Dylan Is A-changin'

Todd Haynes' 'I'm Not There,' which debuts locally next week, both challenges and fascinates because six different actors portray the protagonist.

It's easy to imagine Bob Dylan's fans sitting, surprised, in the cinema, watching the film "I'm Not There." Directed by Todd Haynes, this is indeed a biographical film about one of greatest creative artists in American music, but anyone hoping to see a precise and totally realistic description of Dylan's life will be disappointed.

Haynes did produce the film as a result of being inspired by Dylan, and based it on his biography, but quite surprisingly the musician is not mentioned in it even once. Haynes (who also directed "Far from Heaven" and "Velvet Goldmine") was not interested in making a traditional, narrative film about the gifted artist's life. Instead, he chose to construct a virtuoso cinematic meditation on him, whose form and style are influenced by Dylan's creative spirit, and the many turning points and extreme changes that have characterized his life over the years. The cinematic end result both challenges and fascinates the viewer.

"I'm Not There," which will debut at local movie theaters next Thursday, does not hesitate to deviate from the usual patterns of biographical films. The movie combines a surprising cast with a collage of cinematic styles, and of course includes a soundtrack with a wealth of Dylan's songs, some of which are quite familiar and some of them less so, performed by a variety of singers. While the film met with mixed reviews in the United States, it won three prizes at the Venice Film Festival, including a special jury award and the best actress prize for Cate Blanchett. Haynes wrote the script for the movie together with Oren Moverman, an Israeli-born New Yorker.

To illustrate the metamorphoses in Dylan's life, Haynes decided to have six different actors play his character at six different stages of his life. The enigmatic musician's extreme identity changes are emphasized even further, thanks to the fact that one of the actors portraying him is a woman, while another is an African American boy. In a telephone interview last week Haynes explained: "People forget how experimental Dylan actually was, so I felt the film also had to have a sense of breaking the mold and breaking preexisting patterns."

At the beginning of the movie, after a man wearing a jacket leads the camera through backstage corridors, a young boy is seen running, making his way through a large yellow field. He rushes in the direction of a moving train and, when he reaches it, throws in the guitar case he is carrying and jumps on. He quickly introduces himself to the two other passengers as Woody Guthrie and - with a mischievous smile, the astuteness of an adult and a great deal of personal charm - tells them his story. Even though the boy is only 11 years old and black - while the real Guthrie is a well-known American folksinger, white and an adult - the two are enchanted and play along.

Haynes relates that he based the character of Woody on an early period in Dylan's life, the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he adopted an imaginary persona. "Dylan was a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota, passing as a grass-roots, Dust-Bowl-style folk traveling the rails with all of his crazy stories of his past. And the amazing thing was that people just went along with that; they were sort of mesmerized by his performance, a performance of himself basically. His first creative act consisted of utterly transforming himself into something else.

"People had their suspicions about him, for sure, but no one was really there to unmask him, and that's definitely what's happening in Woody's story. I just take it one step further and add the additional side gag that the little boy is black."

After Woody, the viewers meet Arthur (Ben Whishaw), who embodies the phase when Dylan was influenced by French poet Arthur Rimbaud and abandoned the protest songs for more personal themes; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a protest singer who represents the period during which Dylan first became famous and whose story is told as a documentary, with various acquaintances talking about him; Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who falls in love with a French painter (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and whose character allows the audience to relate to Dylan's personal life (Haynes makes it clear that he chose to direct this story in a style influenced by Jean-Luc Godard's films of the mid-1960s); and Billy (played by Richard Gere), who represents a later period in Dylan's life when he chose to vanish from the public eye, and hints at his appearance in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid."

Stormy two years

Cate Blanchett plays one of the most fascinating characters in "I'm Not There," a role for which she has been nominated for the Golden Globe. She plays Jude, a character based on two particularly tempestuous years in Dylan's life, 1965 and 1966, when he started playing electric guitar, which spurred revolt and anger among a great many fans. During this time he also started consuming enormous amounts of drugs and alcohol, and worked on his acclaimed album "Blonde on Blonde." In July, 1966, Dylan was injured in an accident after losing control of his motorcycle.

Haynes says that when he researched his movie, he encountered films and pictures of Dylan from this period, which "show someone who is constantly pushing himself to the limit and who is almost painfully skinny with a cloud of hair. He seemed extremely effete and almost like this electric dandy on stage. There was something beyond anything close to traditional masculinity about his physical appearance and his gestures. And I wanted the actor to have an additional shock value, beyond what that [appearance] must have created for an audience of 1965 when they first witnessed him."

He adds that when he offered the role to Blanchett, "she was immediately intrigued and very curious about the idea. I can't remember exactly how well she knew Dylan's work when I first approached her, but she very quickly seemed like someone who knew him well." Haynes stresses that she was not deterred by playing a male role: "I don't think that was the problem for her, it was more that it was this guy, that it was this extremely well-known figure that is also best-known at this particular stage of his life. The fact that she was playing a man - that she didn't really think twice about. She always played boy roles when she was a girl in school because she was always tall and strong."

Haynes relates that he used to listen to Dylan's music when he was young, but that he abandoned it for other kinds of music when he reached the end of his teens. Only about seven years ago, when he decided to leave New York, where he lived for 17 years, and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he now lives, did he return to the love of his youth. "I think I was looking for a voice from the past that was there to guarantee a positive change."

The change he was undergoing at that time, along with the renewed encounter with Dylan's music and his metamorphoses, gave Haynes the familiar itch that the time had come to work on a new film. "The idea of treating him as different people at different times of his life, that became a unique way of putting my medium onto his, basically. And that made me excited, and made me feel like it was worth doing. I didn't just want to make a movie about him or about somebody who is all those different people in one."

This was, says Haynes, "a wonderful period. I had this new obsession and fascination in somebody and something . I just wasn't as obsessed with things as I was when I was young, and this was this new, fresh, creative obsession, and I did not care if I didn't end up getting the rights. So I was just enjoying myself."

When asked whether Dylan himself cooperated in the process of working on the film, Haynes laughs. "Sure. He just basically said let's give that guy the rights. It was the first time he ever did so. And he decided - that description of the concept I sent him [was] apparently all it took; he didn't need any more involvement in a project like that or approve of any script or details in the film. He basically just let it go into Jeff Rosen's hands [Rosen is Dylan's manager]. He basically gave the keys to the kingdom.

"I haven't got anything back from him yet, he had the DVD with him on tour ... I'm hoping to hear something, but he is a mysterious fellow, of course. I know he is aware of how much anticipation there is for his comment on something like this; it actually makes it harder for just a simple response to be shared. I know how much pressure comes with it. But I still wait."