Tag Archives: Todd Haynes

Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan

Bob Dylan turns 70 years old today. To commemorate, this post concerns Todd Haynes’ wild Dylan biopic I’m Not There, a film that has been an object of fascination for me since its release in 2007. Not a straightforward retelling of the musician’s career in the generic mold of other recent biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, Haynes instead concocts a fantasia where six different actors (of various ages, races and genders) portray a different aspect of the life and/or music of the ever-mercurial Dylan. Although I would rate it somewhat less highly now than when I first saw it, it still irks me that film critics and Dylan fans alike have derided the film as willfully perverse or, worse, something designed to “make no sense.” If anything, I’m Not There is a film that makes too much sense; every aesthetic decision seems rationalized on an intellectual level – usually by tracing it back to a song, album or another movie – which lends the film an academic flavor that is occasionally off-putting. Nonetheless, few American films of recent years have been as formally audacious as Haynes’ movie, and its more off-the-wall experimental aspects are arguably perfectly suited to chronicling an artist whose work has been as revolutionary as Dylan’s has been.

What follows is a rewritten version of a post I originally made on a Dylan message board in 2007 (on the indispensable website Expecting Rain). Rather than integrate these notes into a formal essay, I’m keeping them fragmentary in nature, which I hope is fitting given the kaleidoscopic nature of the film:

I’m Not There has a unique mirrored structure. It seems to me that large chunks of the beginning of the film are consciously mirrored by large chunks of the ending. I would even go so far as to say that the Jude Quinn segment (in which Cate Blanchett notoriously plays the “Dylan” of 1965/1966) is the literal center of the movie, with the narrative strands that come before and after it falling on opposite sides of the “mirror”:

– The movie begins and ends with a motorcycle crash.

– It also begins with Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor playing “Dylan” as a Woody Guthrie wannabe) hopping a train and ends with Billy (Richard Gere as “Dylan”-as-Billy-the-Kid) hopping a train.

– Near the beginning, a faux documentary segment of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale as “Dylan” the protest singer) is clearly mirrored by the faux documentary segment towards the end of Pastor John (Bale as the same character but now a born again Christian 25 years later). Haynes’ masterstroke is having Bale appear in both segments since those two seemingly disparate eras in Dylan’s career are actually unified in several interesting ways – most notably in the impression Dylan gave in interviews during those times that he actually did, for once, “have the answers” and in the way his sense of humor, usually one of his strong suits, appears to have deserted him.

– The depiction in the first half of the movie of the relationship between Robbie and Claire (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Mr. and Mrs. “Dylan”) focuses primarily on when they first met and things were good and mirrors their estrangement and divorce in the film’s second half. There are also two sex scenes between these characters, one in each half of the film (à la A History of Violence).

– My favorite symmetry might be Gorgeous George, the famous wrestler, telling Woody “Secrets are for keeping” in the beginning, which echoes Billy’s line to Homer at the end: “God save the secrets.”

Although there is obviously a lot of intercutting between the various stories, I think Haynes structured the movie somewhat like this:

1. Woody
2. Jack Rollins
3. Robbie Clark’s marriage
4. Jude Quinn
5. Robbie Clark’s divorce
6. Pastor John
7. Billy

For me, the real power of the film lies in its depictions of the characters of Woody and Billy and the implied transition from one to the other. Woody is a “fake,” trying to convince everyone who he is and what he’s done, and Billy is completely “authentic”, inhabiting a mystical folk music world of his own design. I think this speaks volumes about the irony of how people have responded to Dylan’s career over the decades; the young Dylan was a charming and talented bullshit artist while the Dylan of today is one of the last living links to authentic folk and blues music. It reminds me of something I read in a newspaper review of a Dylan concert in Nashville a few years ago. The writer said that the long-haired Dylan of 1966 was almost run out-of-town when he showed up to record Blonde on Blonde but locals embrace the Dylan of today when he returns for embodying the true spirit of country music (“he used to hang out with Johnny Cash, don’t you know?”).

A few more things I noticed:

– The hobos that Woody meets when we first see him hopping a freight train (listed as “Hobo Joe” and “Hobo Moe” in the credits) are the same hobos he says good-bye to before going to the hospital to visit the real Woody Guthrie. This slyly implies that what happens to young Woody on the road – his playing the blues with Old Man Arvin, being menaced by the scary hobos, being swallowed by the whale, charming the rich white southern family – are just more tall tales that Woody is telling Moe and Joe.

– Woody tells Mrs. Arvin that he is from Stockton, California. At the end of the movie we learn this is where the Gateway Church is also located.

– Billy the Kid wakes at three different points in the movie: once at the beginning, once towards the end when his dog is barking and his story begins proper and finally at the end when he wakes up on the train and finds the guitar.

I’m Not There features almost as many references to movies from the late ’50’s through the early ’70’s as it does to Dylan’s music.

Here is a list of notable references:

– Woody’s punning dialogue with the hobos about “composite” and “compost heap” is from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. When Woody says “It’s lonesome roads we shall walk,” he’s probably referring to the protagonist of that movie (Andy Griffith’s “Lonesome Rhodes”) as well as Dylan’s song “Paths of Victory.”

– In terms of composition and editing, the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg scenes are heavily influenced by Godard’s films of the mid-’60’s: the scene where they buy a motorcycle is reminiscent of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. The overhead shots of her cooking and cleaning are reminiscent of La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. More specifically, the shot where a camera circles around the face of a statue during the “Visions of Johanna” sequence is identical to several shots in Le Mepris. Later, Ledger’s voice over narration about Gainsbourg’s disappointment in his movie Grain of Sand is an almost exact quote from Masculin Feminin.

– In terms of style, the Richard Gere sequences are very similar to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. This is particularly true of the color scheme (earth tones) and use of the zoom lens.

– One of the movie’s best throwaway jokes is a nod to The Graduate. We see a montage of different characters addressing Richard Gere under different pseudonyms. The last one, a bellhop, calls him “Mr. Gladstone.” This is the name Dustin Hoffman used when checking into a hotel to rendezvous with Ann Bancroft.

– The Beatles being chased by a screaming mob is an obvious allusion to the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night. More obscure is a reference made to Petulia, another film by the same director Richard Lester; both movies contain shots of elderly party-goers in neck braces and wheelchairs.

– The Jude Quinn sequences are highly reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Specific visual quotations include the shot of Blanchett as a human balloon and the entire garden party sequence.

– Woody dresses up as Charlie Chaplin in the town of “Riddle.” Woody’s quoting of the song “Lo and Behold” (“This is chicken town!”) might also be a specific reference to the scene in The Gold Rush where Chaplin’s starving friend sees him as a giant chicken.

– Also in “Riddle,” the scene where a family is loading a jalopy with furniture is straight out of John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath (a favorite of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan).

– An overhead shot of people holding umbrellas on a sidewalk is a visual quote from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I still don’t know why Billy has a female dog named Henry though.


On Mildred Pierce and the Increasingly Fine Line Between Cinema and Television

Mildred Pierce
dir: Todd Haynes (USA, 2011)
Rating: 8.4

The best American film of 2011 may well turn out to be one that never played at a theater near you at all. Instead, writer/director Todd Haynes’ ambitious adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce has headed straight to your living room, premiering as a five and a half hour HBO miniseries but packed with enough filmmaking smarts to help further erode the increasingly fine line between cinema and television. Broadcast over the past three consecutive Sunday evenings, Haynes’ movie (and yes I have no problem calling it that) is now available “on demand” and will no doubt be released later in the year in DVD and Blu-ray editions (the way I suspect most people experience movies nowadays anyway). It will also most likely be prominently featured in both of my Best of 2011 lists (“Films” and “Home Video Releases”) at the end of the year. So, while pilgrim-hatted purists have been apoplectic for a while that movies have more and more come to resemble television (even movies shot on film today exist as purely digital data at some point in post-production), my response is to look at the glass as half full: television has also come closer to resembling the movies.

This is Not a Movie Poster:

Mildred Pierce tells the story of a newly divorced single mother in 1930s southern California who waits tables to make ends meet, much to the embarrassment of her class-conscious children. Her increasingly lucrative side business of making pies encourages her to attempt to open her own restaurant, the eventual success of which has the unintended effect of driving a further wedge of resentment between her and her older daughter Veda. Eschewing the murder subplot that was added to Michael Curtiz’s justly celebrated 1945 film version (and that was absent from Cain’s social realist novel, which I haven’t read), Haynes’ movie predictably draws more on classic Hollywood melodrama than film noir. However, this is not the colorful, 1950s Douglas Sirk-style melodrama that Haynes already mined in Far From Heaven. The chief reference point here would appear to be Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, a film that Haynes has repeatedly cited as one of his favorites. Much like Ophuls did with his leading lady Joan Bennett, Haynes envelops Winslet in a chilly mise-en-scene consisting of vertical lines and frames-within-frames to continually reinforce the idea that Mildred, even when professionally triumphant, is a prisoner inside of her own home. Mike Wilmington, in an otherwise perceptive review, has criticized Haynes for not showing more “directorial style and flash” but, since Haynes already made that movie with Heaven, that’s a bit like criticizing Bob Dylan for not making John Wesley Harding sound more like Blonde on Blonde.

The very notion of “television mise-en-scene,” which would have been an oxymoron just a few years ago, is symptomatic of our times. One of the most interesting byproducts of the boom in popularity of widescreen televisions in recent years has been the concurrent rise in popularity – in television shows and miniseries alike – of what might be termed old-school film aesthetics (such as long shots, widescreen compositions and a 360 degree shooting space); and there is thankfully no longer such a relentless focus on the use of alternating close-ups that seemed the de rigueur television style of the 1990s. One case in point is Olivier Assayas’ breakthrough Carlos, a miniseries originally made for French television that became the critical darling of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. It may have premiered on television but Assayas’ electrifying political gangster biopic contained an unforgettable and exquisitely cinematic 90 minute scene of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez’s notorious 1975 terrorist raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Masterfully combining ‘Scope framing with nervy handheld camera work and brisk cutting that crucially remained spatially logical, this extended sequence has proven to be the definitive “action movie” set piece of our time. Further muddying the waters is the fact that respected film auteurs such as Assayas and Haynes, as well as actors known primarily for their “big screen” work (such as recent Oscar winner Kate Winslet and the formidable Guy Pearce), are turning to the “small screen” in an age when movie studios are seen as increasingly risk-averse and cable television is perceived as picking up the slack in delivering entertainment deemed “edgy” or even merely aimed at an adult audience. Gone are the days when a movie star of the caliber of Charlie Sheen turning to television automatically signaled the beginning of a career in decline.

A huge benefit for filmmakers in this era of the new and improved T.V. movie is the ability to have a more expansive running time than what can be achieved in a traditional movie. This allows the makers of a miniseries to create a highly elaborate, overarching narrative structure without necessarily falling victim to the aimless, meandering quality that seems to become the sad fate of nearly every long-running television series. (21st century television is a medium that a serial-minded film director like Louis Feuillade, not to mention the young Jacques Rivette, would have loved.) This more novelistic structure means Haynes’ Mildred Pierce can consequently go places that Michael Curtiz could never have dreamed taking his 111 minute version, fully justifying its five and a half hours without ever wearing out its welcome. Our feeling that we have come to truly know characters like Mildred and Veda is much stronger in the miniseries, which makes the growing conflict between them more acutely painful.

Technically, Mildred Pierce is a tour-de-force, featuring 1930s locations and costumes rendered in impeccable period detail, gorgeous but low-key cinematography by Ed Lachmann (doing essentially the opposite of the baroque work he performed on earlier Haynes collaborations like Far From Heaven and I’m Not There) and a gorgeous but mournful score by the Coen brothers’ regular composer Carter Burwell. But for all of its estimable formal qualities, this film finally belongs to the actors, more so than any of Haynes’ previous work – with Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood (as Veda) tearing up the glass screen in the most heavy-duty dramatic parts. There is plenty of acting firepower in the supporting roles too, namely by the perennially underrated and underused Guy Pearce (looking and sounding exactly as if he stepped out of a Hollywood movie from the 1930s) and the suddenly hot Melissa Leo as Mildred’s new boyfriend and best friend respectively. If contemporary Hollywood could serve up even a half-dozen theatrical films each year as intelligent and well-crafted as Mildred Pierce, we’d be entering a new golden age of American cinema. But they can’t and we ain’t, so for the time being let’s all be grateful for television.

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