Monday, November 26, 2007

11/26: I'm Not There

I've seen a lot of people asking what exactly Todd Haynes' I'm Not There has to tell us about Bob Dylan, its ostensible subject. This is, of course, the wrong question. Moreover, it's the question that Haynes' film is specifically intended to short-circuit, to avoid, and it's likewise the question that Dylan has structured his career around hiding from. He's not there, not in this film, and not in his music either, not the way anyone ever wants or expects him to be. I'm Not There has a lot to say, but not necessarily about Dylan, and not necessarily in the easily digested bites that seem to be desired by those doing the asking. The question implies that the film should dissect Dylan, explain him, relate key incidents in his life without artifice and show how the music is related to the life. That's what biopics do, right? It's a damn good thing this isn't a biopic.

What it is, is something much more complicated and beautiful. Haynes has taken Dylan and fragmented him, thrown bits and pieces of his persona, music, and chameleonic life into six different characters, all playing various ghosts of a living Dylan who's shed or absorbed all these aspects of himself to create whatever he is now. There's Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody Guthrie, an eleven-year-old black boy who's still anachronistically riding the rails in 1959, seemingly living in an earlier era in the time of burgeoning civil rights protests. There's Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, the protest-era Dylan, pushed onto stage by Joan Baez stand-in Alice (Julianne Moore) to belt out his heartfelt socially conscious songs. And Bale returns later in the film for a second turn as Pastor John, Jack transformed into a deeply religious minister in a reflection of Dylan's 80s turn to God. In between these two poles, there's Cate Blanchett in a shockingly powerful portrayal of Jude, essentially the mid-60s, gnomic burn-out Dylan as depicted in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. And Ben Whishaw as Arthur (Rimbaud, naturally), the sensitive poet Dylan, whose role consists entirely of cryptic non-sequiturs delivered to a panel of interviewers who inevitably bring to mind the McCarthy Senate hearings. There's also Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who once played the younger Dylan in a movie before heading into an increasingly bitter and disenchanted life. Finally, in the film's weirdest diversion, Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a nod to Dylan's scoring of (and cameo in) Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

This diverse cast comprises a series of Dylan echoes, referencing and riffing on the musician but never quite forming any composite portrait. Haynes has blended these different elements together, not chronologically in terms of their place in Dylan's career, but in a dense free-associative montage that's constantly switching between stories, musical numbers, and meditative abstractions anchored by Kris Kristofferson's narration. As a fan of Dylan's music with a casual knowledge of his life, I was able to follow the web of associations pretty easily, as the film skips nimbly around from image to image. I'd imagine that non-Dylan fans would be missing out on a lot here, since Haynes doesn't make it easy to parse the complex accumulations of Dylan doppelgängers and coded references that are packed into almost every scene.

I myself was initially puzzled by the Billy the Kid sequence, wondering why Dylan's Pat Garrett soundtrack (musically a minor work) was being given such prominent treatment, until I realized that these scenes occupied a space within the film akin to Dylan's motorcycle crash and subsequent retreat to record his Basement Tapes with the Band. This sequence's retreat to the past mirrors Dylan's own retreat to America's musical past following his accident, drawing on both his own early folk and blues songs, along with a healthy dose of country. Furthermore, Gere's Old-West ramble through the carnivalesque town of Riddle (what better name?) recalls the circus imagery of any number of Dylan songs, as well as the assemblage of downtrodden and outrageous characters from "Desolation Row." These kinds of associations, references, and evocations of lyrics make up the very fabric of this film. Still, I think the film has plenty to offer even complete Dylan neophytes, in terms of the sheer beauty of its imagery, the wonderful tapestry of Dylan's music (mostly originals with a few new performances) that weaves through the film, and the idea of artistic rejuvenation that's embodied in Haynes' treatment of Dylan's many faces.

I hear that nagging voice again, though: so what does all this tell us about Dylan? Again, the wrong question, and one that's ironically a variation on the probing questions asked of Blanchett's Jude by a British journalist, who keeps trying to pin down Jude to a sound-bite-friendly cliché. This is probably the finest scene in the film, and Haynes allows it to morph slowly from a tense Q-and-A session into a nightmarish, noir-inspired music video of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," with the journalist as Mr. Jones, who just knows that something is happening but doesn't understand what it is. Eventually, disturbed by Jude/Dylan's refusal to provide pat answers or give the TV-ready stock phrases that these leading questions demand, the journalist airs a program in which he "exposes" Jude's roots as an ordinary, suburban Jew from an affluent family. Does this reductionism to the question of roots, of background, explain anything about Jude or Dylan?

Of course not, and though such explanations and questions aren't Haynes' interest, he doesn't shy away from the core of Dylan's art, the shape-shifting nature of Dylan's persona, always inaccessible but otherwise quite different from one incarnation to the next. In fact, Haynes embodies this eclectic sense of personality not only in his multiple Dylans, but in the stylistic melange with which he surrounds them, drawing on his obviously rich filmic knowledge for a web of cinematic references every bit as dense as his musical ones. The Jude sequences draw most obviously on Don't Look Back — it would be impossible for Blanchett's sneering, mumbling, leather-clad impersonation not to recall the Dylan of that era — but more subtly these scenes reference Fellini's 8 1/2 with its warped visages of hangers-on, and in turn Woody Allen's own Fellini homage in Stardust Memories, with murals on the walls reflecting the character's inner states.

Even more than Fellini, though, this is Haynes' channeling of Godard. I've always thought that Godard, possibly my favorite director, has had a purely superficial impact in terms of the impact he's passed on to other directors. Only Fassbinder ever really seemed to "get" Godard and take his influence in a truly interesting direction, while countless other directors latched onto jump cuts and other surface aesthetic features. With I'm Not There, Haynes has arrived as another truly Godardian filmmaker, in the best possible sense. Yes, there are some of those kinds of surface aesthetic references, right down to the way the introduction of the film's title text, letter by letter, plays off of different combinations to alter meanings: I, I'm here, I'm her, I'm there, I'm not her. Likewise, the scene where Jude and his/her electric band literally machine-guns an audience of folk fans, before symbolically machine-gunning them with the force of their radically rule-breaking music. Haynes also plays with machine-gun rhythms in the periodic repetition of the portraits of his six Dylan stand-ins, and certain scenes specifically recall One Plus One or Masculin feminin. But Haynes has also absorbed Godard's influence in more subtle ways. Indeed, the film's essay-film structure, seamlessly blending narrative fragments with more ruminative interludes and purely abstract montage with poetic/philosophical voiceover, would be impossible without Godard's example.

Haynes has also taken Godard's example as to the importance of the soundtrack and its relation to the imagery, though there's nothing specifically Godardian about the way that Haynes uses sound here. The only similarity is the denseness of the sound, the complex layering, not just for the interplay of different sounds, but the meanings contained within them. Dylan's music is of course ubiquitous, his lyrics frequently commenting on scenes. Sometimes, ingeniously, Haynes allows the lyrics to comment even if they're not being sung yet. The noirish dream sequence I already mentioned was initially a bit mystifying, until I realized that the music from "Ballad of a Thin Man" was looping underneath it, and as I mentally filled in the lyrics they began to mirror and comment on what was happening on screen — and moments later, when the vocals actually begin, there's an echo effect, as well as, probably, a moment of realization for those not already familiar with the song.

I have absolutely no trouble calling I'm Not There a masterpiece. Haynes has crafted a film that, in saying nothing about Dylan, says everything about the nature of artistic experimentation and adaptation, the many ways in which art can be political, and the attempts of the cultural elites to impose their own neatly ordered narratives on the messy, shifty, angry artist. Haynes rejects such narratives out of hand. His narratives here are more like Dylan's own "narratives," in his story-songs like "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," in which the semblance and structure of a story being told is belied by the poetical nonsense that comprises it. Haynes embraces that nonsensical spirit, and the result is one of the finest, sweetest, warmest evocations of artistic expression imaginable.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Ed you've absolutely nailed it. Re Godard there's a direct quote of the line from Masculin-Feminin about "the film we wished we'd seen."

Here's my interview with Todd.

Filmbo said...

Thanks for the post. I typically don't read your reviews before I see the film, but I couldn't resist with Haynes since I was on the fence about seeing it. No longer the case, I'm seeing it tomorrow!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. That's a great interview, David, I was saving it until after I'd seen the movie so thanks for reminding me about it. I hadn't realized how much the Claire character was based on Suze Rotolo -- she's a semi-distant relative of my girlfriend, so it was very cool to read Haynes' comments on her.

And filmbo, I'm glad I've convinced you to go see this -- looking forward to reading your comments on the film when you do.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Thanks, Ed.

It's pretty clear that Todd has fulfilled his goal of making a picture whose "meaning" everyone will argue about -- just like they did with movies of the 60's.

Chet Mellema said...

Ed, that's a fantastic post. I'm seeing the film either tonight or on Friday. I really admire Haynes' work and it sounds like I'm Not There will be wonderfully confounding.

Also, I am having trouble reading your posts before a new one comes up...where do you find the time? In all seriousness, keep it up.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the compliments, Chet. I'm something of a newcomer to Haynes, but considering my admiration for both this one and Safe, I've now got all the rest of his films right at the top of my viewing list.

I'm going to keep trying to maintain a near-daily posting schedule here, because I usually watch at least one film most days, so there's always something to write about. I love the discipline of keeping to a daily reviewing schedule, hopefully sharpening my critical faculties on here.

Steve Macfarlane said...

This is a really wonderful review of what is turning out to be the most maddening movie of the year for me. I disagree with a lot of your arguments, but this only reinforced my belief that I needed to see I'm Not There a second time, dammitall.

reassurance said...

Safe is one of the best films of the 90s.

I'm Not There is a little to prickly for me. It's an easy film to throw accolades on, and it's almost as easy to completely dismiss. I found myself both entranced and bothered, but I love your dissection of the title of the film.

reassurance said...


The Blind Owl said...

Excellent review, Ed. I recently re-watched this for the first time in ages and it still stands out as one of my favourite films of the current decade. Like you, I originally didn't connect as much with the Billy the Kid sequences like I did with the rest of the film - however, by the time Haynes got to the "Goin' to Acapulco" number, I was completely won over. It's the most captivating combination of music, image, meaning and expression that I've seen on film in a long, long time. Just extraordinary!

The only tiny flaw was the cover-version of Ballad of a Thin Man, which simply doesn't compare to the original version by Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited.


Sam Juliano said...

I didn't realize you had written this essay, as I apparently failed to negotiate the letters properly. Well, it's a brilliant piece of criticism, one I wholeheartedly concur with. I've said much about this film, so I'll leave it at that. It's fantastic that the famed critic David Ehrenstein is active in the comment section, even broviding his own interview with Haynes.

Simply awesome, Ed.