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.