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Essay: On Reading ‘Velvet Goldmine’ as a Reaction To AIDS Activism Burnout — And How Todd Haynes Himself Doesn’t Quite Agree

Essay: On Reading 'Velvet Goldmine' as a Reaction To AIDS Activism Burnout -- And How Todd Haynes Himself Doesn't Quite Agree

Two years ago I wrote a thesis about political tendencies in contemporary, popular American representations of HIV/AIDS. The thematic centrepiece was Todd Haynes’s 1998 glam rock retrospective “Velvet Goldmine.” I argued that “Velvet Goldmine,” at the time of it was made, was reacting to the melancholic burnout that had affected AIDS activists in the 1990s. Last autumn I had the chance to meet Todd Haynes at a special Q&A that was held at the Cinemateque in Vancouver, Canada — a kick-off to a retrospective of his filmography. I took this event as an opportunity to share with Haynes my reading of his film. With utmost charm and cordiality he told me my reading was wrong. 

To be clear, he did not flagrantly shut me down for not understanding what his movie was about, but I want to give you a play-by-play of what happened so you can understand how staggered I was to not have my interpretations rewarded. I think this experience will resonate with liberal arts queers who have ever felt such strong convictions about their findings on works of moving image media, to an extent that is curiously dogmatic. The experience of having my reading of Velvet Goldmine challenged by its very creator still leaves me feeling somewhat at a loss, but I am coping. I keep “Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes on my bedside table these days. 

    * * *

First, let me walk you through a very abridged version of what I wrote about “Velvet Goldmine.” The thesis was that no one makes movies about HIV/AIDS anymore, and it seems that since the development of ARVs we have seen an onset of activist malaise take over visual culture. All whilst we continue in the United States to see people who are culturally displaced and economically disenfranchised die from AIDS at a rate that remains worthy of the term “crisis” (my research was exclusively in an American context). In addition, when people do make films about HIV/AIDS, they tend to revert back to Reaganite cultural politics of blame, and neoliberal politics of respectability. Such retrograde cultural politics can be found in films like “The Hours” and “Precious” (both unfortunate adaptations of worthwhile novels). Based on its trailer I suspect that one will find a similar trends in “Dallas Buyers Club” (Peter Knegt’s film review reinforces my skepticism). Velvet Goldmine fit into my thesis as a cinematic premonition of the mass-disavowal of AIDS that was to come in the years following the development of ARVS. This new period of political erasure was still in its infancy at the time of the film’s release, and already by that time Andrew Sullivan had controversially declared in the New York Times the “end of AIDS.”

“Velvet Goldmine” recounts the rise and decline of the glam rock movement from the 1970s into the early 1980s. This is related through a fictitious biopic of a glitter rock star (“loosely” based on David Bowie) whose life story unfolds as it is uncovered by a journalist/former glitter rock fan (the film does not shy away from explicit Citizen Kane references). In the film, fantasy is used as a strategy for reclaiming queer culture and rebuilding ties within communities that have been affected by the AIDS crisis. Music performances in the film use genre, camp, and other formal devices to extra-filmically rebuild ties to queer pasts, and in such also disobediently rewrite a version of history from the queerer margins of mass culture.

Haynes’s film bears witness to the trauma done to marginal communities and cultures, and it critiques the melancholic reactions to AIDS that such traumas have impacted. In bearing witness to residual traumas suffered from the AIDS crisis, “Velvet Goldmine” affects an act of reawakening to AIDS, as the film directs its audience to recognize and ethically respond to the effects of AIDS on queer cultures. The film carries this out without direct reference to the AIDS crisis (this is the same director who made “Poison” and “Safe,” remember), but encodes AIDS discourse in the film through the anti-hero journalist’s reclamation of the glam rock period. 

“Velvet Goldmine” rewrites history, as well as problematizes/queers previously existing histories, and through revisionism the film intends to foster the resilience of surviving communities. Such a feat is important when it is considered that “Velvet Goldmine” released at a moment of the late twentieth century when the development of ARVs quickly saw the accelerated normalization of AIDS and its cultural effects. It is this respective period of increasing political burnout that Haynes’s film is responsive to, a period that began with the bureaucratization and corporatization of AIDS services and advocacy groups in the early 1990s, and resulted in the widespread cultural amnesia about the epidemic in the 2000s. The film responds to the cultural disavowal of AIDS that had noticeably occurred within queer communities in the 1990s. Through its retreat to an orgiastic 1970s utopia it challenges the ‘forgetting’ that had begotten new gay politics of sex-negativity and inward homophobia.

I am not arguing that the film sets out to mobilize cultural activism in relation to the continuing crisis of AIDS, exemplified by the steadily climbing rates of HIV infections in the late 1990s. Rather, I find (though now with some apprehension, thanks to my meet and greet with the director) that its political focus is toward a rescue of queer culture’s foundational, though inherently transient history. With respect to the contemporary cultural setting (the late 1990s), the film significantly demonstrates, through generic spectacle, a devotion to the private and collective histories of queer men, and their important sexual culture that was not the cause of AIDS, but was, and still is, integral in the fight to end it.  

   * * *

By the time I had finished picking this film apart and putting it back together, intertext after intertext, I had found myself strangely infatuated with it. I soon began to read the film in relation to the trajectory of my formative queer life. I traced my relationship with the film back to when I had first seen it in ninth grade. I knew when I was younger that Ewan McGregor films commonly had full frontal nudity, and I had heard from other self-searching perverts in my social circle that “Velvet Goldmine” would live up to this expectation. Over time, my relationship with the film had developed from one in which I was forming my identity through identification with and desire for the performing bodies onscreen, to a relationship in which I was finding in the film my own nostalgia for a culture that had eclipsed long before my queer maturation. Writer Lucas Hilderbrand characterizes this anachronistic identification with earlier queer epochs as “retroactivism”, whereby we feel homesick for a period of queer cultural activism in which we never lived or to which we were never witnesses. I feel like many of my peers felt these pangs upon viewing David Weissman’s “We Were Here” or David France’s “How to Survive a Plague.” 

When I read in the November calendar of the Vancouver Cinemateque that Todd Haynes was coming to town for an intimate Q&A, I began to pace over the possible things I could say to him. Should I try to impress him with my knowledge of Bob Dylan? To I pick at him for his thoughts on Freudian psychoanalysis in the family melodrama? How do I mention that I devoted a year to researching and writing about one of his movies, and that the film in particular has become the gospel of queer ethics for me? I hear people often describe their idols as “God” in off-the-cuff hyperbole, but for the year that I was waxing nostalgic through my analysis of “Velvet Goldmine” I had found myself enraptured in its queer creationism. I steer away from calling any director “God” lest I be mistaken for an auteur junky, as I agree with Pauline Kael in “Circles and Squares” when she argues that directors ought to be judged by their movies rather than the other way around (Haynes happens to have only made great films, just saying). I simply can’t think of more suitable words to describe him. 

Before the Q&A I attended an exclusive red carpet special, where I got to meet Haynes in person. I explained to him that I am a huge fan of his work (stupid Greg, stop drooling), and how my partner and I refer to “Velvet Goldmine” as Glitter Dongs (shut up, Greg, he doesn’t need to know that)*. Finally, after some light chatter I barfed my thesis all over him.

Me: So. . . I wrote an undergraduate thesis about Velvet Goldmine—

Todd Haynes: Oh did you—

Me: Well, not exclusively about Velvet Goldmine, but a big part of it was about that movie? Actually, the whole thing was about contemporary representations in American Cinema of HIV/AIDS, so like movies around the turn of the century and after that? And I wrote about Velvet Goldmine as being about reclaiming the 1970s as a reaction to the long period of gay shame about pre-AIDS queer culture? (Question marks intended—all my statements inflected upwards at the end like a grade school oral examination.)

Todd Haynes: That’s a very interesting take on it.

Me: You know, because the film really drops hints about that turn in queer culture during the Reagan/Thatcher years, and so much of that was to do with the epidemic, and Arthur’s withdrawal into himself during those years so closely resembles that period of gay flight after the rise in deaths in the CDC’s Weekly Mortality Report? You Know?

Todd Haynes: Yeah, you know… I think that point you make might be innately in there—and I’m not saying you’re wrong—but in this film I was really interested in exploring that period of glam rock. It was this brief moment of explicit sexual exploration, I mean you would see on Top of the Pops, and it was a whole movement of people acting like dandies, and then it was it over like that!

Me: Right. Right. So it was more about the… the music movement.

Todd Haynes: Yeah, and the scenes in the 1980s are there in part because it’s about what happened to these glam rock stars in that period—how Bowie transformed during Let’s Dance, you know—but I set the present day in 1984 as a reference to Bowie during the end of his Ziggy Stardust period, when he was drawing themes and citations from the George Orwell book…

Me: Uh-huh…

And then a guy walked up to Haynes and began to ask him how he got Thom Yorke to record for the soundtrack, and I politely stepped away to find a seat in the theatre. I thought I was taking it well, the rejection of my interpretation of Haynes’s film. I mean, I wanted him to tell me that I had cracked the cipher of his film, but I could settle for “might be innately there.” I mean, after all, this is a film that directly references the Norman Brown adage, “Meaning is not in things but in between them.” This movie could create so many meanings for so many viewers, and none of them would be invalid. So why was I not content with this postmodern catchall? 

When I told my partner about the event I tried to maintain face and appear cool and passive about the fact that my reading of AIDS cultural politics into “Velvet Goldmine” was not rewarded by its filmmaker. My partner was startled. “That’s so weird to me,” he said. “I mean, after I read your paper and watched the movie it just seemed to make such sense—not just because I read your paper first but because when I see a sad, repressed gay man in the 1980s I naturally infer that kind of thing. That he said it isn’t about that—that’s kinda disappointing.” Of course I agree, and part of me wonders now if Haynes just answers questions from fans in a way to purposely elude them. It would make sense of why his pop star films focus on music icons that have in some form or other been shape-shifters or donned many masks. Maybe Haynes loves and models his celebrity, in part, after these pop icons in a way similar to how I have formed my queer worldview through watching his films. Or maybe, just like David Bowie, he is tired of hearing people tell him what his art is about.

  * * *

What did I expect from this experience? Did I really think Haynes was going to confirm for me that my reading of Velvet Goldmine was the gospel truth? Did I expect him to explain to me that queer cinema is in fact not organic and shifting over time and through cultures, but meaningfully fixed and rigid, and that he was so grateful that I had figured out the precise meaning of his movie? 

I am now reminded of a moment in the Q&A when Haynes told the audience that he had been offered the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan after he had made “I’m Not There,” the Brechtian Dylan biopic in which six different actors play the pop icon. Haynes was ecstatic that he had been offered the once in a lifetime opportunity, but humbly turned it down. I wonder now if Haynes was paranoid that he would endure an experience such as the one I have just related to you, /bent readers. Maybe Haynes was not prepared to withstand the potential negation of his film’s many inferences about Dylan’s life and songs, and decided instead to live with his fantasy rather than have his artistic discretions cross-examined. After meeting Haynes, I take into account his artistic intentions in making “Velvet Goldmine,” and will certainly his words on the film whenever I re-watch it. However, I think I will take a cue from the above anecdote and choose also to keep with my fantasies about the film.  

*Special mention goes out to Sasha Miszcyzk, who assigned the name “Glitter Dongs” to the Velvet Goldmine, in a subtle reference to the scene in which Ewan McGregor pours glitter on his dong.

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