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The Many Faces of Dylan, and the Man Behind Them

Friday, November 23, 2007

Todd Haynes's conceit of using six non-Dylans in his new film "I'm Not There," isn't an original idea, admits the filmmaker, citing the multiple-characters approach in Luis Bu¿uel's 1977 "That Obscure Object of Desire" and Todd Solondz's 2004 "Palindromes." But "the concept is right in front of you because of the way Dylan was described as, literally, different people from month to month in the '60s."

Haynes also figured that "if Dylan was ever going to say yes to making a film based on his life and music it would have to be something like this -- that embracing of the unorthodox."

In 2005, Haynes submitted a proposal for a project he called "Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan" to Dylan's agent, Jeff Rosen. Not surprisingly, and in a manner that reflected the indirect conceit of the movie to be, Dylan agreed by proxy. Rosen gave Haynes and producer Christine Vachon the good news.

"Could it be any other way?" says Haynes with a deep laugh. "Indirect and secondary, third-hand. I got a bootleg of the reaction, basically."

The completed movie is a meta-viewing experience; it's impossible not to weigh Haynes's casting and character choices while watching. Cate Blanchett talking in basso profundo? Richard Gere on a horse? Marcus Carl Franklin dressed like an extra from "The Grapes of Wrath"? Haynes had his reasons, of course, and explains, below, how each character contributes to his overall composite of a complex artist.

The film jumps back and forth in time, and from character to character, but in approximate chronological order, they are:

WoodyMarcus Carl Franklin

Franklin's character, a boxcar hobo, refers to the Woody Guthrie persona that Dylan adopted in his early folk days. Haynes wanted to convey "an American pastoral combined with the kind of movies that Dylan loved, like [1957's] 'A Face in the Crowd,' which came out of that liberal leftist Hollywood imagination. These were stories of a true-life American specimen, just plucked out of his natural habitat and thrust into the media spotlight and, ultimately, there's some corruption that ensues." That Franklin is young and African American is intended, says Haynes, as a "sight gag" to emphasize Dylan's "great act of impersonation: coming to New York as Dylan, but really as fake Woody Guthrie."

Jack Christian Bale

Bale's persona is a metaphorical spin on Dylan the protest singer, who frequented the clubs of Greenwich Village. Later, he's seen as a preacher, to suggest Dylan's flirtation with born-again Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Haynes employed "a documentary form in the style of a kind of mid-1980s piece that would be looking back on the 1960s and ultimately discover the pastor character in the present tense of that documentary perspective."

Jude Cate Blanchett

As Jude, Blanchett's a dour contrarian, suggesting Dylan at the peak of his artistic maturation, when he released the 1966 album "Blonde on Blonde." The obvious film to reference, Haynes says, was the 1967 "Don't Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker's cinema verite documentary, which caught Dylan in a particularly adversarial relationship with the press on a British tour. Instead, Haynes styled it after Federico Fellini's surrealistic "8 1/2 ." The 1963 film "has all the urbane, baroque distortions and choreography, and wit, and irony, and pleasure, and humor that is in that music. And it just happens to be about a fictional director being besieged by the media and asked to answer for his weirdness. Um gee, what does that remind me of?"

Arthur Ben Whishaw

The Arthur section "has that feeling to me of an experimental film. . . ." Haynes says it was based on a movie shot he recalled from the 1960s, "black-and-white, blocked-off shot of somebody" that "had this grainy beauty to it." He says it's a shot similar to one in his 1985 short, "Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud," about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, "which begins with Rimbaud being interrogated against a brick wall."

Robbie Heath Ledger

Ledger's Dylan is a fictional Hollywood actor in a failing marriage (with a character played by Anglo-French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg), preparing for a screen role in the '60s as a Dylanesque figure. For this, Haynes revisited the 1960s look of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, whose movies were "often about the most evocative, gorgeous, fascinating women on film. But they also bear -- like Dylan's songs -- a kind of double standard, where the women don't really have full access to the political discourse in those films. . . . I wanted to get to the sexual politics of the era . . . about his treatment of women, or regard for them in his songs, and in his life."

Billy the Kid Richard Gere

Gere's unkempt cowboy suggests Dylan as rebellious icon, and the way he appeared (as fictional character Alias) in the 1973 Sam Peckinpah cult western "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid." (Dylan composed the soundtrack.) The shimmery focus and pastoral settings are designed to reprise the spirit of the "hippie westerns" of the 1970s, such as as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" that emphasized "a complex relationship to the antihero, a nuanced relationship to the bad guy, the outcast and so forth."

Haynes takes a mental roll call of the characters, long slender fingers counting them off.

"Isn't that all of them?" he says. "Jude, Woody, Billy, Robbie, Arthur, Jack. Yeah."

-- Desson Thomson

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