Oh Master, My Master!

nosfertuIt’s an autumn night, circa none-of-your-business, and thirteen year-old Cat is cowering in her bed. The covers are strategically pulled over her throat, creating a cave around her head. Her breath roars raggedly in the confined space, and her heart is echoing through the mattress and up into the pillow, an assault of noise that does nothing to conceal the infinitesimal creaks near her window. She knows that each groan of the house and sound of the street outside is the announcement of something coming for her. Suddenly she’s acutely aware of every entry point into her room, each crack beneath the door and just how level her windows are to the ground. On the nightstand beside her lay the culprit for such heightened paranoia, a fresh copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s a definite scratching on the window and Cat prays for sleep to come.

Dracula is a book that’s managed to retain freshness for over a hundred years. It’s the tale of a shadowy Transylvanian count, Dracula, a vampire who seeks to spread his reign of horror to London. In this process he traps and terrorizes Jonathan Harker, preys on Lucy Westenra (much to the chagrin of her three hunky suitors), and generally flies against the face of science and London’s new modernity.

It’s a fabulous book. And the most influential piece of vampire media, hands down.

In the end, nothing is as chillingly long-lived as Dracula.  There are older vampire novels—like John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (the original preying aristocrat), or Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (an exploration into female, and thus lesbian, vampirism). There are older examples of lurid Gothic Romanticism—like Horace Walpole’s spooky, mad, twisting The Castle of Otranto. Yet no other tale has become so synonymous with itscommunity central monster.  Vampires are Dracula. When I was a wee little child, there were essentially four monsters in all of existence: mummies, werewolves, Frankensteins (a fallacy for another day and another discussion), and Draculas. Not vampires. Draculas. It’s entered the lexicon. It is the legend. The idea has become one with the character.

With good reason. Stoker’s novel is absolutely captivating, conveying the villain in a way that is straight-forward and accessible while still delivering the spine-shivers. The other vampire tomes are delicious and taboo but err on the side of becoming lost in their own hype, as it were. The pages and pages of description and gore are titillating, but in the end leave less of an impression. They’re the slasher film equivalent to Dracula‘s classic jump horror. In the novel, everything is conveyed through letters, diaries, news clippings, so all the central action occurs on the periphery. It’s like seeing the alien for a split second turning a corner, or barely registering the dismemberment before the camera turns. Still horrifying, and arguably more so because the scenes are more disturbing as they sink in retroactively, but seen blurrily through a second lens. Dracula himself is only viewed through the eyes of others, so the reader is piecing together his power, his appetite, and his grand scheme as slowly and methodically as any film plotting.

I first read Dracula, when I was right on the cusp of wanting to become more well-read with the classics, but young enough to be intimidated by overly wrought sentence structure and the stigma of anything older than the 20th century. Color me shocked at how easily Dracula went down. My nervousness at the secondhand storytelling was abated as I became immersed in the story of our heroes fighting against evil. I had to make a personal rule—no reading after dark. Not so much out of fear over Dracula, but fear over his acolyte, Renfield. Renfield served as a reminder of how twisted humanity could be, the so-called “zoophagous” madness triggering the same personal panic and fascination that Hannibal Lecter would capitalize on years later. While the pure supernatural was unnerving, it was nothing compared to the cold hand of reality offered from Seward’s insane asylum. Dracula’s predatory nature did become more unsettling on future reads, when the full weight of his torture of Jonathan Harker and Lucy Westenra sunk in, but the tale of an ordinary person willing to trade humanity for the false power constructed by consuming others still takes the cake.

Since that first read, Dracula has remained with me, stalking in the shadows of my life. My first college paper was a five-page treatise on Dracula and sexuality. I talked about feminism, the New Woman, and how the vampire myth completely corrupted Christian ideals of intercourse. My last paper of graduate school was twenty pages on Francis Ford Coppola’s terrible film version, describing how it fit into the vampire myth as a whole (spoiler—it fits in rather well, paying proper credence to the novel’s themes and the cinematic tropes surrounding vampires. This fact doesn’t make it a good movie, not in the least, which we’ll talk more about soon). This book has been a beating heart at the center of my favorite literature, held up there with East of Eden  and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It captures terror and history and contains a labyrinthine exploration of religion, technology, sexuality, feminism, imperialism, queer theory…in essence, the rabbit holes of discussion in this book are many, varied, and enthralling.

BelaThe sheer scope of how many things people can discuss in the novel is part of why the specific Dracula telling of the myth is so tied up with modern descriptions of vampires. Sure, vampires have taken their own angles and shoot-offs, been twisted into new and sometimes baffling directions, but they all have this kernel of the Count. Dracula’s weaknesses have become every vampire’s weaknesses: his nocturnal activity translated into the familiar creature-of-the-night motif, thanks to him (and a certain Bela Lugosi years later) vampires became attractive foreigners, the copious amounts of garlic Van Helsing used to protect Lucy is now so well-known it’s almost a joke, and of course, the bat-morphing thing was all thanks to Stoker. These traits have become a shorthand for what the mind sees when it visualizes a vampire, and it all boils down to the novel.

When young Cat emerged from a rest full of nightmares, did she throw away her book? Did she run away from the fear that vampires instilled? No. Dracula merely planted a fascination with the myth, a deep love and respect for the tales. It’s a standard that every piece of vampire media has had to live up to. Dracula might not be the original vamp,  but he’s the king.

Animals Under the Martian Heel

Aliens may be awe-inspiring, but more often they play the terrifying threat to human tranquility.  All that power translates into impossible odds, and there’s nothing quite like watching the plucky underdogs of humanity standing against beings of arguably-higher intelligence. It gets our heart rate pumping and our superiority complex firing on all cylinders. But which invaders have proven the best threats? Are there aliens whose menace, to put it bluntly, rules?

5. The aliens in Attack the Block


Art by Alex Pardee

 This is a case where the aliens are cool, but wouldn’t be anything particularly special. But the film they’re introduced in is so special, so glaringly unique and fun, that they demand to be included. If you haven’t seen Attack the Block, please remedy that, because this little British gem takes the invader alien trope and makes it a non-stop blast. With a rookie director and a cast of unknowns (save for Nick Frost), this story about a bunch of hooligans who start out mugging people and end up defending their apartment block from vengeful space creatures breathes life into a genre fraught with melodrama. What’s lovely about the film is the way it makes the awful sympathetic. The marauding street gang become the heroes. Even the invaders have a soft fluffy motive—it doesn’t take away from the terror of them stalking the apartment dwellers, but it adds depth to the heartless Earth-conqueror trope.

4. The Network, from The World’s End

This is another one where I’m including it partially because the film is so, so good. The grand finale of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy isn’t just an incredible alien story—although yes, yes it is—it’s an incredible story of human malaise, weakness, and the strange metamorphoses of self-esteem and friendship. Simon Pegg gives the performance of a lifetime as aimless Gary King, with Nick Frost as the perfect adult foil in Andy Knightley, all proper life experience and barely simmering rage.  When the chums face the Network, an evil alien collective hell-bent on”civilizing” humans by replacing them, their barbaric yawps against a relentless system capture the essence of humanity, stubborn and bullheaded as we are.  The World’s End succeeds not only in having a rip-roaring scifi adventure, but also in having a rawly human story about coming to grips with age and the passage of time.  A film that can combine space aliens with the alien parts of human progression is a winner in my book.


3. The Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My husband challenged me on the Vogon inclusion, but in the end I don’t care what he says, I’m counting them as invaders. At the very least they are eliminating human life and and threatening the existence of Earth, so even if they aren’t technically invading terra firma, they are absolutely invading humanity’s sense of safety and security and life.  So here they are, on the list.

VogonaieIt would feel strange to talk about alien lifeforms without some nod to Douglas Adams,* and, to me, the Vogons are one of the most delightful twists on alien threats.  It’s so bureaucratic, so droll, and their unseemly visage is just the wart on top of the boil. Making the otherworldly stand-in for unfeeling corporations, the humanoid embodiment of slugs is so on the nose and yet exhibits the Adams brilliance (and special shout out to Henson’s Creature Shop for designing something so beautiful in its grotesquerie). These invaders are wonderful because they encapsulate the regular invasions that manipulate our life—boring, staid, and often with terrible poetry.

2. The aliens from Independence Day

It’s impossible to talk about aliens with an agenda without bringing up the aliens from Independence DayID is the epitome of alien movies, and if you don’t agree let me show you the technological door, because you aren’t welcome here. Will Smith at the height of his powers. Bill Pullman as a president whose speeches make grown men break down and weep like the giant babies they are on the inside. And Jeff Goldblum. JEFF GOLDBLUM, rocking that intergalactic Mac OS like a boss. But the aliens themselves are the paragon of invaders. With an off-putting form, borrowing from xenomorphs and the mystical strangeness of the deep sea squids, those aliens inspired terror. I think that the moment when our heroes stumble upon communication with the beasts, via one unlucky scientist, is the first jump moment I experienced in a film (it’s either this or some scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Or something from The Last Unicorn). No image instills terror quite like those large spacecrafts obscuring the sky, and no moment inspires patriotism more than their defeat. Welcome to Earth indeed.

1. Invader Zim


Invader Zim has to be the number one. I mean, invader is in his name. Also, I think he’s by far the most ruthless invader of the bunch. Essentially, his only characteristic is his quest to destroy Earth and prove his worth to the rest of the Irken’s (an alien race determined to conquer the entire universe). The fact he infiltrates Earth by adopting the disguise of a poor, defenseless child is proof positive of his brilliant maliciousness. Armed with the insane robot Gir, thwarted at every turn by the giant-headed Dib, and only truly foiled by meat products, Zim is everything an invader should be—relentless, unhinged, and utterly awesome.

*Almost as strange as it feels realizing that we haven’t touched on Star Wars, Star Trek, or The X-Files in this alien-centric month.

Save Our Aliens!

So, the alien is the other, right?  All that’s implied in the name.  Alien = unknown, often scary, destructive, omnipotent, over-arching, all that jazz.  There are a ton of movies that cover the implicit terror of the aliens taking over.  The type of shows that thrive on large spaceships obscuring the skyline, on gray-green scales and tentacles and the sudden, spine-chilling gnashing of outcropping teeth.  When we talk about aliens in movies, more often than not they’re standing in for the natural human fear of things outside our control.  Something I cannot comprehend is out to get me.  Something greater than myself is taking away my hard-earned security, and humanity is powerless against it.

Aliens serve as a great MacGuffin for human insecurity.  Though that’s usually depicted with invasion, it’s not always the case.  Sometimes, instead of using aliens to showcase the indomitability of mankind’s spirit, aliens can show the depth of mankind’s tenderness.  Sometimes the alien is not powerful.  It’s merely other.  And in that innate otherness, it demands a protection.


The Grand Poobah of this sort of alien movie—not the first, but arguably the best and the catalyst for an entire spate
of Peter Pan, starry-eyed optimist films—is undoubtedly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  E.T. makes the aliens so benign and so wise, that instead of a looming threat they become precious.  E.T. isn’t an eerie reminder of Elliot’s ultimate fallibility.  He functions as a treasured jewel, something to be protected and valued and cherished throughout the years.  He’s Elliot’s childhood, but with an elevation that serves to remind us of the power of innocence.

E.T. is not just otherworldly, he’s everything pure and good about humanity.  What are his most distinctive traits?

  • Curiosity.  This can be extended to his entire species, if that’s the right word for it.  (Civilization?  Does that work better?).  His kind are first introduced as scientists, collecting plants and functioning as passive but voracious learners.  E.T. himself exhibits these traits as he interacts with Elliot and the rest of the world, mimicking movement and learning from that television set as diligently as any toddler sponging up Sesame Street.
  • Innocence.  At the same time, E.T. knows nothing of the world.  The learning doesn’t happen with the edge of cynicism.  It’s not the scholar studying in order to tear down a schema of thought.  It’s the ingenue seeking to expand the limited knowledge of the world, and standing in wonder at it all.  It’s almost like Spielberg is harkening back to childhood, extolling the virtue of an unencumbered view, isn’t it?  Hmm.  Interesting.
  • Compassion.  Partway through the film, it’s revealed that E.T. has strong psychic connections, a connection he foists on Elliot now that his entire clan is far beyond the stars.  Now this might be a stretch, but stick with me here—I think that this addition of psychic connection is showing a type of superior community developed by the alien species, showcasing what might been seen as a childlike trust in each other and twisting it to make a strength.  Because of this mindlink, the aliens care more about the members of their society.  They’re fostering a utopia.  And because Elliott tastes a little bit of this union, he is more loving and caring towards E.T.  In return E.T. shares knowledge.  Heck, he makes Elliott so powerful he can fly!  Which leads to…
  • Powerful.  Just because there’s all this laudatory highlight of childish traits, doesn’t mean that these aliens are big ol’ dummies, or completely incapable and in need of humanity to show them the way.  No, these aliens are bosses, with powers and understanding that far outstrip our own.  They can bring life to that which was dead (smacks of some omnipotence there, eh?), make things float around, and essentially bend all the laws of physics to their will.  No slouching there.
  • Fragility.  In spite of all that ultimate power, E.T. has weaknesses.  He fades the longer he’s on Earth.  Without the support of his people, his system, he’s stripped of his life force.  It’s sort of a scathing commentary—the longer you live on the Earth, the more it robs you of those essential traits possessed in childhood.  In short, the world is a dark terrible place and can destroy you if you don’t hold on to what’s good and pure. Subtlety, thy name is not Spielberg.


With E.T., saving this concept of the alien, which is really just the concept of childhood, becomes the ultimate goal.  It drew in kids with the Reeses pieces, the hilarious underage drunken-ness, and the madcap adventure. It drew in adults by reminding them of something long ago lost, and renewing them with a vigor to protect that in the next generation.  In the end, tears were had by all.

This are ideas developed and even mimicked in later movies.  The film Paul, that Simon Pegg-Nick Frost-Seth Rogen vehicle that is the forgotten nugget in the Pegg-Frost oeuvre, completely builds upon the foundation E.T. established.  And I even mean beyond the cherished joke that Spielberg has a direct line to captured alien Paul, and is using him to vet all his sci-fi movies.

Paul_iyyyNo, Paul takes all the premium placed on youthful innocence from E.T. and sets it in a millennial world.  Paul is the best (and most maligned) segments of humanity.  He’s forever juvenile, irresponsible, and fun.  He laughs his deep stoner laugh and bombs around the desert with nary a care, two nerds in tow.  And yet, even with all the trappings of the eternally adolescent male, Paul is still wise, resourceful, and ten times smarter than the oppressive government seeking to drain his life force.

In both films, the emphasis is placed on preservation of the alien traits, traits that aren’t so unfamiliar to us after all.  Elliott saves E.T., and Graeme and Clive help Paul elude capture, because they are all trying to preserve the best versions of humanity.  Or at least what humanity should be.  The impulse to protect the alien comes from the almost selfish urge to shelter our own promise, innocence, and instincts, long before the concepts of what we “should” be enter our lives.  Humanity’s greatest moment isn’t conquering the alien invaders.  It’s proving the goodness of humanity by recognizing and saving the best of what we are.

Higher Power

Let’s face it—it’s illogical to believe we are all alone on this pale blue dot in the grand masses of the cosmos.  That in the trillions and zillions of galaxies out there, stars and space innumerable, we are the only signs of intelligent life.  I, for one, subscribe to the belief that we are not alone.  Have we been visited by lifeforms?  I can’t say for sure, and I admit, as much as I love the idea of Area 51, I find it unlikely that the American government are the sole keepers of alien lifeforms (other secrets, yes, just perhaps not this one).  But is the universe full of possibility?  I, for one, believe.


Why yes it is.

Still, whether the enigmatic “they” have visited us or not, the idea of alien life form is an indelible part of our mythology.  Who really built the pyramids?   What’s the deal with Stonehenge?  Or the Easter Island sculptures?  It’s easy to say there was some sort of divine interaction.

And that’s the point where I look at aliens and see a blurred line.  A fuzziness between extra-terrestrial and godly.  Think about it.  Aliens—beings from the heavens, possessing a power and knowledge beyond what we humans can comprehend.  After all, we don’t often get aliens that are “lesser.”  No aliens come to earth and stand in wonder at our technology.  Nope.  Not a thing.  They are always advanced.

So what are gods?  Omnipotent, all-powerful beings who influence humanity.  They affect how the earth runs, rule seasons, harvests, creation itself. Often, they will visit their chosen people.  Think Zeus and Apollo scamming on women.  Or Christ, the son of God, coming down to dwell with man.

If you stand back and squint, aliens and gods aren’t all that different.  Two sides of the mirror, tweaked ever so slightly.

Amber is covering more god-like creatures on Thursday, giving far more examples, but for now I want to look at one of the end-all be-all alien franchises.


THE alien.

The Alien franchise.

The perfect blend of horror, action, and survival tale.  The Alien movies might not seem like obvious god-examples, but let’s begin by taking the last and making it first.  Let’s talk Prometheus.  Many people hated Prometheus, and many people were wrong.  It’s a killer flick, with a magnificent Fassbender the android, the deliciously icy Charlize, and Idris Elba.  Idris. Elba.

But it’s also film that fairly explicitly deals with the conflation of science and religion, all through the unknown question of other life, and how external influence could have changed our world.  This idea is discussed excellently here (and touched on here, and also here, although that last one is a bit out there).  Essentially, Prometheus sets up a clear mythology from the very first moments.

There’s the creation aspect. Greater life—in Prometheus, the Engineers—are responsible for cells, for DNA, for us being mere shadows of their glory.  It’s implied that Earth is an experiment, an attempt to create something new.  Then there’s the further implication that they kept checking in on humanity (the pyramids!), which, as a whole, disappointed.

This led to the vengeful gods, the destroying angels.  Those who came not with a plow, but a sword.  This is where the remaining Alien films sprout from.  Something only vaguely humanoid, but completely indestructible and awesome in its malevolence.  Acidic spit?  Unholy appetite?  A seeming lack of any weakness? This is where the xenomorphs come in, to become wrathful divinity.

The spectrum of aliens always shifts between savior and demolisher.  Most are either here to help or here to enact harm.  It plays on the mortal fear that whatever is actually in control doesn’t have clear motives.  That we are small, and here to act on the whim of those above.


Men in Black, a documentary?


The Prettiest Stars

Have we managed to pique your interest about glam? Want a good jumping off place for exploring it and seeing if you want to add it to your own list of likes? Here we present lists of our favourite things in glam.

Amber: Choosing favourites in any situation is something I dread (even more than I dread keeping my word count low). Especially in this context, where you’re surely going to pull out your expectations or judgements about how I ought to go for obscure things. But I put blood, sweat, and glitter into this, and I stand by my list…for at least the next week.

  • Brett Smiley on the cover of his biography, named The Prettiest Star (also the title of a David Bowie song)Favourite glam album: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  • Favourite original glam artist: David Bowie
  • Favourite modern glam/glam-influenced artist: Placebo
  • Favourite glam film: Velvet Goldmine (and the soundtrack is a nice place to get exposure to some non-Ziggy music)
  • Favourite glam video: Evening in Space by Daphne Guinness
  • Favourite glam aesthetic: Glitter, of course!
  • Favourite glam theme: Aliens (and alienation)
  • Favourite thing I discovered whilst writing for this month: Brett Smiley
  • Favourite thing about doing glam now (aka why I’m okay I missed the 70s): The internet. Seriously. With it, I can find inspiration, tools, and tutorials for realising the look I want; more music to inspire me; and friends all over who love me as I am.
  • Favourite life changer: Glam showed me that I was freer than society wanted me to think in terms of defining and discovering my authentic self. (I could write a whole essay on that alone.)

Cat: Again, I am the outsider coming on in this scene (which might make me more glam than anyone? Or not…), so my list of favorites is very much influenced by the main players, plus those things that come across as uniquely glam.  Some of them are the early tastemakers, some are just my own likes manipulated to fit the formula, and some are things only I might see as glam, but which I just can’t shake.

  • Favorite glam artist: David Bowie, that gorgeous ethereal man.
  • Favorite poet referenced by glam: Lord Byron
  • Favorite glam performance aspect: Giant sets!  Production!  Stagecraft!
  • Favorite glam movie: Well, Strictly Ballroom totally counts, right?
  • Favorite glam album: The New York Dolls. Has all the roughness I love, plus it might be the only glam album other than Ziggy I’ve listened to regularly.
  • Favorite remnants of the glam movement: The fluctuations between feminine and masculine aesthetics.  I guess you could call it gender fluidity?  But more with regards to fashions.  The garish clothes, men’s painted nails, a respect for an entire spectrum.
  • Favorite glam trope: Dance! Moving to music.
  • Favorite glam discovery this month: Ewan McGregor’s performance in Velvet Goldmine.
  • Most appealing aspect of glam: Overt, unapologetic self-acceptance.
  • Favorite glam reincarnation: The Darkness, a rocking band that had the spark of fun needed in music.

A Life Lived in Fear is a Life Half Lived

Glam music is not my forte. I admire it, what I’ve listened to I love, and I am a stalwart acolyte at the sacred shrine of Bowie, but beyond that I am an amateur learning about this shining world (hence the fact I’d never seen Velvet Goldmine until this month). So I might not be able to curate the glam experience as skillfully as Amber did earlier this week. But I can offer my newbie experience, and part of that has been observing the ways glam sinks into the outside world, how everything has a little sparkle.

Netflix recently announced a new original series for next year, The Get Down, a thirteen-episode musical drama helmed by none other than Baz Luhrmann. Is there a director more glam than Luhrmann? He’s a filmmaker known for his lack of subtlety, not in an aggravatingly-explosive Michael Bay way, but in an explosion of lush visuals and stagecraft as extravagant as any of Ziegfeld’s Follies. Luhrmann productions are bound to have a completely batty first twenty minutes (usually with a whirling, trippy party scene), some exquisite romantic drama, and a sincerity of motive that makes his movies simple, beautiful, and some of the most glamorous productions in the scene. Although his recent directorial outing in The Great Gatsby fits in with the greatest of glam, nothing shows the traits better than his first three movies, collectively grouped as the “Red Curtain” Trilogy.


Glam rock is heavily associated with elaborate theatricality—intricate, often sparkling costumes; impeccably planned choreography; exaggerated motions and expressions; and sets so towering and shiny that they would be at home in any futuristic space setting (or in the mind of a drugged-out fantasy author). These are all Luhrmann’s trademarks! What other director would insert a delicious drag performance right in the middle of Shakespeare? Or base a love song around a smoky, glittering dance sequence among a mini-scape of Paris? Even Strictly Ballroom, the most restrained of the trilogy (leave it to Luhrmann to make ballroom dancing positively mundane compared to one of Shakespeare’s worst plays), has elaborate dance scenes and a staged flashback that’s near pantomime. Naturally.


He can’t escape delicious theatre imagery, showing a respect and fascination with the evoking theater visuals that would be absurd if it weren’t so perfect. The scene that really kickstarts the romance in Strictly Ballroom happens on a stage, the two characters dancing a romantically-charged rumba against a red curtain backdrop. Romeo is introduced smoking in the Sycamore Grove, a free-standing proscenium on the beach, a scene that makes the literature lover in me tingle with the layers of meaning—and, of course, that adds a dash of the theatrical to even the most serious proceedings. And Moulin Rouge is an actual theatre. It’s everything in the beating pulse of that musical. If a winking self-awareness of the theatricality of real life isn’t glam, what is?


This is the point where I have to think that Luhrmann knows what he is doing. It’s hard to have glam without the music. It’s the pulsing heart of the movement, the rhythm underscoring everything. All the emotional beats in the trilogy—not just in Moulin Rouge, whose musical genre demands that payoff, but in every single film—are told with strongly accompanying soundtrack. Strictly Ballroom isn’t complete without the sultry Doris Day vocals slinking around romantic scenes, and even less so without the montage set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” something that feels quintessentially exuberant. Romeo + Juliet has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time (ALL TIME!). It didn’t just recruit Radiohead for two songs (maybe not glam, but so freaking cool and worth mentioning), but also had the aforementioned dance number to drive the music home. But it was Moulin Rouge that hit it out of the park, opening and closing with none other than the Duke himself, David Bowie covering “Nature Boy.”


The blurring, or eradication, of masculine and feminine is a trademark of glam, a parcel of total embracing of what you love, regardless of gender norms. Luhrmann definitely sprinkles that into his films. There is nothing leaner and more lovely than a ballroom dancer, and don’t discount the head-on recognition of the male dancers being comfortable with makeup and glitter. We could discuss the beautiful, spritely, pubescent body of a still baby-faced Audrey_30Leo DiCaprio as proof of androgyny, but why would we do that when there’s a Mercutio in the scene? Harold Perrineau wears heels and a silver mini with more confidence than most of the world’s population, and is still the ultimate badass and best part of the movie. With Moulin Rouge, David Wenham deserves a special shout out for his all-too-brief portrayal of Audrey, artist and ultimate purveyor of bohemian ideals.

The Real Self

1223116612491_fAll of this—the theatrics, the singing, the identity—serves expression of the ideal self. To quote Moulin Rouge, it’s all about “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.” Glam is kicking against the pricks, both literal and metaphorical. It’s why “glam rock” is so hard to pin down and encompasses everything from punk to baroque-inspired ballads. The musical style isn’t important. The quest is. The quest to be the most real self. Yes, expressed through masks and costumes and makeup, but expressed. Put out there, regardless of acceptance or societal expectations. Glam is a struggle to be heard and to embrace truth, to have the freedom to be whoever and whatever.

This is the central struggle in Luhrmann’s trilogy. Scott Hastings just wants to dance his own steps, and Fran just wants to dance. Romeo and Juliet want to defy their stars, to cast off the shackles of their names and families and decades of war, to love whom they wish. And in Moulin Rouge? Satine wants to be a real actress, because that represents freedom, but she also wants the freedom to love. Christian knows that he has an artistic voice, but needs to discover it, needs to find his truth. Together, they learn who they really are and what they really want. They are all stories of seeking for honesty in expression. A fight against oppressive reality, a yearning for something real. That’s the story of glam, and if it can be told with dance and poetry and song, all the better.

The Fictions of Empires

Velvet Goldmine is a movie with meaning. It’s there in the thickly-layered, labyrinthine script, overlaid with songs and Oscar Wilde quotes, and yes, the occasional spaceship. It’s a mirrored die—look at it this way and it’s about artistic expression, look at it this way and it’s about sexual freedom, this side is a blistering commentary on the entertainment industry and this side is merely stars and glitter, the truth that image is everything. They’re all there, depending on what side of the screen you’re sitting on.

I was on the side where it played on a small tablet while I sat in bed, painting my nails black and glancing curiously at this oft-recommended, never-seen movie. I loved the not-so-subtle Bowie nods, sighed at the gloriously stacked cast, and fully succumbed to the glamorous theatricality. It was gorgeous and interesting, and I could see why people recommended it.

And then Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor) walked out to perform “TV Eye.” And I died. And then was brought back to life. And melted. And found the connection with this movie.


In her post, Amber traversed the characters, spotlighted connections with real-world figures and discussed the pull between cautionary-tale Tommy Stone and dream-of-possibility Brian Slade. I also got stuck up on the point of identity, but not so much the possibilities for what we could have in the future. My fascination was the disguise, the uncertainty, and the yearning for unfettered freedom of expression. While watching this film, I was Arthur Stuart, but yearning to be less Brian and more Curt.


Underneath the sparkles, what Goldmine did for me was spotlight the nervous search for self, in one way or another. We have the audience surrogate in Arthur, the insecure glam fan. Who sees the person he wants to be in Brian, who is fascinated with the stark openness he finds in glam rock. He imagines screaming at his television, “That’s me, that’s me!” when Brian flirts with the camera, but in real life he hides the Brian Slade records and wears sweaters over his sexual liberation support pins. Even when he tries to shed these layers, it doesn’t work. He sees the glance of more confident scenesters, and retreats into his world of repressed safety.

To parrot his words, that’s me. I was the hiding girl. I was the one listening to seventies rock in the basement, but wearing pastel button-ups and sensible shoes in the outside world. I wanted to be a rock star, wanted the ripped shirts and safety pins, wanted to wear black from tip to toe and layer on the eyeliner. But it was too much. Too ostentatious.

I stole my older brother’s plaid shirts, sinking into the delicious grunginess, but fearing to wear them outside. I tried once. My older sister laughed and asked what on earth I was doing. Retreat to the blouses.

I took baby steps, like Arthur and his scarves, his gentle blush, his transitions to eye shadow and dyed hair.

Arthur, whose entry was Brian, but whose exit differed quite a bit. Arthur’s self-actualization to his glamorous self came through Curt, the wild card, the true animal.

See, in the film there are only two ways to be a real person, to have an identity without drawing on the well of artistic plagiarism. There’s the divine transition, the heavenly gift bestowed by those on high, something apparently reserved for Jack Fairy and Oscar Wilde himself (and temporarily gifted to whomever has the emerald brooch). Those are the ones with true genius. The only other option? Insanity. Enter Curt.

bothCurt, who was too raving mad to concern himself with external acceptance. His wild  (excuse the pun) performance drew in Brian Slade, who took the best elements and carried them to mass success, but never forgetting and wanting the man who captivated him. It perpetuated the circle, Arthur idolizing Brian idolizing Curt.

Arthur gains a complete sense of self not when he sees Brian Slade perform, or when he goes all in to the scene. It’s when he sees the vulnerable side of the music, is exposed to the raw, unfinished edge that is Curt. When they come together, it’s more than an excuse for attractive men to get it on. It’s the two sides, uncertainty and unawareness, combining to form perfection for just a moment. It’s the cosmic balance of two forces making something whole.

Which is the goal of a full identity. It won’t be everything we imagine—it won’t be Brian Slade at his finest—but it will be something halfway there and altogether different. It’s Arthur’s bright shirts and clear eyes. It’s in my black nails and dark-lined eyes, complete with a nice shirt collar. It’s in embracing the identity you want, but morphing it with the reality of what you have.

Ecstasy’s the Birthright of Our Gang

Velvet Goldmine French movie posterLet me start off by saying that this post (and Cat’s post, coming Thursday) are going to be about Velvet Goldmine, one of my favourite films. I cannot guarantee they will be spoiler-free, which seems reasonable given the film came out in 1998 and it’s on Netflix. Additionally, you ought to know that my focus is going to be my own experience of and connection to the film. There have been plenty of analyses written; I seem to trip over a new one every once in a while still. If you want a good place to hunker down and read a lot, the general consensus is that Varda the Message is the place to go. Expectations set? Allons-y!

Now, in spite of what I said in the previous post, I suspect that the real reason we’re starting this blog with a glam month is that, as we walked to the EMP/SFM for our planning meeting for the blog, Cat and I talked about this film. She’d just seen it for the first time, and it had spoken to her. (Also, the shooting of Brian Slade happened on 5 February, so there’s another February reason for glam.)

Film still: Brian Slade in his concert regaliaMy own first viewing was pretty much as good as I could have asked for. An older friend (I say “older” not to point out that she was born before me but that I’ve generally seen her as wiser and more experienced)…An older friend who’d seen it previously knew enough about me to be sure I’d love it, so she invited me to come see it when a little independent cinema near us screened it. Middle of the day on a weekday, I walked out of the sunshine into the quiet and nearly-empty dark of the cinema. I watched it splashed across a big screen, overcome, no distractions, before emerging into the harsh glare of sunlight that scattered on the glitter I was wearing. Some films are best viewed on a large screen, with a booming sound system. This beautiful and musically-great film was one of those.

Film still beside the real life event (guitar fellatio)Undoubtedly, my friend knew I’d love this film because she saw the glam in me, she suspected the soundtrack would synch well with my other tastes of which she knew, and she knew I had a rather massive interest in David Bowie. To be clear, and you know this if you’ve read anything about the film, Bowie declined involvement in the film because it was unabashedly meant to kind of be about him and he didn’t like what he felt it would say about him. He’s never been shy about confirming the he didn’t care for the film. But those of us who’ve read about Bowie’s history can see where they blatantly ripped off and hyperbolised his life. No, this isn’t reality, but it’s very much like when they say a film or a programme is based on real events; we all know (I hope we all know) that there may be no more than a few little grains of truth. Fortunately, this isn’t based on my life story, so I’m free to enjoy it and simply smile or laugh at every one of the Bowie-inspired bits. (Bowie’s not the only person you’ll recognise in there, but you’ve watched it and already know. They aren’t even attempting subtlety. Ditching subtlety is generally the right call in glam.)

Film Still: Brian Molko of Placebo singingFor me, another great musical connection—aside from all the actual music—was that Placebo were in the film. Yes, there are plenty of actors that also made it appealing, but Placebo were and are, as noted in my last post, part of the recent glam scene (at least in my mind). Placebo and Bowie are 2/3 of my musical Trinity, so that was a lovely and appropriate little treat in the film for me. Given I’d hung a picture of Placebo’s lead singer on my wall, one torn from a magazine that came out during the Velvet Goldmine era, before I’d seen Velvet Goldmine, this might have been one more clue to my friend that I needed to see this film. Yes, needed.

Film Still: Dreamy couple, Brian Slade and Curt WildBecause this film, for me, was a loving music video made in tribute to the dream of glam, whilst acknowledging the reality of it. It showed the ideal, the fantasy we were reaching for…It showed the ways most of us fell short even at our best. I know I’m supposed to suggest some little-known album, but I’m not that guy. Instead, I’m the one who says that this is a good place to start if you think you’d like to get a feel for glam. You probably don’t even need to research the film, to learn all about which lines are actually Oscar Wilde quotes or the person on whom a particular character is based, in order to get the feel. (And then you can do research and check out our handful of entries this month on the blog if this cinematic love song speaks to you.)

Film Still: Brian Slade in his last song of the film, Tumbling DownFor me, the effect was like finding a letter written by a past self, full of hopes and plans and good intentions, calling me back to the things I’d set aside that had made my life richer. It said, “Here’s where you landed instead. Is that okay with you? You can probably make changes, reclaim your trajectory…if you want.” And, oh my stars, I wanted. As a self-examining type, I welcomed the chance to take stock of my past and my present, of what things my past had been influencing all my life—much of which I’d ceased to notice—and what things it needed to influence again. Did I want to grow up to be Tommy Stone or, with cautions from the film about how to cock it all up, become the best of the dream Brian Slade was pretending to pursue? And, when I went online to see who else was talking about this, I found I wasn’t the only one. I might be solo by nature and an inordinately big fan of myself, but I can’t deny that sometimes it’s easier to hold onto my true self when I’ve got friends who also appreciate the brilliance of my true self .

Film Still: Arthur Stuart and Curt Wild, the real dream couple of the film“We set out to change the world and ended up just changing ourselves.” I’ve been re-watching (again) as I write this post, and this line towards the very end has always just felt bleak. But tonight, I hear it as more of a challenge. Yes, of course, I want to change myself. But not the way they did in the film. I want to use it as a cautionary tale, not just a reminder of the dream. I want to change to be my best self and always feel unashamed of and glorious about that. And I also want to change the world, even if, like the characters, my personal changes fail to spread to the world at large. I want to make sure my words and music and very presence bring love and light, colour and hope (even if I favour a mostly-black wardrobe) into the grey and fractured world we humans have built. If I change only myself for the better or my light touches only a small corner, it’s still better than not changing, or trying to change, at all.

Even if you don’t enjoy glam music or aesthetics, even if you are appalled by the sexuality and excess that can be part of glam and certainly this film, you can still take up that challenge. When did you stop believing in something more than this grey world? When did you give up on joyful things and why? Because if we change ourselves, each of us individually, in bright ways, we can change the world.

Wham Bam Thank You Glam!

I suspect letting our first month be Glam Month (or, as I call it, month) was Cat’s way of making sure to suck me in early. Of course, that means I’m writing this introduction to the month’s topic without any precedents of length to follow, which could get dangerous. So I’m going to try to stick to “why glam?” in order to ward off excessive wordiness on my part. After all, if you want to know what glam is or what music is considered glam or any other Facts, you clearly have internet access and can hunt that down.

Why glam?album cover cropped with a black bar for anonymity

Because it spoke to tiny me. Due to the great luck of having a dad who loves rock music and not being the oldest kid in my family, I was raised on things other people’s parents considered noise. My family was pretty eclectic in their musical tastes, but the first thing I remember being struck by as a child was a glam album (and, yes, we’ll cover that later in the month). The first mental images that wee Amber had of what she wanted to grow up to be were all very “glam rockstar on stage” ones. And I’m sure my parents were thrilled with the glitter I trailed behind me any time I had a chance to touch the stuff. (Excess glitter from art projects was shaken off into my hair, naturally.)

Why glam?

shot of alan cummings in cabaret, naturallyBecause it was behind every bit of adolescent me. I’d grown up with this love of glam, even if I didn’t always know to call it that. As a teenager, that left me with no doubt that I ought to run to the theatre for a warm bosom to hide in (where I learned the thrill of applause, of creating costumes and makeup, of lighting done well).

As a teenager struggling with gender/sexism issues, even if I didn’t know to call it that at the time, the androgyny of glam felt right. It also meant that I was not using makeup in the fashion my parents expected when they bought it for me. And that makeup and the acting and costuming and uninhibited ardour for music and looking to the stars (there’s no denying the glam/scifi connection) bolstered me up enough to survive those years of literal and dangerous self-loathing. In a world that seemed ugly, I found that my dusting of glitter helped. That owning my atypical traits allowed me to make peace with (and eventually learn to love) them more effectively than trying to deny them ever had. Plus, as an adolescent, the strength and joy in sexuality, along with the whimsy of it and the cleverness of the subtler innuendos, finally made sense to me.

Why glam?

a super-glam era placeboBecause it kept me strongly myself once I left adolescence behind. As others gave in to pressures to, in every way “grow up” once they reached legal ages or particular adult achievements, I rarely saw that as a solution. I hesitate to condemn others’ paths, but I can see how wrong they would have been for me (yes, I made legitimate efforts a few times, and all ended in misery). I was just fine clinging to fairy stories and passionate love for aliens as I paid my bills. Glam, fortunately, didn’t fully disappear in the mid-70s. What seems to me a resurgence in the mid-90s meant it still felt relevant. Things like the film Velvet Goldmine (which I’ll write a post on next) or the band Placebo (who, to these eyes and ears, seem impacted by glam even if not obvious twins of the original bands who birthed and wallowed in the early years of glam) were new touchstones. Reminders that I wasn’t the only one who still felt that path. More to go to, along with all that came before, when I wanted to feel most in touch with myself, to be reminded of what has always spoken most strongly to me. And following the new touchstones led me to communities where I made some incredible, like-minded friends who make my life more beautiful.

Why glam?

Because lessons I learned watching and listening to glam bands inform me as I make and perform my own music. I don’t ape them, but I do owe them some thanks. (Small paragraph, but a massively important part of my life.)

Why glam?

a shot from the video with eyes blacked out for anonymityBecause a music video last year (and, yes, we’ll get to that this month as well) stopped me short. In a moment of self-analysis, of asking myself what felt most truly me and what I might have accidentally let recent events push me away from, I first saw this video. So, so glam. Dripping and oozing with so much of what spoke to me. And, pushing through my jealousy that someone else had gone there and I had not (yet…someday, I will…), I realised some of what had been set aside. I’m not claiming I’m 100% glam; I’m too multi-faceted and eclectic and in favour of not confining myself to labels to even consider that. But many of my most joyful and vibrant bits tie to my glam facets. And my understanding of my gender, of my attractions, of the social norms I’m turned off by certainly tie back to a three-year-old toddler in a flat on the other side of the ocean, wide-eyed, innocent, and dreaming of leaving a glitter trail to the stars.

Yes, glam leaves behind a little innocence, but the parts of me that dream deepest and that are most in touch with my unsullied and childlike self are rooted in that shimmering and magical place.

If you’re hunting down a general education on glam, I’d suggest you find (if possible; it’s not currently available on the official site), the two-part BBC Radio 6 Glory of Glam series. I’ve also just today received a parcel containing the Glam! The Performance of Style companion book (oh, how I wish I’d seen the exhibit…), and it looks promising.