I’m Not There revisited

As you may have noticed (if you religiously study my year-end lists even months after the given year has ended), I recently moved Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There up to #3 on my 2007 list. I did this after rewatching the film on DVD, and then rewatching it again with Haynes’ commentary track. When I first saw the film in the theater, I was convinced of its greatness — now, though, I’m convinced it’s one of the best films of the ’00s and further proof that 2007 was one of the finest years for cinema in a very long time.

What Haynes has done is create the ultimate musical biopic without falling into any of the cliched traps invariably found in those films. He’s also done it without once naming the subject of his movie. Instead, Haynes portrays the “many lives of Bob Dylan” by having six very different actors portray aspects of Dylan’s life and career:

• Marcus Carl Franklin portrays “Woody Guthrie,” a young guitar player traveling cross-country to meet the legend whose name he has borrowed and spinning wild tales about his own upbringing. Franklin, a 15-year-old black kid, symbolizes how the young Dylan invented a fantastic back story when he first hit the scene.

• Christian Bale plays “Jack Rollins,” a singer whose story directly parallels Dylan’s emergence on the folk scene, and how quickly Dylan was embraced as the voice of a generation. Julianne Moore plays a stand-in for Joan Baez. Later in the film, Bale portrays “Pastor John,” representing Dylan’s conversion to Christianity.

• Cate Blanchett, in the film’s most talked-about performance, embodies the rebel Dylan who shocked the folk world by going electric and spent a crazy year in England playing in front of hostile crowds. Her “Jude Quinn” is a dead ringer for the wiry, androgynous Dylan captured in the documentary Don’t Look Back.

• Heath Ledger’s “Robbie Clark” is an actor who becomes a star after portraying Jack Rollins in a movie. His marital struggles reflect relationships the real-life Dylan had with early girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his wife, Sara. Dylan’s classic album Blood on the Tracks is a portrait of his dissolving marriage, and this segment of the film captures the feel of that album beautifully.

• Ben Whishaw, as “Arthur Rimbaud,” serves as Dylan the Poet, and narrates the film using lines from Dylan’s own interviews and writings. His segment isn’t a story so much as the tissue that holds the rest of the stories together.

• Finally, Richard Gere plays “Billy the Kid” in the film’s least admired (and least understood) segment. He represents the Dylan who checked out and moved to the country following his motorcycle accident.

This approach likely wouldn’t work with any other artist. Dylan is a unique figure in American musical history precisely because he has been so many different people. He has been a folkie hero, a rock-n-roll asshole, an Americana bard, a Christian rocker and a recluse. He has amazed, delighted and frustrated fans and critics alike for five decades. What’s extraordinary is that Todd Haynes has tackled such a difficult moving target and somehow nailed him completely.

Apart from the roaring success of the film’s unorthodox structure, Haynes has put together a master class on film history. To set each segment apart stylistically, he adopts a different style popular in the 60s and 70s… from the Fellini-esque black-and-white absurdity of the Jude Quinn scenes to the long lenses and warm color tones of early 70s westerns he uses to shoot Billy the Kid. The Jack Rollins segment could have been stripped from newsreel footage of the Greenwich Village folk explosion, while Robbie Clark’s scenes feel as if they were shot by Robert Altman. Between the musical and cinematic allusions, the film is made up of entirely borrowed material, yet it shines through as one of the most original works I’ve ever seen.

Finally, I must mention the music itself. As a huge Dylan fan, I’ve listened to all of his albums countless times but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed his songs as much as I do in the context of this film. Haynes has married some of the finest songs ever written to indelible images that support and deepen their impact — two old men (including Richie Havens) and young Marcus Carl Franklin tear into “Tombstone Blues” on a front porch, a poignant acoustic version of “Idiot Wind” fills in the silences of a dissolving marriage, a powerfully sad rendition of “Goin’ to Acapulco” is peformed at a young girl’s funeral. It’s like listening to a classic album and watching a classic film simultaneously.

And that is exactly what Todd Haynes has delivered with I’m Not There — a true classic.

5 thoughts on “I’m Not There revisited

  1. Dana says:

    Well, I will start by confessing that I was drowsy in parts of this film, though I really feel it was a case of the film making me that way as I was quite awake when it began and struggled mightily to stay with it. But frankly, I found the film far to “artsie,” rambling and disjointed for my personal taste. Yes, I get that this style may be the essence of Dylan’s personality, but it just isn’t the kind of film I want to see. To quote your wife, “it’s not why I go to the movies.” I agree that Blanchett was amazing–flat out great, and I enjoyed her scenes the best. I liked the young black kid next. I found the cowboy Dylan insufferably boring and had little use for the marrator Dylan. On the positive side, along with Blanchett, the music was indeed the star of this film–and it was wonderful–great Dylan songs, wonderfully done. As a whole, however, the best analogy I can think of is that I love the Lennon song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, but I sure wouldn’t want to sit though a movie projecting those visions for 2 hours, nor would I want to see two hours of the psychedical trip Lennon went through to create it or any of a number of great songs he wrote in his druggie haze. So, yes, this film may have captured the essence of Dylan’s journey, I guess I’m just not interested in traveling down that road with him, at least not like it was depicted here. Give me the marrative structure of a Ray or Walk the Line any day over this disjointed arthouse film. As it ended, all I could think of was how much I loved Don’t Look Back, which gave us the real Dylan in documentary form with a much more cohesive structure. It will be that film that I will pop in the DVD player long befoe I see I’m Not There again.

  2. Clay says:

    I can certainly appreciate your perspective, though I disagree completely.

    I think that just about all films considered great and challenging by many are also widely disliked. Some recent examples that come to mind (I’m on the “loved” side of all of these): Magnolia, Moulin Rouge, Mulholland Drive, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. Films like these either hit you where you live or they seem kind of pointless.

    For my money, I’m Not There exposed the artistic limitations of a Ray or Walk the Line even more effectively than Walk Hard did. While those films are standard depictions of the life of an artist, this film is itself a work of art.

  3. Dana says:

    Well, let me clarify a bit…I don’t hold up Ray and Walk the Line as “great” films, but I did enjoy them far more than I’m Not There. I agree that films like this either hit you or they don’t. A perusal of critical reviews of this film clearly show that major critics for the most pat either loved it or hated it. I loved all of the films you mentioned above (except for Mullholland, which I still want to see), so it is not as though I eschew a nonlinear story or an artisticly risky film. But, for me, the distinction is that each of the other films cited were intended to be works of fiction and each had a truly original and interesting plot (with the possible exception of Moulin Rouge–but that film had stunning beauty and incredible scenes that simply didn’t exist in I’m Not There). I’m Not There was, at the end of the day a bio–and while I appreciate the attempt to carve it up and create an intricate and interesting puzzle–it just didn’t work for me. While it may be different and interesting to hear a heavily worn song like “piano man” sung by 5 singers with the verses mixed up and the tones distorted in minor keys–I suspect that, after hearing it, I will run to hear the original and take a deep breath.

  4. Clay says:

    I see your point about fiction vs. biography, though for me one of the neatest things about I’m Not There is that it works on both levels. For example, the Heath Ledger segment is inspired by Dylan’s relationships but is very effective apart from that. I found it particularly moving on a second viewing (perhaps because of Ledger’s death).

    And I don’t see the “Piano Man” analogy… in this film, all the music is intact and mostly sung by Dylan. His life is the song that’s been fractured, but there is no “original” to run back to, which is sort of the point. I suppose you could do a traditional bio that covers all these segments of his life, or just pick one, but Haynes chose to make the form mirror the content — the film is like Dylan himself, constantly changing.

  5. Dana says:

    My Piano Man analogy was simply that putting a new twist and spin on something doesn’t necessarily make it good or better than the original. In this case, the “original” is arguably “Don’t Look Back” in my analogy and, to me, I would rather watch that more linear progression showing the real guy than the artsie spin of Hayes–at least as it was done here.

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