On my way to work last week, I was listening to my favourite soundtrack of all time. My headphone must have been blaring loud enough for the person next to me to overhear, so he casually leaned over and asked what I was listening to.
“Oh, the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack.”
“Cool,” he said. “Is it a band?”
“No, it’s a movie soundtrack from a film set in early 1970s London.”
“That sounds neat. What’s it about?”
I opened my mouth to reply and then shut it. He seemed like a nice enough young man, dressed in khakis and a light pink dress shirt, clearly on his way to work in midtown somewhere. He had the clean-cut, all-American good looks of an Average Joe. Velvet Goldmine is not something you casually spring on someone before a first date; Velvet Goldmine is something you subtly drop hints about to see how comfortable the other person is before broaching the subject due to its, uh, less-than-mainstream content.
Which got me thinking: I have a lot of movies I adore that I happily recommend to people, but three of my favourite movies of all time always have been putting on the brakes before getting the word out. Without further ado, my 3 Movies I Love But Hesitate to Recommend To People Due to Less Than Mainstream Content are:
1. Velvet Goldmine
WHAT I TELL THE GENERAL PUBLIC: This is a thinly-veiled biopic of a David Bowie figure with an absolutely amazing soundtrack.
WHAT I TELL PRETENTIOUS PEOPLE: It sets out to answer the questions posed by Oscar Wilde’s epithets about fame, style, image, and substance through the lens of a slightly surreal 1970s glam London, narratively framed by a Citizen Kane-esque mystery.
WHAT I TELL FANGIRLS: It has Jonathan Rhys Meyers! And a naked Ewan McGregor! And Christian Bale! Making out! (Plus bonus Eddie Izzard and Toni Collette!)
WHAT IT IS REALLY IS: A gay fanboy’s real-person-slash fanfic of David Bowie/Iggy-Lou-Reed-Pop, plus bonus self-insert Gary Stu!
THE LESS THAN MAINSTREAM CONTENT: The gay. Oh god, the gay. Also, Oscar Wilde is an alien sent from space to bring style and flash to the world? Plus Ewan McGregor fucks Christian Bale on a rooftop.
This is actually hands-down my favourite movie of all time. When people ask me for a list of my favourite movies, Velvet Goldmine definitely comes out on top. I think it is an amazing, spectacular piece of visual storytelling, but that is par for the course with Todd Haynes, who was the visionary director behind I’m Not There (the Bob Dylan biopic, in which Dylan is played by six different actors, including one actress). This is the movie that introduced me to glam: its music, its aesthetic, its ethos.
Glam as a movement never quite made the jump across the pond from Britain to America; for us, the 70s seemed to be about disco, blaxpoitation movies, chest hair, and pornstaches. We seemed to be about machismo back then (and many would argue that we still are), whereas glam in England explored sexuality as a performance. The most recognisable glam group to Americans is probably Queen, but I tend to think of Queen as being coded masculine (despite Freddie Mercury’s spectacular camp act), rather than the more androgynous spectrum the others seem to lie on, especially early T.Rex and Roxy Music. And of course, Ziggy Stardust.
I say Ziggy Stardust rather than David Bowie because that’s really who the movie Velvet Goldmine is about (please see reference photo above–no, not the sex scene, the one with the crotch as prominently on display as the neck feathers). Ziggy Stardust as a character/persona is an alien from another world sent to this planet to save it through rock ‘n’ roll (and sex, let us not forget about sex), who was ultimately brought down low by fame and his own excesses (as chronicled in the concept rock album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). At the height of his fame, Brian Slade as Maxwell Demon stages his own death, which causes his career to plummet. Was it a stunt? If so, why? What drove Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to publicly kill the pop star–so to speak–and disappear? That’s what Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) journalist to find out.
What follows are accounts of Brian Slade from people who knew him–his old manager, his ex-wife, and even Arthur himself, whose past was punctuated by Brian Slade in a painful way. But just who is the real Brian Slade? I think the movie is brilliant in the biased way each person tells his/her part of the story, and it somehow manages to raise philosophical questions, endlessly quote Oscar Wilde, and delve into surreal fantasies with ease and dexterity.
There are many ways to look at this movie: Roshomon/Citizen Kane sort of unreliable storytelling, a love story (between several different people), a portrait of an era, a biopic, a jukebox musical, but what makes Velvet Goldmine so fascinating is how deftly all these narrative threads are handled.
How did I discover this film? I can’t remember if it was deep in my Ewan McGregor crushing years or my Christian Bale ones–either way, a young, impressionable, teenage fangirl JJ found her way to this movie somehow and her mind was blown.
2. The Dreamers
WHAT I TELL THE GENERAL PUBLIC: *shrug* It’s a Bertolucci film; you know, nubile young things coming of age and being sexy. Plus France.
WHAT I TELL PRETENTIOUS PEOPLE: Three youths–one set of fraternal French twins and an American exchange student–overcome their social anxiety by bonding with each other, their increasingly self-absorbed games rendering them oblivious to the tense political atmosphere surrounding the May 1968 riots.
WHAT I TELL FANGIRLS: Eva Green. OMG Eva Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeen. Also, Louis Garrel. And, if it floats your boat, Michael Pitt, the poor man’s Leonardo di Caprio.
WHAT IT REALLY IS: A menage a trois film, plus bonus twincest!
THE LESS THAN MAINSTREAM CONTENT: Um…see above.
This one begins with how I discovered it: through my crush on Eva Green. It also begins with how much I loved the movie Stealing Beauty, featuring Liv Tyler and Jeremy Irons. (And Rachel Weisz, my other crush.) Stealing Beauty is a relatively benign story about a young American woman who travels to an artists’ colony in a Tuscan villa after her mother’s suicide to find out who her father is. Oh, and to lose her virginity. I was charmed by the lush, indulgent, hedonistic world Bertolucci had created, and so when I saw he had made another movie, this time with bombshell Eva Green, I had to watch.
Sometimes, you gotta trust people.
I mean it in this way: I trusted Bertolucci enough to take a chance on another movie, even though I was young and unsure of where my boundaries lay. The sexual content of The Dreamers would have shocked me at the age I had watched it had I not trusted Bertolucci. Instead of being repulsed, I was enchanted, and I related so fiercely to these teenagers, with their obsessive interests, with their childish naivete that was twinned with cruel sexual curiosity. If I was not obsessed with French New Wave cinema or in love with my fraternal twin brother, it didn’t matter. I understood their desperate ennui and addictive behaviours and everything else was just details.
Or you can watch it for the eye candy. And there’s plenty to be had.
3. Heavenly Creatures
WHAT I TELL THE GENERAL PUBLIC: It’s the story behind an infamous New Zealand murder case.
WHAT I TELL PRETENTIOUS PEOPLE: It’s a story about two outcast girls whose shared imagination bonds them together, and whose friendship is slowly tipping into co-dependence and mutual paranoid obsession.
WHAT I TELL FANGIRLS: Peter Jackson! Yeah, the Lord of the Rings guy! This was the movie that kind of put him on the map! Also, Kate Winslet’s first role!
WHAT IT REALLY IS: Two possibly lesbian (but not really) schoolgirls murder one of the girl’s mothers because they fear being apart more than being on trial for murder.
THE LESS THAN MAINSTREAM CONTENT: Matricide, lesbianism, a weird ass fear of Orson Welles.
This movie emotionally destroys me to the point where I can only watch it once every 5 years. I kid you not; my last viewing was in 2010–I’m due for another in 2015.
All I can say is that this movie inspires the most terrible sort of compassion and sympathy in me, and not a little fear. I was just like these two girls: a little weird, a little eccentric, and just like these two girls, I formed intense bonds and friendships with other girls. I had a string of One and Onlys growing up, girls with whom I shared not only interests and hobbies, but my heart and soul. We were sisters in all but blood, but even better than sisters, we were the same. Girls with whom I made up fantastic worlds and stories, girls who were my firsts in almost every single way.
Could I be like them? Could I possibly kill because of the depth of my bond to someone else?
The answer is no. One and Onlys come and go, and it is unfortunately a truth of life that we grow up and develop our own lives. It isn’t that we drift apart–I’m still friends with several of my One and Onlys–it’s that we become adults and find our focus pulled in so many different directions.
The most horrifying and deeply upsetting part about this movie is not the moment they kill Pauline Parker’s mother; it’s the moment they discover their relationship is about to come to an awful, tragic end. The movie opens and closes with the murder. In the opening scenes, we see a blood-splattered Pauline and Juliet laughing as they run out of a copse, saying that “Mummy” has been hurt. When we see this scene again, we come to see that they were not laughing; they were crying–gut-wrenching, broken sobs as they bludgeoned Honora Parker to death with a brick.
Ugh. This movie gives me too many feelings. But I wholeheartedly recommend you watch this at least once–it’s amazing.