“Oh Dylan, Dylan, Dylan,” Todd Haynes sighes when I ask him why he first wanted to make a film about the iconic singer-songwriter. “I would have wanted to do a film about Dylan even if I wasn’t a fan, just because of his influence on the 1960s and his ability to have survived that era to make himself pertinent to subsequent generations. So kudos to him, man, for figuring that out.”
The fact that Haynes, I’m Not There’s intensely intellectual writer and director, talks like a California valley boy is part of his considerable charm. A graduate of Brown University (he studied art and semiotics) and a resident of Portland, Oregon, 36-year-old Haynes has been making films that combine brains with a love of pop culture with since his college days. For his first feature, Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, he used Barbie dolls instead of actors to tell the tale of its heroine’s battle with anorexia. Subsequent films Poison (about AIDS), and Safe (starring Julianne Moore as a sickly suburbanite) won him acclaim on the festival circuit, but flew well under the mainstream radar.
It was Velvet Goldmine – with Ewan Mcgregor and Jonathon Rhys Meyers as fictionalised versions of David Bowie and Iggy Pop – that put him properly on the Hollywood map. Then an Oscar nomination for 50s-style melodrama Far From Heaven cemented his reputation as one of America’s most interesting young directors.
But I’m Not There trumps them all. Less a biopic of Dylan and more a riff on the idea of him, the movie refuses to pin down the star to a single identity or to turn his life into a simple narrative arc. Cate Blanchett steals the show as Jude Quinn, aka Dylan in his “Judas” years – rake-thin, tired, high on drugs, hanging out with Ginsberg and throwing out contradictory ideas at high speed.
Then there’s black pre-teen Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody Guthrie” – a hobo kid obsessed with the Dust Bowl era, Richard Gere as a 19th century Wild West recluse, Heath Ledger as a famous actor losing touch with his family, Christian Bale as a stony-eyed preacher, and young Brit star Ben Whishaw spouting poetry as the spirit of Arthur Rimbaud.
When Haynes explains why he chose to split Dylan in six, he sounds a little like the Rimbaud character himself. “There is no way to ever speak direct truth that’s fundamental,” he says. “You always have to find a circuitous way to do it. You have to find a detour so that the person receiving [the truth] feels like they discover it. You have to find a way for it to be freshly experienced in the viewer.”
Each Dylan character in I’m Not There exists in their own time, with different visual and linguistic styles to mark them out. “I really tried as best I could to find cinematic equivalents for what [Dylans’] music is doing,” Haynes says. “That’s true within the specific stories themselves, but also in the overall rhythm of the film. In records like Blood on the Tracks, [Dylan] puts different narrative strands together into one song. The film definitely tries to evoke that.”
There are plenty of nods to Dylan lyrics and album covers, but Haynes warns against trying to hard to identify references and unpick the film’s symbolism. “I think this film offers you this pure experience of almost travelling through the mind of a creative person,” he says. “It’s more like a portrait of a creative mind than it is of a life.” There’s no doubt that Haynes pulls it off, making a film that’s as thrilling as it is philosophical.