The Bob builder

In I’m Not There, six peo­ple play six dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Bob Dylan, and the re­sult is a film ev­ery bit as opaque and po­etic as one of Dylan’s songs. ‘He is like a flame,’ di­rec­tor Todd Haynes tells Don­ald Clarke, ‘ev­ery time you reach out for him, he’s

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

LEG­END has it that a dull jour­nal­ist once asked Bob Dylan what his songs were about. As ever, the great man had a quip to hand. “Oh, some of them are about four min­utes, some are about five min­utes, and some, be­lieve it or not, are 11 or 12,” he said.

Todd Haynes’s mag­nif­i­cent new film I’m Not There – which, though it may not quite be about Bob, is cer­tainly near him – doesn’t re­play that in­ci­dent, but it does fea­ture a great many be­mused hacks try­ing to get var­i­ous neo-Dy­lans, proto-Dy­lans, pseudo-Dy­lans and anti-Dy­lans to un­lock the se­crets of those de­li­ciously puz­zling lyrics.

I, there­fore, feel slightly self-con­scious shuf­fling to­wards Haynes with my mi­cro­phone and my note­book. I feel as if I am turn­ing into one of those flabby-minded pedants in horn-rims.

“Oh yeah. ‘What does it all mean? Why are you be­ing so blurry?’” he laughs.

Haynes, one of the most amus­ing and per­son­able of film direc­tors, may well make a joke of the ques­tion, but he must have had to for­mu­late a lu­cid an­swer sev­eral times over the past five years. When we last met, in the run-up to the re­lease of his mas­ter­piece Far From Heaven, he had just be­gun to mull over the no­tion of a film in­ves­ti­gat­ing the many faces of Bob Dylan.

That was 2002. In the in­terim, a great many fi­nanciers will have lis­tened pa­tiently to his pitch – six peo­ple, in­clud­ing a wo­man and an African-Amer­i­can child, play six dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Bob Dylan – and then calmly asked him what on earth he was talk­ing about.

“I re­ally wasn’t asked that ques­tion as much as you might think,” he says. “They were very po­lite as they said ‘no’. And they did try to make sense of it. I just tried to com­mu­ni­cate that the only way to de­pict some­body this com­plex and who en­tered all th­ese creative spa­ces was to re­flect that com­plex­ity in the story. I wasn’t im­pos­ing com­plex­ity on a sim­ple, lin­ear life. He is know­able in each place, but when we try and im­pose a lin­ear­ity and con­ti­nu­ity on him, then he re­fuses to be leg­i­ble.”

Todd Haynes – who, you won’t be sur­prised to hear, orig­i­nally stud­ied semi­otics at Brown Univer­sity – has de­liv­ered a film ev­ery bit as el­lip­ti­cal, po­etic, funny and play­ful as one of Dylan’s 11-minute epics. In­ves­ti­gat­ing six vaguely in­ter­twined lives while mak­ing al­lu­sions to the films of Fed­erico Fellini and Jean-Luc Go­dard, I’m Not There could not look less like a con­ven­tional rock biopic. Cate Blanchett ap­pears as a ver­sion of the black-leather heron that shocked the folkies by pick­ing up an elec­tric gui­tar. Richard Gere plays an ag­ing Billy the Kid. Chris­tian Bale unites the po­lit­i­cal strum­mer and the born-again preacher.

Where is the real Bob Dylan? The ti­tle of the film (an al­lu­sion to a leg­endary boot­leg song by Dylan) sug­gests we should look else­where for en­light­en­ment.

“Ab­so­lutely. The self-dis­place­ment built into that ti­tle was the rea­son why we chose it,” Haynes says. “He is like a flame. Ev­ery time you reach out for him, he’s not there. That ex­plains the un­end­ing de­sire for him. When a star is there, you cease to de­sire them. But Dylan re­mains unique in the way he at­tracts this cul­tural swarm around him.”

I’m Not There, a pur­posely opaque ex­er­cise in eva­sion, has, de­spite glow­ing re­views, proved to be of mi­nor­ity in­ter­est on its re­lease in the United States. The main­stream me­dia has, how­ever, paid some at­ten­tion to Cate Blanchett’s per­for­mance. Cur­rently an un­back­able favourite for the best sup­port­ing ac­tress Os­car, the Aus­tralian skil­fully treads the line be­tween im­per­son­ation and car­i­ca­ture. “The Dylan of 1966 has be­come so fa­mous, so well­known that the strange­ness of it has been lost,” Haynes ex­plains. “The sheer risk, the blood and guts have been forgotten since that Dylan has been canon­ised. You look at him then and he had be­come this crea­ture – the hair had got­ten weirder, his hands were spin­ning up from the key­board.”

So cast­ing Cate­was more to do with cap­tur­ing that strange­ness than with ac­knowl­edg­ing the singer’s fem­i­nin­ity?

“It’s not re­ally a fem­i­nine side in those terms of be­ing a sen­si­tive man,” he says. The male and fe­male des­ig­na­tors had just got­ten messed up. If any­thing, he looked more like what Patti Smith would look like 10 years later than what Bowie would look like. It was a les­bian an­drog­yny.”

As you may have gath­ered, Todd Haynes, now a lively 47, com­bines a play­ful hu­mour with a for­mi­da­ble in­tel­lect. That com­bi­na­tion was con­spic­u­ously on dis­play in his no­to­ri­ous 1987 de­but Su­per­star. Us­ing Bar­bie dolls to tell the story of Karen Car­pen­ter’s death from anorexia, the pic­ture (of­ten mis­un­der­stood as a sick joke) man­aged to be sur­pris­ingly mov­ing as it al­lowed its plas­tic ac­tors to de­ride un­re­al­is­tic mod­els of fem­i­nin­ity.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures in the new “Queer Cin­ema” then emerg­ing, Haynes went on to di­rect such mod­ern clas­sics as Poi­son and Safe, be­fore even­tu­ally rub­bing au­di­ences and crit­ics up the wrong way with Vel­vet Gold­mine. That odd pic­ture, a thinly dis­guised ex­am­i­na­tion of Iggy Pop and David Bowie, sucked the juice out of him.

“I was re­ally happy with the film,” he says. “It was mak­ing it that fin­ished me. I re­mem­ber sud­denly re­al­is­ing how lit­tle en­ergy I had been putting into my life. I looked around and saw all my peers set­tling down and get­ting com­fort­able places to live. Also, I had a boyfriend who was HIV-pos­i­tive. So, there was al­ways some­thing to dis­tract from fo­cus­ing on crea­ture com­forts. Life got a lot bet­ter when I got out of New York City and moved to Port­land.”

Con­tent­edly tucked away in Ore­gon,

Todd Haynes

Mar­cus Carl Franklin as Bob

Cate Blanchett as Bob

Richard Gere as Bob

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