What is there within our everyday social experience that has enabled us to accept Haynes’ blunt confusions of identity? Is it just that we are used to the fact that we will meet people from time to time who ‘put on an act’? This is pretty unexceptional and would hardly be expected to precipitate a radical revision of the conventions of film drama. Is it that we have grown accustomed to acts of impersonation, generally executed by performance professionals, that are so accomplished that they verge on the uncanny? Surely achievements of this order have been commonplace throughout the history of the performing arts. Is it that Blanchett’s Dylan presents us with a (fictional) masculine surface that has a female interior in such a way that some sort of deep psychological truth is being illustrated? That’s an attractive thought but it may be too deep. As are other notions that touch on progressive issues of gender and sexuality.
A clue may reside in the film’s title: “I’m Not There”. Someone is talking to you but ‘they’ are not ‘there’. In Dylan’s case this may refer to the artiste’s exceptional and notorious reluctance to be pinned down or summed up. More generally, it may allude to our wan acceptance of the eroded, not to say blanched, status of that part of ourselves once regarded as persisting and enduring, the part that will always be there regardless of the weather, flying the flag that is only ours. Once that part is threatened then we might as well be glove puppets, we might as well get an actor in to deal with the everyday bric a brac.
If we do not actually experience this dilapidation ourselves, in our relations with our friends, it has certainly, I suggest, become readily recognisable abroad and has paved the way for the acceptance of the practice of taking in lodgers. The lodger, in this case, lives just beneath the skin and articulates appearance. His or her presence verges on the arbitrary, in the same way that it is arbitrary, at one level, that Blanchett plays Dylan. The evacuation of Dylan to make way for Blanchett is not an issue that Haynes foregrounds. It is, nevertheless, implicit in his representation of Dylan.
The idea of getting a lodger to play you is humiliating, it’s a strategy of last resort. That a man might be passably articulated by a woman lodger is, for many men, an even more humiliating prospect. Not everyone will be able to afford Cate Blanchett, for example. They will have to rely on lesser role models. These are increasingly drawn either from the ranks of professional performers or those who, having not achieved, simply imitate those who have. The result is that the lodger’s skills are drastically reduced to theatrical effects and postures: we are performed by imitators whose specialisms depend on having access to substance in order that they might imitatively reproduce it. If the substance has been evacuated to make room for the imitator then all that can be produced is a pure, unadulterated, undetailed, essential theatricality.