Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Do Look Back

November 22, 2007

I’m Not There

I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes

bakinakwa says: 

Having been too young to pay attention to things like film and music during the 80s and early-to-mid 90s, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when Bob Dylan was unpopular or, worse, irrelevant.  Since the dawn of the new millennium he’s had two critically revered albums, a best-selling autobiography, a much raved-about radio show on XM, appearances in ads for products it would be beneath me to mention, hundreds of sold-out concerts and now, with Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, the second of two film treatments from major directors.  Is Dylan at the height of his appeal?  Let me put it this way, when it came time for Haynes to create a soundtrack for I’m Not There, the majorest of major talents in indie music not only came out of the woodwork, but they spent the entire time doing their best to ape Dylan’s delivery on his classic recordings: names like Cat Power, Stephen Malkmus, Antony of Antony & The Johnsons, My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy, and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seemed more than happy to offer their best Bob impersonations.  Hell, even Sufyawn Stevens took a break from writing Christmas songs.

All of this is mere background to what really must be considered one of the most ambitious films of this year.  No one would’ve expected Haynes to turn out something ordinary, but I’m Not There still manages to seem weird, at least to someone who hasn’t seen Superstar.  There’s the oft-ballyhooed multiple actors playing Dylan, the complete lack of chronology or literal plot-line and countless liberties taken with the life and times of the man being biopic-ed.  By the end of the picture, however, that weirdness feels more like a veneer, a sheen, a stylistic touch meant to compensate for a lack of genuine content.  The end result of I’m Not There reads like a bullet-point presentation of Dylan the myth.  Meeting Woody Guthrie on his deathbed?  Check.  An inflammatory jump to electric music replete with Pete Seeger lookalike wielding an axe?  Check.  ’66 motorcycle accident?  Check.  Failed relationship with ex-wife Sara Lownds?  Check.  Conversion to Christianity?  Get the point?  All of these highlights and more get air-time, but not one is enhanced with anything resembling insight or revelation.  One could obtain the same information with less confusion from a good Dylan biography, like Clinton Heylin‘s Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited.  Also like Heylin’s book, these things and more are approached with that air of gossip and rumor that darkens nearly every discussion of Dylan: the man wrote the book on obscuring the truth to such an extent that even those closest to him don’t know what did and didn’t really happen, or if they do they’re not telling.  Reading Chronicles, his autobiography, it often seems that Dylan himself might not even know what’s true, and unlike Martin Scorsese‘s No Direction Home, I’m Not There doesn’t appear to have much in the way of source material or firsthand accounts.  Nothing is revealed, indeed.

Which isn’t to say I’m Not There isn’t enjoyable.  It’s not a bad film in the same way that No Direction Home wasn’t exactly good: when it comes to making a film about Bob Dylan, I suspect that representing the truth is the least necessary tool for good film-making.  What I’m Not There does is literalize the Dylan myth: it does it efficiently, it does it incorporating beautiful sights and sounds, it does it freewheelin’ly and it does it with flair and humor.  Which ought to be enough, I suppose, but it would’ve been nice if it had sacrificed the rest (well, maybe not the sights and sounds) and just done it with purpose.  As a Dylan fan(atic), I appreciate Haynes’ effort.  Any film that allows me to listen to sizable chunks of Dylan’s discography over those gigantic theater speakers is worth my money.  It’s just that I really can’t imagine anyone not already heavily invested in the artistry of Dylan getting much from this picture.  Does that matter or does that just suck for them?  You’re asking the wrong person.  The way I look at it, I’m Not There is like the Star Wars sequels: films targeted at a cult-like audience that, ultimately, isn’t as concerned with quality as they are with reveling in the opportunity to spend some time with their leader.  It just so happens that Yoda is a bigger icon than Dylan, so the film about my guy still retains that air of in-joke about it.  A film for Dylanists made by a Dylanist.  What else do you need to know?

I suppose now would be a good time to say something about the actual film.  Well, the six actors “are all Bob Dylan” approach is nowhere near as controversial as one might’ve guessed.  In fact, it makes sense.  Several of the actors do try to impersonate Dylan, but mostly they seem content to play their small part in the grand scheme of Bob.  Only Cate Blanchett goes overboard.  Yes, she ends up looking the most like Dylan and most accurately conjures a specific Dylan (the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker‘s original Dylan picture Dont Look Back), but she’s also the only one who really overshoots the mark.  Her delivery and mannerisms attempt to mimic him so completely that her performance ends up offering the least resonance.  The scenes between her and the press are evidence of this: she had Dylan’s phrasing and jittery combativeness down, but she still lacks the feeling of effortless wit and wonder the real Dylan embodied.  Richard Gere and Marcus Carl Franklin, however, come off the best: Gere because he seems the least interested in doppelgangery and Franklin because he offers the most original conceptual take.  Of the non-Dylan’s, Charlotte Gainsbourg deserves mention for both the vibrancy and joie de vivre of her earlier scenes as well as the sadness and emotional vulnerabilty of her later scenes.  Gere’s scenes in the town of Riddle, however, stood out as the most engaging because it was here that Haynes best approximated, without actually duplicating, the mood and feeling of a Dylan period.  That period, of course, being The Basement Tapes era, and the approximation made possible by a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, masks, animals, lyric-bits, sight-gags and more.  From the vantage point of Gere’s Billy the Kid we observe such brilliant images as giraffes emerging from behind buildings and crates of meat.  It’s about imagery, and Haynes does very well here at recalling the swirl and rush of images that one gets from the best Dylan songs.

Indeed, the highlight of the picture, the funeral scene (from which the picture above is culled), takes place against this backdrop; once Jim James’ take on “Goin’ To Acapulco” kicks into high gear backed by the gorgeous horns of Calexico, Haynes finally hits with the emotional punch of Dylan at his best.  If only more of the film were like this it might have risen above the level of homage to something more meaningful, something able to stand on its own.  As is, it’s yet another companion piece to a body of work that needs no companions.  In the same way that we only have Homer‘s retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey to go on, it wouldn’t surprise me if Haynes’ picture became the dominant Dylan document in the future.  The film’s unrestrained creativity makes it a captivating enough film to be that, but that’s ultimately all it is: an excellent retelling of a story that those of us who care already know by heart.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3.5 Stars

lakelia says:

I was enjoying this movie, interested in some of the characters’ fates, intrigued by the imagery and music, having fun recognizing the references to Dylan’s many stories, until somewhere around the time that Jim James stood up on stage in the town of Riddle and sang “Goin’ to Acapulco.” From then on I was truly impressed. First of all, Jim James has an amazing voice. I’ve always liked it, as much for its straightforward beauty and expressiveness as for that strange quality it has of sounding almost electronic – like it’s a setting on a synthesizer, or maybe coming through a speaker twice. But his voice was especially amazing singing this song. Mournful and sweet and yearning, it swung out above this scene of James on stage with his face painted white, the girl in the casket whose eyes looked sometimes forward and sometimes up and away, an uneasy and aching moment in a Halloween town – I loved it.

It was also right around this time in the stories that Pat Garrett said to the Recluse Formerly Known as Billy the Kid, “You think you’re speaking for the people? We have ways of dealing with scoundrels like you.” I guess when I first heard that line I vaguely interpreted it as pointing out how the public, or the media, or whoever, had made Dylan pay a price for “speaking for the people,” even though he himself had never, as far as I know, said anything at all along the lines of, “I am the voice of my generation.” I’m by no means an expert on Bob Dylan, but I’ve learned enough to know that it’s not a good idea to try to say anything about what Dylan did or did not (or does or does not) think about himself as a public figure. So, that fairly direct interpretation of Pat Garrett’s line isn’t really why it stood out to me. It was more that it seemed to be a transcendent line, something that touched all six Dylan-people. Somehow, it unified the different stories for me into all being about one multi-faceted thing – the mythology around Bob Dylan.

I can’t imagine seeing this movie without being able to recognize references to Dylan’s story/stories, both those the public watched and those Dylan made up at one time or another. I doubt I caught all the references, but I did see them fairly frequently and it was a lot of fun. The photograph of Julianne Moore in profile as Joan Baez, although one of the most obvious, was one of my favorites, just for its cheekiness and humor. During most of the film, the six different stories seem totally unrelated and, aside from the love story and the story of 11-year-old Woody, were rather thin on plot, so it was the little in-jokes thrown out to Dylan fans that kept me having fun.

Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Dylan was fun to watch, but its quality could only be called excellent for something about the length and depth of a Saturday Night Live skit. The look was good, the mannerisms were a well-done caricature, but I didn’t believe her most of the time. She did have some great moments written for her character, though – I loved when she rolled around on the grass with The Beatles, all of them talking in little helium voices. And saying to Jesus on the cross, “Why don’t you do your early stuff?”…well, that speaks for itself. I also thought the exchange between Blanchett’s character, Jude, and the BBC journalist about whether Jude actually cared about anything was one of the most interesting displays of tension and ideas. The way this scene then transitioned into a sort of montage-as-music-video for “Ballad of a Thin Man” was excellent.  It combined more faithful mimicry of Dylan footage (this time, his 1966 performances), images from young Woody’s story and a humiliating indictment of this journalist as a manifestation of Mr. Jones.

Overall the movie was greatly creative and very enjoyable. Even though there was nothing besides my own familiarity with Dylan’s history to hold the six stories together, none of the scenes dragged. There were a number of moments that were like Dylan’s songs – the giraffe coming out from behind a house in the Wild West being the one that stood out the most. The whole film even was a bit like a Dylan song. Moments of insight, moments of humor, and something that, taken all at once, can really work your senses and your psyche.

lakelia’s rating: 4 Stars


And Now I’m In This Dream Place

October 20, 2007

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Dr.
Directed by David Lynch

bakinakwa says: 

When it came time to choose our inaugural film, the choice wasn’t immediately obvious.  We could go with our namesake, of course, but that would be a clichéd and not at all unexpected selection.  We had already decided to do a film we actually own, so what were the options?  Donnie Darko is a film we’ve both loved, but we’ve seen it not too long ago, so that’s out.  Bob Dylan‘s Dont Look Back would be cool, but there must be a better kick-off.  Casablanca?  No, that’ll have to wait for Humphrey Bogart month.  Lost In Translation?  No, we want to go back and see The Virgin Suicides first.  What then?

We settled on what was probably the clear choice all along: Mulholland Dr., a film that, since seeing it in theatre on November 24, 2001, I have consistently maintained is my favorite of all-time.  lakelia is less enamored with it (I think), but as a starting point it simply felt right.  So, what made me regard it so highly immediately after my first viewing?  Considering that I probably hadn’t seen but a few dozen films previously, it could hardly be attributed to any sterling critical faculty.  Leaving the theatre, walking out into the chill, after-midnight southern California air, I felt energized, excited, invigorated, challenged and, here comes another cliché, alive.  I remember it now as a visceral, physical reaction.  To the unprepared imagination, Mulholland Dr. is dynamite, single-handedly exploding the boundaries of what a movie can and should be.  While critical reviews and my friends’ reactions at the time felt mired in dissecting the plot and chronology of the film, I felt satisfied just getting comfortable in the intensely emotional and mysterious place within myself that David Lynch’s wrecking-ball had cleared.  A year later I saw it twice during my first year at college, but it was that first experience that set me on a personal quest deeper into the realm of cinema.

The obvious question facing me this time around was, after so long, would it still hold up to my ideal of it?  The answer, I found, is a resounding yes.  Mulholland Dr. is a film that, to me, genuinely defies logic.  It can be fun to attempt to parse, but that’s really beside the point.  In fact, the only question I leave the film with isn’t “Is it supposed to be a dream?”, but rather “Isn’t it a dream?”

The acting, the shots, the music, the overall mood of Mulholland Dr. deserves to be devoured without questions, without restraint.  Lynch’s combination here of the mysterious, the humorous, the absurd, the romantic and, yes, the erotic, is nothing short of a masterful balancing act and quite possibly unparalleled.  The entire film courses with those five elements, resulting in a provocative blend that for me pulled off the ultimate trick of making the world beyond the screen – my own world, reality – more lustrous and compelling.

Naomi Watts deserves special mention; this is the role that took her from the doldrums of Children Of The Corn sequels to recreating Fay Wray‘s part in mega-director Peter Jackson‘s King Kong, not to mention the numerous to-die-for roles between the two.  The trajectory of her character, whatever her name is, is heartbreaking, and Ms. Watts’ understanding of the that arc is simultaneously instinct with abandon and nuance.  She brings passion and hunger to the role, but mostly she brings the right stuff for each individual moment.  Laura Elena Harring too is outstanding; if the path her character travels is much shorter, that ultimately takes nothing away from how right she was for the part or the chemistry shared between her and Watts on-screen.  Then there’s Los Angeles.  Speaking as someone who mostly detests the place, L.A. never looked so gorgeous.

The film’s defining moment?  I would say the astonishing performance given by Rebekah del Rio at Club Silencio.  That scene in particular is a damn-near perfect distillation of Lynch’s way with music, chiaroscuro and the surreal.  The other music in the film is also great and well-used, but del Rio’s song is reason enough to either scoop up the soundtrack or get lost in a perpetual cycle of rewinding and re-watching her scene.  I did both.

I realize I’m just gushing at this point, but I love this film.  I probably won’t get to say this too often in the coming posts, but this is one film that is an utter and complete joy to behold.  Now how’s that for clichéd?

bakinakwa’s rating: 5 Stars

lakelia says:

Whatever it’s about, Mulholland Dr. is riveting. The visual experience, the pace of the story, and the acting, most especially Naomi Watts’ acting, are stellar. It is a beautiful film, and an unsettling one. I think what I associate most strongly with it are the distinctive mood it creates in me – quiet, uneasy, mesmerized – and the colors David Lynch captures so vibrantly – city lights seen from above, bright faces against dark sky, the red of Rita/Camilla’s lips, the blue of the box and the key.

The image above is from the part of Mulholland Dr. that’s fairly followable – the fantasy in which Betty, innocent, generous, and talented, and Rita, bewildered and in need, get swept away by soft love and investigative adventure. In which a bizarre criminal network run by men who barely speak, a man’s horrible hallucination behind a diner, an incompetent hit-man, and a Hollywood director bullied by a lone cowboy all intertwine into an inscrutable combination of the mysterious, the humorous, the sweet and the sinister. The connections between all these scenes isn’t explicit, but it seems perfectly reasonable to anticipate an explanation.  Then the most beautiful singing I have ever heard heralds a transformation, and everything – everything – gets turned upside down.

There is an explanation for Mulholland Dr. in the sense that there is an explanation for dreams. As soon as the idea that Diane dreamt herself as Betty took hold in my mind, it made perfect sense. Some brew of guilt, longing, grief, and good ol’ free association could well give off the vapors of the first half of the film. Someone told me about this explanation a few years ago, and it sounded reasonable. Reading about the theory tonight, it really does account for almost everything. But I feel about it the way I felt after seeing the director’s cut of Donnie Darko. Satisfied, enlightened, but a little let down. A mystery is at least as fun to wonder about as to have come clear, and in the case of Mulholland Dr., this clarity is a little lackluster for such a powerful film. I’d like to think that as with dreams, as with dreams’ connection to reality, as with reality itself, there might be something greater going on. Who is the blue-haired lady in Silencio? Why does the man behind Winkie’s have the blue box at the end? Maybe Diane’s vivid imaginings and free associations are more than the sum of their parts. Maybe not. But at least it’s something to wonder about.

There are films I’ve loved more, but Mulholland Dr. is undeniably a masterful work.

lakelia’s rating: 5 Stars