Q&A with Noah Tsika on filmmaking, biopics, and Todd Haynes

Q&A with Noah Tsika on filmmaking, biopics, and Todd Haynes

As the first and only Bob Dylan “biopic,” I’m Not There (dir. Todd Haynes) caused a stir. The film, which offers a surreal retelling of Dylan’s life and career, is perhaps best known for its distinctive approach to casting and character, featuring Cate Blanchette and Marcus Carl Franklin, a Black child actor, as versions of Dylan by different names. In his new book on the film, Noah Tsika picks apart how Haynes’s storytelling harmonizes with Dylan’s artistic sensibilities to create a unique, chronology- and rule-resisting film. Tsika also touches on issues of intellectual property, raising questions about who owns artistic material and identities and how such material can be repurposed.

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What’s the case for including I’m Not There as an essential film for the twenty-first century?

I’m Not There is one of the oddest and most audacious “biographical” films ever made. It reflects a twenty-first-century skepticism of the “biopic” as a purportedly stale form, and it represents the synthesis of everything that its director and co-writer, Todd Haynes, learned in his first two-plus decades as a filmmaker. For all its irreverence and resistance to fixed meanings, I’m Not There offers important lessons for filmmakers facing potential legal hurdles, the perennial promise of genre revisionism, and the enduring excitement of subversion (whether of the sacred cows of the culture at large or of specific cinematic traditions). If Haynes was able to overcome, or simply sidestep, the various juridical challenges that inevitably confront biographical accounts of living individuals—challenges that are, of course, compounded when the ever-complicated matter of music licensing enters the equation—it may have been through more than mere chance. Specific authorial choices made in the writing, casting, directing, and editing of I’m Not There were not incidental to the film’s acceptability before the law—though the law can, of course, be fickle, unpredictable. But certain jurisprudential shifts had taken place between the late 1980s, when Haynes’s experimental film Superstar was pulled from commercial distribution, and the making of I’m Not There some twenty years later. I argue that these shifts helped make Haynes’s film possible. People like to ask, “How did he get away with it?” The answer is a lot more complicated than that Bob Dylan, the film’s protean subject, simply let him.

What lessons does the production of I’m Not There offer to filmmakers facing potential legal hurdles in telling stories about notable living subjects?

Before he could begin work on the project, Haynes felt that he needed Bob Dylan’s blessing—and a signed life-rights agreement. Yet even Dylan’s permission, which preceded the writing of the script, was diffused—relayed through such intermediaries as his oldest son, the filmmaker Jesse Dylan (who, at the suggestion of the Creative Artists Agency, met with Haynes and producer Christine Vachon in Los Angeles), and his longtime manager, Jeff Rosen. That Dylan deputized others to convey his support is perhaps unsurprising—par for the course for a busy, retinue-generating star. (As Jean-Luc Godard complained after he was unable to get a meeting with Dylan, whom the French director wanted for a part in his 1987 film King Lear, “Americans are like kings, they’re untouchable.”) But the gesture had its own special resonance for Haynes, who was already operating with the title “I’m Not There” very much in mind. Both Jesse Dylan and Jeff Rosen, having instructed Haynes to send all his films to the latter (to be distributed to Dylan to watch on his tour bus, his preferred arena of reception), warned Haynes against using the word “genius,” the term “voice of a generation,” and the name “Bob Dylan” in his one-page pitch to the superstar. Wisely, Haynes listened. While a life-rights agreement is not necessary (no life story can be copyrighted), it can be immensely helpful. With its standard consent-and-waiver clause, it essentially ensures that the signatory will not sue for libel or invasion of privacy, and it consequently allows a creator a certain latitude. Still, you could say that Haynes hedged his bets by employing pseudonyms for the people in Dylan’s life—and even for Dylan himself. There is an ambiguity—a plausible deniability—at the core of Haynes’s creative process.

Could you talk a bit about the term “allusion profusion” and how Todd Haynes plays with this concept?

“Allusion profusion” is a term that the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once used to describe the wildly citational 1994 films Pulp Fiction and Ed Wood. It is a phrase that, to my mind, even more accurately describes Haynes’s I’m Not There. I invoke it to suggest that I’m Not There is made up almost entirely of references to other films. Some of these references are musical; others are visual; still others are verbal, and many more are emotional or conceptual. This explosion of citations is a Todd Haynes trademark, but it’s one that he shares with Bob Dylan. So it has a special resonance in I’m Not There, which references Dylan’s references while also adding to them—allowing them to propagate in an unpredictable manner that is at once Haynesian and Dylanesque. A nod to Kazan becomes a recreation of Capra; a quotation of Godard is actually a quote of a quote (or a plagiarism of a plagiarism); clips from Dylan’s Eat the Document seem to match, supplement, and challenge Haynes’s recreations of other films. Everything comes from a precise location in popular culture—including those of which Haynes was not fully conscious (he inadvertently recreated a famous moment from Richard Lester’s 1968 film Petulia).

Describe the style and impact of New Queer Cinema and how Todd Haynes engages queerness in this “anti-identitarian” film.

In his book Chronicles, Bob Dylan sounds distinctly modern—even prototypically queer—when he complains, “Semantics and labels could drive you crazy.” “I can’t be oppressed if I can’t be found,” writes Leo Bersani in Homos, adding, “Unidentifiability is an act of defiance.” As Dylan puts it in the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home (2005), one is “constantly in a state of becoming.” (He offers much the same message in Scorsese’s later Rolling Thunder Revue: “Life isn’t about finding yourself, or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”) Haynes takes such propositions seriously—you could say that he takes them to representational extremes—in I’m Not There. Haynes has said of the era of glam rock (the subject of his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine), “I loved that period and found it to be radical, and continue to feel that way about it, because there were no secure identity politics.” I’m Not There expresses, and even advocates, a certain freedom from the shackles of “identity” that ups the ante on the New Queer Cinema of the previous decade, which both embraced a certain queerness of form (a stylistic avant-gardism) and opposed facile categorizations (including “gay” and “straight”). Is seven-year-old Richie, in Haynes’s Poison (1991), gay? Is Carol White, in Haynes’s Safe (1995), “really” sick? Who—and where—is Bob Dylan? (Not in I’m Not There—not by that name, anyway.) A founding member of Gran Fury, an artist collective that grew out of ACT UP (and was responsible for the familiar silence-equals-death graphic), Haynes watched in horror as the militancy of the eighties and early nineties appeared to be giving way to heavily commodified discourses of self-help and self-blame. With I’m Not There, Haynes set out to explode those discourses. The irony, of course, is that he did so through Bob Dylan, himself a cultural commodity.

Noah Tsika is a professor of media studies at Queens College, CUNY. He is the author of Cinematic Independence: Constructing the Big Screen in Nigeria, Screening the Police: Film and Law Enforcement in the United States, Pink 2.0: Encoding Queer Cinema on the Internet, and other books on film.