Eat the Documentary

What is the creator of seven fake Dylans, one fake Bowie, and two plastic Carpenters supposed to do with the real Velvet Underground?

A split screen: John Cale and Lou Reed walking on the left; Lou Reed onstage on the right.
Still from The Velvet Underground.

At the beginning of The Velvet Underground, the first documentary film by Todd Haynes, a title card appears: “A documentary film by Todd Haynes.” I laughed out loud when I saw it, though not out of derision. I had been waiting for Todd Haynes to make a documentary for a while. Or, more accurately, I had been waiting for Todd Haynes to make something that he’d finally call a documentary. Since his emergence in the late 1980s with the generation of filmmakers B. Ruby Rich called the “New Queer Cinema,” Haynes has hopped from genre to genre, pastiche to pastiche, hard art house to Oscar-bait, though never quite to nonfiction film. But he’s been playing with documentary the whole time, calling upon its beats and conventions, flirting with biography and ethnography while always ultimately disavowing the idea of a “true story.”

Haynes’s title card was funny to me because it felt almost like a dare. Haynes has demonstrated his interest in the visual and material cultures that swirl around popular art, but he’s also made it clear that his interest in maintaining fidelity to sources is capricious at best. Recall the tabloid doc voice-over and the deadpan “Dramatization” chyrons in his early biopic about Karen Carpenter titled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which was shot mostly with Barbie dolls; or the cover versions of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentaries Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document in I’m Not There. Even as it seemed so outside his ordinary aesthetic bailiwick, his recent legal thriller Dark Waters felt so square in part because of its adherence to the conventions of the docudrama. But outside of these teasing invocations of documentary form, Haynes’s films are not interested in the notions of accuracy and authenticity against which such films are judged. The reality that has always preoccupied him is one that isn’t evidentiary, isn’t verifiable.

We could cite his almost word-for-word 2011 television adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce—a masterpiece that, rather than improvising with the famously unfaithful 1945 Michael Curtiz–directed film noir, seems to repudiate that movie’s disobedient approach to its source text. By paying such granular attention to the original novel’s dialogue, descriptions, and narrative organization, the miniseries becomes both adaptation and anti-adaptation: excessively faithful to Cain, dramatically unfaithful to Curtiz. Or we could look to Velvet Goldmine, a biopic of nobody and everybody involved with the emergence of glam rock in London in the 1970s. It’s a film about David Bowie and Iggy Pop, but it’s also a murder mystery and a coming-of-age coming-out story with an intergalactic MacGuffin. Bowie threatened to sue because of how closely early drafts mirrored his actual life, and, perhaps as a result, the finished film resembles much less a Bowie biopic than his superhero origin story.

So then: what even is a documentary, in the hands of Todd Haynes? What is the creator of seven fake Dylans, one fake Bowie, and two plastic Carpenters supposed to do with the real Velvet Underground? Especially given the band’s clear investments in surface and reproducibility, it’s not hard to imagine Haynes making a Haynesian film about the Velvet Underground freed from the implied truth claims of the documentary form. Imagine the melodramatic potential of Factory shouting matches between Warhol and Reed, the psychedelic dramatizations of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the sheer ecstasy of finding out who he’d cast as Nico. Why not just make “A film by Todd Haynes”?

What’s most initially striking about The Velvet Underground is how jarringly conventional it feels. Haynes, as a stylist and a storyteller, seems neither stymied by documentary style nor radically liberated by it. And the Velvet Underground we encounter within its runtime is basically the Velvet Underground the public already knows. The film doesn’t have any of the scintillating revelations a lot of documentaries (especially ones about rock bands) tend to have. It features none of the social surveillance or moment-of-inspiration happenstance that have made Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back such a viral hit recently. It studiously avoids any of the trappings of the concert film, like meditative dressing room fly-on-the-wall scenes or approving crowd shots. And it refrains from even the light, rehashed gossip of the Behind the Music franchise. Haynes neither reimagines a well-known story nor tells an untold one. Narratively, the documentary isn’t just familiar—it’s almost refreshingly boring. While Jonathan Richman’s exuberant musical comedy fan routine in his brief talking-head appearances is as fun as you might have heard, his scenes only stick out because the other talking-head interviews run together amidst the smudge of their school-picture backdrops, offering a litany of the known: no real axes to grind, no cracked cases, no history-shattering disclosures. It is, of course, a pleasure to spend this much time with John Cale and Amy Taubin and Mary Woronov and Jonas Mekas (whose interviews are among the last he gave before his death), but their segments, at first blush, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Ken Burns series.

But just as David Byrne’s Talking Heads would revisit and bring structure to the project Lou Reed inaugurated, it’s Haynes’s talking heads that clarify what The Velvet Underground is up to, formally. We can peel slowly and see that, like the rock and roll clichés in Lou Reed’s lyrics, the film’s truth-booth sessions are there to signal the genre, to let you know you’re watching a documentary even as they’re ultimately a misdirection. What happens in between them is weirder and more unwieldy, and emerges as such only in contrast to the talking heads’ rote discursiveness. As appropriated by Haynes, the PBS house style functions as a counterpoint to the throbbing audio-visual pastiche that anchors the rest of the film.

Amidst these scenes, there are moments of intense artistic focus and conceptual clarity, moments of banal observation, moments of frenetic contextualizing montage, moments of almost unreal stillness. You could say that The Velvet Underground is a film about Jonas Mekas or a film about Andy Warhol in the style of Jonas Mekas or a film about the Velvet Underground in the style of Andy Warhol or a cover version, from memory and archival description, of one of the many lost film experiences Warhol made and projected during Velvet Underground shows in the sixties. The simplest, and maybe most accurate, thing to say about The Velvet Underground is that it’s a film about the Velvet Underground in the style of the Velvet Underground.

Late in the film, Jonathan Richman wistfully describes the way that the band, with Reed and Cale, could produce complex and mysterious overtones when playing live, sounds that seemed to emanate from nowhere. It’s a beautiful observation and a really compelling way of thinking about form—the ability to hear things that aren’t there. Haynes, too, seems to be in earnest pursuit of ecstatic overtones, of a kind of composite image. Because he frequently keeps multiple images in the frame, we can see the film always chasing this transcendent synthesis even when it fails. The documentary genre is the first, and most notable, constraint of this film. But its most generative frame is the split-screen.

The opening third of the film—when we’re first getting the hang of this poly-vocal screen image—is as formally exciting and visually gripping as anything Haynes has ever done. Like much of his best work, it’s a pastiche of other people’s styles that becomes uniquely his own, the way that Douglas Sirk’s colors somehow become Todd Haynes’s colors in Far From Heaven or the way Haynes is at his most Hitchcockian-by-way-of-Highsmith in Carol.  On the left, we see a rhythmic succession of archival footage, but on the right we see Andy Warhol’s screen tests, filmed at The Factory: first of Lou Reed, then of John Cale, then of Sterling Morrison, then of Moe Tucker. Haynes gives us the tests in their entirety. So even as talking heads narrate in voiceover, Lou Reed is staring at you, uninterrupted, for four minutes. Then John Cale. Then Sterling Morrison. Then Moe Tucker. When’s the last time you felt someone was looking at you for the first twenty minutes of a movie?

This strategy affords some authority to Warhol—it’s literally his film. But Haynes’s recontextualization also changes those films fundamentally. The act of editorial intervention with the footage—not cutting, but superimposing audio and presenting additional images in counterpoint—is both sacrilegious and enlarging. In one sense, we’re let off the hook from sitting through their long and mesmerizing quiet. At the same time, Haynes reproduces the buzzing, surrounding world from which these faces are trying so visibly to distract themselves. We feel, acutely, the band members trying to pay attention to the camera, or failing to. The discomfort of the screen test is transformed; the startling intimacy of these eyes is hurried and harried by the bustling scenes across the way. This is the first but not the last time in this film you’ll be reminded of the way John Cale’s drones collide with Lou Reed’s pristine pop primitivism to produce essentially the core element of the Velvet Underground’s sound. Staring at you.

Warhol is obviously a focus of the film’s story: Haynes tracks the well-trodden arc of his belief in Reed’s vision, his pragmatic and patronizing understanding of what Nico would do for the band’s sound and marketability, his pragmatic and self-important understanding of what his own name would do for the band’s fortunes, his impatience, and the eventual claustrophobia of his presence. And the screen tests are not the last time Haynes places Warhol’s art practice at the center of the film’s visual aesthetic. Haynes paints a portrait of the band as alternately beholden to Warhol for their visual electricity and resentful and ashamed of that influence, and the film is similarly dependent upon and ambivalent about him.

Where this is most extravagantly true is during an extended sequence in the middle of the film about the band’s early live shows, which Warhol designed. In a sequence about the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the juxtapositions of the split-screen give way to superimposition. A small voice says, about Warhol, “His idea of a discotheque is to take a dance hall, have his musicians play, show several movies all at the same time, have colored lights going, all while people dance or what. Wild.” Haynes takes the voiceover narration as a challenge. Set to a scratchy live recording of “Heroin” (numerous sequences throughout the film are soundtracked by different recordings of that one song, including the opening and closing credits) Haynes begins building layers of image. Handheld archival footage from Warhol, of Warhol, of the concert space (Dom’s), of the performances, of specific dancers, of non-specific dancers, of the Velvet Underground performing in Warhol’s Factory, of that footage being projected on the Velvet Underground performing at Dom’s—each superimposed layer settling over or dissolving to another superimposed layer. Haynes not only tries to mimic the chaotic visual space of those early shows, with audience members manning and dropping lights, and three rings of circus all performing at once; he also uses the moment to slip in and become an author of the spaces himself. To say that it’s hard to tell where Warhol ends and Haynes begins is simply to describe the film in these moments of confusion and cacophony. Wild.

But eventually the crescendo ends. By 1968, Cale is driven away from the band, its founding partnership corroded; the handsome Doug Yule with his adorable voice provides a bizarro replacement; a few years later, Moe Tucker, in one of the cruelest moments of the film, is abandoned to the birth of her child; Sterling Morrison just walks away. Haynes’s film features elements of pure pop convention, alienating moodiness, miraculous formal wonderment. And then, just like Lou Reed, the film loses interest in the Velvet Underground and trails off.

Todd Haynes is always adapting, loosely. In over thirty years of filmmaking, he’s made four literary adaptations, one adaptation of an article from the New York Times Magazine, three hallucinatory semi-fictionalized rock biopics, one ode to the films of Douglas Sirk, and, now, this. In 2015, when Lincoln Center put on a mid-career retrospective of his work, Haynes selected films to pair with each entry in his filmography. Some of the pairings illuminated hard-to-see resonances (Mildred Pierce and Klute?), but, by and large, there weren’t a lot of shockers (Sirk, Ophuls, Fassbinder, Roeg). That’s because Haynes always shows his work, makes his sources visible, even when they’re being estranged or smothered. It’s a style familiar to other contemporary pastiche artists of his generation like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, but Haynes has always seemed much less anxious about his influences than that. In line with the systematic re-narrating of cinema history at the heart of the New Queer Cinema—Derek Jarman’s historical films, or Tom Kalin’s avant-garde Leopold and Loeb, or even Sally Potter’s queer Orlando—Haynes’s films are never not in play with their influences. Everything is a source, everything is usable, nothing is sacred or everything is. The authors of the past hold no authority over the present.

Like the biopic, like the melodrama, like the film noir, the documentary can be a genre, or at least a style. And while Todd Haynes had never made a documentary, his filmmaking is always genre work. A documentary about the Velvet Underground could never truly stand apart from the Velvet Underground, and so The Velvet Underground doesn’t try. It embodies its subject. The things that are glorious about the band are glorious about the film; the things that are maddening about the band are maddening about the film. Cale and Reed make one thing together they could not make alone; Haynes and Warhol and Mekas make one thing together they could not make alone. And then it’s gone.

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