Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Earlier this week, Swarthmore welcomed Academy Award nominated director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon with “Queer Collaborations.” This two-day Sager Series event kicked off with a screening of one of Haynes’s films followed by a Q&A session and continued the next day with facilitated discussions with both Vachon and Haynes. Haynes and Vachon spoke about their work together, their influences, and the future of film.
Velvet Goldmine, Haynes’s third feature film, was screened on Monday night in LPAC Cinema. Goldmine, described by many reviewers as Citizen Kane meets glam rock, stars Christian Bale as a queer journalist investigating the rise and fall of pop idols Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). The film is loosely based on the lives of glam rock stars like David Bowie and Iggy Pop (who inspired Slade and Wild, respectively) and earned Haynes an award for Best Artistic Contribution at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998.
During an audience Q&A after the film, Haynes said that Goldmine was inspired by his own love for media of that era and the “strange amnesia” about the time in the current consciousness, “particularly for [glam stars’] queerness.” He mentioned a recent visit to the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where he said the word “homosexuality” never appeared.
In the longer Tuesday night discussion, Haynes talked more extensively about his influences and other work. Haynes is perhaps best known for his work on period films, such as Far From Heaven, a 1950s melodrama starring Julianne Moore, and I’m Not There, a biography of Bob Dylan that features 6 different actors playing the musician. An audience member asked Haynes about the nature of these films, which are often more stylized than realistic. “When you’re constructing the past,” he said, “it’s always an invention, it’s always a fantasy.” Vachon called the work Haynes does “meta-period.”
At Tuesday’s master class, film and media studies professor Patricia White spoke with Vachon about working as a producer and her upcoming projects with Haynes and other storytellers.
Vachon described being a producer as being “the engine on a project.” After discussing the day-to-day work of a producer (and answering several messages on her Blackberry about finances for an upcoming film), Vachon talked about how she found herself in the film world and began collaborating with Haynes.
While working in New York City after graduating from college, Vachon said she believed that independent cinema required being “aggressively experimental” or anti-narrative. But when she saw Haynes’s first film, Superstar (a banned, unauthorized biography of Karen Carpenter), she thought it was provocative, but still entertaining. “That’s the kind of movie I want to make,” she said.
After talking about her own post-grad career, Vachon gave some advice to students: “If you want to do something in the arts, do what interests you. Don’t get tied to your degrees. […] Get yourself into the universe. You don’t have to be in the exact piece of the universe you thought you’d be in.”
Throughout Tuesday’s events, Vachon and Haynes discussed the changing nature of storytelling. At her master class, Vachon asked the audience three questions: In the last week, who had a) gone to see a movie at a theater, b) paid to watch a video-on-demand, and c) pirated a movie. The last question definitively saw the most raised hands, which prompted Vachon to ask “what makes you think ‘I’ve got to see this now’?” This is the same question she said studios everywhere are asking themselves: “What’s theatrical?”
While Vachon and Haynes expressed disappointment at the decline in theater attendance, Haynes said that we are currently living in a “very robust climate of ideas […] I can’t not be excited and encouraged by that.” He and Vachon discussed the move of auteur directors to television, which also is home to many more female creators than film.
The final question of the night was about the possible loss of the theater going experience. Vachon acknowledged that the film industry is struggling with how to maintain the theater model, but pointed out that the music industry “figured out there was an experience you could only have one way. And [seeing a film in a theater] is an experience you can only have one way.”
Vachon acknowledged that some of today’s creators are reaching audiences via sites like YouTube: in fact, one of her next projects is Biker Bar, an Adult Swim sitcom she is developing with a YouTube sketch comedy group. Other upcoming projects include Still Alice, a Julianne Moore film about a professor displaying early signs of Alzheimer’s, which will be released this winter. Haynes’s next film, produced by Vachon, is Carol, a lesbian romance starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, will be released next fall.
Featured image by Chiara Kruger ’17/The Daily Gazette.