The following is an essay I wrote in 2008 on one of my favorite films, Todd Haynes' masterful glam rock epic Velvet Goldmine. It was originally published on another blog but the link is now defunct.
Dreaming of Me
Identity and the Ideal Self in Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine
Velvet Goldmine (1998), Todd Haynes' glittery, decadent tribute to the glittery, decadent glam rock scene of the early 1970s, revolves around Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) and his obsession with rock star Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), both as a starry-eyed fan in colorful 1974 London and as a disillusioned journalist in a bleak 1984 New York. Though Brian Slade and fellow rock idol Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) are the ostensible central figures in this rock-n-roll drama, Arthur is the true center of the story, a situation which reflects one of the primary themes of Velvet Goldmine: the search for one's identity in that of others. Arthur's story, in fact, which may appear to be secondary through most of the picture, carries the film's true dramatic power, in contrast to the trashy melodrama of the two rock stars.
"I needn't mention how essential dreaming is to the character of the rock star," says Mandy Slade (Toni Collette), Brian's jaded ex-wife, and this statement points to the film’s central meaning. If it’s about nothing else, Velvet Goldmine is about dreaming. Not the kind that happens during sleep, but the metaphorical kind in which we see a vision of the future, a vision of a fully realized (and idealized) self, a vision that inspires and enables us to see a reality, or a possibility, beyond what the eyes can perceive. The film is even structured like a dream, a series of free associations and obscurely connected images and scenes, rather than a series of events told in chronological sequence. There is no doubt that the film is telling a story, but the telling of it is so complicated in structure that it is difficult to piece together the chronology even after multiple viewings. Nevertheless, this does not dilute the impact of the narrative and, if anything, guided as it is by intuition, emotion, and memory rather than objective chronology, the seemingly jumbled narrative achieves a greater power than it might have if the story were told straight.
The main story, or at least the ostensible main story, takes place in the early seventies in London, where Brian Slade (a thinly fictionalized David Bowie) becomes the rising star of the glam rock scene. A teenage Arthur Stuart is one of his devoted fans, a shy lad with many inhibitions striving to break out of the repressive mold in which his parents and society would seek to restrain him, who feels within himself stirrings of some grandeur, beauty, and freedom that he sees fully realized and reflected in the glittery, glamorous, and uninhibited Brian Slade. It is a classic Romantic theme, perhaps even a tired one—the young person in conflict with societal and parental restraints—but Arthur’s meekness, masking as it does a deep courage to be himself even if it’s not what other people want him to be—makes him a sympathetic hero. Arthur is not a stereotypical rebel with a snarl and an attitude to match. He is quiet, outwardly unremarkable, obviously not wanting to shame or outrage his parents yet chafing against the expectations that he feels stifle his true personality and feelings. We sense that Arthur has grown up as an introspective, daydreaming loner whose seemingly boring exterior masks a profound imagination and sense of beauty, and that these inner qualities have been especially awakened by his fascination with Brian Slade.
In Brian, Arthur sees a mirror of himself. Not himself as he is, but as he might be… an idealized version of himself. At a deeper level, however, this mirror does reflect himself as he is—that is, as he is “deep down inside”, a truer self that has lain dormant, potential waiting to be made actual. Arthur is conscious of this self-reflective aspect of his hero worship, as we see in the scene in which he is watching Brian Slade on television. As his parents sit sternly on the couch, Arthur sits on the floor glued to the set. Then we see him jumping up and down, pointing to the telly and shouting excitedly, “That’s me! That’s me!” In the next scene, he is once again sitting quietly as before, and we realize that the intervening scene only took place in his imagination. It is a scene indicative both of Arthur’s sense of repression (that he cannot express his true feelings) and of his identification with his idol, a recognition of himself in someone else. Brian Slade has achieved a full realization and expression of the qualities that Arthur feels hidden within himself. There is a special poignancy in his joy at self-recognition and his simultaneous inability to share that joy with his parents.
The film’s greatest irony is that Brian Slade himself, the object not only of Arthur’s but an entire subculture’s hero worship, is utterly devoid of his own identity. He is at once overflowing with charisma and empty of substance. He is a predatory creature, all hunger and ambition, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Early in his career, when he witnesses American rock-n-roll rebel Curt Wild’s over-the-top, completely untamed performance, Brian is mesmerized—and also devastated. He feels a deep envy of Curt Wild’s total freedom from inhibition, his defiant rejection of social standards and blatant disregard of what other people think. “They despised him,” Brian reflects sullenly afterward. “Wish I’d thought of it.”
Brian does think of it. He reinvents himself as the fictional character Maxwell Demon (a la Ziggy Stardust), a flamboyant, androgynous, proudly bisexual rock demigod. In so doing, he finds his fame and his stardom. He is as reviled by traditionally-minded adults as he is adored by their glitter-wearing children. Once he is a star, he develops a personal and professional relationship with Curt Wild and helps to revive the latter’s sagging career. The pair becomes a sensation, both for their joint recording and performing and for their tabloid-fodder sexual relationship. Eventually, inevitably, the relationship goes sour and the two part ways. Brian Slade, for reasons never made completely clear—perhaps because he wants to shed his current identity and find a new one—stages his own fake on-stage assassination. When his fans learn of the deception, they angrily turn against him, and his career is over. Or so it seems.
That was 1974, and a decade later, Arthur Stuart is a somber journalist working in the United States, which seems to be a bleak, gray, Orwellian version of 1984 Reagan-era America. On the tenth anniversary of the assassination hoax marking the end of Brian Slade’s career, Arthur’s boss asks him to do a “whatever happened to…” story on the former rock star. Arthur undertakes the project reluctantly. The “frame” structure of the film consists of Arthur’s investigation into Brian Slade’s history and present whereabouts, including interviews with several people who were close to him. The tales told by Brian’s associates become intertwined with Arthur’s own memories of that time period and his personal experience of the glam rock scene.
In a reflection of Arthur’s earlier self-discovery through his obsession with Brian Slade, Arthur’s investigation into the rock star’s past and present becomes a rediscovery of himself, or perhaps a continuation of the self-discovery that had begun a decade earlier and been forgotten in the intervening years as optimistic youth gave way to mundane, dreamless adulthood. What starts out as an unenthusiastically undertaken assignment to research a feature article on a pop culture has-been becomes a quietly passionate and driven quest for self-knowledge.
What Arthur ends up discovering about Brian Slade is that he has indeed adopted a new identity—that of a 1980s pop star named Tommy Stone. Stone’s conservative image (he wears a suit and is supportive of “President Reynolds”) is a decided departure from the flamboyant, decadent iconoclast that was Brian Slade. With this revelation, all illusions about Brian Slade are finally and completely shattered, and he can be seen for what he really is: a man disturbingly bereft of a real identity, an empty hole that craves attention and adoration far more than authenticity, and is all too willing to sacrifice the latter to acquire the former. Like the title character of Citizen Kane (a film that this one overtly references), Brian Slade is ultimately a tragic figure, a seemingly powerful, godlike man whose larger-than-life ambitions and glorious achievements conceal a deep, aching emptiness.
Tragic though he may be, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for Brian Slade in his self-absorbed striving. At any rate, unlike Citizen Kane, Velvet Goldmine is not a tragedy but something more like a novel—that is, a narrative in which the protagonist undergoes a process of transformation and is left a changed person at the end. And Velvet Goldmine is more about Arthur Stuart than it is about Brian Slade. Arthur’s transformation is one of moving from a state of complacent slumber to one of awakened self-knowledge.
Arthur’s awakening to the reality of himself occurs in parallel in both the 1974 and 1984 narratives. In 1974, after Brian Slade has committed career suicide in singularly spectacular fashion, Arthur attends a “Death of Glitter” concert at which a number of glam acts perform (with the former leader of the scene, Brian Slade, conspicuously absent). By this time, Arthur has moved out of his parents’ house and is beginning to explore his identity. He hangs out with members of the band Flaming Creatures and dons makeup. When the Creatures take the stage and delve into the fiery opening guitar riff of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy”, Arthur’s spirited, energetic dancing at the front of the crowd signals his newfound freedom to be himself.
Meanwhile, in 1984, Arthur the journalist, having pierced the illusion of Brian Slade, enters a bar. There he chances to encounter Curt Wild, who doesn’t seem to recognize him despite the fact that they had met at the Death of Glitter show a decade earlier. Neither does Curt, the final interviewee, seem to know what became of Brian Slade. Or perhaps he does know what happened, not only to Brian but to all of them. One exchange sums up the disillusionment of adulthood and the disappointment of youthful dreams:
CURT: We set out to change the world… ended up just changing ourselves.
ARTHUR: What’s wrong with that?
CURT: Nothing, if you don’t look at the world.
At the beginning of Velvet Goldmine, a spaceship descends from the heavens and drops off a baby, together with a green brooch, to a family in 19th century Dublin. The child, it turns out, is none other than Oscar Wilde. This conceit serves perhaps as a symbol of aesthetic and artistic inspiration, but also of a special identity. The brooch is apparently magical and grants its owner a mysterious enchantment. In the 20th century, the brooch is accidentally discovered in the ground by an outcast young boy named Jack, who as a young man becomes Jack Fairy, the ethereal, highly androgynous godfather of the glam rock scene. Jack does not appear to be a musician himself (he only performs one song in the movie, at the Death of Glitter concert), but his image alone—Hollywood glamour taken to a surreal extreme—gives inspiration to the glam scene. One who falls under his spell is the young Brian Slade, who is captivated by Jack’s appearance at a party (much as he is later fascinated by Curt Wild’s performance) and who craftily steals the brooch from behind Jack’s ear while kissing him. With this theft, Brian claims the magic of the brooch and evolves into the god of glam. Brian later gives the brooch to Curt, and Curt in turn offers it to Arthur at the bar in 1984. Arthur, however, humbly refuses it.
Significantly, Brian Slade is the only owner of the brooch not to have received it as a gift (in Jack’s case, it may be considered a gift of fate or providence). This act of thievery is symbolic of Brian’s “stealing” of an identity that is not his own, as well as of his amoral striving. If the entire mode of glam consists of artificiality and posing, Brian Slade is the quintessential glam rocker. But how do the artificial constructions of the poseur relate to his “true” identity, assuming there is such a thing? Brian is revealed to be a chameleon, a mass of appetite and need with no center. His identity not only as Maxwell Demon but also as glam rocker Brian Slade is a mask for his inner emptiness. Brian Slade, it turns out, is not even Brian Slade.
It is unclear to what extent Jack Fairy’s and Curt Wild’s personae are “true” expressions of their inner selves. But in the case of Arthur Stuart, we sense something more authentic. We can’t imagine the utterly cynical Brian Slade gushing with Arthur’s joy of self-recognition (“That’s me!”). Brian’s image is all craft and calculation, a marketing ploy in the service of his insatiable ambition. Arthur’s quest is a more spiritual one, motivated by profound longings and a desire for self-realization.
After Curt Wild leaves the bar, Arthur takes a sip of beer and is startled to discover that Curt has surreptitiously slipped the brooch into his bottle. He beholds it, laughing with a mixture of surprise and joy. Arthur’s quest is complete: in searching for Brian Slade, he has found himself. In the end, Velvet Goldmine is a fairy tale. Not only is the glamorous demigod revealed to be a sham, the plain lad turns out to be the one who possesses true beauty.