Todd Haynes: “This world is too comfortable. Except that cozy is almost too cozy a word ‘| Todd haynes
In March of last year, when the pandemic struck, filmmaker Todd Haynes had everything prepared for his escape. He was locked up in Los Angeles, thousands of miles from home, surrounded by images of a fantastic and bygone era. He spent his days merrily leaning over the New York Super 8 movie, featuring songs about the heroine and the leather boots. As a student, he recalls, the Velvet Underground was a lifeline. Now, in a time of greatest need, the group has come together onscreen and once again come to her rescue.
Making a documentary during Covid was the perfect antidote, he says. But it was also like a getaway, a retreat, an escape from grim reality. âEvery day I flew to this distant planet,â he says. “And sooner or later you have to turn around and go home.”
That says a lot about the power of his film, The Velvet Underground, that it’s often as immersive and supernatural as the Velvets themselves. It’s a happy movie about irritated and dysfunctional people; a cold study of an explosive and unclassifiable art.
Considered a true rock biography, Haynes’ film ticks all the right boxes. It tells how lonely Lou Reed and John Cale were saved by rock ‘n’ roll; it shows the process by which they mixed bubblegum pop with classic viola and transgressive rhythmic poetry and came away with an electrifying new sound. But what makes the film special is its sense of the larger ecosystem that sowed and nurtured the music. Fueled by Andy Warhol’s original black-and-white imagery, The Velvet Underground revives a pre-Apesarian New York from the mid-1960s. It slides from the Factory to the inevitable plastic that explodes to the cold water walks of the Lower East Side. âIt was a unique and focused time,â says Haynes. âAnd that paved the way for a moment of true radical freedom. “
These are the subjects that fascinate the director. Artistic catalysts; cultural lighting rods. Haynes has directed abstract and veiled biopics of Karen Carpenter (Superstar 1987), David Bowie (Velvet Goldmine 1998) and Bob Dylan (the dazzling I’m Not There 2007). He is drawn to the stories of artists and performers, people who suddenly take center stage. But he’s worried that I’m getting the end of the stick wrong.
“I mean, sure, I have an artistic craving for these people, how hip a musician can be at a time, how different their medium is from mine. But none of my films were motivated. by that. They are more about what music means culturally, how it changed the world. I remember saying to people during the Dylan project, “I would like to do a Bob Dylan movie even though I didn’t care. his music, “simply because of its impact and uniqueness, its complexities and contradictions, and the way he comes to a basic idea about America and then reflects it in the different chapters of his life. .
He breathes. âAnd it’s the same with the glam rock in Velvet Goldmine. The idea of ââthis cultural crash that inverted notions of masculinity and heteronormativity in such a singular way – and also made it into the mainstream, radiated into people’s living rooms. The power of popular art to revolve around these identity questions, to break them, to shatter them. These are the themes I keep coming back to. “
In The Velvet Underground, crucially, the central figure of the story was defined by his absence. Reed – both the genius chairman of the group and its resident diva – passed away in 2013. He hated giving interviews anyway. âOh, I would have loved to interview Lou Reed,â says Haynes. “But he was not to be. And who knows how it would have turned out. His relationship with reporters was cautious and suspicious at best – and it produced some truly disturbing and aggressive results.”
One wonders what Reed would have done with the film. He may have hesitated at Haynes’ decision to present Cale as an equal partner, the man who gave his Velvet Underground its unmistakable dark magic. The film also positions Reed as an unambiguous queer artist, a product of the pre-Stonewall New York avant-garde. I suspect he may have opposed this approach as well. To be sure, the Reed of the late ’60s and early’ 70s bears little evident relation to the Reed of the late period, with its pugilist boast and penchant for martial arts. Outwardly, at least, it almost seemed a parody of machismo, a walking repudiation of his young self.
âYeah, I guess,â Haynes said hesitantly. “He had a certain adversarial relationship with the various Lou Reeds he played.”
He doesn’t look convinced. âWell, you can’t ignore the fact that people change too. They find new relationships that work for them. And that’s what happened. He had a family, he changed. And then, of course, you have to defend your investment in this new phase of your life. It happens to people in general, everywhere. You are young and open. You try this and that and then you make a choice. The music stops and you grab a chair and try to make it work. He shrugs his shoulders. âIt’s not betraying who you were. Your past does not disappear. The records are still there and they still speak to people. It’s just that you have evolved. And I understand that. I have films that I made decades ago and they feel like they belong to others now. “
Haynes studied art and semiotics at Brown University. He envisions a career as an experimental filmmaker, teaching classes by day, shooting low-budget photos at night. But he was also fascinated by Hollywood – by classic film genres and traditional narrative structure – and that ultimately led him in a different direction. Her brightest and most successful work (the sublime Carol, Far from Heaven, the Mildred Pierce miniseries) manages to have her cake and eat it too. It honors the rules of conventional cinema while modulating them, testing them, implicitly reminding us that they are there.
âWe understand or interpret our experience through cinematic models,â says Haynes. âIt’s the device that helps us manage and contextualize our lives; play with these expectations, this sense of navigation. That has always been what interested me.
This is, he suspects, the problem of the world today. Everyone lives inside the box. There is no more outdoor space; no gray margin to play. He just made a film about brilliant misfits and outsider art, so he feels the loss especially strongly today. He fled to an alien planet and has now returned to Earth with a bump.
“This world is too cozy,” he said vehemently. âExcept that cozy is almost too cozy a word. I don’t know where the resistance is, especially among young people. Digital corporate culture is dominant. Capitalism has fundamentally won. It is difficult to find examples of people who even want to oppose this. Say, ‘Fuck you, iPhone, you’re a corporate spy.’ No, we are completely captive. I am also a captive. And these things are not good. They align with marketing and power systems that are not in our best interests.
He thinks of the musicians and filmmakers of New York in the 1960s. They prided themselves on being outside the system. They weren’t knocking on the door to demand that they be let in. âI mean, listen, I like to see legislative advances for minority communities. And I can speak for the gay community with more direct experience. A child coming out today has a very different set of options because of the successes we’ve seen in terms of legal protections and attitude change.
âBut I think we have also lost the spirit of revolt because of this. It’s like all we want is a seat at the table. But the rebellion was never just about marriage rights. It was about the power that comes from standing outside social norms, opposing authority; not always very seriously, often with a sense of play, fun and wit. And I just don’t see where it’s going today.
Probably, I tell him, he just needs to watch harder. It’s going to happen somewhere, off the grid, under the radar, because isn’t that how any good subculture works? âYes, somewhere,â he said. “Somewhere. Out of sight, out of heart. It might even be in this world, who knows?