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Do Look Back

November 22, 2007

I’m Not There

I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
2007

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

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