You Ain't Goin' Nowhere
Writer/director Todd Haynes on Dylan, Sturm und Drang, and the long shadow of the Sixties
Has Todd Haynes reinvented the biopic? Is I'm Not There this year's Walk the Line or Ray, with fancier editing and a tarot deck of Dylans? Starring Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Richard Gere as multiple manifestations of a singular artist not named Bob Dylan, the film is much stranger and more difficult than that. If casting Blanchett against gender as the most human and thoroughly Dylan-esque of these figures comes as perversely little surprise, it's a tribute to both the actress, whose performance the movie can barely contain, and the director. Remember, this is the same artist whose initial notoriety arose not merely from casting Barbie in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story but for making us believe in and care for her.
Throughout his career, Haynes has considered the lives and work of artists, both directly (Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, Velvet Goldmine) and indirectly (Poison, Far From Heaven), to attack the eminently Dylan-esque question, "How does it feel?" But reinventing the biopic? He did that in his short films. As I talk with Todd Haynes over the phone about his prismatic and slippery I'm Not There, I can't help thinking what he's really reinvented is the Todd Haynes film.
Austin Chronicle: I'm Not There could maybe describe any of your films about artists, which seem to be less about biography than about this intangible thing that isn't the artist, the experience of art.
Todd Haynes: Yeah, that's exactly what I always feel. I'm not really trying to materialize the corporeal dimensions but really trying to get at what a person did in their life and the art. But I do think that Dylan's there. He's totally there in the work in the making of the work.
AC: That can create this illusion of contact, even intimacy, with the artist, acting like a drug, that can even be kind of dangerous.
TH: It's definitely a part of what I think this film is about. But a big difference between I'm Not There and Velvet Goldmine, for instance, is that Velvet Goldmine is about the fan's experience, and this is definitely much more about trying to get at Dylan. This one really isn't seen through the eyes of the fans or the worshippers. It's more about the mind of the artist and the places that takes him, the Sturm und Drang.
And the way you describe it, there is this kind of extra kick, this closeness to the art that feels like it's another person, but it isn't. It's one of the things that creates this extra, wild flash of desire around Dylan, this intense sense of desire around him, how he refuses to fulfill that, creating more desire, that endless swirling and frustration.
With great popular music, there can be this very deep emotional effect on you, even in cases where it's not such a personal expression. I just find that to be insanely fascinating, and so then, like for instance with glam rock, it can be this thing coming out of the airwaves, this thing that completely unwrites the rules of our social traditions and codes and how we're supposed to behave as straight or gay people and what all that means.
But you know, people confuse [narrative] film with writing or with documentary experience, that it has to have a rationality and a complete legibility. And all great films never rely just on those elements. They're always working in visceral and visual and emotive process that has to do with how we read narrative through the experience. Maybe because they're more than the sum of their parts or maybe actually less.
I mean, that's the amazing thing about Hitchcock, for instance, is that the story really comes down to such simple – and primitive – impulses and connections. Those stories can be the simplest, mean, reductive ways to show something but also carry in the images all these complex feelings and signals. So they kind of have to work almost diagrammatically. I mean, I don't really like to say it like that, because it sounds bad, and I don't mean it that way. I think the film of mine that works most that way is Far From Heaven. It's all about this simplicity.
I heard a story from a mom who got it on DVD and watched it with a 3-year-old kid and was kind of just hoping he would go to sleep while she watched it. And at the end the kid was awake and crying. And [he] was saying, "Why can't that nice man be with that nice lady?" and that just blew me away. I mean, that's how it's supposed to be.
AC: You often re-create specific, historical film styles in your work. It's interesting here, where a character pointedly critiques a Dylan figure for being derivative, not being of his own time, while the film itself works from older forms, not quite of its time, either.
TH: I don't feel that I work any other way. I work by detour and complete immersion in something else, in another language that I'm learning and teaching myself, trying to get at some molecular accuracy about a time that I'm exploring for other reasons.
And yet I don't think that there's anything that isn't artificial. If you try to make work that's of its time and place and moment, that's still an artificial thing.
We are always inheriting languages and tropes. And in film, there's a machine called production, and when a director doesn't have a point of view, you have a crew that goes ahead and lights it a certain way and shoots it a certain way, and the actors take a certain approach to get the job done. And you have to stop that from happening. You have to stop people from falling into the automatic point of view, and when you see a film, those automatic things are an example of our contemporary moment. ... The imprint of its time. I mean, if you watch Dirty Dancing, which is supposed to take place in the Sixties, you know you're really watching a movie that is entirely the Eighties. And normally we can't see that. We can't see that imprint while we're in it.
AC: That makes sense, but I still wonder – and maybe it's impossible to talk about this – how do you see this film in relation to its time?
TH: Well, I think there's all kinds of ways that we can't stop thinking about the 1960s, and that's evident in the film. I felt the sad, strange hauntings, this return of that while I was writing the script, cooped up at home in Portland, working alone on this amazing job but completely helplessly watching the events of the Iraq war bringing us back around to this. In that, while I was writing, I felt closest to the Claire character [Charlotte Gainsbourg in I'm Not There], who we see mostly at home alone, experiencing Vietnam through the TV.
But at the same time, I felt like we couldn't be farther from what was going on then, in terms of how much more wealthy and distanced a culture we are now. But the fact is there's still a reaction formation to the Sixties that's going on, that's been happening for so long. I think the entire conservative era we're living through is a reaction to the Sixties. And maybe we're seeing a turn now away from that, the Goldwater reaction culminating in the current apotheosis of criminality and violence. But with just the slightest exceptions, I really did not consciously tailor the script to make those connections. I feel like I didn't have to do it consciously. It's all there. If I just attended to the specifics of that era, those tensions and connections would emerge.
But there's a scene in the movie in a scene where Heath is eschewing political rhetoric to the dismay of a couple friends. He's saying something like, "You think it's all this right-wing conspiracy that's gonna drug us with happy pills and shove the Bible down our throat." I thought it was funny that the most extremist, radical, hippy things about the future from the 1960s have been totally validated by events.
AC: In another way, I'm Not There seems particularly extreme in making up its own form even while consciously borrowing so much, and I recall an early interview with you, in which you said that you felt story structures have to be altered to represent certain experiences – that, for instance, for you as a gay man it wouldn't be enough to simply put two men in place of a man and a woman to truthfully get at your experience of desire or romance. Can you say what you felt this time out that drove the collage form of this movie?
TH: There again, I use the recourse of historical specificity as my own means to challenge formal traditions, because radical events have always happened in these traditions, and it's part of the process of how narratives change and become outmoded. Because of that, sometimes we forget the amazing things they do. I know I bring my own weird perspective and my own artistic stamp, for sure, but I feel like that's the thing that you get while you're not looking.
But I just found that the formal and stylistic experiments that Dylan underwent and explored in the musical form were also being explored and exploded in cinema at that time. The way linear narrative was being played with in all different ways. The way the linear time continuum was being thrown up in the air in those years in popular cinema to express all these things that people were really connecting with. What's amazing was that European art cinema was popular cinema at the time, and so that became a language for dealing with these radical things that Dylan was doing, primarily in that period, as well as throughout his career.
AC: And the structure of very different but interweaving parts of I'm Not There makes me think of some of the most formally radical films of the Sixties that just really threw it all in a blender. But most extreme work was created very organically, through shooting and editing, and there couldn't be scripts. This has those qualities, but it's also obviously written, so just how did you write it?
TH: Well, it is very scripted. Most people don't see it ... as an understandable process. They think maybe it's a structure you create in the editing room, and maybe you could if you had endless money and you could call in actors at a whim, but, of course, none of those things were possible. So all the thematic elements, the idea of introducing the versions of the character in the story in chronological order, I had to find the ways that that could be scripted [as something we could shoot] and weave together. But you know, it's funny, the script actually had more intercutting than the finished film did. We have bigger uninterrupted chunks of each of these stories, and that was an area where we were able to loosen it up in the editing. I mean, you think about the density of the film, and it was even more so in the script. The cinematic references were there, and the songs.
But it really was an impossible script and is described that way by the actors and people who came on board regardless and had no idea what it would be, which makes it all the more miraculous that it got made and that so many people stood by and defended it. There was always this reservoir of faith, and I always knew it would be much more joyous and exhilarating that the reading of the script was or could be. I mean, there's just the brevity of an image and how much it can do at once, how much you get onscreen, that doesn't make as much sense on the page. So the rhythm of it wasn't evident at all in the script.
AC: And in that rhythm, there's something really wild. You've got multiple figures for Dylan, but you don't quite feel the presence until Cate Blanchett arrives pretty far into the movie, and it's like everybody's just been talking about this person, almost like the arrival of Harry Lime in The Third Man.
TH: No, I know, we're in this sort of marketing discussion right now, whether we should be going for best actress or supporting or what in our campaign, but I just realized the whole film, as you describe, is a setup for a monumental performance and a monumental Dylan. The casting enigma is the leading point of discussion people have going into it, this hook that gets people in. It's very teasing and almost a send-up. And that has a lot to do with this Dylan.
But it's a performance that completely, amazingly survives all that. ... So, yeah, it is the leading performance. And I'm not ashamed of that. And, really, maybe that period, the Blonde on Blonde and electric moment, is the leading performance of Dylan's career ... and Dylan is the ultimate performer. Cate really gets to the root in a way that defines his powers and frustrating constant disavowal of himself. Because he lives and dies in this moment of performance.
I’m Not There opens in Austin on Wednesday, Nov. 21.