Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Critical mass

Leave it to Todd Haynes to get America to admit that drag is hot.

Cate Blanchett is Bob Dylan: Could there be a sexier above-the-title tagline?...Before, I thought of Cate Blanchett as a beautiful and gifted actress. After this crush-inducing performance, I'm seriously considering flying to Australia to stalk her.

And, mightiest of all, is Cate Blanchett's Jude Quinn, a quivering, neurotic, sexually alluring elfin presence, a changeling, a bundle of receptors half-open to the world and half-guarded from it...Her way of walking is a jittery amble; onstage, her movements have the precision, the meticulous grace, of a Balinese shadow puppet.

Rolling Stone
She burns through Haynes' head-trip odyssey like an illuminating torch. Blanchett's soon-to-be-legendary performance is not a stunt, it's some kind of miracle. Playing the skinny, androgynous Dylan in his electric years — when his hair stood on end to match his fried nerves — Blanchett extends the possibilities of acting. You won't see a better example of interpretive art this year by man or woman.


And then Cate Blanchett arrives. To call her work here magnificent is too undeserving an understatement. She is regal, almost unrecognizable...Blanchett is so callous and cool we can feel the vibe resonating off the screen.

And that's just a rivulet of the tidal wave of praise she's getting.

When was the last time America was this in love with an actress in drag? Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry does not count; that was a P.C. head-pat and a whispered, "How brave!" This is different. This is a sweaty, lustful, heart-doodling critical swoon. Jude Quinn has been declared hot. And that's remarkable, given both the seriousness of the gender bluff involved (Madonna in a vest he is not) and Jude's distance from conventional, pretty boy-girliness.

Women impersonating men on film are usually seen as more unsettling than crush-worthy because they point back to their real-life counterparts, who show us that male privilege isn't non-negotiable and that our gendered division of power is unstable. But Haynes has made his medicine so sweet and so tasty we never realize it's actually a big spoonful of queer theory. "I'm the only one with any balls," Jude says, and we never doubt him for a second, even with Haynes winking at us through the subtext. We just rush to join the fan club.

The Philly City Paper got it right when it said that "Jude's defense of the politics of personal transformation echoes Haynes' own journey from ACT UP activist to engaged auteur, one who realizes that queering the canon can be as powerful as shouting slogans." Haynes is queering the Dylan canon; he's just doing it with such a light touch that nobody else has said it in so many words yet. It seems to me he's also suggested what Jonathan Weinberg said about Duane Michals back in 1996:

Things are queer, not only because the world cannot be known, and all representations are fallible, but because of the transforming process of art itself. In Michals's beautiful photographs, queerness becomes an ideal; the circularity of the series suggests that the image is inexhaustible and unknowable. But in the end, art's pleasures, its humor and mystery, do help us know the world in all its queerness.

As in Michals's photo series, so in I'm Not There. All representations are fallible--so why not pile them on? Why not six Dylans instead of one? You can't exhaust or understand the man, so why not choose a film style (collage) that exaggerates his circularity, his multiplicity and his unknowability, rather than disguises them?

I was really more after the strangeness of what he had become as a man at that moment. How he was androgynous, but not in the way David Bowie would be androgynous a few years later, in the early '70s. It was almost more the way Patti Smith was androgynous. He was just this otherworldly creature. This otherness had crept into him completely by that point... On a purely superficial level, I just wanted a woman's body to occupy that place, so that this strangeness could come back.

-Haynes, Salon interview

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