Velvet Goldmine is a 1998 musical drama film directed by Todd Haynes and written by him and James Lyons. It stars Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, and Toni Collette; it costars Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, and Michael Feast. It has music by Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Lou Reed (though these are often covered by other musicians), among others, as well as original songs. Though the film’s title is inspired by the David Bowie song, that song isn’t used in the movie.
The story is about a glam rock star from the 1970s named Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers), who fakes his own assassination and ‘disappears.’ What’s happened to him? Journalist Arthur Stuart (Bale) must find out, in a manner reminiscent of the search for the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane.
The film also includes a number of quotes from Oscar Wilde: those from The Picture of Dorian Gray interest me in particular, since Slade, like Gray, is a beautiful boy whose homoerotic, narcissistic charm and false public image leads to the suffering of many, especially his female love interest (Mandy Slade, played by Collette).
Here are quotes of Wilde’s used in the movie, all from The Picture of Dorian Gray, unless otherwise specified (the quotes aren’t letter perfect in the movie):
“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” (Chapter 1, page 18) [In the film, Curt Wild says, “A real artist creates beautiful things and…puts nothing of his own life into them.”]
“Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack with sudden and strange surrenders.” (Chapter 5, page 76)
“Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.” (Chapter 8, page 119)
“There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own.” (Chapter 11, page 166)
“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.” (Chapter 20, page 252)
Here are some quotes from the movie:
Opening text: Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.
“Histories like ancient ruins are the fictions of empires. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” –female narrator
“I want to be a pop idol.” –young Oscar Wilde
“Childhood, adults always say, is the happiest time in life. But as long as he could remember, Jack Fairy knew better.” –female narrator
“Rock music has always been a reaction against accepted standards. And homosexuality has been going on for centuries. At the moment having a ‘gay’ image is the ‘in’ thing, just like a few years ago it was trendy to wear a long grey coat with a Led Zeppelin record under your arm.” –Trevor (Slade’s guitarist)
“Everyone’s into this scene because it’s supposedly the thing to do right now. But you just can’t fake being gay. You know, if you’re gonna claim that you’re gay you’re gonna have to make love in gay style, and most of these kids…just aren’t going to make it. That line, ‘Everybody’s bisexual’, that’s a very popular thing to say right now. Personally, I think it’s meaningless.” –Curt Wild
“He thought he fucking was Maxwell Demon in the end – you know? And Maxwell Demon…he thought he was God.” –Curt Wild
“I want you because you remember.” –Lou
“He was elegance, walking arm in arm with a lie.” –Cecil, of Slade
“The doctors guaranteed the treatment would fry the fairy clean out of him. But all it did was make him bonkers every time he heard electric guitar.” –Cecil, of Curt Wild
“Heroin used to be my main man. You could be my main man.” –Curt Wild, to Brian Slade
“You all know me – subtlety’s my middle name. It’s as subtle as the piece of skin between my vagina and my anus – ooh la! la! Now what’s that called, I can never quite remember…No man’s land? Oh gosh – my geesh, dah-ling!” –Mandy Slade
“It’s funny how beautiful people look when they’re walking out the door.” –Mandy Slade
“Time, places, people,… they’re all speeding up. So, to cope with this evolutionary paranoia, strange people are chosen who, through their art, can move progress more quickly.” –Mandy Slade
While the film received only mixed reviews and was not a box office success, it has since become a cult classic, as it should be at the very least, for it is a superb film, visually and sonically gorgeous.
Brian Slade is a rock star reminiscent of David Bowie (during his Ziggy Stardust years) and Jobriath. He’s also bisexual, as is Curt Wild (McGregor), who’s based on Iggy Pop; and the two glam icons have a gay affair during the time they’re musically collaborating.
The film begins with a spaceship delivering a baby (Oscar Wilde), with an emerald pin clasped to his blanket, on the doorstep of the Wilde family in Dublin in 1854. This pin symbolizes the special talents of those who wear it, in particular the artistic gifts of LGBT people, whose suffering from the prejudice of mainstream society shapes the expression of those talents.
Genius is pain: the goodness of the one dialectically phases out from the evil of its opposite; the ouroboros‘s bitten tail of pain leads to the biting head of talent. I’ve discussed elsewhere how the ouroboros symbolizes the dialectical unity of opposites.
The next person to own the pin is gender-bending Jack Fairy, whom we see as a child being bullied by his male classmates in the schoolyard, all for such effeminate tendencies as wearing lipstick. As an adult, he will be admired by the glam rock community for his daring androgyny. He is a true original.
The glam rock fans of the 1970s like to put their ‘bisexuality’ on display…but are they really bisexual, or do they merely posture as such because of bisexual chic? Curt Wild, speaking to a TV reporter, thinks many of them are faking being gay. This notion of posturing, of having a narcissistic False Self, is a major theme in the movie…artificiality…image.
Slade’s identification with his persona, “Maxwell Demon” (paralleling Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ an alien who comes to Earth, saves it, and becomes a rock-and-roll star, only to be destroyed in the end), goes to the point of almost driving him mad; he fakes his murder to be freed from the persona (a liberating from one’s False Self that is comparable to Dorian Gray’s stabbing his portrait with a knife, only to end up killing himself). Then, Slade becomes…someone else…
This escaping from reality, and from its pain, to build up a false self-image, is a manic defence, a mask to hide behind. Be a performer, and forget the pain that comes from the alienating bigotry and social rejection of the ‘freaks’ of the world: gays, transwomen, etc. Only through the flamboyant lie of being a rock star can we ever accept society’s deviants.
If you aren’t a star, though, then you’re just a lonely, sensitive fellow like journalist Arthur Stuart.
As a member of the largely closeted LGBT community, a closeting resulting from the AIDS scare of the mid-1980s that revived much of the homophobia that had been tamed somewhat in the 1970s, Stuart has little to smile about. The partying years of the glam rock era are no more; his hero–Slade–turned out to be a phoney to all his former fans; and so all Stuart has are the painful memories of a once-hopeful time (hopeful for gay liberation) long since dead.
And now he has to research those painful years for Lou, his newspaper editor.
He sits on the subway, moping and brooding over those years, while a few seats over from him, a child is wearing a mask of Tommy Stone, the current pop idol. That mask is symbolic, because in the end we learn that Stone is who Slade has become! Slade has replaced one mask for another; he’s gone from the fake image of a glam rock star to that of an 80s pop star.
As an appropriate soundtrack background to Stuart’s melancholy, we hear the sad piano notes beginning Slade’s “Hot One,” a song from Stuart’s past, lost and gone forever. The song, with its promo video, combines Slade’s openly-expressed bisexuality with the fantasy of being from outer space, a world far better than our shitty Earth.
Actually, “Hot One” is sung and performed by Shudder To Think, who also wrote and recorded “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the soundtrack CD version). It’s interesting how Rhys Meyers, playing Slade, is mouthing the words of “Hot One,” as well as lip synching “The Whole Shebang” (performed by Grant Lee Buffalo) and the covers of Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” and “2HB” (performed by The Venus in Furs, a fictional band for the movie, but with vocals by Thom Yorke); while Rhys Meyers himself sang “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the movie version), the cover of Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire,” and the covers of Cockney Rebel‘s “Sebastian” and “Tumbling Down.” These alternating singers symbolize the shift back and forth between Slade’s False and True Selves.
Consider the prettiness of the voices whenever Rhys Meyers is not singing, as opposed to the rawness of his own voice. Not to disparage the immense talent of the other singers (Rhys Meyers, too, sings well, of course, but just with a different style); but my point is that the pretty vibratos of Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think and of Thom Yorke can be symbolically associated with the poseur primness of Slade’s Maxwell Demon persona, while Rhys Meyers’s earthier sound symbolically suggests the real Thomas Brian Patrick Stoningham Slade hiding underneath.
Since Slade is modelled largely on Bowie, this alternation between pretty and raw voices can be seen as a parallel of Bowie’s sometimes rawer, higher register (which can be heard in much, if not most, of his singing on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as well as in other songs) and his more typical elegant baritone.
That ‘poseur,’ posturing voice is heard when Rhys Meyers’s Slade is mouthing the words of “Ladytron” to Collette’s Mandy, just before he steals her (and the emerald pin) from Jack Fairy. Recall the lyrics of the song: “I’ll use you, and I’ll confuse you, and then I’ll lose you…still, you won’t suspect me.” These words reflect the idealize, devalue, and discard phases of narcissists’ relationships with their victims…and these three things are exactly what happen to Mandy.
Since Slade is comparable to Dorian Gray in their narcissism, aestheticism, and libertine indulgence, so is his relationship with Mandy comparable to Gray’s with the actress Sibyl Vane. Gray loves Vane only when she acts well, that is, when she is not being herself; but when she does a poor performance of Juliet, showing obviously fake emotions because she’s too distracted in her love for him, he loses interest in her. (Wilde, Chapter seven, pages 97-102)
Similarly, Slade loves Mandy only when she does as much posturing (the American woman even faking an English accent) as he does. Later, he falls in love with the raw, real Curt Wild, she is doing less and less posturing, and Slade loses interest in her.
Slade has a love/hate relationship with his image; he’s told Wild, “A man’s life is his image.” He needs his phoney personae, but too much of living in them drives him mad. Dorian Gray has a similarly ambivalent relationship with the portrait Basil has painted of him: he envies and covets the permanence of its beauty, yearning to trade the impermanence of his own beauty with it; later, after the trade has been achieved, the picture’s growing ugliness, representing his growing sinfulness, makes him hate and fear the painting, since it’s a mirror to his soul.
Slade has also traded his True Self for the beauty of Maxwell Demon…later, Tommy Stone. And since Maxwell is paralleled to Bowie’s Ziggy, Tommy–in his white outfit, the next big image Slade has made for himself–can be paralleled with Bowie’s Thin White Duke, appearing in a white shirt from 1974-1977, right after Ziggy appeared. And as The Thin White Duke spoke in a pro-fascist way, there is Tommy Stone’s support for “President Reynolds” (sounds like right-wing Reagan) as “Excellent. Excellent. I think he’s doing brilliant work. He’s a–tremendous leader, tremendous spokesperson for the needs of the nation today.” (And post-Ziggy Bowie, as did Slade after the end of Maxwell, snorted a lot of cocaine.)
Slade repels his True Self, yet sees an idealized (i.e., fake!) version of it in Curt Wild’s raw energy. His falling in love with Wild is Narcissus adoring his reflection in the pond.
Wild’s excessive drug use, incompetence in the recording studio, and violent temper tantrums (to say nothing of Mandy’s jealousy) mean that Slade’s symbolic ‘True Self’ is unacceptable to his peers. When he loses Wild, he must lose his False Self, Maxwell Demon, too…for that False Self is a true demon, like Gray’s portrait.
Stuart’s also had to lose his False Self, the glitter-eye-makeup-wearing gay groupie of the band who covers T. Rex‘s “20th Century Boy” (actually performed by Placebo); and so now all he has is his melancholic, lonely True Self.
Slade’s indulgence in his Maxwell Demon persona, pushed to the extreme of thinking he is Maxwell (“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person! Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth!”), is him going to the ouroboros’s biting head of extreme posturing. His love of earthy, real, proto-punk Curt Wild is Slade pushing past the biting head, over to the bitten tail of his ‘True Self,’ projected onto Wild, and therefore he’s not really being his True Self. This means Slade has not only gone past the serpent’s head to its tail, but he’s gone another circle around the ouroboros’s coiled body, back to the head. And since Wild can’t be the ‘True Self’ Slade needs him to be, their affair ends.
Similarly, teen Stuart–idolizing Slade, narcissistically identifying with him, and masturbating to pictures of Slade and Wild–shifts past the serpent’s biting head of an extreme False Self, and over to his True Self again, when his father catches him in his room and shames him for expressing his sexuality.
The fact is, all of us have a mixture of False and True Selves, and with this reality comes our place on the narcissistic spectrum. But since most of us have integrated our True and False Selves, our narcissistic tendencies are usually at moderate, healthy, mature, and realistic levels. It’s when the True and False Selves are polarized and split, the ‘ugly’ real self being repressed and/or projected onto other people, that’s when narcissism becomes pathological, resulting in hurting those around us. (I’ve written much about this problem elsewhere.)
The splitting of True and False Selves is a manic defence against dealing with our pain. Pushing these defences to extremes–the libertine hedonism of Slade in his orgies and cocaine-sniffing, and of Gray in his opium den–results in an explosion of pain, going from the ouroboros’s biting head to its bitten tail.
We can’t run away from the pain of such bigotries as homophobia and transphobia by escaping into a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll fantasy world; we must change our world as it is…not in the idealistic way Slade and Wild try to do and end up only changing themselves, but in the realistic way of changing all of ourselves, together, slowly but surely, through teaching people love…not the fake love of religious authoritarianism, but the real love of tolerance and open-mindedness.
Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine, Miramax Books/Hyperion, New York, 1998
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Popular Classics, London, 1994