Perhaps the most common complaint heard from the few critical detractors of Todd Haynes’ overwhelmingly praised 2002 Far from Heaven was that it slavishly recreated Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas. To quote Stephen Hunter in the Washington Post: “The problem with Far from Heaven isn’t that it’s an imitation of life but that it’s an imitation of Imitation of Life. … [It] has the sense of being embalmed, or pickled.”
It’s not an outrageous observation, but for those of us who responded on a genuine emotional level, it’s irrelevant whether Far from Heaven was re-creation or homage, slavish or judicious, neo or retro.
It may be ironic that Haynes’s new film — the Bob Dylan-centric I’m Not There — is unlikely to generate similar criticism, even though this time around Haynes in fact does slavishly re-create scenes from (among others) D. A. Pennebaker’s ’60s documentary Dont Look Back. If Far from Heaven applied an old style to some (relatively) new subject matter, I’m Not There does exactly the reverse: We may have seen some scenes before, but they are contextualized in a dauntingly unfamiliar narrative style.
Plot synopsis is not to the point here: Haynes has spun a fantasia around Dylan, mixing together real events, rumors, lyric content, associations and metaphors into a sort of meditation on the singer’s life. To enrich (or confuse) things more, he’s cast six different actors to play variously named Dylan surrogates, representing facets of the Dylan personality/myth.
The names of three of these characters come from Dylan’s obsessions: Ben Whishaw (in far and away the smallest of these roles) plays “Arthur Rimbaud” in name only; Richard Gere is Billy the Kid, living in a fantasy Western town; and, in the most amusing stretch, Marcus Carl Franklin plays the early scuffling Dylan as an 11-year-old black runaway named “Woody Guthrie.” (I was able to maintain my suspension of disbelief in the face of the age and ethnicity issues, but Franklin’s left-handed guitar playing pushed me over the edge.)
Christian Bale is the acoustic Dylan, bearing the name (for no obvious reason) of Woody Allen’s longtime producer, Jack Rollins. So the albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin’ are reborn as Travelin On Jack Rollins and Time Will Come. Bale is usually somewhere between very good and inspired, but his role here is so thin he leaves almost no impression.
The most confusingly conceived character is Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), an actor who portrays Rollins in a fictional film. Robbie seems to be an emblem of Dylan’s personal family life — perhaps also of the extent to which Dylan is, after all, a rich showbiz guy.
But far and away the predominant Dylan avatar here is Jude Quinn — presumably the mighty one — played by Cate Blanchett. Jude is (roughly) the 1965-66 just-going-electric, Dont Look Back-era Dylan. It’s the period that ends with the singer’s motorcycle crash, the incident Haynes uses to bookend the film.
Haynes intercuts all six Dylans, producing a sort of freeform (dare I say “freewheelin’”) chronology, more or less moving forward in time within each thread. It may be a self-consciously musical structure, with the crash being the note toward which everything gravitates. But it’s hard to say that the accident provides a key to the movie’s puzzles or a tonic for those who get lost in its convolutions.
Among the more trivial puzzles Haynes gives us is the “Who’s That Supposed to Be?” challenge. There are talking-head interview scenes in the manner of Martin Scorsese’s Dylan doc No Direction Home, with the characters identified onscreen. So Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore) is clearly Joan Baez, and Gerry Hamlin (Terry Haig) is John Hammond. But who the hell is Carla Hendricks (Kim Gordon) supposed to be? Judy Henske? Mary Travers? (Some real names — Brian Jones, Allen Ginsberg — are unchanged.)
You can play a similar game with the more significant issue of what films Haynes quotes. Dont Look Back is, naturally, far and away the largest source, and most viewers will recognize the Hard Day’s Night reference when Jude briefly romps with the Beatles. But other choices are less obvious. There are several images out of Fellini’s 8 ?; Haynes even slips in some of Nino Rota’s music from Fellini’s Casanova. The Billy the Kid material seems to owe less to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (in which Dylan made his acting debut) than to El Topo or Greaser’s Palace.
Of course, the big question is whether all this tricky stuff adds up to anything or is simply narrative razzle-dazzle. There is an instructive comparison, I think, in the last film by the other Todd who emerged at roughly the same time with movies that also savaged the middle class: Todd Solondz. While it’s usually pretty easy to sort out the two Todds respective filmographies, it is a remarkable coincidence that Solondz’s Palindromes (2005) also used multiple actors – including some who were not gender- or color-obvious – to play the lead character.
It’s not quite clear what Solondz was up to. Maybe he wanted to universalize the character, or maybe he intended the casting to be a distancing device (which is how it turned out). Haynes, on the other hand, is in a sense pre-empting the casting criticism that would have been inevitable if he had done a conventional biopic. “Look,” he seems to be saying, “I know that any single actor will fail to capture the essential Dylan, whatever that is. Dylan contains multitudes, so multitudes it will be.” (Actually, we all contain multitudes, which may have been Solondz’s point.)
Of the six Dylans, Blanchett comes off the best. Her casting suggests nothing about character androgyny or Dylan getting in touch with his female side or any of that. Her performance simply outshines the others, as both surface mimicry and something deeper. She has several advantages: She has Pennebaker’s footage to work from; she is the film’s “central” Dylan; and, frankly, she is covering the period that remains, 40 years later, the peak of Dylan’s career.
The one thing I’m Not There has in common with Far from Heaven is that both are formal experiments in resurrecting the past. Is it a coincidence or some sort of cultural sign that I’m Not There arrives so closely after Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, which takes a wholly different approach in looking at the Beatles? (Only in the “Ballad of a Thin Man” sequence does Haynes do the sort of fantasy musical sequence that is Taymor’s main strategy.) Despite — or maybe because of — the political degradation of the last couple decades, the ’60s continue to exert a gravitational pull.
Closest screening: Metropolitan Metro 4, 618 State St., Santa Barbara, 963-9503.