I'm Not There (15)
Friday 21 December 2007
Todd Haynes's hotly anticipated I'm Not There seems to take pride in what it is not it's not a straight biopic, not a rock movie, not a proper narrative, not a love letter, not a crowd-pleaser, not even a film that mentions the name "Bob Dylan". Not a lot of fun? Well, that's a moot point. It is an ambitiously conceived and lovingly textured piece of work, a movie of images and distorted facts that will hang about your consciousness long after you've seen it. In that way it more readily approximates to the recollection of a dream whose meaning can be glimpsed in fragments but then suddenly recedes and dissolves. A bit like the man himself.
Haynes constructs this dream portrait from the inside out. Instead of using one or two actors to impersonate the younger and older Dylan he shuffles together six pseudonymous characters four men, a boy, and a woman to cover not only those changing times but his different personas and moods. It is a kind of cubistic approach, which allows you to see one object from several distinct angles. One of the six Dylans, played by Ben Whishaw and filmed head-on in black and white, gives his name as "Arthur Rimbaud" and quotes his famous line "I is Someone Else".
We are in a hall of endless distorting mirrors, where identity is provisional and appearance is deceptive: whichever Dylan you think he is, he's not. So there's no need to adjust your eyes on seeing the fledgling singer as a 12-year-old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself Woody Guthrie, after Dylan's folk-singer hero, and rides boxcars. This is the self-mythologising Dylan, who often lied about where he came from but didn't seem to care when those lies got found out.
The other characters are easier to cross-reference with the historical Dylan. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, the Greenwich Village protest-folkie, and later doubles, quite movingly, as the evangelical Pastor John. Heath Ledger plays a hotshot actor of Nixon-era America who represents the failed husband and lost soul Dylan became; might he also be Haynes's sly comment on the paradox that Dylan, whose life became a performance, never really excelled as an actor?
Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a grizzled Peckinpah-like recluse glimpsing the world going wrong from his hilltop fastness, then completing the circle when he breaks out of jail and jumps on a boxcar. The film delivers its real casting coup in Cate Blanchett's impersonation of the wired, trippy, tricky Dylan of 1965-66, when he smote the folkie hordes with his electric axe. It took me a while but I eventually fell for her performance, first for the scarecrow gangliness so familiar from DA Pennebaker's seminal tour-documentary Don't Look Back (Haynes nods to the influence by filming these sequences in black and white), then for the minutely observed repertoire of tics eye-rubbing, chain-smoking and the rapidly diminishing charm. Blanchett doesn't nail the rough croon of Dylan's voice (I'm not sure anybody ever has), but she does get the best line of the movie, introducing a blond-haired rocker at a party to his manager: "This is Brian Jones... from that groovy covers band". The Beatles also get short shrift.
Jones is one of very few here to be mentioned by his real name Allen Ginsberg, for some reason, is another. The rest wear the flimsiest of fictional veils. Julianne Moore (so good in Haynes's previous Far From Heaven) plays as near to Joan Baez as dammit, Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dylan's neglected wife Sara, Michelle Williams the doomed Edie Sedgwick, and Mark Camacho an absolute dead ringer for Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. Some of these feature as talking-head interviewees describing the Dylan they knew, in the manner of Woody Allen's Zelig, another man who wasn't there.
Fans will enjoy spotting the connections between fact and fiction, and the quotations from songs, but I do wonder what it will mean to anyone else. We have to accept that there are some out there only mildly interested in Dylan, and some who care nothing at all.
And now I have to admit that, even as a diehard fan, I found myself drifting through quite a lot of it. All praise to Haynes and his co-writer Oren Moverman for their refusal to ride the conventional rails of the biopic, and for the imaginative overlap of Dylan's music I especially liked the way songs from one period of his life kick in to soundtrack another, for example the 1997 "Cold Irons Bound" cropping up during the drug-addled, paranoid mid-Sixties. But, sadly, film-making ingenuity does not guarantee attention, or gratitude, and two-hours-plus of fragments, dream-scenes, surreal squibs and mini-montages becomes slightly wearying. Haynes has spent so much time in the editing room that you sense that the film has been chopped and diced and left without a real centre. That might be the point It's Not There and it could be argued that Haynes is not only being more innovative as a storyteller but also more truthful to the maddening, elusive, protean nature of Dylan himself. I have a feeling that I'm Not There will be more interesting to think and talk about than it is to actually watch. As the man once sang, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is..."
Even if you think you do know what it is, this fantasia on the lives of Dylan is far from an unqualified pleasure.
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