Reinvention of the self is an all-American subject, but you would never know it from our movies. Despite the fact that Hollywood was developed largely by Easterners who refashioned themselves as cowboys (the directors) and Jews who comported themselves like WASPs (studio heads), American cinema, not unlike American politics, has been plagued with the anxieties of authenticity and verification. Impostors and dissemblers are perpetually being rooted out, inner beauty and truth are forever being divined under the cover of surface disingenuousness. Such themes are as present in studio products like Wedding Crashers (the fiancé versus Owen Wilson) as they are in the contrasting narratives of Larry Craig, the recently disgraced senator from Idaho, and, at least for his first few years in office, our forty-third President. When great American filmmakers dip into the pool, the tone is often playful (a great deal of Ernst Lubitsch’s work, Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve) or filled with dread (Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown). And when reinvention is posited as a byproduct of the “artistic” temperament, we wind up with a template based on either the life of Christ or the fable of Icarus.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that this obsession with genuine articles and real things in American moviemaking is financial in origin: the general nervousness over budgets, percentages, and profits and losses is unconsciously transposed into dramas of identity hinging on disputed wills, water rights, marriage licenses or what have you. Celebrations of reinvention have come easily to poetry, fiction, music and dance but with much difficulty to the still costly art of moviemaking. The comparatively inexpensive nonnarrative films of Kenneth Anger and James Broughton aside, a very special temperament is required to follow in Whitman’s footsteps with the expenditure of millions of dollars hanging over your head and a flock of smiling executives pecking away at you as you’re trying to get your movie in the can. “Rebel” or “maverick” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Only militant aesthetes need apply, and I can think of no better term to describe Todd Haynes.
When Safe, his third feature-length film, was released to rapturous acclaim in 1995, Haynes was praised for his generosity, for “loving all his characters.” It seemed to me at the time that this odd misjudgment was inspired by the film’s final moments, in which Julianne Moore’s ego-free heroine, Carol White, declares her love for her own mirror image. Safe struck me as one mighty clever enterprise for its era. The film was possessed of an extremely sly sense of satire and negative characterization, exemplified by the shot of Carol’s nowheresville husband standing before the mirror in his dark socks and spraying deodorant under his arms. But I also had the impression that Haynes’s control of his material did not extend beyond his cannily calculated surface. The consistently uniform aesthetic choices (wide shots of long duration that pinned characters into their environments, capped by a sonic ambience of all-encompassing banality; a heroine with an all-purpose blankness who seemed to have had a cosmetic lobotomy) masked an unresolved anger that found its focus in the film’s vastly superior and brilliantly written second half.
Haynes did a remarkable job in those scenes of elucidating the tyrannical effects of self-help rhetoric. Psychic if not spiritual intrusion was treated to many impressive variations, from the disturbing (the signature image of the young man venturing awkwardly through the landscape in layers of protective clothing) to the chilling (the moment when the “helpful” therapist silently enters from screen right) to the horrifying (the remarkable group therapy session in which a patient resists the demand for self-affirmation and unleashes a blackhearted torrent of emotion). And the ending, far from a portrayal of self-love, was the coup de grâce, the final act of an easily intimidated woman who has no idea whether she actually loves herself or not. That Haynes had a profound empathy for the plight of his heroine was undeniable, but the cool passivity of his presentation struck me as an artful concoction, paling beside the less aesthetically novel but more powerfully bracing bitchiness of the group therapy exchange. By the same token, the most impressive moments in Far From Heaven (2002), with Moore as another suburban homemaker with a teensy-weensy sense of self, involved her closeted husband (Dennis Quaid) spewing venom from his living room perch. The power of these moments was only tangentially related to Haynes’s fussy re-creation of Douglas Sirk’s mid-’50s output.
The multitentacled I’m Not There represents something new for Haynes. As everyone knows by now, the film shuffles its way through an assortment of Bob Dylan avatars, none of whom actually go by the name of Bob Dylan and all of whom partake of one or more aspects of his life and legend. In an echo of the young Dylan as he was staking out his patch in the folk-scene garden, there is a guitar-toting young African-American boy, played by Marcus Carl Franklin, who rides the rails through 1959 America as if it was 1935 and calls himself Woody Guthrie. There is a rough-hewn young “protest singer” in The Times They Are A-Changin’ mode, awkwardly incarnated by Christian Bale. There is a movie star named Robbie, played by Heath Ledger, who has made his name playing the Bale character in a movie called Grain of Sand, in scenes that offer poignant echoes of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline/New Morning phase of disconnected superstardom, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as his Sara. Most notably, there is Cate Blanchett as a Don’t Look Back-era Dylan, a rail-thin and ethereally beautiful artist-monster. There is Billy the Kid as played by a mellowed-out Richard Gere, traversing the “old weird America” on horseback. And finally, there is Ben Whishaw as Rimbaud-cum-Dylan, sitting before some kind of midcentury tribunal, halfway between a press conference and a scientific inquisition from The Outer Limits, with Rimbaud as the alien.
Haynes has always traded in pastiche, and each of his previous films has been a period piece with its own accompanying aesthetic register: Safe crosses Kenny Loggins vacuousness with Red Desert-era Antonioni and transposes environmental illness from the industrial wasteland of mid-’60s Ravenna to the spotless suburbs of 1987 Southern California; Far From Heaven dislodges the visual and emotional emphases of Sirk’s flamboyant melodramas from the cultural camouflage of their era and recouples them with closeted homosexuality and interracial romance; Superstar (1987) is, of course, the sad story of Karen Carpenter as told with Barbie dolls, so redolent of the plastic textures and commercial ideals of feminine beauty of the 1960s and ’70s; Poison (1991), a Genet-inspired triptych and Haynes’s most sheerly academic enterprise, shifts between horror imagery, ’50s sci-fi paranoia and the world of such suburban sitcoms as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. In one sense, Haynes has devoted himself to an impossible task. He has labored to correct the past by readjusting its clichés (homing in on the everyday fascism embedded within self-help speak, linking Barbie’s thinness to anorexia) in the hope of revising our collective cultural memory. In that sense, he is cinema’s pre-eminent academic leftist.
Haynes’s anger on behalf of his fragile heroes and heroines, their egos twisted into scrap metal by consensus-driven social norms, has kept his films emotionally grounded. That his pastiches have always been as sophisticated as they were finely calibrated is undeniable, but from the start they have been plagued by an accompanying predictability (large portions of the films hit all the notes one might expect to be hit by a smart young aesthete trained in semiotics), not to mention a papery thinness. To my eye, Haynes has displayed neither the inclination nor the ability to wrestle with nuances of behavior, light and shadow. Not unlike Spielberg but to vastly different effect, Haynes has been great at the totalizing-vision part of moviemaking but not so great at the less iconically driven nuts-and-bolts aspects of storytelling (as the alternately clichéd and unkempt narrative structure of Velvet Goldmine showed).
I’m Not There doesn’t represent much of an advance on that front. With one exception, no episode has any special power of its own, beyond the obviously spectacular attractions of another hyperintelligent performance by Blanchett (her best work runs as smoothly and efficiently as a well-designed piece of software) and a formidable prisoner-of-conformity montage over a performance of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” in which she lip-syncs to Stephen Malkmus’s vocal track. The Bale section, patterned after an episode of Biography, is genuinely unfortunate, alternately sarcastic and unconvincing. If any actor is up to the task of incarnating the flinty young Dylan, it’s Bale, but Haynes leaves him with almost nothing to work with, and he becomes a paper-doll scarecrow. The Rimbaud section feels like grad school thesis work. The Blanchett section shifts deftly among evocations of Fellini’s 8½, Godard’s Masculin féminin and re-creations of Don’t Look Back–so deftly that if you know the original films you’ll be busily sizing them up in your head against Haynes’s mimetic moves. Many acquaintances were most impressed by the Ledger/Gainsbourg section, a nicely executed, muted miniature of a marriage unraveled by celebrity. The Franklin section gains a lift from the young actor’s ebullience and buoyancy.
It’s the Gere scenes, which have taken a critical shellacking, that are in many ways the most impressive, because they offer welcome evidence of Haynes’s inventiveness, often curtailed and boxed in by his internalized conceptual neatness. This episode is set in the elegiacally languid key of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), crossed with Greil Marcus’s writings on Dylan and The Basement Tapes and, perhaps, Constance Rourke’s 1931 cultural study American Humor (a Marcus favorite). It peaks with a remarkable scene that is the best thing Haynes has ever done, a funeral for a little girl propped up in her open coffin in a gazebo in a carnivalesque town called (a bit too archly) Riddle, the mood around her balanced between wonder, sobriety and a potential surge of spiritual ecstasy. Jim James, the lead singer from My Morning Jacket, solemnly breaks into an unearthly rendition of “Goin’ to Acapulco,” backed by indie band Calexico. On The Basement Tapes, the song sounds like a near-throwaway, a trial run for the album’s “Tears of Rage.” Yet this incandescent version initiates a spell of time-stopping beauty that pushes Haynes’s film up to a higher plane.
What is impressive, if not majestic, about I’m Not There is the way its constituent parts talk to one another (in that sense, it represents a vastly improved version of Poison‘s narrative triptych). With multiple aesthetic registers at his disposal rather than just one or two, Haynes is able to create nuances of feeling through simple juxtaposition. And I’m Not There is above all a film of juxtapositions–of assorted versions of the American landscape, based in various ideas of openness and freedom; of frozen celebrity images-as-prisons; of faces and emotional registers, all of which converge to create a polyphonic effect that is most unusual in movies. Blanchett’s helpless monster is contrasted with Bale’s flinty, austere folk singer and Ledger’s dreamy, lost movie star, and all three gain in poignancy and mystery. Gainsbourg’s solitude, set against the droning of TV reports from the cataclysmic ’60s, rhymes with Gere’s melancholy wandering. Moreover, Haynes achieves a lovely atemporality that is completely in sync with the spirit of Dylan’s thinking and his music, and that reaches its culminating moment when Gere’s Billy jumps a freight train and finds the guitar left behind by Franklin’s Woody at some unfixed point in the poetic future-past.
I’m Not There‘s ringing affirmation of the freedom to make yourself over stands in opposition to Haynes’s earlier ballads of oppression and psychic destruction. It’s as if all those Dylan avatars were whispering from the other side of the cultural mirror to Karen Carpenter, Julianne Moore’s afflicted heroines and even the conflicted rock stars of Velvet Goldmine: “Don’t worry about being authentic or inauthentic, real or false, whether you’re in time or out of it–make it up as you go along.” Amid all the shifting registers and juxtapositions, the one constant is the liberated and liberating presence of Dylan, manifested in his public afterimages and words, spoken and sung, sometimes by the man himself and sometimes by multiple actors and singers. Many Dylan lines from various interviews across the years are put in the mouths of the assorted avatars, including his (in-)famous response to Nora Ephron’s question about the degree of chaos in his music: “It’s chaos, clocks, watermelons. It’s everything.” His language is happily uncoupled from all-purpose journalistic adjectives like “enigmatic” and “opaque,” and a genuinely poetic voice (his, but also ours), individual yet anonymous, unashamedly impressionistic, happily riding the flux of experience and the appetites of the imagination, becomes dominant while the voices of rationalistic conformity are consigned to the deep background.
I think this is Haynes’s best film by a mile, but it does share a limitation with the earlier work. The particulars will be familiar to viewers with a little American poetry and a lot of Dylan’s music (not to mention his autobiography, interviews and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home) under their belts, but perhaps less familiar to everyone else. After all, the dilemma of pastiche is that the viewer has to share in the emotional resonance found by the artist in the appropriated parts, unless it is communicated with the joyful verve of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 or the immense contemplative gravity of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma. Haynes’s expressive gifts are just as tentative as ever, and he still clings to his appropriated “sources” for dear life, like a child hugging a tree during a thunderstorm. When all is said and done, though, his “unclassifiable Dylan movie” is something to be reckoned with, an unapologetic affirmation of poetic reconstitution and a welcome riposte to this extraordinarily low moment in commercially driven groupthink.