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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tuesday Night at the McCarren Park Pool: "Velvet Goldmine"


Back around 1972, we were hanging out in an apartment on Nostrand Avenue near Newkirk with some guys who went to Brooklyn College with us, just hanging out. Our friend Steve burst in, nearly breathless, holding an album.

"You've got to hear this incredible fag from England," Steve said. Steve and I shared the same birthday although I was two years older. He'd die when he was about 30, like a lot of our friends, from AIDS.

"What?" said Flip, whose apartment it was. He was half-offended and half-joking that Steve had said "fag." Flip was the oldest of us, a Vietnam vet, very openly gay except to his father, a general who worked at the Pentagon.

Steve put the record on Flip's stereo and we listened.

Bob, a very straight guy, the only person we knew then into bodybuilding, whom we used to play softball with on Sunday mornings at a field on some private school in Hewlett, was sitting on the beanbag chair across the room. Later he'd become the first millionaire in our crowd.

From the couch where we were sitting, a copy of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time sitting unread in our hands, we caught Bob nodding approvingly to us, meaning the music. We nodded back.

When the record was over, Mark, another friend - one we'd met in Miss Stein's freshman comp class - said, "Wow."

"Wow" was the basic reaction to Ziggy Stardust of half a dozen straight, bi and gay (closeted and not) guys in their early twenties back in that Flatbush apartment 36 years ago.

Tonight - cool enough so a jacket was necessary - we schlepped the few blocks over to the McCarren Park pool for Summerscreen's showing of Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, which debuted at the New York Film Festival ten years ago this October.

We'd never seen it before. Wow.

We have to admit that we had to move our Volkswagen beach blanket (from last year's giveaway at the Purple Rain screening: "find your twin" and a number on it reminded us of that night's raffle) twice due to people near us who just wouldn't stop talking. Some people on the side of the pool seem to never look at the screen at all, and the fact that we were looking at them and feeling annoyed reminded us that we are officially old enough to be a cranky old man.

The movie was most enjoyable for us after 40 minutes when we stood up just outside the pool. We leaned on a pole, stood by the railing, squatted down at times, where we could see the whole crowd but not hear them, imagining they were all paying rapt attention.

Sound was a big problem as the film began. What we'd assumed was a silent sequence soon proved to be technical difficulties, which became apparent in the scene with Christian Bale and the other journalists after the tape they and we were watching ended. The screen went blue, and the audience groaned. How come the sound had worked for the short and the Greenpoint Wines commercial?

The guy who makes announcements said he suspected sabotage, backtracked when no one laughed, then said the breakdown gave us a chance to buy food and beer, as we looked at the blue screen that said NO SIGNAL and a countdown. "I'm assured by our crack technicians that this is not something that can't be fixed in ninety to 150 seconds," we were told as we stared at a SETUP menu on the screen.

And sure enough, soon the movie pretty much started over again, though we skipped the cheerful title sequence.

Since we are not film critics, here's the New York Times' Janet Maslin in her 1998 Film Festival review:
Todd Haynes's dazzlingly surreal ''Velvet Goldmine'' offers a celestial ''Here's looking at you, kid'' to the heyday of British glitter rock in general and to the David Bowie of the early 1970's in particular. Without addressing Mr. Bowie directly, it appropriates his shimmering, protean aura in virtuoso ways that put ordinary period filmmaking or time-capsule musicology to shame.

The astounding Mr. Haynes, whose last film (''Safe'') took place on an entirely different planet from this one, brilliantly reimagines the glam-rock 70's as a brave new world of electrifying theatricality and sexual possibility, to the point where identifying precise figures in this neo-psychedelic landscape is almost beside the point. ''Velvet Goldmine'' tells a story the way operas do: blazing with exquisite yet abstract passions, and with quite a lot to look at on the side.

Structured as a rock ''Citizen Kane'' with an extraterrestrial Rosebud, ''Velvet Goldmine'' traces its tendrils back to Oscar Wilde, whom it imagines as a schoolboy. (''I want to be a pop idol,'' this child sweetly announces.) A century later, the Wildean spirit of flamboyance is spectacularly reborn, ready to erupt into the glittery, pansexual pop utopia over which Mr. Bowie so dramatically presided.

The film, with a vibrant soundtrack of glam-era homages and originals (performers like Roxy Music, T. Rex, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop are interwoven ingeniously), doesn't force its musical references on audiences, but it evokes them with vast fondness and fascination. ''People have certain memories that they hold very dear, so you want to remain true to them,'' Christine Vachon, the film's audacious producer, has explained.

Out of the wild Ken Russellish phantasmagoria of ''Velvet Goldmine'' several essential characters emerge, central among them the Bowiesque Brian Slade. Played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a stunningly pretty, insolent, snake-hipped presence, he embodies the provocative and mysterious heart of the film. Mr. Haynes, cerebral as ever despite this film's explosion of visual sensuality, surrounds Slade with implicit questions about art and inspiration, truth and honesty, passion and repression.

Or better yet, from Evan, a guy around the age we were in 1972 - only more knowledgeable - on the blog Walkie Talkies:

This past year saw a definite 180 in my opinion of Todd Haynes. "I'm Not There" had me seeing red at first; whence comes these transgressions about iconography of icons? But that didn't last long. It starts to make sense when you see the machinery turning in all his features. "Far From Heaven," "I'm Not There," "Velvet Goldmine:" they all take a pastiche of a monumental time or thing, throw it into a blender, and pour out the essence of it all.

It's on mind after seeing "Velvet Goldmine" at McCarren Pool tonight. Part Citizen Kane, part glam, the time gets spent picking apart the different threads in Ewan McGregor's and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers's characters. It's not just the individuals - Bowie, Eno, Iggy Pop - all screwed up with each other, but the different times and places. The mythologies are boiled down, distilled, and poured out over the perfect superficies.

An experiential note: there was probably no better venue than McCarren Pool at dusk to watch "Velvet Goldmine." It's the kind of communal experience that brings out something fresh from sometimes familiar material and venues.


Okay, we can't say much more than those two critics except we had a really good time. (For a good discussion of the film's soundtrack, check out this blog post on The Playlist.)

Next Tuesday is the last Summerscreen movie of the summer in the last summer of the McCarren pool before they put the water back in it, but last week's canceled screening (due to the ferocious thunderstorm) has been rescheduled for Monday.

So you have two more chances to see a movie at the pool, thanks to The L Magazine (which really should offer a reward for information leading to the capture of the person who's knocking down their boxes on Metropolitan Avenue)and its sponsor, Scion - whatever they are.

Oh, and the only real moment when the audience cheered was the scene of The Kiss:


We wish our friend Steve, and other lost friends from the 1970s, had stuck around to hear the cheers at the pool tonight.

1 comment:

vardathemessage said...

That's a poignant story. Ziggy Stardust is definitely one of those albums that you recall the circumstances of the first time you heard it. Although AIDS was mostly out of Velvet Goldmine's timeline, I liked the way that it was subtly included in Cecil's story.
For everything you might want to know, and maybe once knew and forgot about Velvet Goldmine, vardathemessage says Come Up and See Me, Make Me Smile.