Monday, December 31, 2012

Julia Leyda: "Something That Is Dangerous and Arousing and Transgressive" - An Interview with Todd Haynes

"Something That Is Dangerous and Arousing and Transgressive": An Interview with Todd Haynes
by Julia Leyda
Bright Lights Film Journal

JULIA LEYDA: You've done several movies that are very clearly woman's films, but the movie that I am most fascinated with in terms of gender is Velvet Goldmine, which is not usually interpreted in that context.

TODD HAYNES: No, except it's probably gotten the strongest female fan base of any of my films. And what's wonderful for me is to see new generations of young women, even as we think we progress as a society and there are new options available to each new generation that seem to be catering to that market more acutely, still Velvet Goldmine offers that market something that they're not getting elsewhere. I always love it when girls come up to me at festivals and that's the one, that's the movie that really turned them around.

JL: I'm interested in how you use the trope of playing with dolls in Superstar and Velvet Goldmine as a way to figure gender, embodiment, desire, identification. You said in an interview that playing with dolls is what you're doing in Velvet Goldmine, using it as a metaphor for the filmmaking process, to play with the characters of the idols more than making an actual biopic about bisexual pop stars. So what about the female characters in Velvet Goldmine? Fans, rock and roll girls like Mandy — talk a bit about them.

TH: Interesting question. The character of Mandy was probably one of the hardest roles I've ever had to cast. We did a really thorough, international search for who could play Mandy. When I look back on the experience, I'm amazed at how many actresses agreed to read for the role who don't often do so. I think what was difficult about Mandy was that she, and the Angela Bowie template for that character, harkened back to a kind of performative femininity of which there are very few contemporary examples anymore. I see it as the Patti Smith divide in terms of rock and roll and public depictions of femininity, whose image emerged finally, after so many variations on the codified mannerisms that were available to women in midcentury American film, for instance, and popular music (although there have always been interesting deviations from this). I think over time a lot of the affectations associated with performing femininity had fallen away, to the point where you came to this iconic figure of Patti Smith, whom I see as similar in a way to the Jude figure in I'm Not There, a very androgynous, more masculine-identified figure. For young actresses reading the role of Mandy it became clear that recent examples of that kind of almost camp presentation of an affected, theatrical persona were very hard to locate; I think of Liza Minnelli, and maybe Parker Posey was one of the later examples, of almost a gay male idea of femininity.

One thing that was very interesting about Angela Bowie is the way she navigated the English and American influences and her accent would come and go, and that was one of the things we wanted to incorporate into the performance, but that's very tough on an actor. We wanted to make it understood that it's a mutable way of fixing into each culture with some fluidity. I mean, there's no question that Angela Bowie was a central driving engine — her autobiography is amazing, and it's supported by most of the documentation and oral histories of those years — in the transformation of David Bowie, who was experimenting with different kinds of feminine representations but ultimately fixed on this Warhol-infused figure of the Ziggy Stardust character. It was really Angela Bowie who championed these kinds of characters, part of the second-generation Warhol clan, who made their way to the UK and appeared in this play Pork in 1971. They just loved her and she loved them, and in a weird way Bowie was sort of a spectator, an observer of this love and energy. And I think, based on what she wrote in her book and other documentation, she was very interested in the gay liberation movement that was burgeoning at the time and she wanted to appropriate it, take it on, and become the spokesperson in a rock and roll vernacular for those ideas.

I don't know if this relates directly to doll-playing except that it really might be the last time that you see an active female figure freely utilizing artificial terms of self-expression and persona in an unembarrassed, unabashed, almost radical way. That was in a way the fascinating counterpart to the more aloof, silent, objectified figure that Bowie assumed as Ziggy Stardust. Of course, there was also that hardcore influence from the American music that he loved — the Stooges, the MC5, and the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed — as the final ingredient to give it that kind of duality, the cross between English musical traditions and this American hardcore, a direct assault. He needed both of those, but there was still a kind of passivity and object-ness of that figure that seemed more quiet, and more comfortable being an image, an idealized beautiful façade that people could project onto; whereas Angela Bowie was active, pulling the strings and moving the levers — in that way, I think, making him up so that he was the doll that she was playing with. So a lot of that energy and that fire and fearlessness I think could be attributed to her.

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