We saw "I'm Not There" at the New York Film Festival weeks ago, but here finally is our full review.
You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks They really found you.
- Bob Dylan "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding"
The obsessive appeal of Bob Dylan is easy to understand. Here's a man that was always on the run, an enigma always setting fire to creative periods that happened to catch on; restless, relentless, contrarian in spirit, elliptical, elusive, bemusing and slippery as an eel. Of course you'd want to know more and find out who he really was, especially as he was jettisoned chrysalises and identities with masks to confound, to provoke or simply to just get the dogs off his scent. Bob was always trying on new and anonymous masks; like Brando diving into a Stella Adler method whether it be with a Woody Guthrie pantomime or a Rimbaud fixation.
When introduced to the mid-60s Newport Folk Festival by Ronnie Gilbert as, "and here he is . . . take him, you know him, he's yours," this might as well as been Bob's epitaph and sensing the ominous meaning in this possessiveness, he soon bailed on the whole dogmatic scene, repeating this escape hatch technique throughout most of his career when the wolves got hip and tried to box him in. Trying to grab hold of is like catching a flame that goes out; it's addictive as a drug; a never ending quest.
Todd Haynes knows this; this is why he decided to make "I'm Not There," a dazzlingly refracted and semiotic portrait about everything Bob Dylan isn't, is, can't be, never was, used to be, wished to be, aimed to be, and other states of faked tentative being and reality all at once. Haynes film career has been marked by a preoccupation with identity, sexual or otherwise, so it's not a surprise he'd get in deep with Dylan's fleeing metamorphic tricks, plus try and infuse an electrical Dylan with an ambiguous sexual energy via Cate Blanchett - the perfectly startling choice to jostle viewers and remind them in '65, Dylan looked like a banshee freaknik.
Those trying to grasp Dylan here are going to fail and Haynes knew going in he'd never win, but that's the point, you can't pigeonhole and pin the tail on this particular donkey. "I'm Not There" (is the title anymore obvious?) is not a biopic, rather it's a daring, thrilling, freewheelin', kaleidoscopic reimagination based on the mythology of Bob Dylan (or "the many lives of Bob Dylan" as the film says); the truths, the fabrications, the exaggerations, the fiction, the facts, the unknown, the suppositions - all of it.
Reading an article about himself in the D.A. Pennebaker doc "Dont Look Back" Dylan famously remarked with exasperation, "I'm glad I'm not me," which like everything he ever said could mean a thousand things to a thousand different people, but some correct answers include, "Thank god, I'm not the monster/person I'm made out to be here," and "Thank god, they'll never really know who I am."
Dylan sought to always keep his critics and the intrusive vultures at bay and 'INT' doesn't attempt to shed any light or pull back the curtain to reveal any cosmic truth. Instead it reinvents the many stages of Dylan's lives through seven different demarcated personas, played by six different characters in hopes of reflecting a small glimpse of what was happening on the other side of his mirror. It tries to capture nothing and in doing so is free to create and invent.
The script is like a rubik's cube and a puzzle that doesn't aim to solve itself, with time, temporal space all represented on a canvas that overlaps, superimposes, cuts, twists and pastes all over itself. It's an art film in the sense that it's created with an artschool frame of mind, but fortunately Haynes isn't enough of an egghead to just serve the cineastes and Dylanites that will surely drool over this thing.
This imaginative, audacious high-wire act of filmmaking is pure fantasia but let's not forget to remind that all this artifice, all this outer icing, doesn't subtract at all from the drama.
There's a heart, a story, an emotional center, a whimsical inviting sense of humor, an arc and an examination of who we are when we refuse to be just one thing. Anyone wary this film is an elitist self-congratulatory cocoon for insiders need not be worried, the references might fly fast and furious, but you either catch them or you don't and being unaware of them doesn't take detract from the film's enjoyment one bit (they're mostly just non-winky nods for nerds like us).
If anything, it's abstractness reminded us slightly of Oliver Stone's "JKF" in the way it blurred truths and speculation to create a new fiction; a new reality (the way the film jumps around with different cinematic looks and film stocks is also fairly reminiscent).
This is George Washington" - Joan Baez introducing Dylan to the Newport stage in 1964.
The film's narrative follows no linear logic, cutting and pasting in shards, fluidly moving like a painterly collage; like an interlocking puzzle and it's all the better for it. The whole story is shimmering with creative impulses, and radiating with mad ideas and energy.
I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in your dream, I said that
- "Talkin' World War III Blues"
Get to know your Dylans: The "I'm Not There" Guide.
I had to rearrange their faces And give them all another name
- "Desolation Row"
The Prophet - The Film Within The Film
Christian Bale as the folk singing protest troubadour Jack Rollins is actually only seen in the film in a quasi document about the life of the long gone folks singer. This part of the film alludes to Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home" as aged hippies and folkies (like Julianne Moore's Joan Baez composite) remember Rollins in documentary-style sitdowns and archival footage of Bale.
Star of Electricity
Another composite, Ledger's Robbie Clark has a complicated meta-role: he plays a James Dean-esque actor that in his youth plays a the folksinging Dylan portrayed earlier in the film by Christian Bale. Heath Ledger, who signed on to the role after Colin Farrell abruptly exited, has the bearded-look of the Dylan's New Morning period, the dissolution-of-a-marriage despair and trajectory of Blood On The Tracks. This late-60s Vietnam-era period is also cinematically represented by visual, colorful Jean-Luc Godard cues (films like "Two or Three Things I Know About Her," "Weekend"). His wife Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is given a name with a slightly altered reference; in Dylan's 1976 identity opus "Renaldo in Clara," Sarah Dylan plays Clara. The divorce story told within acts as the film's emotional centerpoint.
Blonde On Blonde (Judas Iscariot)
Cate Blanchett's (as Judd Quin) gender-bending take on what Haynes sees as the androgynous, thin mercurial Dylan is obviously grabbing all the headlines and that's as much due to the gender twist as it is, Blanchett playing Dylan at his most defiant and recalcitrant: the folk renouncement and the plugged-in electrical days that polarized fans and was Dylan's first really punk-rock move. This section of the film nods to Frederico Fellini's masterpiece "8 1/2" and the wiry, amphetamine-petulant Dylan of "Eat The Document." It's her movie to steal cause she's got the juiciest role to play and she runs with it (probably straight to the Oscars).
That Old, Weird America
Richard Gere's plays Billy in the highly allegorical section of the film (and unfairly maligned by some critics) where he plays the outlaw that hides in the basement of an old, weird American town called "Riddle." His self-imposed exile represents emotional escapism and a patriotism to all creative freedoms, or from the press and hangers-on that wanted a piece of Dylan at the time (similarly Dylan dropped out after his 1966 motorcycle accident, one that he played up and took refuge in Woodstock, New York in the late '60s.) Characters are named after Basement Tapes characters (the belated record that Dylan recorded with the Band for fun during this period) and when the Pat Garett-like sheriff returns to town Gere hides out in a translucent, clown-mask straight from the opening of "Renaldo & Clara." The film also is obviously based of Dylan's appearance as the character Alias (fitting name) in "Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid." This section also has vague homages to Sam Peckinpah's entire canon and '70s anti-westerns like Robert Altman's "McCabe & Ms. Miller." Some critics tend to think this section is slow, but they're missing the big picture. You'd savor the Cate/Blonde on Blonde section cause it's never overdone. There's some John Wesley Harding in there too.
The Preacher Man Gets Saved
Christian Bale's double duty as Pastor John is fairly limited. It consists of one scene in the film, but damn if the jewfro and his sermonizing rendition of the Saved-era gospel track by John Doe, "Pressin' On" is not one of the film's powerful musical highlights.
'I Is Another' - The Liar & Thief
Ben Wishaw plays Arthur, an obvious homage to the influential symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud that not only heavily colored Dylan's songwriting approach and more allusive lyrics ("Rimbaud and his poet bff Paul Verlaine are namechecked in "You're Going To Make Me Lonesome When You Go"), but his elliptical poems, led Dylan to begin talking in imagistic, cryptic metaphor during mid-60s interviews perplexing and aggravating journalists all the more. Arthur appears only in McCarthy-esque interrogation scenes where disembodied voices ask him questions about who is and his intentions and of course, he answers each answer with an almost-impenetrable metaphoric code (dialogue much of which is taken straight from the text of Zimmy interviews from the mid '60s)
The Bound For Dustbowl Glory Fake
Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, an early incarnation of Dylan's initial preoccupation with Woody Guthrie (Franklin's acoustic also has written on it, "this machine kills fascists"). Most of this story is based on Dylan's mythic and falsified origin of running away from home, joining the circus and having ridden on the hobo boxcar circuit. He jams with Richie Havens, does a pilgrimage to the sick Guthrie (just like Dylan did), gets swallowed by Moby Dick and is taken in by a kind family whose mother pointedly tells him to "live his own time" - a statement meant to represent Bob shaking off his Guthrie fixation and finding his own voice and style. Watch for his cameo in the Richard Gere section where Franklin's Chaplin-esque character is a nod to Charlie - one of the excised characters in the original script that was supposed to represent Dylan's early New York Grenwich Village days. The vignette also tips its cap slightly to Hal Ashby's Woody Guthrie biopic "Bound For Glory" (a role which Dylan was once up for in an earlier incarnation of the project).
"I feel like anytime I’ll work on a film, it’s like a giant dissertation, a gigantic undertaking, and this is probably the biggest one. Probably the Ph.D.," Todd Haynes said in the recent New York Times Magazine cover story about "I'm Not There," and after experiencing the film (as one can't just watch it), one walks away with the feeling they've just witnessed as successful and masterful thesis in action.
Expectations are a bitch. You build something up, you anticipate it obsessively and of course it can never meet your hopes. Somehow 'INT' adventurous deconstructions match your hopes all the while elevating the art form of film and pushing the cinematic language to it's edges (it's not reinventing the wheel, but the old European masters would be proud).
Layered, fractured, dense, replete with cinematic, literate and musical references to Dylan's mythology both via his films, books, photographs, interviews and influences of the time, the film's is a cineaphile's wet-dream, demands multiple viewings and its cult status is already secured. "I'm Not There" is not a biopic, it's a thrilling, feverish dream, a panoramic pris
We saw "I'm Not There" at the New York Film Festival weeks ago, but here finally is our full review.