LITTLE ROCK Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story isn't the only current film that playfully perverts the conventions of the pop music bio-pic. In the dazzling I'm Not There Todd Haynes weaves alternative Bob Dylan narratives into a Moebius strip of a movie that not only serves as a stylized chronicle of a legend but also as a tour through 1960s cinema and a secret history of those roiling times. It is intelligent and delightful, one of the most satisfying movie experiences I have ever had. I can't wait to see it again.
Please note the specificity of the those last two lines; the use of the first person singular is intentional and important. For I'm Not There is to some degree an exclusionary film, and it's likely that the more you think you know about Bob Dylan - the man and the icon - the richer the experience is likely to be. After the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, it wasn't uncommon to see wild-eyed prophets explaining the sometimes arcane iconography of the film to those who hardly knew Dylan and didn't much care.
Haynes doesn't offer us a Dylan for Dummies but a kind of filmic Dylan song, allusive and evocative and purposefully, poetically ambiguous. He has absorbed the lore and mythology and processed it through his own particular movie brat dream filter. He doesn't pause to explain, but instead seizes on his subject's much remarked upon qualities of shape-shifting and reinvention to cast six actors - from 10-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin to Cate Blanchett - as different aspects of the man. None of these six characters is called Bob Dylan, and the artist is only directly alluded to at the very end of the film. Yet the clued-in will recognize the signal moments and the paths not taken; they will get the jokes and understand how a 10-year-old black child holding himself out as Woody Guthrie is hardly less audacious than young Robert Zimmerman pretending to be an orphan from New Mexico named Dylan.
A second Dylan is Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a work-shirted folksinger who becomes the voice of a generation and the subject of a bio-pic in which he's played by yet another Dylan, an actor named Robbie (Heath Ledger) who - in a section of the film that's as much about Jean-Luc Godard (especially his 1966 film Masculine Feminine) as it is Dylan's marriage to Sara Lownds - is married to a Frenchwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an abstract expressionist who makes great spackled canvases of rust and gray. (It's that kind of runon journey.)
Then there's Jude (Cate Blanchett), the just-gone-electric Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker's famous documentary Don't Look Back (although Haynes conflates Pennebaker's verite style with the particular madnesses of Richard Lester and Federico Fellini). Blanchett has justly been praised for her transsexual performance, but Bale is also terrific as the most literal physical interpretation of Dylan, down to the hunched shoulders and chest-high dreadnought the singer affected during the first public performance of "Only a Pawn in Their Game" in Greenwood, Miss., in July 1963.
It's this precision of detail within the overall rambling structure of the movie that most evokes Dylan's process - fans will be stunned by the way Haynes time and time again subverts their expectations by leading them rightup to the brink of a touchstone moment before abruptly breaking off in a new direction. For instance, the famous, profane command Dylan uttered to his band as they charged into "Like a Rolling Stone" at the infamous (though incorrectly identified) Royal Albert Hall concert in 1965 is elided, although the catcalls of "Judas!" and Dylan's response are preserved. This restlessness is emblematic of Dylan, the trickster changeling who, as opposed to the Jackson Five, is never there when you reach out to touch him.
This Dylan is overtly represented by a character called Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whislaw), a suspect under interrogation who evades his unseen inquisitor's questions by quoting Dylan.
Which leads to what some consider the most baffling section of I'm Not There, which features Richard Gere as Billy the Kid in a Sam Peckinpah/Robert Altmanesque Western populated with freaks and geeks and circus animals drawn from The Basement Tapes. While there's nothing as boring as overly precious exegesis, it is possible to draw a parallel to Dylan's post-motorcycle accident withdrawal from the limelight and his subsequent engagement with country music.
What Haynes gets, and what thwarts traditional bio-pics, is that the life of the artist is never as instructive as the work. (What we don't have room to discuss here is the canny way Haynes uses Dylan's songs in this film. The soundtrack album is a wonder unto itself.) While Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home serves as an excellent biography of the man and his music, I'm Not There is another kind of definitive document - it gives us insight into Dylan's way of making art, intuitively combining found objects and recycling bits of Americana while pretending to be no morethan a song-and-dance man. I'm Not There is great art about great art, and while it's not for everybody, some will feel it was made just for them.
MovieStyle, Pages 41 on 12/28/2007