- Some of This Actually Happened
“Some of this actually happened.” So states the epigraph that opens David O. Russell’s late 1970s period piece, American Hustle (2013). My attraction to this frank yet winking statement is that it might be the most honest claim any historian can make. As a media scholar who has attempted to train himself as a historian, I am often skeptical of reading fictions as historical evidence. Yet as a 1970s enthusiast born mid-decade (the week The Rocky Horror Picture Show  opened in the U.S., to be historically precise), I am interested in thinking through investments in moments that one almost lived through but doesn’t actually remember: a past just before one’s own experience that seems familiar or resonant.1 Is this just a curious form of nostalgia or a self-reflexively honest mode of historical consciousness? In this, perhaps, films can be more helpful as theory—explanatory lenses for how we make sense of the past now—than as a way to access the past itself.
Todd Haynes’s 1970s queer, glam-rock musical fantasia Velvet Goldmine opens with a more audacious epigraph: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should nevertheless be played at maximum volume” (1998). This proclamation of fiction is itself a coy reference to the back cover of David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which includes the instructions, “To be played at maximum volume” (1972). Velvet Goldmine invents a glittery and disorienting fantasy version of the past that is rigorously researched, yet it always exceeds the facts and screws with the details. This film very literally enacts a practice of queer historiography, if we understand queer to not only mean nonnormative or nonlinear (i.e., nonstraight) but also fabulous [End Page 301] in both its stylishness and its deployment of fantasy and self-invention for a community so long denied recognition in the so-called real world.
Velvet Goldmine is as nonchronological as memory and as temporally nonlinear as the search for historical evidence; indeed, the research process is rarely linear or teleological, and what makes an impression as historically important or meaningful is subjective. At key moments, the film is temporally disorienting and also fabulously blurs what was, what was performed, and what was imagined.2 Velvet Goldmine approaches the concept of a subcultural queer golden age as always already self-mythologizing and understands that any understanding of the past is always speculative and therefore a fusion of fact and fabulation.3 We might remember that in such seminal and fascinating key films of the late 1980s and early 1990s new queer cinema—including Looking for Langston (1989), The Making of Monsters (1991), Orlando (1992), Swoon (1992), and later The Watermelon Woman (1996)—perverting history was a recurring device for radically imagining the world otherwise or for offering queer countervisions of the past. Queer cinema, contemporaneous with the emergence of queer theory—and arguably intertwined with its formation—presented a project of retrospeculation, of seeing a different historical narrative that was not bound to separations of fact and fiction or between past and present.4
Fantasy, of course, existed in queer and feminist texts of the 1970s—probably most prominently in gay male pornography and lesbian feminist science fiction. But there was also a radical impulse to manifest a queer and feminist actuality in the then-present rather than merely speculate. Even The Rocky Horror Picture Show urges us to be literal in our empowerment: “Don’t dream it. Be it” (1975).
A refusal to speculate was what most struck me upon recently encountering Chris Hegedus’s and D. A. Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, which represents a 1971 panel discussion on feminism featuring Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch), Jill Johnston (author of Lesbian Nation), Jacqueline Ceballos (former president of the National Organization for Women), Diana Trilling (literary critic), and moderator Norman Mailer (male writer). In the final question during the audience Q&A, a straight man queries, in essence, what intercourse will be like after women’s liberation has been achieved...