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I'm Not There - interview with Todd Haynes

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I'm Not There

Todd Haynes is an artist who knows about shedding skins. The director originally came to prominence as part of the New Queer Cinema movement, a group that reacted to the arrival of AIDS by making films that investigated its impact on gay America. Now, two decades on from his outrageous debut, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Haynes has established himself as one of the most intriguing of US directors with films, Velvet Goldmine, Safe, Poison and Far From Heaven.

The 46-year-old has just created his most ambitious project to date, a biopic (if it can be called that) of Bob Dylan called I’m Not There. The title is a reference to the bootleg recording of the 1967 song of the same name as well as the iconic folk singer, who is not seen in the film but heard on the soundtrack.

Instead actors Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale (twice), Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and, most memorably, Cate Blanchett – portray interpretations of Dylan from different periods of his life. Adding confusion to perplexity, none of these characters is called Bob Dylan and the stories are woven together in a non-linear fashion. It’s likely that not even Dylan himself would get all of the references (cinematic or otherwise) that Haynes brings to his work and life.

All this makes it all the more remarkable that Haynes has fashioned such a fine film that is in the traditions of late 60s and early 70s cinema from Godard’s Masculin Feminin to Nic Roeg’s Performance. Haynes argues that it’s not important that everyone gets all the references and that audiences are far more sophisticated than they’re given credit for. ‘Audiences are always, even on cable TV, flipping around and looking at pieces of things, little fragments of this movie or that movie, and they can read these fragments very quickly,’ he says. ‘People know what bit of the movie narrative they are in by just seeing a sliver of the action.’

He goes on: ‘We’re reading culture in a very different way – there is no beginning and end anymore. Things are scrambled and the internet has only intensified that potential and the ability for people to be canny readers of culture.’

As for Dylan, Haynes argues he was the perfect candidate for this jumping montage style of filmmaking. ‘I think that Dylan’s luckier than a lot of people because he allows himself to reject himself,’ posits Haynes. ‘He allows himself to reject who he was yesterday. That is hard for people to do, but ultimately Dylan is confronted with the same human failings and romantic disappointments and frustrations that everybody does experience.’

A lot of the press for the film has focused on the fact that it is a woman – Cate Blanchett (pictured) – who most looks like Dylan. Haynes claims he was not trying to simply grab headlines when choosing actors: ‘I picked some great actors to be in the film, but in some cases I also picked movie stars. That was part of it, because I was dealing with someone who is intensely famous, who belongs to the old school and who is this larger than life figure, so it all made sense to use different people and stars like Richard Gere.’

I’m Not There, selected release from Fri 21 Dec.

I'm Not There

  • 4 stars
  • 2007
  • US/Germany
  • 136 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Todd Haynes
  • Written by: Todd Haynes, Oren Moverman
  • Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw

Six actors play seven interpretations of Bob Dylan in Haynes' sleek, stylish, clever and wholly engrossing meditation on the life of the folk singing bard. Divided between black and white and colour, I'm Not There is a work of great emotion and minstrelsy. A film of great playfulness and rare semiotic insight.

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