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Simple Twist of Fate

Dylan Miraculously Gave Filmmaker Haynes Rights to Reinvent His Life as Free-Form Cinema

DON'T FOLLOW LEADERS: Todd Haynes directs Charlotte Gainsbourg

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 11/21/2007

Bob Dylan may have cast himself as the vagabond heir to American poets like Walt Whitman, but a phrase like "I contain multitudes" can't begin to scratch the truth of I'm Not There. Even the title is fair warning to Dylan acolytes looking for a digestible biopic lurking inside director Todd Haynes' new movie about . . . not quite Dylan, but six manifestations of someone like him, each with different names and narratives--and, in two cases, alternate races and genders--compressed into one inexplicable lifetime.

"I really think of Dylan as the consummate performer, even more than being this amazing singer and songwriter and wordsmith," Haynes explains on the phone from a Washington hotel room. Even though it's been a long day full of interviews, there's no fatigue in the director's good-natured voice as he explains the ineffable meaning of his latest work. "He's somebody who embodies what he's doing in the moment totally, and lives and dies in the moment. That goes for the song he's singing in the moment, and it also goes for the phase he's entered in the figurative moment. But when he's done, it's dead. It's over. It's no longer alive, and it's almost like he forgets it ever happened.

"I just find that to be so interesting, and so American," he continues. "We're a much less reflective culture than the Brits, a much less analytical culture. We keep discovering ourselves in the moment as if yesterday never happened. And with all the exuberance and the innocence that goes along with that and also the frustrating contradiction as well."

Contradiction is certainly the watchword in I'm Not There. Arranged in loose chronology, the Dylans the audience encounters range from a precocious African-American child named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails, to an insufferable chauvinist actor (Heath Ledger) trapped in a bad marriage, to--in what is the most recognizable incarnation, especially to anyone who was there for Dylan's first landing on pop culture's shores--a glib, squinting, and wraithlike rock star (Cate Blanchett) on tour in an increasingly hostile England. But somehow each incarnation is acceptable and comprehensible, each depiction adding up to a whole that's easier to sense intuitively than to pin down like a butterfly. When Blanchett's Dylan sneers to a nosy reporter, "I know more about you than you'll ever know about me"--a near verbatim lift from a similar moment in D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 Dylan documentary Don't Look Back--it's simultaneously untrue and true.

Haynes, who made his first splash as a filmmaker with 1987's Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an audacious 43-minute retelling of Carpenter's life and death enacted by Barbie dolls, has presided over a critically lauded but mostly embattled career. Superstar was pulled from distribution at Richard Carpenter's behest, due to the unauthorized use of Carpenters songs. Haynes' next movie, 1991's Poison, established him as one of the go-to talents of the New Queer Cinema, but he had the bad timing to be financed with federal funds just as Jesse Helms was on the warpath against subsidized "filth." Then came 1998s' Velvet Goldmine, a fantasy of the glam-rock era about the erotic liaison between an androgyne pop idol who is not David Bowie and a strung-out rocker who is not Iggy Pop. Once again, Bowie would not release rights to his music, and the movie that was supposed to be Haynes' breakout hit stalled at the box office. Other movies such as 1995's Safe and 2002's Far From Heaven fared better financially and critically, but each time Haynes returned to the idea of using public personas as paper dolls in his own narratives, legal luck conspired against him--which is what makes the ease with which Dylan gladly signed over rights to his music for this project all the more astonishing.

"Well, it was just like, easy, which is so crazy about the whole thing," Haynes remembers. "It was just presenting Dylan with the concept, which I was instructed to do by his manager Jeff Rosen. This was the summer of 2000, when I found myself getting back into his music and discovering a lot of new stuff from the past that I've never heard before and came across this idea--and really had no reasonable expectations for securing the rights."

After meeting Rosen via Jesse Dylan (Bob's filmmaker son), Haynes typed up a one-page proposal for his free-form concept and sent it off. "So I wrote it out as simply as I could," he says. "And a couple months later we got a call from Jeff saying he talked to Bob, and Bob said, `OK, let's give the guy the rights.' It's really incredible."

What's even more remarkable about Dylan's willingness to grant rights is that this is not a fan movie about St. Bob, voice of a generation. The actors working under Haynes' direction shape a portrait of Dylan that at times is wearying, self-inflated, deluded, sexist, infuriating--and ultimately fair. "I think it was so important to really look at all sides of him," Haynes says. "The amazing thing is how Jeff, his manager, saw that at the very beginning of the concept and didn't set up any obstacles for this kind of interpretation."

The making of I'm Not There coincided with a shift in Haynes' life when he relocated from New York to the green and sustaining environment of Portland, Ore. Might there be a parallel in his journey out West to the way his Dylan drops one depleted identity after another in pursuit of a new life? "I really don't identify with that aspect of Dylan," Haynes demurs. "I really feel like I am this more reflective and analytical person, and my medium as film is not a medium you live in the moment. But there's no question that Dylan marked a kind of reminder for me, and I associated this from my early days of being a Dylan fan in high school, that change is good. And the fearlessness and the swagger and the devil-may-care attitude that I think I find innately embedded in his voice and the spirit of his music is something that I needed again later in my life, and that ushered me from one place to another. So I take it as an omen, both as a personal and private experience, but also one that I could express publicly through this film."

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