If there’s one word that can be applied to what I generally write on this blog, that word might be "unsolicited". Continuing in that onanistic vein, I offer something else no one’s asked for – my opinion of Todd Haynes’ film "I’m Not There". I might also add that it would be no stretch at all to label this opinion of mine as seriously uninformed. I’ve about as much knowledge and appreciation of Bob Dylan as I do of Sanskrit. I am not now – nor have I ever been a Dylan fan. Considering that I grew up in the 60’s – and not in Outer Mongolia – that might seem a little surprising. Add to that the fact that I spent most of my life working in a music store. The truth is Dylan and I seem to have occupied parallel but separate universes. For me, the early sixties were about puberty, girl group records (though that term hadn’t quite been hatched yet) and Motown. The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys joined the party. Then everything pretty much surrendered to the tidal wave of Beatlemania. I enjoyed having long hair, I liked the jewel and peacock colors and the whole mellow-yellow vibe of the late 60’s. The Vietnam War was below the border background noise. Sexual exploration and the suddenly limitless possibilities of life coupled with the youth to enjoy them - that’s what occupied center stage for me. Musically, any folk-ish inclinations I had were more than satisfied by Joni Mitchell and her feathered canyons. The psychedelic stuff was good when you were high. Otherwise, no thanks. The endlessly aggressive whir of grubby macho guitar gods was not my style. And – for me - listening to Bob Dylan’s hectoring off-key whinny was pretty much like sliding down a sixty-foot razor-blade into a pool of iodine. I realize this lays me wide open to charges of shooting the messenger without fully digesting the message. But what I did take in of that message struck me as a kind of inhospitable mix of the obvious and the impenetrable. Undoubtedly some of that impenetrability could’ve been unravelled with a microscopic study of Dylan’s life. But, frankly, I had no interest in going there. I still remember it took a slick studio-created neo-gospel group called The Brothers and Sisters to finally turn me on to the joys of "Lay Lady Lay". (I still love their version). As for latterday Bob Dylan – well, next to Sondheim, say, I saw him as – I don’t know - some sort of musical panhandler. Dylan generally stayed below my radar - occasional crabby caterwauling ,easily tuned out. I realize all this is more likely to erode my own credibility than to call Bob Dylan’s relevance into question. Which is as it should be. Bob Dylan’s work speaks to millions. I’m basically just talking to myself. But, hey, Todd Haynes’ film seems to suggest that relevance is - when all’s said and done – a pretty relative thing.
Now that I’ve seen most of the other big-buzz films of 2007, I thought I’d finally stop dragging my heels and make a duty call at the Dylan fest. ‘Cause I may not like Bob Dylan, but I do like movies. And director Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven", "Velvet Goldmine") has racked up an awful lot of credit in my bank. As most people know, "I’m Not There"’s an unconventional stab at capturing shades of the Dylan persona - public and private - in film form. Or perhaps an exercise in demonstrating the difficulty of achieving that goal. A number of different actors play Dylan-inspired characters (none of them named Bob Dylan). Time lines are notably flexible; various levels of realism collide and mingle, jostling with scenes that are pure dream-state.
First of all, let me say that "I’m Not There" is a pretty absorbing experience – and it’s very good to look at. Cinematographer Edward Lachman uses black and white and color to equal – and exhilarating – effect.
A slow, tense pan over the faces of what I took to be coal miners lingers insistently in the memory. And in some of the other monochrome segments, Lachman and Haynes deliver images that are Fellini redux in the best possible way.
The various actors offer us a kind of Dylan-as-prism, reflecting aspects of art and humanity, inspiration and impotence. The kaleidoscopic approach allows the singer’s essence to emerge in, among other guises, a black child, a nineteenth century outlaw, a seriously conflicted folksinger and a film star whose coolness ebbs and flows. Only the Richard Gere sequence stumbles , with the actor playing an awkwardly skewed version of Billy the Kid. Heath Ledger portrays the movie star. But recent events make it difficult to form an accurate assessment of his contribution. Ledger’s presence alone conveys a poignancy that probably wasn’t there when the film premiered. But certainly the achingly romantic aura some of us project onto the sixties is palpably captured in the scenes of his whirlwind romance with a French artist. And that’s in spite of the fact that said artist is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, she of the ever-admonishing look and presence. Gainsbourg looms over a great deal of footage like a disapproving storm cloud. Still, there’s nothing negligible about her – and she clearly means business. Whereas Julianne Moore’s narrative bits and bobs (as a kind of air-brushed Joan Baez) have the (I suspect) unintended feel of an SNL routine. The segments with talented Marcus Carl Franklin , guitar-toting eleven year old riding the rails, are affecting - tender and a little scary. The inner child whose enduring presence is crucial to any artist A tiny figure, feisty, forging on – often framed by ( but never lost in) misty mornings and green-gold vistas. Christian Bale, as folksinger Jack Rollins, deliberately confines the charisma to underground channels, registering best in the born again Christian segment. His gospel number, "Pressing On", delivered in a small chapel, made me remember Ronee Blakley’s Sunday morning hymn in "Nashville". There, Blakley was a beam of white light; Bale’s purity is more a work in progress, speckled and still struggling. Singer John Doe provides the actor with a wonderful vocal match, helping confirm "Pressing On" as the musical segment I liked best in the film. The most celebrated performance of the lot, of course, is Cate Blanchett’s. She’s Jude Quinn, representing the newly electrified Dylan, enraging old fans and butting heads with a growing celebrity and music press, all determined to badger Quinn into delivering digestible sound-bytes. First of all, let me admit that I’ve always had a problem with women playing men. Sometimes men can pull off the woman thing. To me that’s all about tapping into and projecting female gestures. With a woman playing a man, I think it’s more about subtraction. Success depends on suppression and eradication of the feminine essence. A very tall order. Even the best usually just wind up looking like extremely masculine lesbians. Having said this, I’d have to admit that all that’s largely irrelevant in "I’m Not There". The point of the cross-gender casting is not to convince us that Cate Blanchett ‘s a man. But rather to capture the utter strangeness of the figure Dylan presented in the mid-sixties. It’s Dylan as enigma. As insoluble but intriguing cryptogram. Injecting a level of gender ambiguity ‘s a legitimate tactic here. And I have to admit the gambit’s pretty effective. It never comes across as a gimmick – which has got to be considered an accomplishment. And if collaborating with Todd Haynes and company hardly qualifies as working without a net, you’ve got to give the actress credit for fearlessness. Cate Blanchett has a pretty impressive arsenal of acting skills. But she’s also got balls. The verbal sparring between Blanchett and Bruce Greenwood supplies the film with its most captivating stretches. Canadian-born Greenwood (as a BBC interviewer) summons up considerable British authority, accent and all. And he’s even better in some surreal moments, registering disorientation and panic. On paper, I’m sure it made sense, to also cast him as Pat Garrett in the Gere segment. A double nemesis to celebrities – to Billy the Kid in the nineteenth century, to Jude Quinn in the twentieth. But Greenwood’s ZZ Top look just adds to the general lameness of the whole Billy segment. Much of the episode simply comes across as a strained costume party – a sort of magical mystery tour sideshow. I don’t know if I actually saw sword-swallowers. But I do know there was a giraffe. All the sequence lacked was the mimes from "Blow Up" playing a round of invisible tennis. On the other hand, the sixties ambience in the Jude Quinn segments is a great success. The film nails the bunker mentality of the celebrity hotel room under siege – tension, boredom, sniping, chain-smoking at the edge of a live volcano . An atmosphere that could ignite creativity, but is more likely to murder it. I could’ve done without the fast-motion Richard Lester salute as Quinn cavorts with the Beatles. It thuds, I’m afraid. Still the bit only lasts a moment or two. Otherwise the period recreation works beautifully. I was there in the sixties and, for a great deal of this film, I was there again.
There are bleak elements in "I’m Not There". But the movie’s not a downer. Not covered in an oil slick of despair like "No Country for Old Men". It’s more about relativism. About fluid viewpoints. And the impossibility of pigeonholing or defining art or artists or lives. It’s about circularity too. (Richard Gere ends the film just the way Marcus Carl Franklin began it). And – although it probably helps - you don’t have to know a heck of a lot about Bob Dylan to respond to the picture. I’m proof of that. It’s enough to understand that he means a lot to a lot of people. Maybe "I’m Not There"’s about sparks. The kind that shoot into our lives from time to time. Not revelations exactly. Just sparks – that convince us, maybe just for a moment, that revelations are a possibility. "Im Not There" creates its share of sparks.