You should go see Todd Haynes’ new film, Carol, in cinemas right now. Haynes is probably one of my favourite directors, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on his preceding film, I’m Not There, which I recently rewatched.
I’m Not There takes the life and work of musician and poet Bob Dylan as inspiration, with several different actors portraying several different variations of Bob Dylan. Or to put it more precisely, these actors portray refractions of various facets of the life and work of Bob Dylan.
While the film is very much a tribute to Dylan, it has plenty to offer for those of us who aren’t big fans of the musician. One of its most intriguing pleasures is the playful attitude it has toward biopic genre conventions.
For instance, one particularly ubiquitous and practical convention of the biopic is the use of composite characters. Often, one character in a biopic will be a collection of several real life people in order to facilitate narrative simplicity. The composite character is cleverly upended in I’m Not There, because as the subject of the film and as a musician with a career spanning decades, Bob Dylan has had a variety of identities. His characteristic compositeness is precisely why director Todd Haynes decided to portray his essence through several characters, all of which invoke various facets of Dylan.
I’m Not There uses one real life individual and separates him into seven characters, while a typical biopic would use several real life people and combine them into one.
The most impressive of these personality facets is Cate Blanchett’s character, Jude Quinn. She completely inhabits this embodiment of Dylan’s androgynous phase. Her performance is remarkable not because she’s a woman playing a man, but because she forges such a mesmerising interpretation of Bob Dylan.
Todd Haynes also plays with some of the tropes of the subgenre of musical biopic to which I’m Not There belongs, and that can bee seen in the title itself. Most biopics that focus on a musical figure have a tendency to name the film after a song or piece of music for which they are widely known. For example, both Cole Porter biopics are named after his songs; the 1946 one directed by Michael Curtiz is called Night and Day and the 2004 one directed by Irwin Winkler is called De-Lovely (a reference to the song ‘It’s De-Lovely’). Similarly, the Johnny Cash biopic was named for one of his songs, ‘Walk the Line.’ Haynes himself even adhered to this trend with his first film, Superstar (1988), a biopic of Karen Carpenter, performed entirely with Barbie dolls. But in the case of I’m Not There, there is another significant reversal. ‘I’m Not There’ is the title of a song recorded by Bob Dylan, but one that was cut from an album it was recorded for and could only be heard on bootlegs. The song itself made its first official appearance on the film’s soundtrack.
Haynes has long been interested in constantly shifting identities, being one of the founders of what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s, and he’s a self-confessed Dylan-tragic, so this is a film that seems as inevitable as it is satisfying.