Todd Haynes is one of the most intelligent filmmakers our country has to offer. The question remains, however, whether his intelligence allows for any emotion to come through in his films. I think it does, but it's not an obvious, worn-on-your-sleeve type of emotion; it's the type that takes a little self-analysis to discover. For example, his great film Safe (1995), which was voted the best film of the decade in the Village Voice poll of 1999, left me feeling queasy and unpleasant, and my initial reaction was to blame the film for it. But those were precisely the types of emotions I was supposed to be feeling after seeing a story about a sick woman. Haynes deliberately designed the film with a kind of emptiness -- and refused to answer the question as to whether or not his heroine was actually sick, and when the lead character joins the "cult" in the film's final stretch, Haynes does not invite us to go with her, so we're left in the lurch, so to speak.
Jean-Luc Godard, another intelligent filmmaker, once said that the best way to critique films was to make one. Haynes did precisely this with Far from Heaven (2002), which more or less used a Douglas Sirk framework to discuss Sirk's films as well as a more modern look at racism and homophobia. (The critics' group I am a member of, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, gave our 2002 Best Director award to Haynes.) Now Haynes does it again with his exceptional new I'm Not There, a deconstruction of the biopic as well as a fascinating look at the cult of celebrity, and, on a deeper level, the celebrity as a godlike being with answers to all our questions. Whereas most biopics are made solely for the purpose of providing a rich centerpiece role (and, hopefully, an Oscar) for an ambitious actor, Haynes deliberately subverts this by casting seven different actors -- of all different ages, races and even sexes -- to play Bob Dylan.
Marcus Carl Franklin leads things off as a 13 year-old African-American Dylan, going by the name of Woody Guthrie. (He even sports Guthrie's famous guitar case, painted with "this machine kills fascists.") He hops a train and rides where the wind takes him, boasting of his musical achievements and the people he's played with. He even plays a foot-stompin' rendition of "Tombstone Blues" on a front porch. When a family takes him in and gives him dinner, the mother urges him to write songs about his own time, not about hobos and trains. A twenty-something Dylan (Ben Whishaw), filmed in black-and-white, seems to be answering questions in front of some kind of official panel. Christian Bale plays a fictitious version of Dylan, who early on gave up music to become a preacher. His segment is presented like a TV documentary, complete with talking heads of old friends. (Julianne Moore, star of Safe and Far from Heaven, appears as one of them.)
And, brilliantly, to comment upon that strain, Heath Ledger plays a Dylan-like actor who portrays the Christian Bale Dylan in a movie biopic. In later years, we get Billy (Richard Gere), who has given up music and lives like an anonymous recluse in a peculiar Western-like town that celebrates Halloween all year round. Finally comes Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). It's Jude who converts from folk music to rock 'n' roll in the mid 1960s and alienates all his fans. And it's Jude who goes to fancy parties, does drugs, puts up with annoying fans, meets celebrities and succumbs to soul-sucking interviews from prying journalists. Ironically, Blanchett's cross-dressing performance comes the closest to capturing our Dylan, and is so far getting the most awards buzz. (I suspect that this is more due to Blanchett's enormous talent than to anything Haynes had planned.)
Haynes does nothing so easy as to present these seven in chronological order; he mixes them up, crosses them back and forth and sometimes places two of the actors in the same context. We occasionally wander off to some other storyline: most specifically, the actor (Ledger) has a girlfriend whom he marries and becomes alienated from. We follow her story (she's played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) more rigorously than his, and as a result, he comes across just as mysteriously as the character he plays in the fictitious film. Haynes also shoots in various styles, color and black-and-white to be sure, but also various shades and textures therein. The Blanchett and Whishaw segments are both b&w, but Whishaw's is stark and grainy while Blanchett's is far richer and more visually complex. Gere's segment has some odd digital color tweaking, enhancing certain yellows to make them seem ethereal. And the film's timeline or historical setting is hardly ever clear. As a result, some sequences seem more "real" than others.
The ultimate point here is something that Martin Scorsese may have discovered inadvertently in his dutiful, thoroughly researched, four-hour Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home(2005), that the "real" Dylan -- and, in fact, the "real" anyone -- is essentially unknowable. Moreover, Dylan has no more concept of the secret of life than any of us. Most biopics take great pains to seem like the final word on a person's life, and all fail. By offering a criticism of this, and a deliberately slippery example at the same time, Haynes has set a new kind of precedent. As for the question of emotion, it's just as elusive, but I believe it's here. I think Blanchett -- with her sorrow and defeat -- affected me the most deeply, and most of all in his/her scenes with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross). In my favorite moment, the two pause beneath a huge statue of Jesus on the cross, shouting advice up to him. After some thought, Dylan makes a request that he himself must have heard his entire life: "Do your early stuff!"