“I feel like I’m in a movie theater,” he said in an unmistakable voice. On the right side of the screen, the face of a young man is staring at us, half darkened by shadows, expressionless, his lips motionless.
You can’t take your eyes off this face – and the sound is just as attractive. He tells us about the “long arm of light” through the theatre, about recordings “full of dots and rays.” From the way his gaze has focused on these images over the years, they find meaning, comfort, and identity in them.
This is also amazing. This is Lou Reed’s voice and face:
a glimpse of one of the musician’s “Screen Test” performances for Andy Warhol. Not where Reed rejects Coca-Cola with the erotic appeal that can create with a bit of effort. But what we see is the number one screen test from 1966.
Reed’s screen stares at us with the same constant fixation that his voice portrays: the captivating, captivating gaze of the audience.
Where the singer delivers coolness and instead confronts us with the same glowing and isolated antonym that massages Reed’s face and Warhol’s gaze is unwavering harmony. Undeniable safety of people coming to watch instead of being watched.
Todd Haynes’ exciting new documentary, The Velvet Underground, initially questions this sense of security. In fact, Reed’s own challenge is to look at us as we watch, and describe the dark comforts of cinema.
“I’m anonymous and I’ve forgotten,” he says of the experience while making it impossible for those who watched Haynes’ films to feel the same way.
You can’t feel anonymous when Lou Reed’s face is staring at you, just as you can’t feel anonymous – intangible, non-existent – with his voice digging through your backpack and stirring the hairs of your soul every time it reaches your ears. Is there a word for this power?
Probably not. “That’s what they say is a drug,” Reed said of the film, watching. We don’t need a word about what these images tell us, he said. Mute Warhol shorts. Pictures often say enough.
Why open a documentary about the famous band “Sixty”:
With one of rock’s most enduring legends making a love poem on film? There’s historical justification, of course: you can’t tell the story of this group without understanding the New York avant-garde of the 1960s, an era as significant to music as it was to the cinema, poetry.
All fields of art, every available environment and every style. This is not a new idea. But to find a form for it – to plunge into ruins, fight for something alive and found and emotionally fractured, instead of the buried, museum-like approach he could take. Haynes managed to do it here. Haynes and his group. In it, they are all together.
What are the other reasons why documentaries develop like this? It’s clear from the start that this whirlwind is told through the group’s short. But meaningful lives in general through the visual syntax of the groupmates.
Stan Brakhage’s and Kenneth Anger and Shirley Clark, and now, of course, Warholls; the researchers made a challenging, fast-paced toy in the middle, the way the Velvet Underground music mocked (and pissed off) the rock and roll conventions the band chewed on in their brief career.
This film doesn’t mind using talking chapters or live archive audio:
To tell a life story where it matters. But Haynes doesn’t turn this film into a virtual classroom. Where we all carefully jot down notes about John Cage and Alan Ginsberg.
It is better to give us the Velvet Underground to tell of their pain and obsession. To sit like a sponge, and be overwhelmed by what suddenly felt radical again in Haynes’ hands.
Think of Reed’s face looking at us from the panel on the screen. Now imagine other pictures appearing on another board: Reed’s sister, Meryl Reed Weiner. Talking about life and an imperfect education on Long Island, as she and her brother know.
A mix of family photos and stock footage depicts the story of the father’s emotional absence. Reed’s memories of his early forays into music. His decision to give up real music lessons instead of playing on the radio and booking high school concerts with the early-wop and rock duo.