Tuesday, November 11, 2008
"It doesn't matter what a man does with his life, what matters is the legend that grows up around him"
Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) in "Velvet Goldmine".
If someone had told Orson Welles in 1941 that his "Citizen Kane" would be remade more than half a century later as an ode to glam rock, he probably wouldn't have believed it...or he would've loved the idea and endorsed it completely.
Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" is supposed to share only the narrative structure with Welles' masterpiece, but on a closer look, the film is a precise dissection of what many consider to be the greatest film ever made.
While the tag of tribute, reinterpretation or copy is subjective, truth of the matter is that Haynes owes to "Kane" much more than a backbone; and the beauty of "Goldmine" lies not only in watching how he touches a holy grail, but how his views reexamine the classic film and even help us watch it with different eyes as he "dares" to question Welles' choices.
"Kane" was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles after Mankiewicz came up with the idea of telling the life of a public figure through the eyes of those who knew him as opposed to traditional, chronological biographies.
They settled on media mogul William Randolph Hearst who for the screenplay became Charles Foster Kane: tycoon, womanizer, debaucher, greedy, insecure and madly ambitious.
The film, which begins with Kane's death, follows a reporter as he interviews people from his past including his former business manager (Joseph Cotten), his ex-wife (Dorothy Comingore) and some of his advisors in order to discover what his last words meant.
"Velvet Goldmine" also begins with a death, that of glam rocker Brian Slade, who at the height of his popularity stages his own demise, a fake one, but a death nevertheless (Although technically the film begins with Haynes introducing the idea that an other worldly Oscar Wilde was the first glam rocker).
Reporter Arthur Stewart (Christian Bale) is sent a decade later to investigate whatever happened to him after that event by interviewing people from his life, including his former business manager (Eddie Izzard), his ex-wife (Toni Collette) and former glam rock star Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor).
We first learn about Slade through a television show (Kane's life is revealed to us through a newsreel) and then the plot moves backwards as each character reveals a piece of his life.
It's widely known, or at least understood, that Slade is shaped after David Bowie (especially during his Ziggy Stardust era) while Curt is a hybrid between Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain (think of him as a sensitive streaker).
So the first thing to ask ourselves is if this is a direct comparison between Hearst and Bowie, Kane and Slade, or if Haynes is simply finding equivalents in terms of influential power during different eras.
The individual cases might come off looking shallow, especially because they live up to being similar only in small, random details like the fact that both Kane and Slade marry flashy, trashy girls (who are later interviewed in the same fashion in the remnants of a bar) who have grown to become jaded women.
Neither film tries to hide the identity of the people who inspired them (note how they stress the words American and trailer park when Slade first sees Curt, as if to make clear it can't be other than Iggy), matters which were incendiary in terms of the fact that Hearst tried to destroy every copy of "Citizen Kane" and Bowie asked none of his songs to be featured in the film despite acknowledgment that this was a completely fictionalized version of a period in his life.
If there was nothing of the truth to be found in any of the films why would someone go to the lengths of trying to stop its release? Slade himself endorses activities of the kind when he says "Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner."
And for the filmmakers what truth was to be found in these stories?
"Kane" was supposedly a revenge against Hearst on part of Mankiewicz (after the tycoon stopped inviting him to his parties), Welles just played along for subversive fun's sake, but nothing in Haynes filmography or biography tells us that he had any special interest in Bowie or Iggy.
Curiously the effect is reversed in the histories of the narrators. The reporter investigating Kane remains anonymous throughout the film, we never even see his face, he's more of a device if anything; while Arthur Stewart not only was a fan of glam rock (fact which seems to embarrass him in the 80's) but was also emotionally involved with the movement so much that one of the film's most haunting scenes has him masturbate to a Brian Slade record cover as if it was a religious experience.
What difference does it make then how much we know about the subject we're investigating about? How do our perceptions and objectivity change when we have any emotional connections to our subject?
For the reporter in Kane, albeit fascinating, the mogul ends up being nothing more than an assignment. For Arthur on the other side, the investigation becomes the completion of a soul search he began decades before.
But in the end it's debatable if the reporters learn more about their subjects or about themselves.
On a stylistic level "Kane" is still unrivaled in terms of technical prowess (the only thing missing in it is CGI, but Welles probably was already machinating something similar in his mind), while "Goldmine" evokes the qualities of 60's and 70's filmmaking.
From Richard Lester to exploitation and quasi documentaries (technique which also proved effective in "Kane"), but perhaps the film is better known for its dazzling musical sequences, which like a loophole into the characters' minds and emotions, threads them to the rest of the narrative.
Watching "Velvet Goldmine" should feel like both the hangover and the drunkenness, its observations on hedonism as fascinated as they are opposed to it.
What's true is that both films concentrate on eras that had gone by, or would soon (Hearst died ten years after "Kane", same time that the characters in "Goldmine" take before they start investigating Slade) and both look at them as if to find relevance with the present and the future.
After all what is "Goldmine" other than a nostalgic take on artistic evolution?
For Haynes it's obvious that some of the best things have already been done and what better way to prove it than to use a classic film as model to talk about an almost vanished music genre?
Another of the issues to explore about "Kane" is how much of Welles was in Charles Foster Kane. From his upbringing to certain tics and specific details about his life, which lead you to ask why would he decide to create a hybrid of himself and someone he obviously didn't like that much?
Haynes isn't as notorious a character as Welles was, but one can guess that he must have put a little of himself into the characters. Then again he has Curt utter the line "a real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into it".
But maybe this is looking too much into things that are better left off as experiences. After all Haynes himself washes his hands, or triggers our imagination, when he quotes Nathan Brown in the fact that "meaning is not in things, but in between them".
- This post is part of "Musical of the Month" hosted by Nathaniel Rogers of "The Film Experience".