To fully grasp every nuance of "I'm Not There," Todd Haynes' film that's not quite about Bob Dylan, it might help to be well versed in 1960s art, music, culture, counterculture, Federico Fellini, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud and, of course, the entire oeuvre and history of Bob Dylan.
Short of that, an open mind will suffice.
The film's working title was "I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan," the subheading seeming to warn onlookers not to expect a traditional biopic, or even a direct look at the subject. Instead, Haynes ("Far From Heaven," "Safe") uses six characters to portray facets of Dylan at different stages in his life and career. That Cate Blanchett is playing the "electric" Dylan garnered attention even before the film made the festival rounds earlier this year. Her performance as "Jude" earned her best actress honors at the Venice Film Festival, with early reviews out of Telluride and Toronto describing her work -- and Haynes' distinct visual gifts and imagination -- as exemplary.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 11, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit: A photograph of director Todd Haynes in last Sunday's Calendar was incorrectly credited to Jonathan Wenk of the Weinstein Co. It was shot by Carolyn Kaster of Associated Press.
Blanchett's performance is worth the hype, but what's even more telling is that her section of the film is probably the most conservative, or at least most closely hews to the facts as people know them. Other stories that intercut with hers include that of a black child, Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), who's riding the rails; a disheveled poet named Arthur (Ben Whishaw) sitting through an interrogation; an aging renegade (Richard Gere) watching as his rural way of life is destroyed; a movie star (Heath Ledger) whose marriage dissolves; and a folk singer (Christian Bale) who is later born again into yet another character. Together, they make up a portrait of Dylan that is as mercurial and at times impenetrable as the artist himself.
"I decided I would throw out everything I thought I knew and start over," said Haynes of how he approached his subject. (He directed the film from a script he co-wrote with Oren Moverman.) Speaking by phone from his home in Portland, Ore., he sounds as passionate as if he just started working on the project yesterday, rather than seven years ago. "I began with Dylan's music and biography and all of his influences." That list includes Dylan's contemporaries as well as Woody Guthrie, the Beats, French symbolist poetry and Bertolt Brecht. "There was such a cross-pollination of ideas and an incredible hunger for them, particularly in the Greenwich Village scene of the early '60s."
That era informed the way the '60s scenes were shot. Haynes took delight in the radical artistic experimentation of the period. Said Haynes, "Even if you look at Life magazine layouts throughout the decade, there's an ad in 1966 that literally looks like a Godard poster, but it's for lipstick." His reference material included "The Conquest of Cool," Thomas Frank's book on the advertising campaigns of the period. "That intelligence, that sophistication was actually on Life magazine pages way before it was the way Dylan was being photographed on the covers of his new cutting-edge record," he said. "It's not that counterculture changed the society -- that's really the thesis of that book -- it's that the society was changing and it was hitting every single sector, and sometimes it was hitting the commercial sectors before it was hitting the artistic sectors."
Haynes' extensive research found its way to the screen in myriad ways, resulting in an adherence to the spirit of Dylan more than to the letter of his experiences. Even so, "Everything in the film comes from something that was said, that was written, an account, an interview, or lyrics of a song or published writings of his," Haynes said. "It all comes from the universe of Dylan, and of course that universe is constantly changing and debating and bickering." The resulting refractions are often contradictory. "They basically all unwrite each other as much as they are writing themselves, and so, unlike a standard biopic, which gives you the single truth about people, this one doesn't do that or claim to," he explained.
Long before Haynes immersed himself in the '60s, the era made its impression on him. "I remember going to see '2001' with my dad," he said. "I felt I was taking a trip, and that that's all that mattered. When I finally saw '[A] Clockwork Orange,' I didn't really understand it all, but it didn't matter. The sheer force of the images and the rhythms and the music and what was disturbing and what was funny and what was ironic about these films was why you went." Haynes decries the digestibility of much of today's films -- they demand nothing from the audience. "And that wasn't true for a lot of films from this era, and it's not true for Dylan's music."