By David D’Arcy
Todd Haynes documentary reviews The Velvet UndergroundLa France de Bruno Dumont, a satirical drama about the news industry, and NatureArtavazd Peleshian’s graceful parade of natural disasters.
I’ve never been a fan of the Velvet Underground, but Todd Haynes’ documentary, shot during the pandemic and which just premiered at the New York Film Festival (in theaters and streaming October 15) is the imaginative tribute from a fan, with cinematic flourishes and enough archival material to surprise even the diehards. There are more videos from this era than anyone would have expected.
Film as collage is the approach Haynes uses here, and it serves him and his subject well. The constant mixing of photographs and concert programs, a recurring motif in monochrome, evokes both the brevity of youth and the serendipity of the formation of the group. Like so many rock bands, the Velvet Underground stumbled upon the right mix of musicians for their moment. Yet unlike so many bands, his moment had an ever-growing afterlife for the band’s fans.
Kinetic and kaleidoscopic, Haynes’ doc can do for the band’s memory what Andy Warhol did for the band’s launch when the artist designed the cover of their debut album, released in 1967 – a single screen-printed yellow banana that unzipped to reveal a pink banana. (If this foreshadows the coverage of sticky fingers, the 1971 Rolling Stones album, so be it.) To my prejudiced ear, the band sounds as good here as it’s ever sounded – much better than I remembered in the dismal and the closing credits “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. Haynes’ quick editing of the footage reminds us that the ground was still shifting beneath the band members from 1965 to 1970. In focusing on those happy years, the doc can’t help but leave out interesting parts of the story. ‘story. Fans, worried about what’s on screen, probably won’t care.
The melting pot of this New York group was 56 Ludlow Street, when the Lower East Side was rough and anything but posh. New York was not a breeding ground for rock bands. The Lovin’ Spoonful was a band from New York. Just like Dion and the Belmonts. In comparison, how many Boston bands from this period can you name? The punk era, filled with bands inspired by the Velvet Underground, would be a much more fertile time for New York rockers.
And New York would define the velvets deadpan, languorous and arty identity. On their first tour dates in California, considered by many to be the birthplace if not the heart of the music scene, the band members felt out of place. “Flowers in your hair? Fuck you,” drummer Moe Tucker says, “We hated hippies.
The most eloquent voice in the documentary comes from John Cale (surviving, along with Tucker), whose memories of growing up in Wales, where his first language was Welsh, are a movie within this movie. In his soft, resonant voice, Cale reminisces about his childhood and upbringing playing classical music on the alto as Haynes’ camera gently passes over family photos. New York was another planet for the young Welshman. It was at 56 Ludlow Street that Cale met Lou Reed, the Brooklyn-born child of a Long Island upbringing, who had his sights set on stardom. There, the group took shape.
And then there was Warhol, who designed the fanny pack for the band’s debut album. With surprising modesty, Cale admits they didn’t expect much attention. Warhol and Nico, the German singer who fronted the band, were the only reason people noticed, Cale said. Anyone who’s heard Nico knows the statuesque blonde was more of a presence than a singer. Still, the band members insist she was crucial to their escape from anonymity.
If viewers are looking for glamour, this might not be the movie. Try Haynes The Velvet Goldmine in place. This portrait of the Velvet Underground reveals that they are hard-working (if contrarian) musicians, with a discipline that immediately sets them apart from the swarm of other budding superstars lounging at Warhol’s Factory.
As with so many bands, the seams eventually showed. The group emerged with an experimental sound, coming mainly from Cale and the influence of LaMonte Young, a pioneer of minimalism known for his work with sustained sonics. It was a strange development: the combination of Cale’s viola and Reed’s dirge-inspired guitar faded into something that sounded more and more like a rock band – and a regular band at that. . Bassist Sterling Morrison, who hated playing bass, went to study medieval literature. Warhol, never allergic to the market, encouraged the shift from experimental to commercial (and would eventually be fired by Reed). Reed, the lead singer and songwriter, felt the need for Cale’s imaginative talent less and less. The Velvet Underground lost the thoughtful Welshman and, when Reed left, eventually lost their purpose, although Doug Yuel kept the band going after that. Haynes does not trace Reed’s long solo career. His fans know this territory quite well.
Among Haynes’ many visual tricks is the split-screen cut, with a finesse that can be missed if you blink. Sometimes the screen is split into four quadrants, each with a picture in the head of one of the four band members – Reed, Cale, Morrison and Tucker. The composition is reminiscent of the cover of the Beatles album So be it. Is Haynes suggesting that the Velvet Underground was as influential, important, or immortal as the Fab Four? If so, he wouldn’t be alone.
Also at NYFF was France, Bruno Dumont’s satirical drama about an ambitious television journalist, France de Meurs (Léa Séydoux), who challenges French President Emmanuel Macron at press events. France also travels to war zones where she dodges bullets and speaks, via staged segments she puts together with her crew, on camera to gunmen in terrorist groups. Yes, fake news.
For France, the journalist, fake journalism is a real and lucrative career, a warning from Dumont that this may be the path his country is taking. (Note – In France, France is a common name for women. And the name France de Meurs also suggests a play on words – the manners of France or the mores of France – which evokes deceit in the zeitgeist.) The director also seems to imply that his country is becoming Americanized, with France putting itself at the center of the sensational news stories that she stages. After a car accident, she flees to a luxurious rehab in a hotel in the Alps, where she meets a young man who – heaven forbid – has never heard of her. She finds it hard to believe, and it turns out she was right to be skeptical.
Of course, things fall apart for Dumont’s heroine, who is also guilty of neglecting her resentful husband and son. If that wasn’t shameful enough, she collects bad art, which is lit by spotlights on the black walls of her house.
NYFF has been short on laughs this year. Dumont is a strange filmmaker to fill the gap, having made a name for himself with gloomy films about sad lives, with non-professional actors, in the dreary north of France. The director has taken a step forward with his surprisingly funny series Little Qin Qin (“Li’l Qin Qin”) in 2014. France continues on this path, with a welcome comedy added to the melodrama.
Frankly, his fears for the integrity of the French media, based on France de Meurs’ self-involvement, seem exaggerated, perhaps to score points. But that pales in comparison to the reality of self-promotion. To get a sense of the dizzying depths of American media stars’ self-involvement, just watch FOX News or read excerpts from Katie Couric’s memoir. Go which were published in the tabloids. Discover the answer to the book of the former nanny of the Couric family, which was published in the Daily mail. Dumont may be worried, but the grotesqueness of the American media and the vanity of some of its celebrities still set the bar for megalomania.
A movie at NYFF not to be missed when it gets a wider release is Nature by veteran Armenian director Artavazd Peleshian. Its title is a bit misleading. Nature observes a natural disaster – volcanic eruptions, floods, tidal waves, fires, lava flows, cyclones and probably an earthquake or two.
Peleshian is the definition of old school. Armenian director Sergei Parajanov called him one of the true geniuses of cinema. Now 83, he worked in Soviet cinema for decades. If you couldn’t be monumental there, where could you be monumental? Somehow he found a benefactor at the Cartier Foundation in Paris, which financed this film, his first in 30 years. So we have a monumental silent film with black and white images of natural disasters financed by a foundation created by a jewelry company.
There are no gems to admire in Nature, but a graceful view of earth from above, followed by relentless scenes of cataclysm. Peleshian is known for his experiments with perspective. Here he curated scenes of devastation, accompanying them with classical music, from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis to selections from Mozart and Shostakovich. After the volcanoes explode, come the tidal waves, as we watch tiny human figures swept across the frame. Good music doesn’t make these scenes any easier to watch.
Disaster footage is all over YouTube. In Nature, Peleshian reminds his audience that upheaval can be spectacular, hypnotic and alluring. His film calls for a dark series of catastrophes created by human intervention. Just imagine watching this.
David D’Arcywho lives in New York, writes about art for numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.