Monday, November 30, 1998

Velvet Goldmine, Velvet Goldshmine

"Is there life on Mars? Duh. I dunno."
Self-indulgent director Todd Haynes serves up a 124-minute MTV video disguised as a movie. His narrative sense indicates signs of aphasia and the continuity sense of the hero of Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. But let's get into it anyway. Plot summary time ...

After a puzzling bit about a flying saucer and Oscar Wilde in the Victorian era, Haynes starts off with the can’t-lose structure of Citizen Kane: a reporter investigates the life of a Famous Dead Guy to find out who he is (or, in this case, A Famous Guy Who Faked His Death Got Caught and Disappeared). The reporter character (Christian Bale) does a few interviews, but Haynes quickly loses interest, forgets about the narrative frame for about an hour or so and gets into what he really likes: intervals of bisexual soft porn and a mishmash of real glam rock songs and invented glam rock songs served up via the fake personas and fake bands of the Bowie-esque Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the Iggy Pop-ish Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).

The posters touted this movie as a satire of the world of style-over-substance. Rubbish. Haynes believes in style-over-substance, and peppers the movie with Oscar Wilde quotes to prove it. (And also scatters jackdaw gatherings of intellectual fun facts—the nod to Kurt Weil in Curt Wild; Slade’s “Maxwell Demon” persona—a reference to the thermodynamic conceit of Maxwell’s Demon, second-hand from Thomas Pynchon, no doubt—you get the picture.)

As noted in that Harrison Bergeron reference, Haynes doesn’t tell his tale in order or waste time clearing up who the characters are. Who the hell is Jack Fairy? Does Eddie Izzard’s character turn into a televangelist? He’s an image-maker, not a storyteller. His movie is a love letter to the glam rock era—a fanboy movie and boring as hell to non-fans. Weird Al is funny when he imitates Bowie. Haynes isn’t joking. He offers his B-side Bowie pastiches in all sincerity. Technical flaws aside, Haynes fails at the heart of the matter. No sense of character. No sense of the human beings behind the images. Glam is glamour, natch. An artificial perfection composed for the camera. The real person the camera doesn’t see—that’s what’s interesting. But Haynes never shows that person. He’s just not interested.

Neither am I.

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