Though we first met back in 1991, when the NEA-funded homoeroticism of his first aboveground feature, Poison, was rattling the halls of Congress, Todd Haynes and I “bonded” (as the saying goes) in April of 1995, when we served as jurors for the short-film competition at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. On our day off from jury duty, we went downtown and visited the spot where John F. Kennedy was assassinated — Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum created out of the erstwhile Texas School Book Depository — and came to the immediate conclusion that not only did Oswald “do it,” but that shooting fish in a barrel would have presented a greater angle of difficulty.
As excited as I was by Haynes’ prospects then, I never could have imagined they would take the shape they have or move so swiftly into the sightlines of a large public. Released two months after our Dallas confab, Safe, his drama about a woman suffering from an “environmental illness” that does double duty as a metaphor for AIDS, had no gay “shock value,” but shocked many who hadn’t suspected this heretofore fringe figure was so cinematically accomplished. Starring his soon-to-be-muse, Julianne Moore, as a San Fernando Valley housewife, the film was in many ways Haynes’ own nightmare of becoming a San Fernando Valley housewife, for he hails from that fabled L.A. region — home of middle-class tranquillity and hardcore pornography.
Three years later, Velvet Goldmine picked up from where Poison left off in detailing the polymorphous perversity of the glam rock era, complete with a nod to the man Haynes saw as its patron saint: Oscar Wilde. But things got queerer (if also more accessible) still with his next feature, Far From Heaven (2002), a full-blown re-creation of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk that dealt frankly with subjects Sirk couldn’t have touched: interracial love and gay husbands bursting out of the closet. Another showcase for the talents of Moore, with great support from Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson, and the last film score by the great Elmer Bernstein, Far From Heaven won the hearts and minds of critics and discerning art-house audiences, and picked up four Oscar nominations in the process.
But rather than move further into the mainstream, Haynes has taken his most radical leap to date with I’m Not There. Initially subtitled “Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan,” but now more modestly labeled as “Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan,” it features six different actors playing six differently named characters that either embody or reflect aspects of Dylan’s life and art, ranging from Christian Bale as the Dylan of early fame and born-again Christianity to Ben Whishaw as an enigmatic Dylanesque who calls himself Arthur Rimbaud to Heath Ledger as an actor who plays a Dylan-type character in a film-within-the-film. That’s not to mention Marcus Carl Franklin as a black 11-year-old who calls himself “Woody Guthrie,” Richard Gere in a period setting as Billy the Kid, and, most queer-radical of all, Cate Blanchett as “Jude,” a ’60s-era pop star whose frizzy hair, sardonic manner and controversial penchant for electric guitar plainly represent the Dylan of his most artistically aggressive ’60s period. Add Julianne Moore as someone not unlike Joan Baez, Charlotte Gainsbourg evoking both Dylan’s important girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his first wife, Sara Lowndes, cinematography that veers from black and white to color and back again, and a host of Dylan covers by a raft of contemporary artists, and you’ve got yourself two hours and 15 minutes of rich and strange filmmaking that’s seldom been seen before.
I’m Not There is an instant classic of the most experimental end of the rock-movie genre — which is to say, Peter Watkins’ Privilege, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, and a little-known film called Renaldo and Clara made by Dylan himself (see “Dylan by Dylan” sidebar). Above all, it’s a film by Todd Haynes, capped by its dedication to the memory of James Lyons, Haynes’ editor, frequent actor (he starred in Poison) and, until their 2000 breakup, his lover. Lyons, who died this past April of AIDS-related causes, is what semiotician Roland Barthes would call “a structuring absence of the text.” And being that Haynes majored in semiotics at Brown, this was bound to come up when we spoke recently by phone.
L.A. WEEKLY: Coming after Far From Heaven — your My Own Private Idaho, as it were — this is the point at which you should be making your Good Will Hunting. But you’ve gotten more experimental rather than less.
TODD HAYNES: [Laughs.] Well, [with Dylan] I had quite a standard to live up to in terms of not shying away from challenging the popular form. And I took that very much to heart with this film.
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