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I'm Not There

dir: Todd Haynes
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It’s amazing to me that anyone could ever have thought something like this could have worked. A bunch of people playing their own versions of Bob Dylan? What, one person imitating him wouldn’t have been enough, or tolerable? So getting twenty people to do it, clearly, is a better idea?

To me it’s apparent right from the start that some of the concept behind the way it ends up being done is that one person playing Dylan wouldn’t work. That it would be inaccurate or disrespectful to dare to do a Walk the Line or Ray on Bob Dylan, because he’s just soooo much more important and complicated, isn’t he?

On the other hand, by fracturing the narrative in such a way, and by having all the various actors play different Dylans, with different names as well, then it obviates the need to actually have a coherent narrative and the need to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

I could be far more scathing and mockworthy about it, but it’d be fruitless. The fact is, regardless of why they decided to do it this way, it actually works. Perhaps I say that only because a) I don’t really care about Bob Dylan and b) I don’t necessarily see him as a figure worthy of adulation and worship beyond the merits of his music.

Maybe Dylan has lived a life rich and complicated enough to warrant having the important moments or themes represented by an increasingly overacting array of hipster pretentious actors wanting a bit of reflected glory in portraying the man. Or maybe he’s done enough and live long enough that a film truly dedicated to revealing the man and honouring him would need to be 70 years long.

Thing is though, whether his music is great or not, whether he lived through, shaped or was shaped by interesting times, the musical biopic is such a cliché that any earnest attempt at it just comes across as pointless. The story is fucking dull even to the people they’re based on. How many variations can you have on the rags to riches to drugs to bitches back to rags again storyline?

So something like this actually comes across as being a refreshing change. Even if it is horribly pretentious.

This isn’t Dylan just at important times of his life, formative or otherwise. The film allocates an actor or a set of actors to some times and more so to the major themes that may have played a role in his life and the times. I say may because the man is and always has been similarly forthcoming and entirely closed off his entire career, and is still a maddening mixture of arrogance and humility.

As Cate Blanchett plays him he is a prickly speed-freak being branded a traitor for going electric, which is succinctly put across by his walking up on stage and letting loose with machineguns on an unsuspecting crowd. He has firmly put both the mantle of being the smokesman of a generation and the king of folk aside, which neither the public nor the press wish to tolerate.

As Christian Bale plays him, he’s a working class, blue collar, earnest singer still stumbling over the expectations of others and the distance between who he is and wants to become, and who they want him to be.

A small African American child (Marcus Carl Franklin) plays him when he is (in a fantastical sense) first finding his musical feet and voice. Travelling the boxcars and supping with hobos has him thinking he is the footloose fancy free storyteller that his idol Woody Guthrie or Blind Willie McTell were, until a kindly homemaker points out to him that he needs to live (and sing) in his own era.

When Heath Ledger plays him, Dylan’s life is integrally wrapped up with Nixon and the Vietnam War; as the war goes, so goes his marriage to his French wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Belligerent and lecherous, all he can do is disappoint his wife and fight with paparazzi, and wonder longingly as to why he needs to be separated from his beloved daughters.

When Richard Gere plays him, he’s not even playing a version of Dylan like the others, but a vision of Dylan as Billy the Kid if the fictional character had survived his fate at the hands of his nemesis Pat Garrett, and lived to old age in seclusion near a town called Riddle. The town is populated by ostriches, giraffes and stock country characters all frightful about the coming calamity that will destroy the Missourian county they call home.

Countless other actors play countless other people who played some role in Dylan’s life, but like the fact that each Dylan surrogate is never called Dylan (each one is known as Billy, Arthur, Woody, Jude, Robbie etc), they all have different names too. In other words, if you don’t already know enough about Dylan’s life to know who the other people in Dylan’s life were, you’re not going to know any more about him than what you did before watching this flick.

In other words, if you didn’t know that Julianne Moore is essentially playing Joan Baez in her brief cameo to camera, you’re not going to figure it out from watching this flick alone.

So people wanting to find out about Dylan himself need to go elsewhere, perhaps to one of the millions of biographies about him, or his own autobiography, or the Scorsese documentary. I’m Not There is only really potentially going to resonate with people who know enough about Dylan to be able to connect the dots and to care about the contradictions inherent in the man.

Of course, it’s probably the obsessive Dylan fans who would hate this flick the most. Instead of honouring the man (from their hypothetical perspective), it cuts up an anecdotal potted history of him, gets hack actors to give their most histrionic renderings of the man, and then flicks random shit at the audience spastically, in a move akin to relating baseball history to an audience by throwing baseball cards at them for over two hours.

It should always come down to the music, and Dylan music is sprinkled throughout, with many occasions where the actors playing him deliver their versions of his songs, with varying degrees of success and with enough élan to justify the ticket price. Perhaps. But better than that is the usage of songs to represent many of the greater themes and times of his life. It’s irrelevant who plays Dylan when he undergoes his spiritual conversion (it’s Bale by the way), but it is important that it is rendered sincerely, since it was an important moment in the man’s life. Camp would kill a flick like this stone cold dead.

When Dylan spirals downward into an amphetamine-fuelled Warholian nightmare, he is at his most vicious and similarly most honest. Blanchett has garnered several nominations and awards for essentially being little more than an imitator, but in her hands Dylan becomes the mercurial creature we want and need him to be. He is surrounded by sycophants and detractors incapable of understanding why he might want to grow as an artist, as well as feeling bugger-all responsibility for the world around him any longer, long having become disillusioned with the artist as a changer or worlds. Accused of not caring, he wonders why his ‘caring’ for the issues of the world or the plight of the plighted magically became his sole responsibility.

And rightly so. He points out that he’s just a musician, and, despite being such an arsehole, you can’t help but agree with him.

He tangles with a reoccurring journalistic / older figure (Bruce Greenwood) who accuses him of having used the folk movement for his own ends, for being inauthentic and for never really having given a damn about the issues he pretended to care about. The frustrating thing for us, which is appropriate, is that he doesn’t rise to the bait, in the same way that he obliquely battles with those who felt betrayed when he went electric.

I would not be mistaken if I said part of that sequence, complete with Edie Sedgwick rip-off Coco (Michelle Williams), is a direct homage/rip-off not to Dylan or anything Dylonesque, but to Fellini, especially 8 ½. Why director Todd Haynes felt the need to do this, I’ll never know and will never care to ask. Still, at least there wasn’t someone playing Andy Warhol instead as the vapid vampire that he was during this eminently appropriate timeframe.

The film probably is too long, but it never really wore out its welcome with me.

There were plenty of times where I was saying, “this would be a good place to end it,” then having another five and then ten minutes elapse and saying again, “this would be a good place to end it”, but because of the fractured and distillated way it is put together, it hardly matters when and where it begins and where it ends. If I have a major criticism, it’s that many of the sequences fair reek of incredible preciousness and pretentiousness. Especially the straight to camera philosophising of Ben Whishaw as another Dylan variant spinning the most pretentious drek straight into the camera.

Still, you’d be a fool not to expect pretentiousness from these people: like Dylan, this hack of a director and many of these actors. If you can tolerate heavy doses of it, then you may get something out of this experience. A deep understanding of who Dylan was and is you will not get from watching this flick. A fleeting, chaotic, stream of consciousness glimpse at some stuff about a man with more personalities and personas than the worst schizophrenic with multiple personalities disorder, is more likely what you’d be privy to.

7 times I’ll be the first to admit that there’s something happening, but I don’t know what it is out of 10

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“One word for your fans?”
- “Astronaut.” – I’m Not There

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