Last week I had the pleasure of attending a preview screening of Todd Haynes' I'M NOT THERE, which has been broadly described as a movie about the many public faces of Bob Dylan. As I've mentioned on this blog before, having always admired Dylan in a sort of half-committed, half-hearing way, earlier this year I set myself the task of learning more about him, throwing myself into a mountain of extracurricular reading (Marcus, Williams, Heylin, et al) and a study of his collected recordings, released and unreleased. So I went into the screening with the feeling of moving toward a graduation, that much of my previous year had been a preparation for this occasion. Considering the profound pleasures I've come to know by opening my heart a little wider to Dylan's music, and my mind to the best writing currently in print about it, it would be hard for any film to live up to that kind of "opening act," but to get anywhere near a proper appreciation of I'M NOT THERE, some kind of preliminary immersion is helpful. Otherwise, "Ballad of a Thin Man" might just as well be aimed at you.
I'M NOT THERE is a rumination on the many public faces of Bob Dylan only on its rambling, rustic, picaresque, picturesque surface. It does indeed cast six different actors as shades of Dylan -- Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody, an African-American child who steals rides in boxcars while toting his guitar in a case marked "This Machine Kills Fascists"; Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, a brooding protest singer who eventually withdraws from the music business to become an actor and, later, to embrace Christianity as Brother Jack, the pastor of a pentacostal church in California; Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, a poetically minded commentator on the stories; Cate Blanchett as Jude, whose band turns a battery of machine guns on the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival and vaults into the headier heights of pop celebrity; Heath Ledger as Robbie, an actor whose career and womanizing contribute to the breakdown of his marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a painter; and Richard Gere as Billy, a middle-aged recluse in a rustic town outside of nowhere, whose need for privacy is disrupted by political wrongdoing that cries out for someone to rally the opposition. These various facets of Dylan (or Dylanesque) blend in and out of one another as the film plays, and we feel like we're watching a river flow. To go into the movie expecting some kind of statement or portrayal of Dylan is to be misled, because there's quite a lot about all of these characters that isn't consistent with the real Dylan, so, we come to realize, the point must be something else.
More meaningfully, I'M NOT THERE uses Dylan as the focus of a lovely and sometimes despairing personal essay whose most pertinent underlying theme is the need for art to be progressive and to not look back. It's a valiant and perhaps quixotic theme to address in an age when Hollywood's raison d'etre is to hemorrhage unnecessary remakes, to (deliberately or not) rob our generation of its own stories and own voice, but key to its process is the telling of its "story" in a catalogue of cinematic techniques that recall specific films from the eras to which those facets are tied: FESTIVAL, 8½, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, BOUND FOR GLORY, SAY AMEN SOMEBODY, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, to name the most obvious -- even the opening shot of PETULIA is recreated at one point. One might say that it looks back in the course of making its contrary point, but it's a brazen stare into the gorgon's face that succeeds because this movie moves cinema forward. The various signature styles on parade are as European as often as they are American, but Dylan is so specifically an American artist -- perhaps the most significant American (no, make that significantly American) artist in our lifetime -- one feels that Haynes is speaking as directly about America as he is speaking indirectly about Bob Dylan, and using this film to bemoan its increasingly scattered and powerless people's desperate need for a folk music, a collective voice for its generation. (Say, what about the Dixie Chicks? Oh... right. Forgot. Sorry.)
I've liked all of Haynes' films but have come away from all of them, save SUPERSTAR, feeling that something was broken about them, something related to casting. I can't tell if Haynes is simply too distracted to bring focus to the task, or if (being an independent American filmmaker -- try counting all the production companies attached to this movie) he simply uses the biggest names he can attract, regardless of how right or wrong they may be for the part, and fills up the rest of the roles with whoever is good, available, or affordable. This problem (as I see it, anyway) is also present here, especially in the sections concerning Ledger and Gainsbourg. Both actors are very good, but wrong enough in the landscape to make its inviting haziness seem merely blurry and the most committed viewer feel confused and restless.
Most viewers are grabbing onto Cate Blanchett's Jude (a hot Oscar contender, they say) like a rock in a raging flood because it's the most recognizable Dylan persona in this celluloid carnivál, being as much an impression of the Dylan of DON'T LOOK BACK as a performance. She's a wonderful gender-bending addition to the movie, and a heroic casting feather for Haynes' cap, but she's a King (or Queen) in the deck rather than an Ace -- close enough to someone real for us to know how close she isn't. The reason for any actor to play any living character is to summon forth and concentrate an emotional truth about that person in one scene of drama that might not be present in many hours of documentary footage, which is why I feel Blanchett ultimately gives us caricature rather than character. At one point, she covers her face in fretful agony -- a studied lift of footage cut from EAT THE DOCUMENT in which Dylan, sitting in the back of a taxi with John Lennon, struggles to marshal the nausea brought on by narcotic indulgence. When I saw the original (which can be found on YouTube), I felt great empathy for Dylan, surrounded by sniggering idiots as he pleads with unwise circumstance to put him back on a safe road to home, but the more one knows about this stuff, the more Blanchett's gesture offers footnote in place of emotion.
My favorite of all the proto- or semi-Dylans herein is Marcus Carl Franklin's Woody, who does his own singing and playing and contributes to a wonderful porchfront performance of "Tombstone Blues" with Richie Havens. Somehow the triumph of a woman portraying a man doesn't seem all that transcendent when compared to what Franklin does, taking us back to the young Bobby Zimmerman who modelled himself on folk troubadour Woody Guthrie and left his home in Hibbing, Minnesota to seek his fortune. In what may be the movie's most wondrous moment, young Woody is knocked off a boxcar as it crosses a bridge and plummets into a river where he's swallowed whole by Monstro the Whale, or shall we say (in deference to Disney lawyers) his reasonable facsimile.
Haynes has said that he made this movie in response to his own exploration of Dylan's work, which in retrospect he realized was a subconscious preamble to making a needed change in his own life. As a fellow Dylan student, I award him only the highest marks for the choices he made in terms of song selection. Haynes managed to include almost all of my favorites (surely "Everything is Broken" belonged in here somewhere), but the sequence accompanied by "Blind Willie McTell" (one of Dylan's most magnificent yet obscure songs), which includes young Woody playing a song that rouses a comatose Woody Guthrie in his hospital bed, is almost unbearably poignant.
There's a two-disc soundtrack for this movie out now, consisting almost entirely of cover versions of Dylan songs, but a good deal of it isn't heard in the film, some of the covers heard in the movie (like "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" by Iggy and the Stooges) aren't on the soundtrack album, and some album covers (like Cat Power's fine "Stuck Outside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again") are replaced in the film by Dylan's originals. The mercurial nature of all this is only too appropriate, and the soundtrack -- Sufjan Stevens' absolutely horrible reading of "Ring Them Bells" notwithstanding -- is as fine a tribute album as one could reasonably wish. Included on the album is the first official release of "I'm Not There," a much-bootlegged song dating from the "Basement Tapes" recordings of 1967, which Dylan followers (you'd have to be one to have heard it before now) generally hold to be one of his most moving compositions and performances despite it being obviously only half-written or improvised on the spot. It's presented in a weird bifurcated stereo mix that consigns Dylan's woeful voice to the right channel, allowing Garth Hudson's organ to swell to equal volume on the left, making the performance more of a battle than it should be. (Stick to the bootleg mono version.) There is also a cover version by Sonic Youth that captures something of the original's shambolic quality while lacking its gripping air of trauma and tenderness.
Perhaps the best I can say about I'M NOT THERE is that I left the theater feeling deeply enriched by an uncommon experience, a technique one would not be wrong to call virtuosic, and a helpful message that I wasn't expecting; this, and that there isn't anything imperfect about it that cannot also honestly be said of Dylan's own body of work. Don't go expecting a clear-cut or even linear experience. Go with the flow and try to compare what you're seeing to a poem, an essay, or a dream; that'll get you there faster. But that's not really the best I can say -- which is that, even though I wasn't 100% satisfied by I'M NOT THERE, I have no doubt that it's a friend for life and the best film of the year because its depth, its beauty, its ambition, even its flaws stuck to my ribs, reassuring me that cinema isn't dead yet (it's only bleeding).
I'M NOT THERE opens around the USA on November 21, in Canada on November 28, and in Europe next month.