By Sean Axmaker
I had barely stepped out of the first Toronto screening of I'm Not There when I got a call from the film's publicist asking me if I'd like to interview director Todd Haynes. Suffering through a cold, battling insomnia, and with no time to fully digest the film (let alone the meal I was trying to squeeze in), I of course jumped at the chance. Haynes lives in Portland, just a few hours from Seattle - practically a neighbor - but it took a Toronto junket to finally meet and interview the director of such films as Poison, Safe and Far From Heaven.
I'm Not There revisits territory similar to Velvet Goldmine, Haynes's portrait of a Bowie-like glam-rock star, but pushes the exploration of identity and public persona in the cultural landscape even farther by creating seven different characters (played by six different actors) to represent Bob Dylan, or at least different aspects of the singer from different stops along his musical evolution and ever-shifting identity. All of which he was happy to talk about in our too-brief conversation.
I'm Not There is not a literal biography. I guess you could describe it as impressionistic or metaphorical. Why approach Dylan in this way rather than with a literal historical biography?
I don't know if I believe there is such a thing as a literal historical biography. I do see that there is a kind of form that has become common to film that we now call the bio-pic, but I don't know that it has any relationship to reality or anything literal or historical. It seems to be a construct of the narrative form that has to find beats in a person's life to dramatize, events of the life that correspond to those moments of high and low and that have a relationship to their work. They are usually required to expose a certain amount of private history or conflict with drugs or philandering or something, and then show how that gets recovered or resolved. So to me, it's a formula, almost more nakedly so than other film genres because whatever the life is has to fit in this one package.
You fill the film with references - direct references to his life, indirect references to his work, cultural references - but I don't always know the referent. I don't know if Keenan Jones represents someone specific who made it his business to "out" the reality behind the persona that Dylan had created for himself, or if he stands in for the idea of the culture itself trying to tear him down after building him up.
Probably somewhere in between. He's not a specific person, but there was certainly a feeling from the press that I think Dylan began to personify in songs and in a sort of regard for the press that he started to feel was out to get him. And there is the famous Newsweek article that came out, earlier than it does in chronology where the Jude story lies, that did expose his middle-class Jewish upbringing before he was prepared for it. Although it's amazing that it wasn't exposed by the point of his very first release, because the evidence surrounding the guy is enormous.
And that's something you explore in with the film, that people were so taken with his persona that they never questioned it. It was at the moment that he defied their expectation that they start looking for reasons...
... To tear him down. Exactly! You're so right. It's so much about that sheer force of performance and self-projection into a new realm that's so fascinating and so startling that you go with it and you accept it at face value. And why not? We're always doing that anyway. What's more interesting is the way we attribute such markers of utter authenticity onto things that are so unbelievably constructed. I think authenticity can only exist after the fact, after you know what the signs of authenticity are. Bowie said: "It doesn't matter who did it first. What matters is who did it second." Because that's when you've collected the cues for what authenticity or what anything is and then you can identify it.
You make the point when Jude comes along and makes his switch to electric and the fans turn on him. They're so caught up in the form that they're not paying any attention to the content. They think that it's such a betrayal that they won't even admit that what he's singing about means anything.
Exactly. And yet, the thing that I love about that moment is how much meaning was ascribed to form. You know what I mean? In a way, I almost miss how much form connoted, how much acoustic meant "this," and any rock and roll music whatsoever meant commercial. Just to have such faith in those designations, to believe so intensely about them, just meant that people had such a need to believe in things and to find meaning in things. It's an extreme case, but I worry sometimes about that kind of leveling of all meaning, where anything is everything and nothing can rouse a concern. When you watch the Bush administration take our entire progressive culture away from us, or our ethical culture away from us, or the culture of checks and balances or habeas corpus or things that you never thought you'd have to defend in your life, what's at stake is sometimes diminished. People don't even know how to react anymore when something that fundamental is stripped.
You recreate the "Judas" moment with a character named Jude. Did you choose the name for that echo?
[Laughs] Yes, there is that echo there.
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