Some novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers (Shaw, Voltaire, Jean-Luc Godard) work closer to the vein of the essayist than the storyteller. They may be able to create memorable characters and powerful scenes, but only for the sake of making ideas as tangible as people.

Among current American moviemakers, Todd Haynes is the best example of a storytelling essayist. His strategy is to score his intellectual points by doing riffs on previous, nonintellectual films. His first feature, Poison, spins variations on TV documentaries, B-movie sci-fi, and Jean Genet’s classic Chant d’Amour, all in the service of a meditation on how society isolates and punishes social and sexual deviation. In his most popular effort to date, Far from Paradise, Haynes mimicked the plot and style of old Douglas Sirk movies (such as Imitation of Life) but filled it with the sort of problems Sirk never dared tackle—race relations, homosexuality, women entrapped by domesticity. The counterpointing of 1950s sleekness with late-twentieth-century turbulence proved titillating.

His latest film is an essay about that notorious shapeshifter, Bob Dylan. The film cites a line from Rimbaud: “Je est un autre” (I am an other). Like Rimbaud, Haynes’s Dylan challenges us: look for me but you can’t find me; I can’t be pinned down by your definitions, so I’m not there. Driving this home,...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.