Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Unauthorised biopics

Two from the same year...
David Bowie refused his blessing for this film. The rumour was that he intended to bless his own movie. Maybe he just didn’t want it done by the guy who’d told Karen Carpenter’s story so strongly with Barbie dolls. But Todd Haynes should have had Bowie aboard. The man who had made such a powerful thing in Safe, a body horror epic that managed to further the early work of David Cronenberg without once making reference to it could have done a lot with the cooperation of the man who fell to earth.  But it was not to be.

Instead we get a trunk of near intentions. Once upon a time Oscar Wilde stands up in class and declares he wants to be a rock star.  Then a frail grinning top hatted camper seems to preside over the invention of glam rock. Someone has suggested he represents Brian Eno. And then the character of Brian Slade (Brians Eno and Ferry + the band Slade) starts his career as a precocious shool boy, graduating to being a man in a dress onstage and getting up to international stardom as something like Ziggy Stardust. Some other bands who are reminiscent of Brit glam rockers also appear along the way. Add a stand in for Iggy Pop who has become stridently gay in translation and you’re pretty much there. And then Brian Slade kills off is Ziggyish other and disappears. Or does he?

The problem with Velvet Goldmine is that it looks like it depended on its inspiration's sanction. So much so that when said sanction turned up, looked around and sniffed and said, "I'm taking my ball home and now none of you can play." The assembled, looking as foolish as they felt in their panto finery, then snapped to and tried to play without the ball. Everyone kiiiiiind of looks and acts like someone famous. Christian Bale as the fan who turns into the newshound with the hunch should be providing some gravitas here. He has the presence for it but there is so little he can work with, given the great screaming chasm this film cannot fill.

I think Todd Haynes started in the right direction by avoiding all mention of the Bowed one and his confederates but the problem is that he didn't go far enough. What might have been an improvement on something like Performance (seriously!) a dark intriguing thriller, became a diluted version of the history of glam rock and a paen to its survivor in chief.

When I screened Love is the Devil at Shadows I showed part of an interview with Melvyn Bragg in which he and the Painter Francis Bacon got steadily ratted on red wine in a cafĂ© in London. Bacon was in fine form and as he got into it I realised with a slight panic that quite a lot of what he was saying made it into Love is the Devil as dialogue, repurposed from years after the setting and placed tightly into the screenplay. Writer/director John Maybury had plundered anything not denied him by Bacon’s fearsome estate and used what he could. When the feature rolled I relaxed. Everyone else had seen it. It wasn’t just a talking point for later, it was working a treat.

Maybury wasn’t allowed to show anything of Bacon’s work in the film. If this had been a matter of his refusal to compromise a good story then the result is his reward. Briefly, the movie tells the story of the love affair between the painter and his Kray period thug companion George Dyer. The action and dialogue are  constantly cruel and severe, glimpses of vulnerability made all the more powerful. It’s easy to see why anyone wishing to keep Bacon’s legacy nice would want the film supressed: it works.

The dialogue swings between  bitchy rejoinders and sullen monosyllabic Cockney anger worthy of Pinter. Almost every scene contains a warped face, often just in the reflection of  a face in a curved shiny surface. Around the lovers and the snakepit of the swinging London era art world there is a real sense of a society walking around in the skin of the era. Bacon and Dyer reside at is centre as far as this story goes but none of the world that surrounds them seems to be in costume. None of this is necessary for this story, no more is necessary than the force of the painter and the curious interdependence he shares with the gangster. But the effort is there for all to see.

Hmm, of the two filmmakers, Haynes is the one who has continued making strong committed features and kept fresh. I haven't seen The Jacket, Maybury's feature following Devil but it promised so little... Haynes has gone beyond mere apology for the listless pointlessness of Velvet Goldmine to come out with the glorious celebration of Bob Dylan I'm Not There. Hmmm and hmmm again....


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