Desire and Destruction: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Todd Haynes’ rock n’ roll drama Velvet Goldmine is not just a queer cult classic; it is a magnificently queer cult classic, draped in luxurious fabrics and tarted up in glittery eyeshadow and lipstick for all the world to gaze at adoringly. Quite a few viewers over the years have misunderstood the film as a David Bowie biopic, but in actuality it’s more of a tribute to the experience of loving the glam rock music movement itself. Excessive indulgence was the name of the game for Bowie, Iggy Pop (The Stooges), Marc Bolan (T. Rex), Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music), Brian Eno, Lou Reed and everyone in the New York Dolls, so of course that’s also the case for the characters in this film. The mystery at the heart of Velvet – the rise, fall and subsequent disappearance of Venus in Furs frontman Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) – borrows details from the lives of many of the aforementioned musicians, plus a little Jobriath thrown in for good measure.

Brian is the object of lust at the center of Velvet’s universe, but the story is primarily seen through the eyes of a fan, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), whose repressed gay adolescence was given release when glam rock revolutionized the look and sound of the music scene’s young idols. Arthur was fortunate to be present at a few vitally important concerts in Brian’s heyday, most notably the one that involved a shocking assassination-by-gunshot attempt. The incident was quickly revealed to have been a hoax cooked up by his management, a stunt that put an end to Brian’s career. (This is one of the character’s main similarities with Jobriath, who, like Brian Slade, was an openly gay rock star. Jobriath was touted as America’s answer to Bowie, but lost public favor following a huge buildup of hype and a ridiculously extravagant set of tour plans that never materialized. The other similarity is in their album covers.) On the ten-year anniversary of the “shooting,” in 1984, Arthur is working as a journalist in New York and he is tasked with finding out whatever became of the former star. Thus begins an odyssey into his and Brian’s pasts, like Citizen Kane with feather boas.

Like a proverbial phoenix, Brian Slade ascends from hippie singer-songwriter with flowing locks to a spiky-haired glam god singing about spaceships from the POV of his Ziggy Stardust-style alter ego, Maxwell Demon. Brian’s manager, Jerry Devine (Eddie Izzard), raises his meal ticket’s popularity with young Brits to a fever pitch; of more significant importance to Brian, however, is that he meets American glam-punk rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Modeled on Iggy Pop yet bearing a disconcerting physical resemblance to Kurt Cobain, Curt Wild is a raucous American rebel who inspires Brian’s professional imagination as well as his infatuation. The pair embark on a passionate affair, which drives a wedge between Brian and his party-girl wife, Mandy (Toni Collette, deftly utilizing a mixture of American and phony-English accents à la Angela Bowie). Unlike the real Bowie’s negation of his bisexuality (as a “closet heterosexual”) years after the glam rock era had ended, Brian’s sexual fluidity is never portrayed as a stage act.

As Arthur gets closer to the truth of what happened to Brian in the wake of the murder hoax – naturally, this Icarus’s burnout includes a downward spiral into heroin addiction – the film asks us to consider the malleability of identity and image, particularly with regard to celebrity and artists’ neverending battle between authenticity and artifice. Glam rock was a genre of reinvention for singers in the 1970s, seen most famously in David Bowie’s multiple personae during that decade; over the course of Velvet Goldmine, Brian Slade and Arthur Stuart undergo major changes, both cosmetically (Brian’s ever-evolving hair and makeup, Arthur’s growing ease with dressing in a glammed-up fashion) and sexually. Emotionally, the two men are each other’s foils, with the depth of Arthur’s personal journey contrasting sharply with Brian, about whom we never learn quite enough to get a true sense of his inner self. But in the end, maybe that’s for the best. In our current age of TMI, the idea of a glam rock supernova who rarely discloses his most private thoughts is tantalizing. For all we know, there’s not much going on underneath the androgynously pretty façade, which wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, this is a film fixated on The Picture of Dorian Gray’s symbolism, the mythology of Oscar Wilde himself and the concept that Wilde might have been an alien sent to Earth to share his literally stellar witticisms.

From shot to shot, the aesthetics of the film keep the viewer’s eye roving constantly. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography brings out the dazzling colors in Sandy Powell’s Oscar-nominated costume design, the makeup/hair design by Peter King, the production design by Christopher Hobbs and the art direction by Andrew Munro. The whole shebang is held together with the editing by James Lyons, who also co-wrote the film’s story with Todd Haynes; Lyons excels in the film’s exuberant opening credits sequence, set to Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” and a later montage in which Brian and Arthur performing Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire” onstage is interwoven with scenes of Arthur masturbating to a newspaper photo of both men kissing in front of paparazzi.

It should also go without saying that the soundtrack is wall-to-wall brilliance. Even though David Bowie refused to give Todd Haynes the rights to use the song “Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes succeeds gloriously with tracks by Brian Eno, Slade (a nice joke on the director’s part), Roxy Music, Gary Glitter, Grant Lee Buffalo, T. Rex, Lou Reed and Steve Harley; covers interpreted by Thom Yorke (who does a spot-on Bryan Ferry impression on Roxy’s “2HB”) and Placebo (Brian Molko has a small role as a flashy entertainer at a couple of gigs); and original tunes performed by Shudder to Think and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the latter showcasing a charmingly nasal, un-singer-like quality to his vocals. Arguably it’s a bit distracting that so many artists with noticeably different voices perform in the guise of Brian Slade, but the recordings are great enough that it doesn’t end up mattering. Additionally, Ewan McGregor does all of his own vocals as Curt Wild, which works especially well when he covers Iggy Pop’s “Gimme Danger.” McGregor’s erotically charged presence is undeniable. It’s a shame that we never learn anything about Curt Wild’s background or the direction his career took post-Brian Slade, but maybe Todd Haynes felt that there was already plenty going on in the plot.

Velvet Goldmine is a film that may take more than one viewing for its meanings to sink again. Certainly it’s more fun the second time around, making it easier to recognize the various moments of foreshadowing and other amusing details that pop up throughout the narrative. It’s a tale founded on a dangerously symbiotic relationship between desire and destruction, but there is also immense pleasure in appreciating the technical craft that makes Haynes’ work electric, reveling in every joyously gaudy frock and screeching guitar riff.


Star Trek Into Fandom: The Costumes

I recently started and finished watching the entire original series of “Star Trek” (three seasons, 1966-1969). One of the most striking elements of the show’s design was its use of costumes, all of which were designed by William Ware Theiss, who later designed costumes for such films as Harold and Maude (1971), Bound for Glory (1976), Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), Goin’ South (1978) and Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979). This post honors seventeen of Theiss’ most inspired (and in many cases, most revealing) creations.

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” [S1 E7] – Sherry Jackson, playing an android named Andrea, wears a rather flimsy set of overalls, while Ted Cassidy, as a menacing android named Ruk, wears what looks like a glued-together pile of random weird fabrics. I also like the boilersuit (if that’s the right terminology) worn by Dr. Korby (Michael Strong).

“Shore Leave” [S1 E15] – When the crew of the Enterprise makes the mistake of taking shore leave on a planet which is basically just a gigantic amusement park, Dr. McCoy’s “death” is resolved at the episode’s end by having merely been an illusion, like all the other bizarre events that happened; when he returns to his astonished crew, McCoy is accompanied by two Vegas-looking showgirls he fondly remembered from a past rendezvous.

“The Return of the Archons” [S1 E21] – Members of the Enterprise’s crew beam down to a world that appears to be modeled on the US circa the late 1800s, and before doing so, the crew members all don excellent, period-appropriate attire. My personal favorite look is Spock’s cloak, which would look unusual in most any era.

“A Taste of Armageddon” [S1 E23] – Dig some of these crazy outfits! I love whenever Theiss had to design hats for the guest actors.

“Amok Time” [S2 E1] – One of the all-time classic episodes of the original series, “Amok Time” features Spock in the throes of pon farr, the Vulcan mating cycle that occurs once every seven years. He and the Enterprise crew travel back to his home planet, also called Vulcan, where Spock expects to wed the bride chosen for him during childhood, T’Pring (Arlene Martel, who in 1961 had guest-starred as the morgue nurse with the catchphrase “Room for one more, honey!” in one of my favorite “Twilight Zone” episodes, “Twenty Two”). This scene shows T’Pring and also the leader of the Vulcans, T’Pau (veteran character actress Celia Lovsky). Naturally, complications ensue when T’Pring decides that a simple wedding is not enough and instead she would rather see Spock and Kirk engage in a fight to the death. Needless to say, all of the costumes are terrific.

“Who Mourns for Adonais?” [S2 E2] – Apollo (Michael Forest) uses his powers to dress Lt. Carolyn Palamas (Leslie Parrish) in a gown befitting Aphrodite, an outfit which is held up only by the weight of the train draped over the lieutenant’s shoulder. I only wish that this clip displayed the rich color and sparkle of the costume, which you can see in its perfection on the remastered DVD of the show, as well as the amount of leg visible on both sides of the skirt.

“Mirror, Mirror” [S2 E4] – How you know that Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Scotty and Lt. Uhura have been transported to an parallel-universe version of the Enterprise: a) there are even skimpier costumes (nice abs, Nichelle Nichols!), b) everyone on the ship does Naziesque salutes and c) Mirror Universe Spock has a Beard of Evil.

“Journey to Babel” [S2 E10] – During a diplomatic mission in which the Enterprise carries ambassadors from many different worlds – including Spock’s Vulcan father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), and Spock’s human mother, Amanda (Jane Wyatt) – to a peace conference, you get to see the ship’s top-ranking officers in the jackets required for special occasions such as this one, as well as the diverse set of costumes worn by the plethora of life forms inhabiting the Enterprise during the voyage.

“Friday’s Child” [S2 E11] – These are truly both the funniest and the ugliest costumes that any guest villains had to wear on “Star Trek.” Get a look at those ponytails! Bonus: Julie Newmar as that week’s damsel in distress.

“A Piece of the Action” [S2 E17] – Kirk and Spock in 1920s-era suits and fedoras! I’ll bet these costumes were half the reason why this episode, set on a planet that believes in Prohibition-era Chicago as the ideal model for their society, was put into production in the first place.

“Assignment: Earth” [S2 E26] – The final episode of season two was also essentially a pilot for a show (of the same name) that Gene Roddenberry was hoping to launch; it didn’t happen, so instead we’re stuck with these weird “Star Trek” episode that focuses more on a Doctor Who-type character (played by Robert Lansing) and his companion (Teri Garr) than on Kirk, Spock or anything else happening on the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock (the latter of whom has a hat to hide his Vulcan ears) wear some great 1968-era outfits, though, and Teri Garr’s kind of psychedelic outfit is cute.

Warning: this clip contains strobe effects and many bright, flashing lights.

“Is There in Truth No Beauty?” [S3 E5] – Diana Muldaur is one of my favorite actresses who appeared on “Star Trek”; not only am I partial to her since she was born in Brooklyn, but she also holds the distinction of being one of the few guest stars to play multiple characters in multiple episodes. Each of Diana Muldaur’s characters was an intelligent, high-ranking woman working either in Starfleet or elsewhere in the Federation; in season two episode “Return to Tomorrow” she played Dr. Ann Mulhall, a science officer (described as an “astrobiologist”) newly assigned to the Enterprise during that episode, and in “Is There No Beauty?” she plays Dr. Miranda Jones, assistant to the Medusan ambassador Kollos. I used a clip from the latter episode because Muldaur’s Dr. Jones has a fantastic upswept hairdo and she wears many beautiful gowns – besides this one (seen here in full length), there is a blue gown and also a black gown that looks incredible in motion – and all of the outfits are covered in “sensor webs” to aid her since she is blind (though the other characters don’t realize it until near the end of the episode).

P.S. Diana Muldaur’s “Star Trek” career continued twenty years later when she had a recurring role as Dr. Pulaski on the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in 1988.

“For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” [S3 E8] – Natira (Katherine Woodville) and her fellow countrymen on the world of Yonada wear many colorful designs, clearly utilizing a lot of whatever CBS had available (“Star Trek” was always a low-budget show, especially in its final season).

“Plato’s Stepchildren” [S3 310] – Primarily famous as the episode in which Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) share a kiss (a first for interracial kisses on American television), “Plato’s Stepchildren” also makes great use of glittery togas and laurels. (Our heroes are prisoners on a planet based on ancient Greek history and mythology, where all the beings there have telekinetic powers which hold Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Nurse Christine Chapel captive.) The forced kiss between Spock and Christine is particularly cruel not just because Spock is incapable of emotion, but because it is established early in season one that Christine has a crush – obviously unrequited – on her Vulcan comrade.

“The Way to Eden” [S3 E20] – Most fans describe this episode as one of “Star Trek’s” worst. I mean, yeah, it’s all about hippies in space, but look at Charles Napier’s outfit! A horrible hairpiece, a costume that looks like a typical challenge-losing design from “Project Runway,” and extremely high boots. All that, and he sings too!

(Oh, and by the way, the bald fellow you see at 0:13 is Skip Homeier.)

“The Savage Curtain” [S3 E22] – Probably best remembered as the episode that involves a projection of Abraham Lincoln (played by Lee Bergere), we see the Enterprise’s top officers wearing their special-event finery (like we also saw in the “Journey to Babel” clip), but I particularly love Scotty’s kilt, the tartan fabric of which connects to the top of his uniform jacket.

“All Our Yesterdays” [S3 E23] – The series’ penultimate episode might have the most entertaining costume reveal of all. Stuck in a musty cave during an ice age, Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley) sees her opportunity for romance when Spock and McCoy fall through a time portal and end up in her neck of the woods, so to speak; the lonely woman instantly falls in love with Spock, and despite the freezing cold temperatures, Zarabeth has clearly made the right choice for what to wear under her winter coat.