Last week, the college welcomed screenwriter and director Todd Haynes and producer Christine Vachon to campus. They were the guests of Sager Series events curated by Professor and Chair of Film & Media Studies Patty White.
On Monday October 20, Haynes presented his film “Velvet Goldmine” (1998), for which he won the Best Artistic Contribution award at Cannes. The Film Department deemed it a “Citizen Kane-inspired phantasmagoria of queer love and betrayal set in the world of 1970s glam rock.” The movie was inspired in part by the lives of rebellious and androgynous rock stars such as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The movie is part of Haynes’s legacy as a director of new queer cinema, which began with his movie “Poison” (1991), and led him to become one of the most influential directors of his generation.
Following the screening, Haynes gave an insightful Q&A session in which he talked about his intentions behind making the film and his influences. Haynes pointed out the fact that the inherent queerness behind the effect of many of the musicians whom the film pastiches (and Bowie in particular) has been erased by mainstream culture, despite the fact that it was a vital part of their rebellious personas. As an example, Haynes noted that he recently attended the David Bowie Is retrospective gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and that throughout the supposedly comprehensive exhibit, never once was there any mention of homosexuality or queerness. Haynes referred to this phenomenon as “social amnesia” in regards to queerness and sought, through “Velvet Goldmine,” to remind us of how important it was that David Bowie embraced his androgyny and stated publicly that he was bisexual at a time when such identities were far from being accepted or even acknowledged.
The following day, Tuesday October 21, Vachon led a masterclass on independent film production. Haynes has regularly worked alongside this emeritus producer, who has ninety-one producing credits on the Internet Movie Database. With snarky wit and an enigmatic conver
sational style, she discussed how she became a producer and shared insights into the strange world of independent production.
Just after graduating from Brown University, where she met Haynes, Vachon knew that she wanted to get involved in independent cinema but had no solid plan regarding what she wanted to do. She moved to New York City around 1983 and said she began “walking into whatever seemed interesting at the time.” Working as everything from a production assistant to assistant director, Vachon eventually started to work as a full-time producer. She encouraged students who want to be involved in film production to do just that — get involved in some capacity.
“My advice would be to just get into the universe,” she said. Later on in her talk, she was joined by Haynes. She covered the students’ questions from the perspective of a seasoned producer while he contributed the view of the director. This was a valuable opportunity for students to not only hear stories and advice from professional film sets, but to see first-hand the types of personalities that lend themselves to different professions in the film industry.
Vachon, with her booming voice, quick wit, and no-bullshit attitude exhibited the type-A attitude that is valuable in a producer, who is responsible for securing funding for the project and ensuring that the minutia of the set are running smoothly. Haynes, on the other hand, was soft-spoken and thoughtful, which works well with his responsibility of maintaining the overarching artistic vision of the project and ensuring that the actors are working at their fullest potential.
A few hours after Vachon’s masterclass, Haynes returned to deliver a more in-depth and detailed talk that spanned the history of his career and his influences. He spent considerable time discussing his infatuation with personal melodrama and how he would like to see a revitalization of the genre. He regards the popular conception of melodrama as offensively flawed.
“Melodrama is about real life,” he said. “It’s been denigrated to a ‘female genre’ whereas the western or the gangster film have become thought of as ‘master genre’.”
In addition to the types of generic and structural paradigms that he enjoys working with, he also gave insight into his introduction to film. He began viewing film from the perspective of a critical theorist at Brown University, studying under well-established avant-garde artists and scholars such as Leslie Borden, an influential experimental feminist filmmaker. This experimental instinct along with his lifelong infatuation with painting led him to a distrust of narrative formalism in film.
“I expected that I would go on to make non-narrative abstract works and become a professor,” he said. However, after he made his short film “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987) (which remains in the public domain because of Haynes’ lack of licensing for the Carpenters’ songs used in the film, prompting a lawsuit from Richard Carpenter), he realized that he could subvert normative narrative structures and tendencies in order to express his vision more effectively. He has been working with this method ever since.
Be sure to look for Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon’s upcoming projects. “Still Alice,” produced by Vachon and starring Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin, is slated for release this coming fall. Haynes’s “Carol” (also produced by Vachon) is a lesbian melodrama set in 1950’s New York and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and will come out sometime next year. They are also collaborating on a live-action series for Adult Swim called “Biker Bar.”