Scent Weakly 2.0

Saturday, December 01, 2007

I'm Not There

If I could write this would have been my review of the Dylan Biopic:


From Friday's Globe and Mail

November 30, 2007 at 12:06 AM EST

I'm Not There

Directed by Todd Haynes

Rating: ***

Bob Dylan appears for less than a minute in I'm Not There. Near the end of the film, you can see him on stage in an archival film clip, his cheeks puffing in and out as he plays a mournful vamp on the harmonica.

Apart from that brief glimpse of its subject, Todd Haynes's new movie, inspired by “the lives of Bob Dylan,” is like a ritual invoking an absent deity, aimed at moderately to deeply obsessed fans who are enjoying their idol's current career renaissance. The name is never spoken, but any competent Dylanologist could annotate the references to songs, girlfriends, clothing and career moments of the star over the past half-century. Some of the oddest details aren't made up – Black Panther Huey Newton really did believe Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man was an allegory about black empowerment.

Most Dylan devotion is harmless – the online pools guessing what the order of his songs will be from one concert to the next, for example – but the adulation also can be creepy, and not only from the people who treat him as the messiah. Even critics who normally revere all things Dylan turn vicious when their idol proves fallible: Village Voice writer Mark Jacobsen wrote in reviewing Dylan's 1978 film folly Renaldo and Clara: “I wish Bob Dylan died.”

To enjoy I'm Not There you should be just a little bit Dylan-crazy, fascinated by his talent, ornery personality and enduring cultural influence. That interest will get you over the film's lumpy bits. At its best, Haynes's film is a trippy essay about Dylan's celebrity persona: mixing drama, mock-documentary and sixties new-wave cinema, it takes some daring leaps. For the appearance of Dylan's band playing electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival, we see the musicians strafe the audience with machine guns. When Dylan meets the Beatles, they're pictured as a quartet of Munchkin-voiced imps, re-enacting their A Hard Day's Night antics.

Then there's the gimmick of the six actors. Haynes ( Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven) has essentially divided up the Dylan legacy into different file folders, each represented by a different performer. The film jumps between characters and periods. We start with the young shuck-and-jive Bob, making up stories about his past and calling himself “Woody” after Woody Guthrie. He's played by an 11-year-old black kid, Marcus Carl Franklin, who sings and plays guitar. The most expendable version is a chain-smoking Rimbaud-like Dylan (Ben Whishaw) saying paradoxical things in what appears to be a police interrogation. Then there's the earnest protest singer named Jack Rollins (Christian Bale, who also plays the Christian Dylan, Pastor John).

By far the most exciting Dylan incarnation is Cate Blanchett playing a character called Jude Quinn. She does an uncanny and sexy impression of the horrible-adorable Dylan in his mid-20s, much of which is well-documented in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967) and in Martin Scorsese's recent PBS series.

The movie bogs down when it becomes an obvious allegory. We have Richard Gere as old-timey Dylan during his Woodstock years, but set in a surreal early 20th-century world. Gere plays Mr. B., also known as Billy the Kid, who lives in the town of Riddle. But Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood) wants to destroy the town for a highway. Almost as clumsily self-conscious as one of Dylan's films, the Gere sequence is a clumsy fable about the artist's need to preserve ambiguity and mystery from the deadening forces of greed and conformity.

In contrast, there's the much more specific world of married Bob. Heath Ledger plays a Hollywood actor, Robbie, who once played Jack Rollins (Christian Bale's version of Bob) in a film. That section of the film portrays his marriage to Claire, who's a cross between Dylan's Greenwich Village girlfriend and his first wife. Claire is played by French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who suffers soulfully as she watches her boyfriend turn into a swaggering male chauvinist and half-hearted father. She's the most prominent of Dylan's muses in the film, who include Julianne Moore as a stand-in for Joan Baez, Michelle Williams for Edie Sedgwick and Yolanda Ross for Mary Alice Artes, the woman who brought Bob to Christianity in the late 1970s.

The music often carries the film when the narrative momentum fails, and the soundtrack mixes Dylan and indie rock stars performing versions of his songs. If the title song seems unfamiliar, join the club. It's an outtake from The Basement Tapes, an agonized lament from a man who has abandoned his lover. The dramatic implication is that Dylan, in his shape-shifting persona, has somehow sacrificed his identity and happiness to serve as a voice for collective humanity.

Just a small quibble: Does anyone seriously buy this? I'm Not There is part of the Dylan renaissance (engineered by his manager, Jeff Rosen) in the last few years, propelled by the Scorsese series No Direction Home and the publication of Dylan's memoirs, Chronicles, Vol. 1. In 2006, at 65, Dylan became the oldest living person ever to have an album enter the Billboard charts at No. 1.

Even with new information provided in the film, however, his personality remains not so much elusive as cantankerous, particularly in contrast with the expansiveness of his songs. That gap gives I'm Not There something of a hollow centre. The contradiction is neatly summed up in Robert Shelton's 1986 biography of Dylan, also called No Direction Home. Shelton quotes Harry Weber, who knew Dylan as a university freshman in Minnesota, saying: “Dylan is a genius, that's all. He is not more complex than most people; he is simpler.”


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