I’m Not There? – I’m Not There, Man

I'm Not ThereA lengthy and elegant mess of a film, Todd Haynes’ not-so-experimental I’m Not There is nonetheless a beauty of a wreck, a “non-biopic” about Bob Dylan that mainly ignores that facet of Dylan that always hides in plain site when analysts look for meaning in the minstrel poet’s own life – his music.

Oh, there are plenty of songs in it – originals and those recorded by a variety of artists for the inevitable soundtrack. Some interesting choices too. But the story never connects to the songs, the movie’s plot arc of Dylan’s life – told in six intertwined parables with six different actors portraying Dylan-like characters – doesn’t account for the music, for the brilliant synthesis of American music that makes Dylan the most important singer-songwriter of the last half century.

What we get, in amazing photography and some fine performances, is pretty much a glorified and well-shot episode of Behind the Music, the old hackneyed story of every star: the backstory, the self-invention, the rise, the drugs, the women, the fall, the comeback, the discovery of faith…and so on. At the end of it, we’re all wowed by the detail and the ambition of it, but we don’t know any more about Bob Dylan than we did going in – or about ourselves, for that matter.

By now you know the basic conceit. There is no “Bob Dylan” in the film, but six figures who take a part of the Dylan life story – or myth – and run with it in sequences that pay homage to the directors of the 60s and 70s that Haynes clearly admires: Richard Lester, Fellini and Bergman. Cate Blanchett plays the arrogant mid-60s pop star icon of Don’t Look Back repute, and in terms of mimicry and style, she most clearly captures the actual Dylan; it’s a fine performance, the portrayal of a brittle and mercurial star fleeing his voice-of-a-generation pedestal by attacking his own reputation.

It’s the best role in the film, along with Marcus Carl Franklin as the 13-year-old black teenager who calls himself Woody Guthrie and wanders the backroads of Americana singing roots music. The kid’s love of music and his self-invention as a 1930s Okie folkman in the late 1950s United States comes the closest of any of the Dylan characters to connecting the story with the music – it’s about telling stories, of course.

The other Dylans don’t have much to work with. The eldest, Richard Gere, wanders what seems to be the old sets of Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Dylan’s forgettable film acting debut. It’s all bizarre medicine show bread and circus with no real insight into Dylan’s connection to the past. Heath Ledger is some kind of hunky Sonny Crockett of a Dylan, cheating on his French artist wife, railing about women in general, and stumbling around the paparazzi – Mark Wahlberg covered that territory in Rock Star.

It’s all very stylish and the sheer effort shows how – even in 2007 – we owe so much of what we regard as pop culture to the 60s and 70s. In Time, Richard Schickel argues that Haynes was determined to avoid the cliches of Hollywood biopics, but:

He just dresses them in different clothes. Most basically, this is the same old-same old — visionary artist struggles successfully to realize his particular vision, gets famous, gets laid, gets in trouble with the whole celebrity thing, tries to escape the demands of his exigent fans (wow, do they hate it when he turns from the acoustic to the electric guitar at the movie’s version of the Newport Jazz Festival shocker), ends up sort of beloved, sort of intact, but sort of unfulfilled, too. And sort of distant. Partly that’s because none of the multiple identities the movie explores is given time to establish itself.

It’s true that the wild melange of styles and the quick cuts from era to era, fake Bob to fake Bob, doesn’t make for a strong narrative. But who really cares about the story of Dylan’s life? What we care about is where the music came from, what it means for us now. Indeed, I took to heart the motherly advice of a woman caring for young “Woody Guthrie” – live in in your own time.

At the Times, A.O. Scott called I’m Not There a masterwork, and he loves it for the very rambling qualities that left me interested, but generally unmoved:

I would not subtract a minute of this movie, or wish it any different. Nor do I anticipate being finished with “I’m Not There” anytime soon, since, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” it invites endless interpretation, criticism and elaboration. Instead of proposing a definitive account of Bob Dylan’s career, Mr. Haynes has used that career as fuel for a wide-ranging (and, if you’ll permit me, freewheeling) historical inquiry into his own life and times. In spite of its title, “I’m Not There” is a profoundly, movingly personal film, passionate in its engagement with the mysteries of the recent past.

I’d subtract about 30 minutes,and I’ve never seen the mysteries. Seems to my Dylan’s been saying for 40 years to look at his output, at his production, at his songs for any “answers” scholars and admirers may be looking for. What mysteries are left, in any case? These days, Bob Dylan is omnipresent – from Apple and Victoria’s Secret advertisements to his endless 25-year road show that keeps the artist in front of live audiences constantly. There’s the brilliant XM radio show of roots music and pop tunes, and his wonderful 2004 biograpy Chronicles (which I hope will be the first of several volumes), not to mention Scorsece’s fine No Direction Home, the other film Dylan cooperated in the creation of.
Then there’s the music – his current music. Dylan’s Modern Times, from last year, is the mature work of an active artist in touch with his own times. I don’t know of a single artist who could’ve written this complete and perfect description of our times, from Workingman’s Blues #2:

There’s an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

Live in your own time, indeed.

Note: Jason counters with his (more positive) review here.

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