Director Todd Haynes is no stranger to supercerebral, hep film projects melding style and substance. Haynes has tackled subjects as different as the progressive potential of Douglas Sirk-style melodrama in Far from Heaven and contemporary alienation in Safe. His high-water mark, in my mind, was the swooning paean to glam and idol lust, Velvet Goldmine.
Haynes is a director in the high-falutin' tradition of Fassbinder and Godard, as mesmerized by ideas as he is by film form. An art and semiotics major at Brown University, Haynes has spent his film career examining the intersection of politics and art, film genre and the flux of gender and identity in a postmodern age.
In his latest effort, I'm Not There, Haynes revisits this intersection. The result is an ambitious and smart, but also muddled and overloaded, biopicture of the enigmatic singer/songwriter Bob Dylan.
Variously cartoonish and grave, despondent and giddy, I'm Not There takes the full measure of Dylan – sexist, lover, pundit, prophet, egoist, activist, sage and cipher – with all the attention-deficit order that implies. Playing off yet another of Haynes' ongoing interests – the fluidity of identity – I'm Not There features six different actors playing different (and fictionalized) incarnations of Dylan, including a mind-blowing turn by Cate Blanchett. The head-swimming impersonations extend to I'm Not There's music, a cacophony of covers from Christian Bale, Yo La Tengo and Tom Verlaine, among others, along with original music from the freewheeling man himself.
Each actor speaks to a different Dylan "type": heartbreaker (Heath Ledger), precocious folkie (11-year-old black actor Marcus Carl Franklin), political firebrand (Ben Whishaw), born-again (Bale), middle-aged outlaw fugitive (Richard Gere) and rebel iconoclast (Blanchett).
Dylan, like the times, is always a-changing – not one fixed sign, but a multitude of them. Who among us hasn't felt like different people during the many turns in our lives from childhood to adulthood?
In addition to its thespian stew, Haynes' film melds an equally inspired array of styles and film allusions. There are nods to everyone and everything from Beatles' chronicler Richard Lester and Dylan documentarian D.A. Pennebaker to the coffee-stained browns of Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the crisp black-and-white psychodrama of John Schlesinger's Darling. The approach gives the film a comprehensive feel for the many cinematic eras Dylan occupied. Like another formalist-nostalgic director, Marc Forster, Haynes does not merely sample film style but burrows into it, excavating and enlivening it for our time.
I'm Not There forgoes a soup-to-nuts survey of Dylan's life from childhood to middle age, and instead attempts to convey the idiosyncratic texture of Dylan's life and times in a nonlinear and deeply impressionistic fashion. There is his investment in the radical politics of the 1960s and his born-again Christianity in the late '70s. With his coiffed curls, Bale delivers a powerful, frumpy and soulful performance as the churchy Dylan. During an amusing vignette meant to evoke the Newport Folk Festival moment when Dylan went electric, depressed folkies bemoan the rejection by Dylan (Blanchett, here known as Jude) of acoustic.
Blanchett's Dylan is reminiscent of the frazzled, haughty Dylan captured in Pennebaker's 1967 cinema verite documentary, Don't Look Back. Skulking through cocktail parties and cutting journalists to ribbons, Blanchett seals her reputation as a Houdini shaking off the chains of self to embody the flux of the Other. If Haynes' film is about anything other than the multiplicity of Big Daddy Dylan, it is about the alchemy of acting, and how performers embody people radically unlike themselves. Blanchett, as Haynes has pointed out, goes beyond impersonation into the metaphysical, reanimating and rendering Dylan new and strange all over again by virtue of her gender.
But her performance is also the kind of vexing stunt that can make the film's other segments feel emotionally and stylishly impoverished by comparison. Especially alienating are the cryptic passages with Whishaw and the annoyingly non sequitur ones with Richard Gere. Haynes certainly captures the quicksilver dimension to Dylan even as he threatens to leave all but the most diehard fans floundering for meaning amid the theoretical macrame.
Haynes has been down a similar musical road before with Velvet Goldmine. More about a scene than a man, that film often focused on the fan-based nature of music and the powerful swirl of eros, identity and nostalgia that music can inspire in people. I'm Not There takes an entirely different approach. Fixated not on the complicated love, lust, pathos and frustration of fandom, I'm Not There instead strives to convey the magnitude of a musical icon.
Haynes' film is undeniably smart, but in other ways it feels conventional in its deference to the Great Man view of pop-culture history.
Dylan is a legend and more, but he is also just a man, and in making him into a myth, Haynes' idea of a biography is not really so different than all the movies, from Ray to Walk the Line, that have come before it.