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The Reeler Blog

I'm Not There Isn't

Ben Whishaw as Bob Dylan (or someone like him) in I'm Not There (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

I have a bad feeling that I'm Not There is going to be this year's Dreamgirls, a prophecy that I'm sure sounds far worse than I intend it to sound, but hey. Ambitious, reverent, as indebted to mythology as it is dedicated to prolonging it, Todd Haynes's sprawling survey of the life and music of Bob Dylan delivers a concentrated rush of awe that ultimately succumbs to the hangover of rationality. A stunning performance by Cate Blanchett as 1966-ish Dylan (identified here as Jude Quinn) and Harvey Weinstein's suicide threat in her name recalls the wave that pushed rookie Jennifer Hudson to award-season glory among Dreamgirls' ensemble of overachievers and genre castaways. That Haynes had his subject's blessing while Bill Condon made a mortal enemy of Diana Ross seems relevant only insofar as I'm Not There's music is better. The montages, though, are the same. So are the fetishization of era, the bust-ups and breakdowns, the spiritual reawakenings and everything else plugging holes throughout its 135 minutes.

Of course I'm Not There will always have the advantage of its novelty: Six actors portray Dylan at various stages of his life, from an African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails to a haunted iteration of Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) fleeing law, judgment and his past. A brooding, platitude-belching Ben Whishaw portrays the cynical young man who will soon become protest singer Christian Bale; Blanchett's wiry iconoclast gives it up to tortured family man Heath Ledger -- not necessarily in that order. If it sounds reductive, that's because it is, maybe even admittedly so by biopic definition. As Haynes recently confided in an interview with The Reeler's Eric Kohn, "Whether you know Dylan or not, you have to surrender to the movie to have a good time at all and get anything out of it."

And until the lights come up, surrender works. Haynes's technique evokes the experimental fixtures of his 1990 queer cinema breakthrough Poison, itself a schizoid narrative admirable in both theory and practice; the shuddering monochrome of Blanchett's segments nod outwardly to predecessors like Richard Lester and D.A. Pennebaker, just as Poison's "Horror" segment drew from B-movie schlock that implied so much more than it was permitted to express. You certainly don't need to be Dylan fan to appreciate the flawless tonal shifts from Western to musical to documentary to melodrama, if only because Dylan has so little to do with it. A look at his past suggests this is Haynes's life as much as anybody's.

The filmmaker hinted as much during Wednesday's New York Film Festival press conference. "This idea of mixing up temporal experience in many ways seems to be what a lot of great artists and people in the sciences and people in philosophical work all kind of end up nearing toward," he told moderator J. Hoberman, concluding with a half-wince, half laugh indicating that accidentally or not, he was also talking about himself. "That relativity of temporal experience is something that you can find in Dylan's music as well."

But take him or leave him, Dylan is more than a musician -- he's a storyteller in ways that the formalist Haynes can't keep up with. The rhythmic anguish of "Positively 4th Street" and uncoiling tension of "I Want You" are literalized in I'm Not There, much the way Condon borrowed liberally from the seminal experience of observing Dreamgirls' Broadway premiere almost 30 years ago. The sincerity is in the moments, but the authenticity is somewhere else -- somewhere imperceptible. The rapture Dylan fans associate with their hero (or rather, the "whole second movie going on" in their heads, as Haynes described the phenomenon to Kohn) may or may not square with Haynes's, but in the long run, few beyond the art house will extend the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. There is no text/subtext, as with his 2002 Oscar bait Far From Heaven; there is only subtext/sub-subtext. And rich as they are, there's not enough room in one's imagination to catch up with a myth that has a 45-year head start. You'll want to like it, you really will. But it's a mess.

Speaking of Oscar bait (for those of you who care; this means you, Harvey), Blanchett will surely be a front-runner for her nervy portrayal of the amped-up folkie-cum-punk who terrorized complacent audiences from Newport to London. Haynes told Hoberman that he always knew Jude Quinn would be played by a woman; he just didn't know who. "It didn't take long to clear the path a little bit and recognize Cate's amazing physical transformations that go into every one of her roles, whether far less flamboyantly demanding than this one, and those that call less attention to the physical transformations," he said. "They're always there; she's a very physical actor, I think. She really does have to find the equivalent body parts and gestures to understand a character."

"What kind of preparation did she do?" Hoberman asked. "Did she study Dont Look Back and other films of the period?"

"Our major text, more than Dont Look Back, was Eat the Document," Haynes replied. "Because although some people will watch the film and think of Dont Look Back immediately, I insist that the Dylan of one year later -- of 1966 -- was a completely distinct Dylan. And that's the one that you see in this unreleased experimental documentary Eat the Document, which D.A. Pennebaker also shot -- in color -- for the 1966 tour in the UK. A lot of the beautiful footage that you see in Scorsese's documentary -- the color stuff that forms the bookends of that film -- is all from that footage shot for Eat the Document. You see this strangely dandified, hyperanxious creature, really, that exceeds that slightly petulant at times brat in Dont Look Back."

I'm telling you -- it's Effie all over again.

Posted at October 3, 2007 2:46 PM

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