New Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, which had its world premiere at Cannes and recently played the New York Film Festival, is an exquisitely crafted, invigorating time capsule which uses music, contemporary film, archive interviews, and present day commentary from those who were there, to immerse us in New York’s avant-garde culture of the 1960s that the band came together in and formed an integral part of. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker has memorably centred musicians in his previous narrative work in imaginative ways including Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, but The Velvet Underground marks his feature documentary debut.
As one might expect from the creator of Far From Heaven, Safe, and Carol—which ranked high in The Queer Review LGBTQ+ Top Ten Films of the Decade 2010-2019—Haynes’ documentary is an intricate work of art, as well as a homage to the images of artists like Warhol, who played a vital role in the band’s history. Velvets vocalist, lyricist, and guitarist Lou Reed’s almost defiant openness about his sexuality, his early explicit queer poetry, and playing at Long Island’s gay venue the Hayloft while still in high school are all examined, while in one segment of the film Haynes uses interwoven imagery of queer sex from filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Barbara Rubin to the sounds of the Velvets’ now classic Venus In Furs.
Ahead of the launch of The Velvet Underground on AppleTV+ on Friday October 15th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Todd Haynes about what inspired the film’s visual language including the extensive use of split screen, his choice to use the images and music to drive the film, his experience of editing it during the pandemic, and the impact that Jean Genet’s work had on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: There’s such a beautiful flow to this film, it’s mesmerizing. It felt like the beginning section was almost like musical notes or instruments tuning to come together to form a piece of music or to form the band. Why did you want to devote so much time to the origins, these key figures, their influences, and also the cultural context of the time that the band was formed in?
“It was definitely an intention from the very beginning. It was really about trying to locate what the band meant, what the sound meant, and what it might have been like to have heard it at the time. To understand that all bands, and particularly this band, are kind of a collision of accidental forces that come together and that what they end up creating is still more than the sum of those parts. The whole film is an attempt to put the audience as much as possible in the time and place of the 1960s; this incredibly unique artistic culture and experimental spirit that was driving not just music, but art and film, and so many of the converging creative forces that were around this band.”
Could you talk about the queerness of The Velvet Underground in the way that it was pushing against the heteronormative? I know we use the word queer now slightly differently to the 60s context, but I think you know what I’m getting at.
“Exactly, I struggle with finding the words that feel historically precise because we will say queer and we’ll know what we mean, but it is a sort of revisionist term. Heteronormative is really accurate to describe what they were pushing against, without having that term or that kind of concept in place, which almost makes it even more impressive. These ideas came out of the culture that they forged, but I think so much of it was an evolution away from the kind of highly machismo defined abstract expressionist culture of the 50s in New York City. There was this interesting transition in art making that moved from those guys who were making amazing work, that influenced an entire generation, to people like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were gay artists but who weren’t naming it as such. Their work was different. It was pulling from detritus and trash and emblems of cultural language and putting them into art. That was radical, but Andy Warhol took it further.”
“Andy loved Rauschenberg, he loved Jasper Johns, and I love the story about him asking his friend, ‘Why don’t those guys talk to me at parties?’ And his friend said, ‘Andy, you’re too swish. You’re too overt and it embarrasses them from where they stand’. It just showed that we were moving forward and Andy Warhol was moving forward, even before he knew what he was doing and it was changing what was possible and what was the new set of norms within this 60s culture that would really take root at The Factory. What’s so cool to me about the band is that these are people from all over the place—John Cale from Wales and Nico from Germany and Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker from Long Island—but somehow they all got the same message, they spoke a similar language. Maybe it wasn’t until they landed in Los Angeles, as you see in my film, that they were able to say, yeah, this is our language and we’re united at the core and it’s a queer language, even if we’re not all gay people, the language is defined by a new way of seeing the world.”
In terms of being literally queer, or gay, when it comes to Lou Reed, it’s very interesting that you touch on the early poetry he wrote and you have someone saying how shocking they found it because of its themes of gay cruising and bathroom sex. Lou was performing at the Hayloft which was a gay bar while he was still in high school, and this is all obviously pre-Stonewall, when it was illegal to be gay and classified as a mental illness. So it was quite brave and revolutionary to say that you were gay at that time. How important was it that you explored that and made sure that you incorporated Lou’s sexuality into the film?
“It was essential. It was part of an ethos and ideology, but it was also being practiced literally in Lou Reed’s life and in the lives of the people who he hung out with at The Factory. It’s so remarkable to me that even as a teenager he’d rebel at home by mincing around the room and acting swish to his father. This was in the 50s in the suburbs of New York. Wow, man, that level of confidence. And yes, it was provocative. Lou Reed liked to make people uncomfortable. He liked to take his straight friends to the Hayloft. He liked to take his girlfriend to the Hayloft and say, ‘This is what I do, this is who I am and I want to see you engage in this world too’. There was a hostility there, there was an antagonism at times, but there was also an incredible courage about being different that defined him and continued to define him even when he wasn’t practicing his gay relationships later in his life.”
There’s a really beautiful queer sequence in the film when Venus In Furs is playing and we get to see a bit of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Could you give me an insight into piecing that sequence together, what else it incorporates, and what it says in the film?
“Venus In Furs is about sadomasochism in Sacher-Masoch’s book where the term masochism comes from. So it was about the emblems of the dominatrix culture and sadomasochistic practice in sexual scenarios and imagination. So I wanted the fetishism of the images from films that were from that time to be linking to that. Mary Woronov and Gerard Malanga would do the whip dance on stage in leather and would play out these sort of sadomasochistic roles on stage with The Velvet Underground.”
“The other film playing is Christmas On Earth, Barbara Rubin’s film that shows two couples engaged in explicit sex. One of the couples is two men and one of those men is Gerard, and there’s anal intercourse in the film. It’s beautiful with one frame embossed within another frame and blown out in colors with an optical printer. It’s a gorgeous and radical piece of overt sexual content and experimental film, and I wanted both of those films to be interwoven during that sequence.”
I love the the visual language of the film and particularly the extensive use of split screen. At one point we have 12 images in different frames when Jonas Mekas is speaking. It felt to me that it reflected the theme of so many different things going on at once culturally, and the lines and divisions being blurred between various artistic mediums like poetry and music and film. Could you give me an insight into deciding on that approach?
“Yes, that’s true, I think that was a way of visualizing the cacophony of creative practice that was going on and the curiosity of artists from one medium with artists from another medium and trying to break down those boundaries. The idea of the split screen really started as an homage to Chelsea Girls, which is probably Andy Warhol’s most commercially successful avant-garde film, from 1967. It’s a dual projector movie with two screens going on at once. From that point on Andy kept experimenting with multiple images side by side. Of course with The Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows of The Velvet Underground he was projecting multiple projectors onto the band on stage with Andy Warhol films on top of each other and strobe lights and color gels and a mirrorball, stuff which hadn’t really been used since the 1920s in musical venues like that. So there was a literal space where all of these elements of the arts were really colliding and it was at those very shows.”
With some documentaries the archive footage can feel like it’s only there because there needs to be something on screen, but obviously in this case the images are integral to the storytelling. It’s not that the interviews are secondary, but it’s the music and the images that are driving the film. How early on did you decide that you were going to lead with those elements?
“I appreciate the question because it was definitely the motivation from the start, to try to let the music and the images lead your experience in the film. That said, the interviews that we collected for the film were so special and so extraordinary. It was a constant balancing act between getting the narrative in there, but making it feel like the audience was kind of intuiting it and that it wasn’t literally the words leading the experience, but it was the images and music leading the experience. The intention was that you would be sort of hearing the story as you were seeing it and that hopefully that would be a way to identify what it was exactly that was radical about this music, that has finally entered the canon. It took a long time. It’s hard for that music to be heard afresh, and to kind of think what are we hearing that no one had heard before at the time? So this was also a way that we hoped to get inside that culture and hear the music freshly.”
To defamiliarize us with it in a way.
“Exactly. To get the audience a little lost. After the Cannes premiere I watched the film at Telluride, and I was watching that first hour and thinking, oh, wow, I bet people are watching this movie and sort of forgetting what movie they’re watching, because it takes a while to get to the first Velvets song with a Lou Reed vocal. That’s cool. That’s exactly what we want, for you to sort of lose yourself in it.”
Tell me about your collaboration with your two editors, Affonso Gonçalves and Adam Kurnitz, and working with them through the pandemic.
“It was such an amazing survival project to have during what none of us saw coming obviously. We had shot the interviews in 2018 and then Fonzie and I went off to do my last feature film Dark Waters. By that point, my partner Bryan O’Keefe, who is one of the archive producers on the film, had curated a list of avant-garde films and we had got temp versions of most of those films and put them into the Avid. So Adam could really begin building the foundation of this film while Fonzie and I were off on the other project. Fonzie and I were able to come back by the end of 2019 and join Adam, we were in Los Angeles and Adam was in Brooklyn. Then COVID hit and Fonzie and I had been in the same room since the beginning of the year, so we were basically already exposed to each other, so we were in quarantine with this film. It was a gift to have this project to take us through those times.”
I think the distinction between narrative film and nonfiction film and documentaries can be a bit arbitrary at times, but I wondered whether there was anything that you took from your other films that have music at their centre that you brought to making of The Velvet Underground?
“I think it’s really just trying to always remember that this is a visual medium we’re working in. So whatever the topic, whatever the subject matter, and particularly when it’s musical artists as the subject matter of a film—like my Velvet Goldmine about the glam rock era, or I’m Not There about Dylan, or even Karen Carpenter with the film Superstar—it’s how to find the visual language and the narrative form that best serves what that artist was doing musically and trying to find a counterpoint to it in a visual context.”
“With The Velvet Underground, these films were so much a part of this culture of the avant-garde that this band had such a uniquely close relationship to and came out of in such an intrinsic way. What other band can you say that about? It’s a remarkable thing. So it was about how to use those films which were at our disposal. I felt almost like there was something illicit about using them to the degree that we did, like I was a kid with his hand in the cookie jar, because we use them without citing them as they unfold. All the films are cited at the end of the doc of course—and it takes a while to get through that because it’s a formidable list of films and filmmakers—but I wanted you to be able to freely enter that world without it necessarily being an academic experience.”
One final question for you Todd, and it’s for your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“I feel like it’s important to mention Jean Genet who I used as an inspiration for my first feature film Poison. That film was very much coming out of the AIDS epidemic, but I think in today’s LGBTQ+ culture it’s important to remember that there was a militancy—not necessarily in a political sense—about queer expression, gay expression in art and literature that defined itself adamantly outside the norm and the mainstream. Genet did that with exquisite, heartrending poetic language and a keen sense of looking at the culture from a critical view and talking about African American experience and queer experience and the criminal underworld. He wanted homosexuality to be criminal. He embraced that sense of it being corrosive and something that would question the status quo all the time. That helped me at that particular time in my life to look at what was happening with HIV and AIDS, but I think it’s an important thing to always go back to and remember.”
By James Kleinmann
Watch The Velvet Underground on AppleTV+ from Friday October 15th. Also playing in select US theaters including Film Forum and Film at Lincoln Center in New York.