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Not Quite There: I’m Not There

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Not Quite There: I’m Not There

Todd Haynes has always struck me as less filmmaker than conceptual artist—a man with grand ideas whose mind works faster than 24 frames per second, the screen never quite able to contain the weight of his brain. He’s a man working in the wrong medium, like Tarantino striving to be an actor before thankfully realizing his talent lies elsewhere. Haynes’ spirit is simply not conducive to the formal requirements of film. But because Haynes doesn’t suck at moviemaking the way Tarantino sucked at acting, he’s unaware that he can scale to greater heights. If Haynes can demonstrate this level of artistic quality in his experimental-posing-as-accessible films, just imagine what he could do guest-directing a Wooster Group production, exhibiting at the Whitney Biennial. For Todd Haynes has a masterful eye for lush set design and sharp cinematography, for period costumes and jarring camera angles, all readily on display in I’m Not There, his tribute to the “many lives” of a fellow visionary, the legendary Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, what works for music—or painting or poetry, or any of the abstract arts for that matter—rarely works for the screen. After all, how does one shoot a concept?

Thus, instead of tackling Bob Dylan as subject head-on, Haynes films the paradox that haunted the American icon throughout his career, namely his needing to change in order to stay the same. Dylan knew that as an artist he had to evolve in order to remain the artist he was—and he felt frustrated by those fans that wanted to stop him from being what they themselves expected him to be. Pretty heady stuff. And near impossible to tell in a literal manner, which is why Haynes divides his central character between six different actors (four of whom are non-American!), eschewing any sense of linear time and place. On paper it sounds like a brilliant move, but as the film chugs along on its 135-minute way, from the rail-riding vagabond kid named “Woody” to the dandy “Arthur Rimbaud” to Richard Gere in the guise of Billy (as in “The Kid”), you get the feeling Haynes has one too many balls (i.e., Richard Gere) in the air. That the film holds together as long as it does is a testament to Haynes’ formidable talent, but alas, the collision of the director and his subject is a train wreck waiting to happen.

But at least it’s a beautiful wreck, one worth rubbernecking for. As with Velvet Goldmine, Haynes is so in love with his fantastic visuals—band members machine-gunning from the stage, a dwarf in yellow top hat—that he loses control of the movie. The director’s ideas cannot last feature-length (though he’d be unrivaled if he stuck to shorts). The one thespian to emerge unscathed is, of course, Cate Blanchett, an actor so talented it’s scary. To Haynes’ credit, he assembles a worthy cast—Heath Ledger and Christian Bale have never been known to disappoint—but the movie belongs to Blanchett as Jude, Dylan at his speed-freak height of fame. Her gender bending notwithstanding, Blanchett is just at another level, period. She’d be mesmerizing even if Jude were played female. It’s like gathering the greatest ensemble around Vanessa Redgrave channeling a Mastroianni character.

But when all is said and done, I’m Not There merely adds up to a series of colorful set pieces. Julianne Moore’s former folk singer delivers talking-head commentary about Christian Bale’s coffeehouse Jack. Marcus Carl Franklin’s black Woody serenades two 1950s white couples in a living room straight out of Far from Heaven. Heath Ledger’s shade-wearing Robbie threatens a paparazzi in a park. And then there’s Blanchett’s Jude—flying high above the crowd in black-and-white long shot, tethered to the earth like a breathing balloon. This is a glimpse of Haynes’ tiny masterpiece buried beneath all that distracting rubble. Another scene in which Jude is accosted by questioning reporters, the camera gliding along in close-up with the gorgeous grotesquerie, feels like a lost outtake from 8 1/2. Which makes one wonder why Haynes didn’t just assign all the roles to his newfound muse, especially since every one of Blanchett’s scenes are shot in this most loving nod to Fellini (who, like Dylan, knew how to place his concepts within an accessible context). What gives Fellini’s films their joyride thrill is that his passion always threatens to overflow the frame, his glass filled to the rim, not a single drop spilled. Haynes’ cup continually runneth over.

Dylan was a provocateur because he cared enough to force people to think for themselves. He understood that music is a visceral medium, became enraged when labels and definitions threatened to drain its lifeblood. Haynes, being a non-visceral filmmaker, his work passively cerebral, isn’t quite there. He’s too afraid to lose himself in his passion—a requisite of all great artistry. Instead he enlists Blanchett, a visceral performer who thrives on tightropes, to do it for him. In fact, she’s the only visceral actor (save for 11-year-old Franklin—keep an eye out for this kid in the coming years) in the film, the one thus able to elevate the material to the level of Dylan’s poetry. There’s a scene midway through in which Arthur lays out some rules, one of which is to speak so the person standing directly in front of you can understand. Dylan’s genius lay in this ability to take huge concepts and pare them down to a simple song. Haynes, conversely, takes a magnifying glass to even the most magnificent ideas.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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