Hollywood's Avant-Garde Storyteller

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

Why make a movie about Bob Dylan and cast a half-dozen actors to play the living legend?

And why revisit the sad story of Karen Carpenter with a bunch of Barbie dolls? Or pay tribute to three-hankie weepers of the 1950s with a twisted saga about a husband desperately hiding his homosexuality?

The answer lies somewhere inside Todd Haynes, who has negotiated these surprise turns and more, but you won't get that answer by asking him. The 46-year-old, still boyish filmmaker can explain what he was thinking when he cast each of the six actors -- including Cate Blanchett and Marcus Carl Franklin, an African American teenager -- to play the non-Dylans in the appropriately named "I'm Not There," which opened in Washington Wednesday.

But he can't account for his inner Toddness, the motivational machinery that compels him to pretzel his subjects into something unexpected and ultimately subversive.

"The thing that makes it a Todd Haynes movie is the thing I don't see," Haynes says. "It's, like, Robert Altman is busy doing all these things, making an Altman movie. But he doesn't really recognize that because it just comes to him naturally. Those are hard things to talk about because I can't really see them," says Haynes, in town recently to promote his new film.

In an apparent nod to the movie's complexities, the distributor, the Weinstein Co., announced this week that explanatory "liner notes" would be available at some theaters. But it would be wrong to interpret this CliffsNotes measure as a sign of a weakness of vision or that the movie is an academically stuffy event. Haynes doesn't experiment for experimentation's sake. Nor does he automatically default to the anti-establishmentarianism of Queer Nation -- the gay activist film movement with which he has often been associated. But he knows what he doesn't want: those subtle hallmarks that trap his movies in the year in which they are filmed, that detract from the era and setting he intends.

"Those are the invisible things that actually reflect the culture," he says in the raspy boom of a man who smokes his own hand-rolled cigarettes. "The culture that we are living in that we don't see, every minutia of meaning that we take as natural. . . . I don't want to do them, because then my film about the 1960s would look like what 'Dirty Dancing' looked like in the 1980s. It was supposed to be a film about the 1960s but, looking at it now, you can't tell because everything about it looks like an '80s movie."

This is why, says Haynes's longtime producer, Christine Vachon, the filmmaker resisted the temptation to turn 1995's "Safe," a movie about a woman (Julianne Moore) who becomes sick from environmental poisons, into an overt AIDS parable. The movie came out in "prime ACT UP time, and it was criticized by gay leaders for not having the courage to be about AIDS, when so many people were dying."

Instead, she continues, Haynes created a more "measured" film that was "a brilliant metaphor not just for AIDS but all disease in the world we live in."

Haynes has developed a reputation as a brilliant risk-taker. Los Angeles Times reviewer Kenneth Turan wrote that Haynes's "Safe," "solidifies his reputation as one of the most intellectually challenging of current directors." As far as Hollywood is concerned, Haynes has been mostly off the grid. Yes, his r¿sum¿ includes a long list of awards from places including Cannes and Sundance, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (for 2002's "Far From Heaven," also starring Moore). But these films are not box-office gold: Despite love from the critics, "Far," his best-known film, made less than $30 million worldwide. And it remains to be seen if "I'm Not There," with such popular stars (Blanchett, Heath Ledger) playing the American icon, will introduce Haynes to a wider audience.

After working in New York City for most of his career, Haynes moved to Portland, Ore., in 2000 to find "a place to relax and feel newly inspired again." Without an agent, he worked in earnest on the Dylan script, determined "not to ignore a single song, book, event or film of the '60s, until I'd made the best choices. . . . I was going to have a PhD in Dylan when I was done."

Haynes says he tries to find "the molecular detail" of the time when making movies. In films such as "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," "I'm Not There" and "Velvet Goldmine," it was a matter of finding "what is absolutely and totally unique about this music that isn't like the music that preceded or followed it in the history of pop music. And what would be the closest visual equivalent to that?" Haynes also looks at the "narrative tradition, cinematic traditions, colors, forms, shapes" of a film's time period to ensure the look and feel of the year in which the movie is filmed doesn't bleed into the production.

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