After co-founding the non-profit Apparatus Productions in 1985 to support new filmmakers, Todd Haynes made one of the most talked-about, least seen films of the '80s. Using Barbie dolls, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story recounts the life of the light-rock musician. A court order from Richard Carpenter has kept the movie out of circulation, but that didn't stop Haynes from making news. His 1991 film Poison, based on three stories by Jean Genet, served as one of the focal points of the debate over the National Endowment for the Arts, outraging conservatives with its explicit gay content. What they overlooked, naturally, was the fact that Poison signaled the coming of age of one of the decade's most compelling directors. Divided into three stories—"Hero," "Horror," and "Homo"—told in wildly divergent styles, Poison demonstrated Haynes' multi-faceted directorial skills and spearheaded the important, if ill-defined, New Queer Cinema movement. Safe, starring Julianne Moore, followed four years later. In it, Moore plays a privileged California housewife who develops "environmental illness," making her highly allergic to the everyday toxins of modern society. Her condition ultimately takes her to a New Age-like retreat, separating her from her home, friends, and family. A memorable and disturbing film, Safe touches on many of the central issues of contemporary consumer culture, its profound ambiguity making it that much more powerful. The sterility of Safe is far removed from the environment of Haynes' latest film, the semi-fictional glam-rock spectacle Velvet Goldmine. Goldmine follows the efforts of a journalist (Christian Bale) in a dystopian version of the year 1984 to track down the whereabouts of the David Bowie-like rock star he idolized during the early-'70s glam era. Haynes recently spoke to The Onion.
The Onion: I'll start with a question you've probably heard many times.
Todd Haynes: Okay.
O: What prompted you to make a movie about glam-rock, and do you think it has any special resonance now?
TH: That's sort of like a lot of people's first question and a lot of people's last question together.
O: Well, the rest will be a surprise.
TH: I think one of the main things that spurred it off was that I love the music, even though I got to it a little bit after the fact, after the initial period it which it happened. It's such an incredibly visual period of rock 'n' roll, and film is a visual medium, as we're told. It seemed sort of inconceivable that it had never been the subject of a film at all. The closest I can think of, I guess, was Rocky Horror Picture Show, which incorporates a lot of the themes and has a kind of following like no film ever made in the history of cinema. Which is strange: You still can't quite put your finger on why. But it certainly tapped into something.
O: That movie, I think in part because it takes a lot of glam-rock's themes, became sort of like a coming-of-age ritual—to go downtown and see Rocky Horror, with all the sexual ambiguity of it.
TH: Exactly. And you play along. It invites you into the process. You react in a great way. In many ways, I think that's what I love about glam-rock. It invited you to participate. It asked you to change yourself in all these different ways, or offered up all these options. It's a very different world politically and culturally today than it was in the early '70s. And one of the reasons I wanted to make the film was to say that progress doesn't just mean we become more progressive as we move forward in time. There's a lot of back-stepping that goes on, and a lot of repression and burying of ideas all the time. So that was another reason to sort of look back and learn from the past, kids. Not that it's accessible to us the way it was then.
O: You've referred to the '70s as the last progressive decade of this century. What do you mean by that?
TH: I mean compared to the '80s and '90s. In so many ways. Obviously, the political climate was one in which there still was a Left in existence, and there was a great openness to the… I think many of the ideas that opened up in the '60s got implemented in the '70s, and that certain minority voices that were not being heard in the '60s, like women and gay people, were being heard in the '70s. Black Civil Rights had also found its foothold, and those ideas were also very pertinent. All you have to do is read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and look back at the kinds of films that were coming out of that period, as well, and you realize that it's an amazingly rich period of filmmaking, particularly the first half of the '70s.
O: In the film, the David Bowie/Brian Slade character has himself sort of killed on stage, and Bowie sort of did the same thing when he announced that he was ending the Ziggy Stardust thing in one of his concerts. And then there was the "end of glam" concert. It's the only movement I can think of that killed itself. Why do you think that is?
TH: I don't know if it was conscious. But, nonetheless, there were all of these examples… There was a self-consciousness about it all along. It was very much in the head. It was physical and pleasurable, and it was about having fun. There were some elements of pretense to the art-school aspects of it. It was basically about celebrating what was theatrical and fantastical about performance and maybe just about identity, period. But I think there was a lot of awareness at a certain point of its own decadence, too, and a lot of discussion about it in the press at the time. That might have just been it: realizing that it couldn't last, because it was decadent to be pushing too many boundaries and going too far. It was going to end. But whatever the case, there was just sort of a sense that the future was going to be very different, and not in a good way. You had Bowie's Diamond Dogs record, which was influenced by 1984. And that's definitely why the film is framed by [the year] 1984. There were a lot of predictions of a doomful future all around. The movie Cabaret was really popular in 1972, and, although the decadence of Weimar Germany fit right into the glam decadence, I think it also was informed by the sense that there was a catastrophe looming in the future, like in the late '30s. It informed this idea that it was all going to end, so they just started to end it in all these different ways, both conscious and unconscious.
O: I was going to ask you about Diamond Dogs. How did that play into your depiction of a fictionalized version of the year 1984?
TH: It was all of these things, actually—all these senses of a doomful future, or an apocalyptic future that sort of flanked the glam period. As with everything in the film, I wanted the framing scenes to be half fiction and half fantasy, as well. Part of it is what really did happen, which wasn't too far from their expectations.
O: Tommy Stone [the ubiquitous, universally loved rock star from the 1984 section of the film] looks a lot like David Bowie did during that period.
TH: Yes, I know. [Laughs apologetically.]
O: You couldn't get David Bowie's songs for the film. I actually thought that ended up helping things.
TH: Yes, I definitely do. I did want it to be able to be read as fiction. It's a parallel universe to the real history. I think that would have been virtually impossible, at least around the Brian Slade character, if he were also singing Bowie songs.
O: The Tommy Stone character seems to be a very heterosexual character, and David Bowie has pretty much abandoned any pretenses, or whatever, of homosexuality. Would you say that's part of the disappointment of what happened after glam?
TH: Well, yeah. It wasn't just denying homosexuality; it's that everything went back into little categories. What was so interesting about the glam era was that it was about bisexuality and breaking down the boundaries between gays and straights, breaking down the boundaries between masculinity and femininity with this androgyny thing. It was about breaking down barriers, and in the '80s, for all kings of reasons, [there was] a lot of fallout of '60s excesses: the drug culture and AIDS, and all the sort of costs of that period. People got scared again and went back into the old-fashioned definitions. But it's not meant to focus the blame on Bowie. Who didn't change after the '70s? Almost every artist involved in the period, except Gary Glitter, drastically changed, or drew back, or reverted to something very different, or went into hibernation. It was more of a culture change, and I think it was hard to escape.
O: I really liked the portrayal of Christian Bale's character and his relationship to rock music. What did that come out of, and how much of that is from your relationship to music?
TH: Of course it's my experience. But I felt pretty secure in knowing that it was most people's experience—of our generation, or people from Baby Boomers on, since there's been rock 'n' roll. The film is always going to be much more about the adulation of the fan, what the fan does with those little pictures that get reproduced in magazines and newspapers that give a little sense of what the icon up there is like, that we never know. We never really know what they do in bed. We never really know who they take home. But we have clues, because they flirt with us in that way, and they kind of drop hints. And everything is kind of constructed in our imaginations and in our fantasies and out of our desires. That's almost more powerful than making it real, in a way. So that was always going to be more the focus of the film. And Christian… I can't tell you what an amazing actor he is, really the finest actor I've ever worked with.
O: It seems like he's been around for such a long time, but he's just now starting to get noticed.
TH: He's so good, and so subtle, and so serious about his work. His time is due to really get the attention he deserves. But all the actors in that film blew me away. I feel like I just really lucked out. In a way, [Bale] had the hardest and least fun role, the least glamorous role. But he really carries the film on his back. It wouldn't really work without him.
O: You had Ewan McGregor playing an American [as the Iggy Pop/Lou Reed surrogate Curt Wild]. What was behind that decision?
TH: When I saw Trainspotting, I just could not think of an American actor in his age group with that kind of energy and that kind of physicality. The Johnny Depp generation has this kind of brooding, weighty, introspective quality, very James Deanish. Which is nice, great for a lot of characters. It wasn't what I wanted for Curt. I wanted something very volatile and flame-like, almost. There was just nobody else I could think of. I just thought he was so great, and I wanted to work with him. He's not a super-technical actor. He's a very instinctive actor, but we surrounded all the actors with whatever tools they needed: voice coaches or singing coaches or choreography advice. And ultimately, they just had to take it inside and do their own thing. He listened to tapes of Robbie Robertson from The Last Waltz just talking, and it's like a rock 'n' roll voice.
O: Glam uses camp a lot, and so do you—not with Safe so much, but certainly here and with your other films. And camp often isn't taken seriously. What's your approach to camp and using it in an effective way? It can come off as cheap if you don't do it right.
TH: I think camp is a really fascinating thing, and it's hard to define and hard to apply consciously. It's almost something you take from material that's already existed in the world, a reading of the world. But I think it speaks of a long tradition of gay reading of the world, before gays were allowed to be visible. And it's invariably a different beast now that we have a presence post-Stonewall, I guess. Now, post-In & Out. That'll probably be the new gay marker on the calendar. I mean, this new level of mainstreaming gay characters in Hollywood… I just think it's changed our relationship to dominant culture in a way that doesn't settle well for me. I guess I feel our resistance is at stake. Because it seems like we're being embraced everywhere, and yet, are the images that are being seen everywhere real? It begs questions like, "Do you really want to be comfortably situated in the living room of everyone's house in America? Do we really want to be sort of declawed?"
O: It's like a new set of soft stereotypes.
TH: It's like the Sidney Poitier films of the '60s, with this gorgeous, handsome, incredibly safe depiction of black America that every liberal white person could love and embrace and put on their mantle. And again, the gay characters like Rupert Everett in My Best Friend's Wedding are these charming, handsome, perfect, kind of sexless characters who charm heterosexual characters left and right. But in both cases, both depictions of these minority characters are basically denying the deep conflicts of ambivalence that the country feels about those constituencies, respectively. The '60s were a very brutal time for blacks in America, but we had this perfect image from Hollywood. It's similar now. It hasn't really changed gay-bashing and homophobia in this country to have Ellen on television.
O: Getting back to camp, part of what's interesting about it is that it sends up something that it embraces at the same time.
TH: In a way, I think Roxy Music is high camp, in a brilliant way. It's what I wanted the film to be; I wanted the very language of Velvet Goldmine to be something like that. It's music that is so full of references and little nods and winks to other artists—from Noel Coward to Warhol to literary references, mythological references, whatever—excessively presented, posed, and coifed, with the record albums, the clothes, and the hair. And yet the music is ultimately, despite all of that, for no good reason, incredibly moving.
O: Yeah, you can laugh at Bryan Ferry's excesses, like a line on the first album where he sings about "growing potatoes by the score."
TH: Oh, God!
O: You can laugh at it and be moved by it at the same time.
TH: It's like Douglas Sirk films: things that can work on both levels, that are both over-the-top and excessive. And you're aware of the language and you're aware of the references and you're aware of the lack of reality or whatever, but you're moved at the same time, despite yourself. To me, that's the most interesting work.
O: You reference Oscar Wilde a lot in this film.
TH: Well, in my research, all roads led back to Oscar. It's definitely in a way trying to understand the truly English element to glam-rock. It really does not come from American culture. I got the Lou Reed/Iggy Pop stuff; that I understand. I get Warhol. But it was really trying to understand it that, in a sense, made me want to make the film. And that particular tradition of effeminacy in English culture, the androgynous dandy, the camp esthete who can fully articulate his relationship to society—and often in a way that's very much against the tradition of nature, authenticity, and truth—is very much about constructing notions of the self and culture as artifice and a celebration of that. A refusal of nature as a model is a tradition that goes right back to Oscar Wilde. And the ways in which Oscar Wilde was attacking the Romantics that preceded him, and the Romantic ideas that preceded him, were very similar to what the glam-rockers, particularly Bowie and Bryan Ferry, were attacking in the earnestness of '60s culture. Trying to shock, but with wit, cleverness, and homosexuality.
O: Do you find the notion of self-construction kind of limiting? Because how long can you go on constructing yourself? Maybe not for the artist, but for the audience.
TH: Well, we're always constructing ourselves, so I don't think there's an end to it. In fact, to me it's liberating to not think of identity as some organic property that we have to find and stick to, but actually something that is constructed, or that's imposed, that we can then counter by taking a different route and re-dressing it, and then re-dressing it again, and then re-dressing it again. It's like having every possibility at your fingertips, as opposed to some natural sense of who we'll be imprisoned by for the rest of our lives. Maybe dad dresses up as dad every day. I find that to be a liberating thought, even if it's just for teenagers for whom instability is at a maximum level. When you really do feel like an alien, and you really do feel like a space creature, and you really do feel you want to experiment and dress up and be different every day, to find what looks best but never stick to one thing… Just the fact that that was offered to those kids during that time is pretty remarkable.
O: And that gets back to why Rocky Horror is still popular.
TH: Exactly. Obviously, it touches the core.
O: The Maxwell Demon character [the film's version of Ziggy Stardust] makes Ziggy Stardust more English than David Bowie's creation by tapping into this specifically British tradition of the occult.
TH: It was the name… I forget where it originally came from, but I heard it was the name of Brian Eno's high-school band, Maxwell Demon. I thought it was a great name, so I nicked it, like everything else in the movie. I forget what it actually comes from.
O: There are a lot of films coming out now about the '70s. Are you afraid of being lumped in with this general movement of nostalgia for the time?
TH: No, not necessarily. It seems like the project in most of the other films that came out is so different from Velvet Goldmine's. Often, it's kind of a good-natured look at the '70s and the sort of disposable aspects of '70s culture—with a slight arrogance to it, where Velvet Goldmine is fully honoring something truly radical that should shame us by comparison today. In many ways, that's much more extreme than anything we can look at today, except for the fact that a lot of those images were introduced then, so they're "available" in ways that make it seem like, oh yeah, we have access to all of that still. But out of the cultural context that made it happen, we don't. I also think that Velvet Goldmine, whether you like it or not, is not going to be like any film you've seen before.