Guest Star

Walking Arm in Arm with a Lie: Velvet Goldmine at 20

This week’s Guest Star is Nick Hanover. He’s covering for Carol Borden, who is definitely a perfectly normal human being and is unavailable to post this week for perfectly normal human reasons.

As a twelve year old boy living in the suburban swamps of Houston, Texas, the only thing I knew I knew for sure was that I did not want to be me. This did not mean I had any idea who or what else I wanted to be, only that the shell that contained me was somehow not correct. So I was drawn to the spaces where I could inhabit other shells– theatre, music, and, most importantly for this essay, the internet or, more specifically, AOL message boards.

It was in an AOL forum devoted to poetry that I fell in love with a goth glam weirdo who loved three things above all else: Oscar Wilde, David Bowie and Ewan McGregor, all of which came together in Todd Haynes’ ramshackle opus Velvet Goldmine. By some further miracle of synchronicity, Houston’s River Oaks Theatre was one of the few places playing the doomed film, and so we separately convinced our parents to drop us off there, allowing us to meet for the first time in front of the glowing spirits of her own personal holy trinity. Like most adolescent interests, that relationship was not meant to be, but twenty years on, Haynes’ film is still shaping my very DNA.

This is because more than perhaps any other work I cherish, Velvet Goldmine refuses to be identified. Roger Ebert said Velvet Goldmine “wants to be a movie in search of a truth, but it’s more like a movie in search of itself,” and he was correct about it being in search of itself, even if he, and most of his peers at the time, saw that as a flaw.

Like the bulk of Haynes’ better reviewed work that followed it, Velvet Goldmine is devoted to the pursuit of identity and the internal conflict over who you are, who you are perceived to be and who you wish to be. What separates Velvet Goldmine from every Haynes work other than its more mainstream descendent I’m Not There, though, is its stylistic and thematic fluidity. It also notably differs from I’m Not There in one important way– it wants you to change with the film rather than the film changing for you.

At twelve, when I first saw the film, I was unquestionably Christian Bale’s Arthur Stuart, a wide eyed boy with a bad haircut and an overwhelming musical curiosity, desperate to get in with erotic oddballs and escape a humdrum existence. Arthur may be the closest thing the film has to an audience surrogate in both the flashbacks that drive the main story and the present day investigative subplot that frames it but unlike most audience surrogates, he is immensely relatable.

This is likely because most of us start our Velvet Goldmine lives as Arthur, entranced by the flash and glam while trapped in the grey drudgery of the real world where we know Ziggy’s five year decline would be even more apocalyptic than expected. Arthur is on the hunt for the truth behind Brian Slade’s assassination of his Maxwell Demon identity and what came after but like Arthur, we soon realize nothing about Slade’s fate can possibly be as interesting as the fantasy of Maxwell Demon.

Played with unparalleled vivaciousness and beauty by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Slade’s Demon is the 20th century glam rock Dorian Grey, except his secret monstrosity is reflected in his growing crowds rather than in some locked up portrait. And what exactly is that monstrosity? It’s impostor syndrome run wild, an awareness that one day some Arthur Stuart fanboy would catch on to the fact that Maxwell Demon is an erect and strutting love letter to Slade’s idol Curt Wild and everything would fall apart.

So what’s a boy to do? If you’re Slade, you seduce Ewan McGregor’s Wild and try your best to fuck away the inferiority and when that fails, well, you kill yourself to live.

This is Velvet Goldmine’s central promise, that whenever an identity is letting you down, all you have to do is kill it and move on. For Slade that means abandoning his birth name to become Brian Slade, then adopts the glimmering alien Maxwell Demon as a persona, only to kill that persona to eventually resurface as Tommy Stone, a more or less spot on imitation of David Bowie’s most plastic phase (with an added dose of Bowie’s flirtation with fascism).

No wonder, then, that while the adult critics of 1998 saw a confused and flighty film, teenagers have continued to flock to it, finding ample material to pull from for concocting new identities of their own, be they sexual, aesthetic, musical or some combination of all three. You could even make the argument that Velvet Goldmine’s commercial death at the hands of critics enabled it to have a far more colorful life in the cult underground, particularly for those few of us who saw it in its initial run and had to subsist on incoherent visual memories and an impeccable soundtrack to sustain us until the Age of the GIF.

I suspect that for a great number of us, those visual memories were split between images that seared either cool or hot into our brains. For the former, there are any number of cheeky looks from Meyers and McGregor, heightened by Haynes’ obsession with the interplay between profile and shadow and sudden zooms, as well as the rock and glam history costumes, and that unforgettable overhead shot of Demon seemingly lying dead on stage as feathers fall around his body. For the latter, well, where does one even begin?

As a twelve year old boy with no awareness of a sexual spectrum, Velvet Goldmine was a world changing event. In its characters I glimpsed possibilities I had never considered before. I was attracted to nearly everyone who entered its frames. Ewan McGregor’s full frontal introduction in particular, set to that frenzied cover of The Stooges’ “TV Eye,” replayed every time I closed my eyes, the contrast of his puckish, erotically charged aggression and Meyers’ elven beauty in the scene before sparking as many questions as answers for my not-quite-developed self.

Ultimately, I didn’t need to kill my own identity because Velvet Goldmine did it for me, connecting me to Arthur even after I left the theatre, fondling the soundtrack’s gatesleeve foldout featuring a nude Meyers just as Arthur did in the film with the fictional Brian Slade album it referenced. Twenty years later, Velvet Goldmine provokes that same feeling of hormonal anarchy and heady lust and while I am better educated on sexuality and attraction, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t still primarily identify as confused. But as Velvet Goldmine continues to show me, confusion is where all the excitement happens anyway.

~~~

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man, which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage over at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s