“There Is No Time/There Is No Time”

The Velvet Underground (2021)

Lou Reed in The Velvet Underground (2021) | Art by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

Of course music is time travel, it shuttles sound through space! It pranks the cadence of breathing! There is the tempo of lived life—‘normal time’—and then there’s the wiggling of the hanging air; once wiggled, air marches differently. The human ear perceives that wiggle as peal or pierce, ring or plop, maybe boom tinkle ring whonk weet. No matter what descriptor language attaches, the ear’s perceiving is proof enough of time traveled, which is to say, proof of the changeability of ‘normal time.’ 

This changeability tensionizes linearity, that cruelest master of human existence assumed to be God. ‘Time travel’—especially as it relates to changes in the air of reality—represents an opportunity to de-master what feels inevitable, kill God in the time slide.

Another kind of creation: in the beginning was nothing, a dark room. Then there was noise, a drone you feel in the throat, and then the word—“Music fathoms the sky…Baudelaire”—and then the word sank away and the nothing leapt into greater noise, a screech wheeling through the nothing, feedbacking the sky, teaching the ear to move. And then? An advertisement, a canned choir, a cigarette commercial: it’s September 1963. Once the historical record hits The Velvet Underground, it’s out of order, out of time. 

The Velvet Underground, Todd Haynes’ ninth feature film, is not inevitable. Haynes was tapped to produce a film about the band in 2017. The ensuing cultural object is his first documentary and didn’t premiere until 2021, at Cannes. Telling a visual story of the Velvet Underground—let alone trying to tell the visual story of them—feels impossible, or at least futile. There are some obvious formal limitations: despite the flood of image—moving or otherwise—that emerged from Andy Warhol’s Factory in the mid-‘60s, there isn’t much archival footage of the Velvets actually performing. Their influence feels monumental but mostly in adage and anecdote, a story left to critics to spin in language, like Haynes does in his Director’s Note: “This was music that singled you out, identified you not only as someone who suffers and transgresses but who believes in it. This was music that aroused creative desire.”

And then, of course, the holes in re-rendering this history in 2017: Andy Warhol, the group’s patron/‘producer’/friend (this last word is maybe the best), died in 1987, and spent much of the post-Velvet years soured by the bad breakup. Founding member Sterling Morrison, whose sonic voice litters the band’s morphs, died in 1995. Lou Reed, the magmatic center of a centerless group, died in 2013. Lou, of course, spent most of his life cheerfully telling lies to anybody trying to get the truth out of him.

The Velvets were antagonistically creative, injecting Lou’s pop with John Cale’s drone theory before letting the sound spill over backwards. Moe Tucker drummed like the fossil record, not keeping time but making it. Sterling annotated it all, every guitar solo an essay (the asking of one question!) articulated in the perceived chaos. They improvised to stay alive; their story is mercury moving in the dark. To try and corral it into a rigid visual language—four sides that make a screen, one line that makes a runtime—risks missing what made their artmaking so vital, risks missing truth for history.

“The premise of fact and fiction being blurred together is something that I’ve very much embraced in the films I’ve made about musical subjects, like my Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There, and my glam rock movie, Velvet Goldmine,” Haynes said. These words ping Jordan Peele’s kino-eyed monster movie, Nope: when OJ and Em try to entice a vaunted cinematographer to help them capture footage of their unidentified flying whatever, Em tells him the project is about “reality,” which immediately disinterests him. It’s only when she corrects to “documentary” that he listens back in. “That’s better.” 

Reality is history. Documentary is a theory of reality, not the phenomenon itself. In documentary, Haynes is liberated to theorize living and telling and storying. He’s free to feedback the story of the Velvet Underground. He’s free to time travel.

 The Velvet Underground is a film that unfurls tectonic around the band. It bubbles in fragments in a space of simultaneous destabilization and evolution. Lou is conjured, as is Sterling, in rejiggered archival audio footage, and Haynes edits still and moving images with wisps of text (“VOICE OF LOU REED”) and present-day talking head interviews of John and Moe. Warhol’s screen tests, looking crisper than ever, appear and fade out, populate various parts of the screen at the same time. The effect is of a band constantly fissuring, studying itself out of time. It opposes its totality. “It’s useful for you to be antagonistic,” Cale says in now (“now”), speaking almost literally to himself as an image of a younger-Cale appears. “Because you, you define a position and you define the opposite position and build something out of that.” Cale is describing, incidentally, one of Eisenstein’s theories of montage. 

This antagonization of time—how else to conceive of ‘time travel’?—lingers the most, elevating Haynes’ documentary above the staid and frankly conservative history of rock docs that precedes it. If the Velvets turned the barrier between pop and the avant-garde into a porous membrane, The Velvet Underground approaches this seemingly least experimental mode (reality) with as much intentional destabilization as experimental art can levy. In its trans-time point of view, the film punctures the contradictions of lived life, sees the doo-wop inside ambient music, the gay bar in Father Knows Best-era America, the possibility of Warhol’s Factory to produce compelling and provocative art, and the equal possibility for that Factory to chew and spit and regurgitate participants willing to give it all up for attention.

Of course, film is time travel, too. Film juxtaposes stillness (photography) with linearity (‘normal time’) and allows the human eye to see (move) in ways it does not in reality. By colliding still images off of other still images, film creates not only perceived motion but also real movement. Editing is what gets left out and what gets included, and film is the phenomenon of tracking those cuts. ‘Montage’ is the occasionally-ribbed technique by which cinematic spaces and times are collapsed. That montage is also formally at the heart of what cinemas cinema—there is no film without the collision of images—means there is no cinema without the conscious manipulation of time.

In colloquial terms, ‘montage’ is usually accompanied by music. Distance gets traveled in an instant, and instants (something like the occurrences of air) get wiggled into music. This pranking reality can be played for jokes—the Muppets are all over the possibilities of montage, as when they break physics to accelerate mundane tasks or travel by map—but the same pranking can also puncture inevitable readings of physical space by appealing to emotional registers. In Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon, when the story needs to move to New York, the cut is literally on a music cue—on “The Ostrich,” that strychnine stomp of Lou and John’s pre-Velvet group, the Primitives. There’s something emotionally New York in this wiggle, the Long Island whine, the shake-it-‘til-you-make-it. It’s not ‘the real New York,’ but it could be, at least for a celluloid moment. Imagine expanding that possibility beyond its vinyl pressing.

The Velvet Underground imagines. Even more than the inherent wibbling that emerges in its edits, it’s the film’s occupations/experiments with expanded time that establish it as not only a worthy history of this sound but a co-conspirator. The volatile, plastic improvisation the Velvets would come to inhabit emerges as Haynes sketches an evolution through La Monte Young’s profoundly long performances of singular drone tones (La Monte: “… and you begin to realize that there are new places in sound that you can find a home”) and Cale’s burgeoning fascination with fusing rock and roll to ambient repetitions (Cale: “…what I really liked in most of the rock and roll that was going on was the repetitive nature of riffs and what was the one riff that you could create that would exist and live happily throughout the entire song, and drone was obviously one of them”). ‘Drone’ and ‘loop’ saturate The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), ‘riff’ amphetaminizes on White Light/White Heat (1968); all are different, complementary strategies for telling and timing a moment.

 Actress and film critic Amy Taubin—one of the most incisive present-day talking heads The Velvet Underground features—ties this sounding and resounding back to film: “The thing that’s always interesting about the Warhol silents is the reason they’re unreal is they’re supposed to be shown at 16 frames a second, which means that the people in those images are breathing and their hearts are beating in a different time frame than yours is while you watch it.” In thinking of La Monte alongside Warhol’s visual time manipulations—from spliced-irregular, as in Kiss (1963), to epicly unreal, as in Empire (1965)—Taubin gestures towards varying methods for de-timing reality, or maybe un-realitying time: “Warhol, avant-garde film, and avant-garde music—it was all about extended time.” It is, then, all about more life.

 In its fragments, its gradations and flirtations with the experimental ambience it’s quote-unquote about, The Velvet Underground renders not a history of a band or even a moment but an alternative lens to re-collect (literally, re-touch) history. What has so far appeared to be a stylistic exercise—The Velvet Underground is seldom only showing one image at a time, usually fitting multiple moving images on its cinematic canvas—becomes not only a way to communicate meaning between images but also time. Impossible, out of time moments share cinematic space. Implausible resolutions become visible. 

Haynes teaches the viewer how to see the film right from the get-go, right after the Baudelaire screech and the commercial assault, not yet five minutes into the film: the screen splits and John Cale inhabits one side, playing the to-be-repeated passage from Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” Lou Reed inhabits the other, blinking lashes and smirking no-smile emanating through history from this Warhol screen test. The licks of “The Wind” by Nolan Strong & the Diablos just touch Cale’s plinking repetitions. There is no separating the experimental and the pop; they occur in the same contradictory moment, so long as art makes them that way. There is no separating one time from another, so long as people make it that way.

If there is a time travel mechanism to art itself, it exists to disprove—just as art does—the inevitability of what seems set, what constitutes a mainstream, a narrative, an ending. The Velvet Underground ends, first with a blazing montage of images, the strains of their unreleased track “Ocean” lapping the movement. Instead of sharing space, images now flurry past the eye’s ability to perceive them, sometimes becoming still—a shot of Sterling getting his PhD in Medieval Studies; of Moe drumming in the ‘90s; of Lou and John’s reunion and their tribute to Andy, Songs For Drella (1990)—but mostly unfolding chronologically. Faces get older, lined, shaggier. People are lost along the way. “Here comes the waves,” Lou sings, the Velvets’ outtake now having transitioned to an acoustic version, just his voice in one time seeing it all move at another. The presence of a song, the existence of a recording, the possibility to re-encounter that recording is proof enough of the treachery of ‘normal time.’ 

Maybe this is the end of The Velvet Underground. And maybe this is after, or before, or the same time: 

Lou Reed sits with his right hand on his face. A red phone rings and he picks it up. He waggles a hand. “It’s Barbara,” he says to someone else in the room. Back into the phone: “Oh, don’t be silly, just get something over here quick.” The video fuzzes, melty VHS warp. The camera pans to the person Lou was talking to, to Andy. “Do you like the way the colors go in that?” Lou asks, Andy flipping through a book. “They’re very strange.”

 “Who’s this one person?” Andy asks, pointing to an outstretched book. “That’s Sterling.” Someone off camera asks, “Do you still see any of them?” Lou says, “Yeah I saw, uh, Maureen last week.” He lifts his left hand to his face, and the voice presses: “You still in contact with John? John Cale?”

 “Yeah, I heard from him the other day,” he says. And Lou smiles, drags a cigarette. The film fades to black, to nothing. Maybe it stays that way or maybe a viola whine starts, a guitar peels. “Music fathoms the sky,” Baudelaire wrote. Nothing is inevitable, but every thing can be returned to, so long as people make it that way.