The Reeler


November 21, 2007

I'm Not There

Haynes revisits persona and image-play in his compelling, sometimes overreaching portrait of a legend

"I hate Bob Dylan," wrote John Sellers in this year's indie rock screed, Perfect From Now On. "I feel bad not to be part of the club, many millions strong, that considers him a Martin-strumming Mozart. And then I imagine shaving off his hair and gluing his eyelids shut." The reason for Sellers's antipathy is his dad, "who took whacks at me every single day for nearly two decades. Only his weapon of choice was Bob Dylan." Substitute the American cultural establishment for the dad, and me for Sellers: With the inevitable cultural gentrification of once-radical baby boomer artists, we've been submitted to hours upon hours of hagiography for Robert Zimmerman, the poet laureate America seems to believe it deserves. Over-serious academic study (subscribers to The Chronicle Of Higher Education can read an article on "Masked And Explicated: Bob Dylan and His Tenured Disciples"), an Oscar, reflexive genuflection -- it's all in place. I don't hate Dylan. I don't love him either, but I really can't stand his fans.

But you don't need to even like or particularly care about Dylan to admire Todd Haynes's I'm Not There. It's a gorgeous, technically adept piece of filmmaking -- the world's longest, most expensive montage. Still, a little perspective is in order: I'm Not There will inevitably be considered more "important" than Velvet Goldmine, Haynes's gloss on David Bowie and Iggy Pop's tangled '70s relationship. Both movies are obvious works of fandom, but I'm Not There, while equally entertaining, is exponentially more formally ambitious; both movies succeed in translating music into cinematic terms that stand alone.

Bowie, the standard argument goes, redefined how rock stars could play with imagery and celebrity, and that's it. Dylan "mattered," stood for something bigger, something more socially relevant. Bowie himself seemed to buy it, at least for a while: On 1971's "Song For Bob Dylan," he longed for the good old '60s days of Dylan's "words of truthful vengeance." Come back to protests, he begged, instead of telling stories for yourself. But if there's one thing I'm Not There makes clear, it's that Dylan refuses to be tied down publicly; his “enigmatic” qualities amount to little more than a reasonable wish not to be stuck in one pose for the rest of his life. A shame, then, that Haynes's otherwise original, stimulating work includes invocations of Vietnam and anti-war protests as stock and tired as any to be found this side of the last ‘60s montage set to Jefferson Airplane. The rest of the film takes the concept of persona and image-play to the logical limit. Here, Dylan is an unconscious Bowie: He develops new personas without calculation, though his seemingly random changes of interest strike his followers as something to be parsed and explained.

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The much publicized conceit of Haynes's nearly summary-proof film is to have six actors tackle different sides of Dylan: Dylan the would-be Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin); Dylan the early '60s protest-singer (Christian Bale); Dylan as embodied by a disinterested actor (Heath Ledger); Dylan the late-'60s drug-addled black-and-white icon of D.A. Pennebaker documentaries (Cate Blanchett); Dylan the pseudo-Billy The Kid (Richard Gere). (The sixth Dylan, Ben Whishaw, is a misstep; he sits and recites bits and pieces of Dylan's press conferences, a redundancy in this fully realized film.) Surrealist outbursts notwithstanding, each of the stories make sense on their own terms, but their juxtaposition -- fragmentary flashes from segment to segment, long sequences jutting up against one another -- makes the film seem mysterious and organic. ("It's like you've got yesterday, today and tomorrow in the same room," one of the Dylans says while trying to explain, for the umpteenth time, why self-knowledge is impossible, let alone explainable to the press.)

As with David Lynch's work, there's an intuitive, underlying logic to the madness, even if it can’t be articulated. It helps that Haynes's talent for pastiche is in full swing, with every segment getting its own look: The '70s glow with bright plastic furniture and tastelessly saturated colors, while the Guthrie segments have an appropriately golden, Days of Heaven glow. Obsessive props and crowded frames threaten to devolve into a parody of Wes Anderson's worst moments, where the sets swallow up the characters, but the semiotics major in Haynes makes sure no signifier gets left behind.

Although I'm Not There is little more than gorgeous shallowness, Haynes does his damnedest to convince us otherwise. The boldest gambit is to visually equate Dylan going electric with Lee Harvey Oswald, as the band opens fire on the audience. It's an audacious moment, and it makes no sense if you think about it for more than two seconds: Did millions of folk fans have their innocence irreparably shattered, or did they just retreat into hermetic smugness? Was Cuba involved?

Fortunately, Haynes doesn't give us those two seconds to ponder, and it's back to Dylan -- enigmatic, perhaps, but always entertaining. Like Haynes's Bowie, Haynes's Dylan seems perpetually on the edge of disclosure before pulling back. His greatest wish, expressed through Billy The Kid, is to become "invisible, even to myself." Opacity becomes another form of invisibility, and Dylan becomes a locus for 20 years' worth of panoramic cultural history. Represented with direct reference by only three of the actors, the music fades into the soundtrack instead of dominating it. The result is legend without a drooling insistence on lyrical profundity --a compelling persona is what matters. But then it only took one Bowie to make that point.

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