Todd Haynes’ films are about shape-shifters, people whose identities are in flux, frequently concealed, even from themselves. You could say that this is the essence of the Jewish experience in the diaspora, and Haynes, whose mother is Jewish, would undoubtedly agree. At any rate, it is the perfect description of the man at the center of Haynes’ new film, “I’m Not There,” which opens on Nov. 21.
The man — or perhaps men — is Bob Dylan.
To give a sense of the plasticity of Dylan’s personality, Haynes cast six different actors as the singer-songwriter (including, most famously, Cate Blanchett). In a sense, it is a strategy that harkens back to the most notorious of Haynes’ early films, “Superstar,” in which Karen Carpenter is played by a Barbie doll. Similarly, the husband in “Far From Heaven” either is unaware of, or self-deluded, about his gayness, the suburban housewife in “Safe” doesn’t realize that it is her environment that is literally killing her, and the glam-rockers of “Velvet Goldmine” are reinventing themselves as totally as Dylan.
“I’m Not There” is part of a mini-floodlet of new Dylan filmed material that is hitting theaters and DVD stores this month. Also being shown for the first time is an hour-long collection of outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal “Don’t Look Back,” called “65 Revisited,” and the Murray Lerner film of concert footage from Dylan’s folkie days, “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963-1965,” which played at the New York Film Festival this fall and is now available on DVD.
How Jewish is Bob Dylan? Dylan’s Jewish identity has long been a source of conflict and controversy among his fans and observers. His short-lived conversion to born-again Christianity dismayed many, heartened a few and confused all. But Haynes and his co-screenwriter Oren Moverman (an Israeli now living in Brooklyn) are convinced Dylan’s Jewishness is the rocking heart of his work.
Moverman said in a telephone interview last week, “[Judaism] is the one central thing in his entire biography. Whether it is overt or not, it is there. Even the Christian period occurred as a reaction against his Jewishness; and that lasted only three years and the next thing you know, Dylan is doing Chabad telethon appearances.”
One could argue, I suppose, that Moverman and Haynes are biased. Moverman says that “being Jewish and Israeli is a huge part of my identity.” Haynes is half-Jewish by his mother and when it was pointed out to him during a live interview last week that halachically he is a Jew, he sat upright on a sofa and said with a huge grin, “I know it, and I’m damned proud of it.”
Haynes acknowledges that he didn’t have a religious upbringing. Raised in the San Fernando Valley in a largely Jewish community, he notes “I never felt like a member of a minority group. I didn’t understand jokes about Barbra Streisand’s nose, I thought she was glamorous and sexy.”
Although he is not religious, Haynes feels he is deeply imbued with a sense of his own Jewishness.
“I identify [with] it and its manifestations through an innate sense of the role of the entertainer and the comic; the origins of popular theater and the role of humorist are at their heart Jewish phenomena, and the leftist historical associations, the commitment to progressiveness that are the historical associations with Judaism in America,” he says. “I see that in Dylan as well,” Haynes adds. “For all his desire to efface himself, he is the natural inheritor of the role of the Jewish performer. It’s there in his wit, his politics and his performances, the way he throws himself into them.”
The last factor, Haynes admits, is what separates him the most from the subject of “I’m Not There.”
“I don’t identify with that aspect of Dylan,” he says with a wry grin. “That’s the big different between us. As a performer he is insistent on living in the moment, and a film director’s job is about as far from that as possible. He’s not reflective in nature, I am. The job of a director of necessity requires all kinds of planning and preparation.”
In fact, Haynes believes that it is his inclination toward reflectiveness that is his own most Jewish trait.
“The history of Jewish thinking is analytical and reflective,” he says. That would certainly describe his approach to filmmaking, which is not only steeped in film history (the six different segments of “I’m Not There” are each informed by a different era of film style from the ‘60s and ‘70s), but also owes a great deal to Haynes’ studies in semiotics in college and his interest in gender as a key component of personal identity.
“I think that all my films explore notions of masculinity, of the way that we were raised to be men in this society,” he says. “I had an incredibly supportive background and parenting. My dad was always physically affectionate and warm and loving. My [maternal] grandfather had a huge impact on my life.”
It was from his grandfather, an electrician who had been a union organizer at Warner Brothers in the ‘30s and ‘40s, that Haynes developed his own sense of Jewishness.
“He was a natural intellectual and wit and politically progressive,” Haynes recalls, and those are the qualities that he came to associate with being a Jew.
Moverman suspects that making the Dylan film “has brought Todd closer to his Jewish side. I think a lot of the themes have to do with the fact that Dylan is Jewish. It doesn’t appear directly, but it hovers over the entire film, especially if you [the viewer] are also Jewish.”
Certainly, Haynes has no trouble seeing his own Jewish identity reflected in Dylan.
“I see that in Dylan,” he agrees. “For all his efforts to efface himself, he is the natural inheritor of a Jewish concept of the performer, and you can see it in his wit, his politics and his commitment to performance, to living the moment, that is the key to what he does.”
“I’m Not There,” directed by Todd Haynes, opens on Nov. 21 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org. The soundtrack album, which is a stone killer featuring some of the best Dylan covers ever, is available on the Sony label.
“65 Revisited” opens at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave., at 3rd St.) for a one-week engagement on Nov. 28. For information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com.