Todd Haynes Offers His Bob Dylan

He knows it might not be your Bob Dylan

Though we first met back in 1991, when the NEA-funded homoeroticism of his first aboveground feature, Poison, was rattling the halls of Congress, Todd Haynes and I bonded in April of 1995, when we served as jurors for the short-film competition at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. On our day off from jury duty, we went downtown and visited Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum created out of the former Texas School Book Depository and came to the immediate conclusion that not only did Lee Harvey Oswald "do it," but that shooting fish in a barrel would have presented a greater angle of difficulty.

As excited as I was by Haynes' prospects then, I never could have imagined they would take the shape they have or move so swiftly into the sightlines of a large public—first with Safe, released two months after our Dallas confab, his drama about a woman suffering from an "environmental illness" that does double duty as a metaphor for AIDS; then, three years later, Velvet Goldmine, which detailed the polymorphous perversity of the glam rock era; then, in 2002, Far From Heaven, a full-blown re-creation of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk that dealt frankly with subjects Sirk couldn't have touched: interracial love and gay husbands bursting out of the closet.

But rather than move further into the mainstream, Haynes has taken his most radical leap to date with I'm Not There, which opened in Dallas last weekend. Initially subtitled "Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan" but now more modestly labeled as "Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan," it features six different actors playing six differently named characters that either embody or reflect aspects of Dylan's life and art, ranging from Christian Bale as the Dylan of early fame and born-again Christianity to Ben Whishaw as an enigmatic Dylanesque who calls himself Arthur Rimbaud to Heath Ledger as an actor who plays a Dylan-type character in a film-within-the-film.

That's not to mention Marcus Carl Franklin as a black 11-year-old who calls himself "Woody Guthrie," Richard Gere in a period setting as Billy the Kid and, most queer-radical of all, Cate Blanchett as "Jude," a '60s-era pop star whose frizzy hair, sardonic manner and controversial penchant for electric guitar plainly represent the Dylan of his most artistically aggressive period. Add Julianne Moore as someone not unlike Joan Baez, Charlotte Gainsbourg evoking both Dylan's important girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his first wife, Sara Lowndes, cinematography that veers from black and white to color and back again, and a host of Dylan covers by a raft of contemporary artists, and you've got yourself two hours and 15 minutes of rich and strange filmmaking that's seldom been seen before.

Coming after Far From Heaven—your My Own Private Idaho, as it were—this is the point at which you should be making your Good Will Hunting. But you've gotten more experimental rather than less.

[Laughs.] Well, [with Dylan] I had quite a standard to live up to in terms of not shying away from challenging the popular form. And I took that very much to heart with this film.

If you want to know what was on people's minds in that era, the best way is to listen to some of those songs. And [D.A. Pennebaker's documentary] Dont Look Back was quite the deal. There are little bits of Dont Look Back in I'm Not There, but you don't really use it as a template. The main movie you're "sampling" is 8 1/2;, which strikes some people as truly odd.

The reason for 8 1/2 in that part of the film is that, basically, I was looking for cinematic references for getting to the root of each of these little stories and what they were about—how to differentiate them. And usually that had everything to do with the music that was defining that particular period of Dylan or phase of Dylan or psyche of Dylan. And in the "Jude" story, I knew I wanted to do it in black and white. The very first movie proposition that came to mind was Dont Look Back, of course. But when I was thinking of the music of that period—Highway 61 and especially Blonde on Blonde—I very quickly realized that Dont Look Back, a cinema verité masterwork, is far from the sensibility of the music at that point in Dylan's career. It didn't take me long to come up with 8 1/2 and find in that film, and in Fellini in general at that time, what I thought was a beautiful parallel to that sensibility of Dylan's—baroque but utterly urbane.

Your film seems to be directed at an audience that knows a lot of things, like about Dylan's novel Tarantula, and therefore will react when you show an actual tarantula onscreen. On the other hand, the extreme Dylan fan may be very upset by what you've done. Of course, you don't go through his garbage like [Dylan to English Dictionary author] A.J. Weberman, but I can imagine some people seeing you that way.

I didn't intend it. I wasn't tailoring the film to people who would pick up on every single reference. They're all there to be found, to be discovered—if you choose to do so. But to my mind, the film doesn't rest on that extra knowledge, that secondary level. All films are made up of references, whether they're conscious or not, whether they're generic returns to certain forms or references to other films we've seen before. The audience is "reading" all the time, but not cognitively. This film just takes that further and has every component of it come out of the Dylan universe. But if it doesn't work purely on a sort of graphic and gut level as well, then it isn't really working.

In watching the movie, there's a kind of generalized logic to why we're moving from one story to another and one style to another. But there are many people who will have never seen anything like this before. I think there are going to be a lot of people very angry with you over this for reasons that they can't quite explain. There's a kind of sneaky audacity to doing a movie like this—an "art movie" for a general public. You're prepared for a backlash, I trust?

I am, but I was prepared for a lot more of it than I've been receiving. You may have encountered resistance in conversations with some people you know, but the general reaction to the film has been good. I've been stunned at how positive people have been and that they've just let it all flow. But believe me, I was prepared for the contrary in today's market. I was resolved to not care, to just let it be in the world and take the time it takes to be appreciated. Instead, starting with the premiere in Venice and the awards we got right away, the reception has been open and warm. I don't mind trying to talk to people about it and helping them relax a little bit. But again, as you say, it's the kind of movie people aren't prepared for today. That doesn't mean we were at other times—particularly the time the film's reflecting. When I went to see 2001 with my dad at age 7 or 8, you went to that film, and so many other films, to not understand it. That was the excitement—to go and have interpretations, to see it again and basically go on a trip that was not cognitive, that was not rational, but that was so ultimately cinematic that you couldn't look away.

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