowulf onward. Oops. Panicked and chagrined, we nonetheless barely consider not going to Goldmine. We have woefully underprepared for a crucial gauntlet on which our admissions to graduate school might heavily depend, and have failed to perform even basic reconnaissance into what this task entails, but surely this is no reason to skip out on Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Toni Collette, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sandy Powell, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Todd Haynes. Leora and the two good friends who accompany us all harbor different loyalties within this constellation. We all love the movie. I cannot believe how much sheer imagination is on display, and how the somber, steady journalistic plot is just as slippery and perforated by fantasy as the glam sequences, if you press in. We take our test the next day, less diligent than probably anyone else in the room, but at least more relaxed. Leora places in the top third nationally, I place in the bottom third, but we both go on to get our Ph.D.s in English. This is the first sign that Velvet Goldmine is a guardian angel of the most fabulous kind, in ostrich feathers and sequined wings. It is also, presciently, about sheets of past, unexpected contacts, survived humiliations, and personal turning points.
April 1999. Amidst my final month of college, I read Christopher Kelly's article "The Unbearable Lightness of Gay Movies" in the library's copy of the March-April Film Comment. Kelly decries not only the recent glut of anodyne, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss-style LGBT movies but the career trajectories of his favorite early-90s New Queer directors. He is weary of Gregg Araki's mounting and punitive nihilism, mystified by Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake, and put off by Todd Haynes's diaphanous and obscure gestalts in Velvet Goldmine. Invigorated by Van Sant's and Haynes's movies and electrified by comparable filmmakers beyond the New Queer (and totally male, and mostly American) coterie that Kelly critiques, I feel my first real flush of scholarly purpose. I envision using my time in graduate school to find persuasive language, critical paradigms, and wider archives of film that make late-90s cinema seem just as erotically, aesthetically, theoretically, and politically suggestive as the justly celebrated early-90s trailblazers. I will stress how even or, in some cases, especially films whose challenges to sexual norms cannot be condensed under labels like "lesbian" or "gay" help to expand cultural frameworks for what desire can look, sound, or feel like, and what movies can look, sound, or feel like. Velvet Goldmine will be my crowning case study.
September 1999. A month into graduate school, I am invited to a friend's party on the occasion of passing her qualifying exams. She mandates costumes, and announces a Velvet Goldmine theme. I am not one of those people who dress up. It feels like pressure, and a goad either to overspend or to hoard outfits and accessories you don't need Just In Case. Plus, I have a stomach bug, am in a bad mood, and eventually decide not to go. Then I call my grandparents, since the same day happens to be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. I'm in such better spirits after vicariously celebrating with them that I go to the party anyway, albeit in a thrift-store work shirt and jeans. Someone near the front door at this sockhop throws a boa around my neck out of pity. Maybe an hour in, I meet a fellow graduate student who is fully laméd and speaking in three different languages to three different people. His name is Derek, and he's super cute.
June 2005. My dissertation defense is a catastrophe. I am not shot on stage, but I am very nearly fired from my recording contract. The work is obese, with none of four chapters shorter than 80 pages, most of it written or revised in a frenzy of the final months, and one chapter entirely unvetted by anyone on my committee. That chapter lacks an ending. I have no conclusion. Even by the standards of what I know I deserve, I get a vigorous garroting by my chair, who in fact cancels the defense hours before it is to take place, finding the work beyond unacceptable. He is nonplussed not just by the unfinished chapter and the passages that feel garbled and rushed (I'm sure there are many) but by the longest and centrally positioned analysis of Velvet Goldmine. When we eventually convene in August, I sense that everyone is disappointed but not everyone is equally riled. More sympathetic advisors keep trying to throw me life-lines to stick up for what I've written and help them get it, but I am so demoralized that I fail to grab any of them. I still wonder if I even would have passed if I hadn't already lined up a two-year teaching gig that requires a completed degree in hand. My chair advises me to drop the Goldmine chapter and the Deleuzian concepts that structure the whole dissertation, which he feels I have failed to unpack coherently on the page or in conversation. He says, "We thought of you as one of our best students, so we're sad to see you end with a project from which very possibly nothing can be salvaged." My own fault in many ways. Maybe not in all ways. One advisor insists that the Goldmine chapter, whatever its confusions and overlength, is clearly the crux of the whole project and shouldn't go anywhere. I want to run over and hug her.
Fall 2005. Within six months, a senior scholar recruits a piece of my Goldmine chapter for a book he is editing about Haynes's body of work: my first academic publication. I am duly chastened by my own lapses in executing a dissertation, mismanaging my time, and letting a mentor relationship go badly awry, but I so appreciate this person's endorsing my commitment to this dizzying, ambitious, and enigmatic film, so libido-driven yet idea-rich, so celebratory yet so sad. I feel just as affirmed by the movie itself every time I rewatch it amidst revisions, especially once I learn what a miserable time Haynes had making it, how many production nightmares plagued it (refused music rights, mangled master prints), and how all-but-abandoned it was by its U.S. distributor, even with a Cannes prize in its stretch-fabric pocket.
Fall 2011. Every single university press to which I submit my book proposal for The Desiring-Image declines to pursue the project. Some cite too great a backlog of other books. Some feel the book is not a good fit with their list. Some struggle with the project as currently articulated. One expresses enthusiasm, gives me fantastic counsel toward revising it, then goes dark on email for months before eventually passing. Time is dwindling for me to secure a contract for this book, which is an ironclad prerequisite for keeping my job. Amazingly, an editor at a different and wonderful press seeks me out, because someone referred him to this site, and he appreciates that I'm even interested in making academically-inflected ideas accessible outside the ivory tower. He is candid about the strengths and weaknesses of the then-current version but so supportive of the whole. The Goldmine piece is one of his favorites. He helps me streamline some bits and expand others, backs me in a hugely risky decision to take three more months whittling and clarifying as the tenure clock is hitting Code Red, and moves mountains to get the book out on time and into receptive hands, with resplendent, shimmering, and polarizing Brian Slade out there on the cover.
Fall 2014. Book out, tenure secured, barely able to contain my happiness, I discover with amazement that Todd Haynes and Sandy Powell will be coming to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to screen Velvet Goldmine as part of a touring exhibit on David Bowie, and will make themselves available for a 90-minute conversation afterward with the audience. Inspired by the film's own big-hearted embrace of fandom in all its effusions and manifestations, I write long letters to each of them about everything their careers have meant to me, and keep my fingers crossed for any moment when I'll be able to remand them to two artists who have inspired me throughout my filmgoing lifeshe since The Crying Game and Orlando, and he since Safe. I fan out at 33:50 into the conversation, unburden probably too much of what I've just unburdened on you, but am thrilled that Powell appreciates the (eventual) question and runs with it. Afterward, I am able to give them both my letters, which they may or may not ever have opened. I have also brought Haynes a copy of my book, emblazoned as it is with the inspirational fruits of his own imagination. He disarms me completely by saying, "I think I already have that book? Is it the one with two chapters on Cronenberg, and all the stuff on Deleuze? I've been eager to read that book!"
Fall 2015. A year later, I get to interview Haynes four times about Carol. I am saturated with excitement and gratitude for these opportunities, and with a diffuse sense of personal triumph. Velvet Goldmine, once a euphoric and memorable moviegoing experience, has now escorted me through some very high and very low professional and personal moments. After fourteen years of trying to verbalize my multiple and shifting affinities for it, I have never gotten tired of watching it, nor have I formed any sense of having mastered it. And this from someone who can take or leave David Bowie, or Lou Reed, or Iggy Pop, or T. Rex, just as I thought I could take or leave Bob Dylan before Haynes's I'm Not There lured me into fascination with him, too. I could not be more agog at all the things this movie has meant to me or at all the memories to which it is linked if it were an emerald UFO gliding through a mauve sky, sifting gold glitter. I've said plenty elsewhere about the movie's images, sounds, intertexts, and ideas, and probably too much here about its extratextual resonances in my own life. It might have sufficed to say, if you ever pull Velvet Goldmine out of its sleeve and give the disc a whirl, feel free to imagine me somewhere, besotted by identification, bewildered in the most elating way, jumping up and down, pointing at the movie, and bellowing to anyone who will listen, "That is me! That's me, that! That! That's me!"
Hey, Reader: What movie keeps showing up at key points in your life, however high or low?