Things I Learned Watching I'm Not There
The title to this post is totally, utterly misleading because I didn't learn anything watching I'm Not There: not about Bob Dylan, not about myself, not about the Dylan myth. In fact, the act of watching the movie felt almost like an afterthought. You probably know all the relevant facts about the movie already: rather than making anything resembling a straight biopic, Todd Haynes split the multitudinous Dylan myth into six component parts, turned each of those parts into a separate character, and went on a stunt-casting binge to find the right actors for those characters: Cate Blanchett plays the mid-60s Don't Look Back press-hating trickster version of Dylan, for instance, and a little black kid named Marcus Carl Franklin plays the rootless fabulist Dylan who fixated so hard on Woody Guthrie that he tried to become the guy. All those different Dylans have their own names, and no one in the movie ever utters the phrase "Bob Dylan." Haynes has done this sort of free-associative film-essay on his musical heroes before, but even Velvet Goldmine, which I loved, is as linear as a Mentos commercial compared to I'm Not There. Haynes could've just as well invented three or ten or 136 separate Dylans, and the effect would've been basically the same. He releases his various free-floating Dylans into a miasmic anti-narrative, and it never becomes entirely clear whether all these various Dylans occupy the same world. The Heath Ledger Dylan is an actor who portrays the Christian Bale Dylan, for instance, and the Marcus Carl Franklin Dylan turns up in what I guess was a dream of the Heath Ledger Dylan's wife. "Mystery is a traditional fact," the Cate Blanchett Dylan argues near the end of the movie, and the movie takes him on his word. Haynes never tries to pin Dylan down the way biopics generally do; instead, he celebrates Dylan's elusiveness by making a deeply elusive movie. The problem is that I'm Not There is so elusive that it's barely a movie; instead, it's a collection of riffs, and 135 minutes of cinematic riffs is too much.
I've been doing these "Things I Learned" posts for a minute now, whenever a movie seems sufficiently connected to the pop-music universe to justify a weekday afternoon at the movies. I'm not much of a film person, though, which puts me decidedly out of my element when I'm talking about I'm Not There; Haynes's Fellini references, for instance, sailed right past me. I'm Not There, anyway, is not a movie about music. The music is there, floating constantly through the movie, both in Dylan's original recordings and in the cover-versions on the pretty-good soundtrack album, and most of it is great, but it's never anywhere near the film's center. Instead, the real subject of this movie is the Dylan myth; music, as far as I can tell, is just presented as a means toward creating that myth. Two of the six Dylans in the movie aren't even musicians; the Heath Ledger one is an actor and the Richard Gere one is a retired gunslinger or some such nonsense. (The whole Richard Gere plotline, where he's an anachronistic post-fake-death Billy the Kid, is pretty much entirely bullshit. Dylan might've once played Billy the Kid's sidekick in a Sam Peckinpah movie, and he might've made a concept album out of an old-west outlaw, but the connections to this character are tertiary at best, and it's not like the Gere story has anything going for it outside its Dylan connections. I had no idea what was going on when Gere was watching My Morning Jacket's Jim James, in greasepaint, singing "Goin' to Acapulco at a funeral, and I didn't care.) We never see any of the Dylans writing or recording a song; the movie never gets that literal. And his attitude toward his fellow musicians is telling. The Marcus Carl Franklin Dylan sings a pretty great version of "Tombstone Blues" on a front porch with old scraggly Richie Havens, but he just absorbs Havens' compliments and then rambles on. And the Cate Blanchett Dylan might cavort with the Beatles, but he also introduces Brian Jones as being from "that groovy covers band," a great bitchy slight. So musicians are peers at best, but the Blanchett Dylan practically drools all over Allen Ginsberg, goofily played by David Cross. Ginsberg, rather than anyone else in Dylan's profession, is the ideal here.
Part of my problem with virtually every historical representation of Dylan is that I actually prefer acoustic folk-baby Dylan to pretty much every subsequent incarnation; for my money, he didn't actually hook up with a backing band who could convincingly play amplified rock until long after his motorcycle crash. But the Dylan I like best is generally regarded as the hopelessly pre-cool one, the one who allowed himself to be co-opted by the self-righteous conservative dickfaces who turned on him as soon as he plugged in. That early-60s downtown folk scene, from what I've read, was just stupefyingly lame, but Dylan had transcended it long before he consciously flipped it off. Christian Bale plays that Village Dylan here, and plays him as a slumping bag of tics, which seems about right. And the movie covers the whole Bale sequence as a fake documentary, making all the same mistakes as most real documentaries make in the way it shows people effusing about how great the kid was instead of showing us any actual evidence of that greatness. I actually really liked the Bale sequence, which has fun showing how contradictory Dylan was from the start. I liked a lot of the movie's individual sequences, which serve to make I'm Not There a much better mess than, say, Southland Tales. But I'd have to see the movie a few more times to even come close to unpacking its cumulative effect, and I'm not sure I'll ever feel like watching it again.
My favorite of the movie's Dylans was Cate Blanchett, who seems to be the favorite of just about everyone who's seen the thing. Blanchett might've arguably been Haynes's most egregious bit of stunt-casting, but she's also the only one who completely disappears into her character. She gets a bunch of great scenes: mumbling stoned through a gaudy swinging-London party, dealing with an angry knife-wielding fan's abandonment issues, sniping back and forth with a journalist who actually raises some worthwhile questions. My favorite moment of the movie is the mythic recreation of the heretical moment at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan first plugged in. The movie first plays that moment as a fantastically exaggerated cartoon (Dylan and his band pulling out machine guns and opening fire into the audience), and then it comes only slightly further down to earth, showing the reactions of a mouth-foaming axe-wielding Pete Seeger and a paying audience reduced to snarling jackals. And I guess maybe that's the biggest problem I had with the movie: Dylan's entire public can't have been made of of proprietary philistines, can it? Can it?
Or maybe I was just getting annoyed with Film Forum. The popcorn at that place has no butter. Seriously. It tastes like sawdust. It says "no butter" right on the menu, and I still bought some. Five bucks gone, and I couldn't eat more than a handful. I'm an idiot.
Voice review: J. Hoberman on I'm Not There
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