This cinematic thoughtfulness is one of the things about Safe that I most appreciate, and yet I also wonder if Haynes went too far. The consistency of the compositions reinforces my feeling that Safe is at times unnecessarily redundant, visually, emotionally and narratively. How many times must we watch Carol have a breakdown? How many times must the shots symbolize her isolation? How many times must we hear Dunning going through his guru routine? By the end of the film, on the night of Carol’s birthday, when we get seemingly inappropriate long shots of people dancing and having fun, or of one of the patients announcing that it’s Carol’s birthday, one starts to wonder if Haynes just had a passionate love affair with a specific camera lens. I admire Safe, but having seen it twice I can’t shake the feeling that this story about a woman having a mental breakdown is too emotionless. Those long shots don’t just reflect Carol’s detachment, they reinforce it, making her difficult to know and care about. Of course, I concede that this might be Haynes’ intent. Whereas most filmmakers attempt to play on our emotions, Haynes always seems more concerned with stimulating our minds. At times, his films feel like academic exercises. Whether that’s a compliment or a putdown is up to you.
EH: I don’t think it’s true, actually, that Safe is entirely “aesthetically bleak.” That description fits the film’s second half perfectly, since once Carol goes to live at Wrenwood, the film’s palette becomes very muted and the look of the film begins to align with the bland video images shown in Wrenwood’s TV commercials. In a subtle way, Carol begins to live in a Wrenwood ad. Before that point, however, Haynes is continually filming Carol—mostly from afar, true—in those flashy, stylized interiors that, seen now, look like a trial run for the lush, colorful visuals of Far from Heaven. Haynes says a lot with these images, like the shot of Carol and her husband sitting on opposite sides of the bed after an argument triggered by her latest headache, the mirror fragmenting the space and somehow accentuating their disconnection and separateness.
At the same time, Haynes knows the power of a good closeup, and throughout the film Moore gets plenty of opportunities to act within a more intimate frame, even before the startling and mysterious final closeup. Moore’s first big breakdown, when she’s driving and begins hyperventilating and gasping, is staged partly in a head-on medium shot, putting the focus so intensely on her fish-out-of-water gasping and wheezing that the scene is uncomfortable and hard to watch. Later, when Carol’s nose begins to bleed after her perm, Haynes captures her reaction in closeup, the better to highlight the darkly humorous disconnect between her new, playful hairstyle and the look of absolute terror on her face as a streak of dark blood winds down towards her mouth. Haynes uses such moments judiciously, certainly, which enhances the impact of each shot where he does cut in from the distancing long view, and which especially makes the ending so bone-chilling. You identify a few long shots that seem unmotivated, but I think Haynes conceived the film in opposite terms: the long shots are the norm, a reflection of a life of isolation, and it’s the closeups that are, without fail, motivated and purposeful.
Still, there’s no doubt that Safe is a single-minded film, and despite its at times overwhelming emotional content, there’s also a chilly, intellectual side to this film and to Haynes in general. I find this aspect of his work bracing and stimulating, but I can see why it could also be off-putting. There’s a sense, in Safe especially, that Haynes is observing specimens on a slide, dissecting this alien lifestyle and wondering what it might mean. I think his intellectualism is refreshing. He’s one of the few modern directors who seems to have absorbed the influence of Godard in deeper ways than the usual appropriation of jump cuts and other surface features: Safe in some ways can be thought of as a relative of Godard’s mid-’70s masterwork NumÈro deux, in its distanced observation of the routine disconnections experienced within suburban families. Haynes’ films, like Godard’s, might be thought of most fruitfully as essays rather than narratives. Though on the surface Haynes is solidly in the narrative tradition, his films tend to be about ideas as much as people. Just look at his next film, Velvet Goldmine, which on one level is a loose, fictionalized tabloid pastiche of glam-era stories about David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, but on another level is a critical essay about what this music meant and means to its fans, as well as yet another examination of what’s it like to grow up into the dawning realization that one is an outcast from conventional society.
JB: Yeah, Velvet Goldmine is as thoughtful as Safe with less academic dryness and emotional distance. Another way of putting it: Velvet Goldmine is an intellectual film with mainstream trappings, whereas Safe comes off like a movie made by an arts major for fellow arts majors. In saying this I’m not denigrating Safe or proclaiming artistic superiority for Velvet Goldmine. Rather I’m pointing out that Safe thrives in part thanks to Haynes’ self-made reputation, which assures us that what’s on the surface is symbolism for something deeper. By contrast, Velvet Goldmine, like Superstar before it and Far from Heaven after it, are more approachable, enticing audiences with a familiar narrative structure that leads them comfortably to the film’s complex themes and meditations. Haynes’ approach with Velvet Goldmine isn’t inherently superior, though I have always felt that intellectuals like Haynes sometimes waste some of their genius by burying it a bit too far under the surface. Better, perhaps, to take a cue from Steven and his drawings of Dottie and keep “the point” not too far away.
To this point, Velvet Goldmine announces its structure in the early going with a brief intertitle that quotes Norman Brown: “Meaning is not in things but in between them.” That quote isn’t the only way that Haynes prompts the casual viewer to look deeper, but you can’t be more blatant than that. You’ve already done a terrific job of describing how Velvet Goldmine works: its Citizen Kane meets generic biopic structure, its examination of the broad (a musical, cultural, sexual revolution) and the personal (what it means to have idols). More specifically, Velvet Goldmine provides one of the most complete and compelling examinations of the idolization cycle I’ve ever seen, giving us a central character, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s Brian Slade, who is both a worshipper and an object of worship. It’s de rigueur of musical biopics (and essentially Velvet Goldmine is a fictionalized one) to show the musician trying to emulate his/her musical heroes in childhood, but what Haynes does is provide a character who spends his entire pop culture career playing dress-up. To a teenage Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), Slade is the genuine article, his own man, a visionary. But Haynes shows us the man behind the curtain, revealing the truth that Slade, almost without exception, is little more than an imitator, a fan himself, of Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild among others. Almost all of Haynes’ films are obsessed with identity: with who we are and how we become that person, and with how much that chosen persona represents who we really are, and how much merely represents who we wish we were. I’m not sure he ever examines this subject more compellingly than in this film.
EH: Velvet Goldmine is definitely a very compelling examination of identity: the identities we’re born into, the identities society attempts to mold us into, and the identities we construct for ourselves. In this film, Haynes is especially interested in how culture, at a particular place and time, can resonate in ways far beyond what its creators might have intended—for example, how the glam rockers, with their outlandish images and intent to shock, perhaps unexpectedly provided role models and inspirations for young fans just beginning to explore their own sexualities and their own self-constructed identities. Haynes suggests that even if it’s all an opportunistic act on the part of the entertainer, it can still resonate in deeper ways, can still inspire genuine rebellion and self-investigation. “That’s me,” Arthur imagines himself excitedly shouting to his parents when he sees Brian Slade on TV. “That’s me!” It’s a cry of recognition from a young man who’s starting to realize that he’s gay, different, an outcast, like so many other Haynes heroes, and he’s excited to find that there’s someone else out there like him, someone who looks on the outside the way he feels on the inside. For a young man embarrassed to admit he’s different, it’s a validation to see this popular artist who seemingly embraces the image that Arthur is scared to display himself.
But there’s also a sense of sadness and resignation in Velvet Goldmine, a sense of opportunities squandered. As you say, the film is structured like Citizen Kane, in that it’s an after-the-fact investigation, conducted by Arthur, ostensibly centered on a specific incident (Brian Slade faking his own murder) but actually a post-mortem for the whole glam movement and what happened to it when its glittery star had faded. As Arthur visits some of those who were around at the movement’s apex, Haynes juxtaposes the bright, lavish atmosphere of the flashbacks against the dreary present-tense sequences, set in the mid-’80s in Thatcherite London. It’s almost sci-fi: the dystopian urban center, run-down and gray, where everyone conforms and the biggest pop star is a puffy-haired Billy Idol lookalike who extols the virtues of the government, shilling for Big Brother in his televised concerts (and recalling Karen Carpenter’s appearance at the White House). We already mentioned Haynes’ connection to Godard, and I think this film is thematically similar to some of Godard’s early ’80s films (notably Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Passion) in which he laments the fact that the rebellious, politically charged atmosphere of the May 1968 student protests never led anywhere, never achieved any lasting change. In the same way, it seems like Haynes is simultaneously celebrating the openness and jubilation of this particular musical moment, and offering a eulogy for it, mourning the retrenchment of conservatism and conformity. Arthur is perhaps the prime example, once a youth who seemed on the verge of embracing his inner identity, now seemingly closeted and repressed, hiding his past feelings, still ashamed of who he is.
JB: We get an idea of Arthur’s shame early in the film when his editors task him with writing the Brian Slade 10-years-later story. “Naturally you want me for this because I’m the resident Brit, right?” he whines. At the time it seems like a reasonable gripe, like he’s objecting to the ignorance of his American bosses who think that all Brits grew up with the same interests and influences. In retrospect, though, one wonders if a closeted Arthur is actually objecting to his feeling that he’s getting the job because of his sexuality. Maybe he’s worried that he’s been found out. Or, given that we know very little about Arthur in that moment, maybe he’s worried that revisiting the Slade story will stir emotions he’s somewhat successfully suppressed. Either way, he’s reluctant to go there, back to a time when finding his place in the world meant realizing how lonely that place could be. There’s that excellent scene flashing back to Arthur’s youth when he first goes out in public dressed in the styles of his pop idols. He feels awkward. He looks around at others dressed roughly like him and expects to find immediate acceptance. But it isn’t that simple. Arthur might have the look down, but it isn’t him. Not yet.
All of this brings us to what might be my favorite scene in the film, the one in which Arthur locks himself in his room with the new Brian Slade album. As Arthur unwraps the album and pulls the record from its sleeve, he might as well be disrobing a lover, which in a sense is partially true, because the album artwork includes a centerfold-like spread of a naked Slade. Obviously this is far from accidental. It’s a concise visual metaphor for Arthur’s sexual exploration. It’s a depiction of how pop icons can become role models in addition to fantasy objects. But, as you’ve suggested, it’s also a testament to the power of art, in this case music. Arthur handles that album with care because Slade’s music means something to him. It’s personal. It’s part of his life. In a sense, it’s part of him.
EH: Very true. One of the themes percolating through Velvet Goldmine is this idea that people can find themselves in art: can be fulfilled, encouraged, moved and enlightened. In Arthur’s case, Slade’s music and glitzy persona empowers this closeted young man to, however briefly, break out of the mold of suburban conformity, to embrace the feelings developing within him under the disapproving glare of his authoritarian parents. That he later retreats from this empowerment is an indication of his disillusionment with his idols and his acquiescence to changing trends; when feather boas and boys in makeup are no longer fashionable, Arthur sighs and retreats back into the dull mob around him, even though the glam era style had undoubtedly suited him better. That’s why the movie has this air of melancholy and nostalgia to it, this sense that the pleasures of art can be fleeting—if one allows them to be.
Haynes, on the other hand, seems to have maintained his fascination with and his deep connection to the art that moves him, and in many ways Velvet Goldmine is a tribute to that art. I don’t think it’s reaching too far to suppose that, in some way, Arthur is a stand-in for Haynes, maybe not in terms of autobiography, but at least in reflecting the reactions that Haynes felt upon encountering provocative art in his youth. In the film, even Slade has this kind of epiphany, when he sees Curt Wild performing, in a scene that pays tribute to the raw power of Iggy Pop in his youthful prime: half-naked, bouncing around the stage, caressing himself, and unleashing an unholy howl that leads into the Stooges’ brilliant “TV Eye.” Haynes, making a film about the power of art, has made a film packed with references to the art that has affected him. Brian Slade’s band is called Venus In Furs, after the Velvet Underground’s deadpan ode to S&M. Curt Wild’s band is called Flaming Creatures, after Jack Smith’s infamous avant-garde film. One of Slade’s music videos gleefully hybridizes Kenneth Anger with A Clockwork Orange, as a glittery, blue-painted demon has a sped-up orgy with a pair of sex dolls. Brian Eno tracks are constantly popping up on the soundtrack; Haynes reportedly wanted actual Bowie songs but Bowie balked at the gossipy aspects of the script, and in any event Eno’s ’70s glam-pop masterpieces are suitable substitutes. (“Baby’s On Fire,” with its sinister chugging rhythm, is used particularly well to generate an aura of danger and rebellion in the air.) References to Oscar Wilde abound, with whole sections of dialogue (often provided in on-screen cue cards a la “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) coming from the famed gay author. Haynes even nods to his own history with a fantasy love scene between two glammed-up Ken dolls, thumbing his nose at Mattel now that he’s making a big-budget mainstream picture rather than an easily suppressed home movie.
These references aren’t incidental or offhand, the way they would be for so many directors. They constitute the very core of the film, Haynes’ tribute to his own past and the art that shaped and influenced him, that made him the man he is. He even borrows the biographical details of these artists that resonate with his interests, like the fact that Lou Reed was once sent for electroshock treatment to, as it’s put in the film, “fry the fairy clean out of him.” Haynes is analyzing and dissecting the impact of this music. It’s music criticism, as much as anything. The scene you mention where Arthur sits in his room with a Brian Slade gatefold spread out in front of him is a potent depiction of how young people define and discover themselves in music, finding an image and a model of behavior that stretches far beyond the music itself. And at the same time Haynes is suggesting that this emphasis on the personal has perhaps obscured the larger social and political concerns that are hinted at in adventurous music like this. “We set out to change the world and ended up just changing ourselves,” Curt tells Arthur sadly, and when Arthur asks what’s wrong with that, Curt replies, “NothingÖ if you don’t look at the world.” As much as Haynes celebrates the power of art in this film, he’s also probing its limitations and boundaries, and perhaps lamenting that the art that has had such a tremendous personal impact on his own life has failed to resonate with much of the rest of the world.
JB: I think you’re on to something there. Of course, weaved into that lament is Velvet Goldmine’s acknowledgment that pop art finds its power in its newness, in its attempt to transcend boundaries. When we see the shot of the young Oscar Wilde standing up in school and declaring, “I want to be a pop idol,” what he’s saying is that he wants to stand out, to be different, to go to places previously unexplored. It’s the same desire that drives Brian Slade and Curt Wild. Trouble is, if the pop artist keeps evolving, eventually he moves beyond the art that made him famous in the first place, thus leaving some of his audience behind. And yet if the pop artist fails to evolve he winds up being left by his audience, which gets drawn like moths to the flame of something else excitingly “new.” Thus, pop art movements are inherently fleeting, a bitter reality that’s perfectly articulated by Brian’s ex-wife Mandy during her interview with Arthur. Sitting in a dark bar, puffing on her cigarette and reflecting on her ex-husband’s staged death, the end of his public career and the end of their marriage, Mandy says: “Brian, he just became someone else. Then again, he always was.”
What’s interesting is that for as personal and autobiographical as Velvet Goldmine seems to be, Mandy’s comment, not to mention Haynes’ later film I’m Not There, calls attention to the disconnect that can exist between an artist and his art. As fans, we develop deep, passionate relationships with art that we want to believe creates a similar bond between us and the artist—in the least, we want to believe that the art means as much to the person who created it as it does to us—yet frequently it doesn’t. And though we often blame artists for moving on without us (as evidenced by Mandy, Curt and Arthur’s longing for “their” Brian Slade), what we willingly ignore is our habit of moving on without them. To this point, the film’s closing montage is brilliant. It transitions from a poignant tribute for glam-era stars to a shot of anonymous townsfolk talking in a bar, seemingly unaware of the radio behind them playing an ode to cherished idols. The lyrics of the song say, “your memory stays/it lingers ever/fade away never.” The image says otherwise.
EH: We live in a culture that’s obsessed with the new, never looking back, always moving on to the next new thing. All of the artists evoked by Velvet Goldmine have, at various times in their careers, left audiences behind. In capturing the particular moment, and the particular musicians, associated with glam, Haynes is dealing with a chameleonic group of artists whose creativity was far too restless to ever remain in one mode for very long. Iggy gained cult acclaim, if not popular stardom, with the Stooges, then hooked up with Bowie and Eno and eventually started sanding away the edges of his music, moving towards mainstream pop, often brilliantly, but still leaving behind those (smaller?) audiences who cherished his rougher material. These days his most famous raunchy sex-and-drugs anthem advertises Caribbean cruises, a fate that mirrors Brian Slade’s embrace of conformity in Velvet Goldmine. The other artists suggested by Haynes’ film have taken similarly twisty routes through pop culture. Lou Reed risked his post-Velvet Underground commercial fame with the ultimate fuck-you noise of Metal Machine Music, four sides of glistening guitar feedback that is, in its way, scarily beautiful and sadly more talked about than actually heard. He’s also flirted with art songs, collaborated with his performance artist girlfriend Laurie Anderson, and recently pissed off fans at a Montreal jazz festival by playing an abstract improv performance with Anderson and avant saxophonist John Zorn. Brian Eno is, sadly, probably most known by young audiences today for producing U2, but in addition to the body of glammy, arty pop songs (both solo and as a member of Roxy Music) represented in Velvet Goldmine, he’s also the father of ambient music and collaborated fruitfully with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. And Bowie, of course, is the ultimate pop chameleon, continually donning new images, new identities, posing as Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane, changing with the times, enlisting Trent Reznor; here moving towards the mainstream, there sliding away from it.