Monday, December 3, 2007


This weekend I saw Todd Haynes' much ballyhooed I'm Not There -- an attempt to render homage to the Dylan mystique at plus two hours length. Maybe we've all been tempted by the idea of a song or a novel or movie "about nothing" -- an experience subjective and elusive, tied to no particular narrative purpose, but rather committed to poetic utterances, expressive gestures, the bits and pieces of fragmented interior reality, the kinds of glowing random nonsequiturs and bon mots that Dylan lyrics, at their best, seem composed of. Which is to say, I expected the film might be "a mess," but I hoped for "a mess with a method," or at least a mess that would startle me at times with a glimpse of how someone else -- someone operating as an artist outside the tangents of my own subjective universe -- interprets the ramblings of the Ragged Clown.

The only thing I'm startled by is how dull the proceedings swiftly became, subsumed into the yawning pit that swallows up Dylan's career and belches forth the same tired drivel. Most of Haynes' ideas for how to communicate this well-trodden material falls somewhere between Eric Idle's hilarious take-off on The Beatles: The Rutles: All You Need is Cash and the kind of ersatz rendering of the glam era that Haynes treated more freshly in Velvet Goldmine. In other words, INT would be better, perhaps, if it were satiric toward its subject, in the gentle and affectionate manner of Idle's TV special, or if it were able to muster up a fictional story that would simply be reminiscent of a certain folksinger turned rocker turned country crooner turned actor/director turned carnivalesque showman turned Vegas style retread turned Born Again sermonizer turned MTV-dazed has-been turned never-ending performer reinventing himself nightly turned living legend with more lives than Solomon had wives. And if Haynes sensibly restricts himself to only six of those incarnations, fine. But he stacks the deck toward the Dylan that is best known and most indelibly familiar (in part because of Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and the more elusive Eat the Document), the young iconoclast of the 1965-66 period, and even there he misses important nuances and gives us instead, in most of his askew presentation, what is the cinematic equivalent of a tin ear. In other words, the director starts to seem like perhaps the creepiest Mr. Jones of them all -- eyes in his pocket and nose in the ground, etc.

There were a few laughs -- most notably that little romp with The Beatles à la Hard Day's Night, or Pete Seeger grabbing an ax to cut the power at Newport, only to be wrestled down by Albert Grossman no less, or Christian Bale's straight-faced delivery of the bemused and oracular Dylan of the Born-Again period, or Cate Blanchett's spot-on recreation of the glib and hip Dylan once again surrounded by questioners without a clue, flaring into recrimination when his bubble starts getting bruised. There's also the wandering traces of a few good ideas, not quite realized, as in Marcus Carl Franklin as the young black kid who calls himself Woody Guthrie and affects a rootless hobo-like existence: his segments estrange us from the Dylanesque mannerisms the other actors adopt and give us glimpses of that film "almost but not quite" about someone "like" Dylan that we were hoping for.

The problem in general is that not a single one of these alternative Dylans is a character. If this were a documentary about Dylan we would say that it doesn't get at the man but only the familiar surfaces; as a fiction, it doesn't give us anyone "behind the shades." It may be a nice working ambition to render the lack of a center, to give us scenes and no story, to refuse to make the six "add up" and to refuse to make any one of them real -- but as a viewing experience that refusal (or inability) simply cheapens the actual convolutions of Dylan's career, a career that Haynes has nothing to tell us about, except that, like many onlookers, he saw it go by -- it went thataway.

Dylan 1: Franklin as the Guthrie wanna-be: this is Haynes' best concoction, but it fails because the big lesson the boy faces is: "be of your own time." The idea should be that he takes this truth to heart, drops the Dustbowl mannerisms and emerges from the seething cauldron of Greenwich Village as "voice of his generation" etc etc. Instead we get:

Dylan 2a: Bale as the stern and humorless Jack Rollins. The humor here is aimed at Jack -- because, the film seems to be saying, this phase of Dylan, the one championed by the folkies, is not the real Dylan but a poseur. Julianne Moore's stint as a fatuous Joan Baez figure (Alice Fabian -- heh heh) drives the point home -- these people are the Judases, the fickle followers who abandon their hero when he drops their mantel.

Dylan 3: Ben Whishaw as Rimbaud. Yeah, not the best of all possible ideas. You see, Dylan had to become a poet, so let's take his actual pronouncements -- in interviews from that fertile '64-'65 period -- and put them in the mouth of the poet who brought us "je est un autre." It's corny and for Haynes the necessary transition toward the "Dylan hero" of the electric incarnation. The problem, for those who followed Dylan's career, is that the brooding intensity of the faux Rimbaud doesn't recall at all the wily, wary, and youthful balderdash of the Dylan of this period. Self-importance begins to rear its hackneyed head.

Dylan 4: Blanchett as the androgynous rocker, hipster, wigged-out seer teetering on the verge of becoming a reactionary. This is the heart of the film because it's the Dylan Haynes is most concerned with and because Blanchett is riveting. But ultimately it becomes a drag for three reasons: the musical performance of Ballad of a Thin Man, as musical performance, pales beside the actual performance caught on film by Pennebaker and caught on tape as the so-called "Royal Albert Hall" show; the visuals that go with the song -- featuring that earnest reporter who has to stand in for Mr. Jones AND Pat Garrett (later) -- are more feeble than anything Julie Taymor came up with for her Beatles videos in Across the Universe; all Haynes can script for this particular Dylan are vituperations against the press, or against his faithful (a funny put-down of the Neuwirth-guy), or ad nauseam pronouncements about folk music. Sure, Dylan did say some version of most of those things about folk music -- but not in one two hour period. Methinks the lady doth protest too much about not protesting. Dullsville.

Dylan 5: The most yawnsome of the entire proceedings: Heath Ledger with no direction home as an actor who has to live out some so thin it looks like Saran Wrap version of the "marital difficulties" era of Dylan. There's no there there, big time. Haynes either knows nothing about this period or doesn't want to know, or has no way of making the songs of this time -- some of the most fascinating self-portraits of Dylan's career -- come to life. It doesn't help that Charlotte Gainsbourg -- the wife -- looks so much like Patti Smith (and is French): we expect her to start spouting Smith's histrionic new wave Rimbaud-lite in response to Heath's boorish comments about "no chick being able to be a poet" or whatever. Every scene in this segment is dreadful. Come back, Renaldo and Clara -- your sins are forgiven!

Dylan 6: As adrift as Ledger is, he's no match for Richard Gere as . . . as . . . well, it's kinda like if we took Kris Kristofferson's part as Billy the Kid in the movie version by Sam Peckinpah, took away everything that made Kris' part work (to the extent it did), such as rascally charisma and a few pages from the James Dean school of picturesque brooding, and then tried to make the remainder -- aging outlaw -- be a stand-in for the Dylan who mythified the West and "Old Weird America" and all that while living in some frontiertown that Mr. Redevelopment (in the form of Pat Garrett who once was his friend) is threatening (it would've been funny to have, amidst the efforts to reference Dylan lyrics -- there were guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children in one scene -- someone crooning a Leonard Cohen song from McCabe and Mrs. Miller). The only thing I liked about this part was the rendition of "Going to Acapulco." To say that Haynes has no feel for the Western is to be very polite.

Dylan 2b: Jack's back and this time he's got Jesus. This incarnation of Dylan is pretty much played for laughs, as the outcome of that oh-so-serious young man who everyone expected to change the world. 'Good and bad I defined these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow' -- yup, that boy's primed to do the work of Jesus, praise God. In chronological terms, this should be the last Dylan, but Haynes fudges it by making Jack undergo his Born Again period in '74, four or five years before his alter-ego did.

So, the film says, the Dylan of our day is the figure of mythic America -- which is true enough, perhaps -- but it's also significant that neither Dylan 5 nor Dylan 6 perform any songs. In other words, Dylan's voice, as a going concern, even in the mannerisms of his alter-egos here, has been silenced. The film can't break out of a cookie-cutter version of the '60s and its morph into those directionless '70s and who needs that, again, and again -- as the man himself said: "somebody is out there, beating on a dead horse."

I said "Oh, no! no!
I been through this movie before!"

--Bob Dylan, "Motorpsycho Nightmare" (1964)

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