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Hollywood's Avant-Garde Storyteller
Todd Haynes, Making Movies With His Own Creative License

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.

Here, Haynes talks through his filmography and discusses the conceptual scaffolding that reveals the sometimes hidden purpose within his projects.

"Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987) is a mock docudrama that tells the story of Carpenter's ultimately fatal eating disorder, using Barbie dolls.

"Initially, this was an experiment in narrative form. . . . If you didn't have real actors playing the roles but you followed the [biopic] genre very closely, with dolls instead of actors, you could still elicit the same emotional reactions. But that became a lot deeper and more complex of an experiment with something as real and poignant as Karen Carpenter, and what happened beneath the surface of those songs every time you hear them. . . . They seem completely plastic and perfect on the outside but, at the same time, there's such a complex reservoir of emotion and suffering on the inside." (The film was yanked from theaters, as Haynes did not secure the rights to the Carpenters' songs on the soundtrack.)

"Poison," (1991) a triptych of stories related to the works of Jean Genet, caused an uproar among the political right for its federally funded depictions of hard-core gay sex. It also won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

The French playwright, Haynes explains, "was always interested in what was considered criminal about homosexuality, and how it undermined mainstream sensibilities. And in the AIDS era, the gay communities that had flourished in the 1970s were being assaulted by disease and the implication, from governmental policy, that their lives weren't as valuable as others. Genet's desire to reverse the degraded image of gay people was needed."

"Safe" (1995) examines the physical and psychological deterioration of a California homemaker (Julianne Moore) as she becomes increasingly sickened by the various toxins around her, from car fumes to household detergent.

"It was a way of looking at questions of identity and illness, and using the vehicle of the disease movie of the week, almost, as a way of challenging the kind of culpability that we attach to illness," Haynes says. Traditional disease movies, he continues, conclude with the main character learning something about themselves in relationship to their illness. Although Moore's character is told she made herself sick by hating herself, the film "questions this feeling, that we can determine our own conditions and own health."

"Velvet Goldmine" (1998) tracks the rise and fall of a fictional g lam - r ock star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who inspires many fans to re-explore their sexuality, but who ultimately fakes his death to escape his pop persona.

The movie, Haynes says, not only celebrates "the electric, glittery instability" of the glam period, it "explores the openness that the genre offered youngsters who were figuring out their own sexuality." It also suggests that Oscar Wilde was a direct ancestor of glam, with his rejections of "the idea that sexuality and identity were organic." The clue comes at the beginning: Wilde is imagined as an orphan dropped on a doorstep from outer space with a magical emerald brooch in his possession that's passed from hand to hand throughout the movie.

"Far F rom Heaven" (2002) follows a 1950s Connecticut housewife (Moore) as she endures her husband's homosexual awakening, and hostility from her neighbors after she befriends a black gardener.

"Many people will say it was bringing content into the form and style of a 1950s maternal melodrama in a way that wouldn't have been possible at the time, but I'm not so sure. I feel like those films were always about controversy in their day. There were layers of interesting, latent homosexual readings in the films of Rock Hudson. I really wanted to just bring out what was both an innately, socially critical form of mainstream genre but also one that was absolutely purely emotional, so those two things could coexist in a popular and a very discredited genre of the melodrama, and make it both pertinent and accessible and critical at the same time."

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