Every once in a while a film comes along that puts a critic to the test. It reminds him that his usual approach may not always suffice. He'd better be open to new things -- otherwise he may perfunctorily dismiss anything that is beyond his usual critical experience. Whether it be with Jean-Luc Godard, Kubrick, Altman, Tarantino, et al., one has to be ready to expand his movie universe into unknown territory. I just went through that disorienting test with Todd Haynes's "I'm Not There -- Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan."
About three weeks ago, I went to a morning screening of I'm Not There. It's a two-hour and 15 minute film, in which seven characters are incarnations of Bob Dylan. Dylan is never mentioned, but he sings on the soundtrack as various stories unfold. All are in some way related to Dylan's life and mythology.
I went into the screening with a few suppositions. I knew Dylan. I thought Dylan was pretentious but brilliant. I thought Haynes was just pretentious. I didn't like his Far from Heaven, which lives on the edge of labored artifice.
The first segment of I'm Not There is about an 11-year old African-American lad who calls himself Woody (Woody Guthrie), rides the rails, writes, and sings. He is a smooth, precocious version of the youthful Dylan. I realize he's labeled the "Fake," but Haynes doesn't have to be coy in presenting him. I understand Brechtian distance, but the opening is too coy for me. In fact, I find it fatuous and all too precious.
I walked out of the screening after 45 minutes. Three weeks later I took a shot of vodka, and went back to try to sit through the entire movie. The second time I tried to inure myself to the pretention. One's first instincts are to bludgeon a movie that annoys him. One's second instincts, too. But sometimes we try to get down to our third instincts -- to attempt to understand a film as it is meant to be understood, no matter how flagrant it seems. Then we can bludgeon it. Or not.
I'm Not There is coy and fatuous, but it also can be intriguing and thought-provoking.
The seven sides of Dylan the movie presents are a 19-year old poet Arthur (Ben Winslaw), a prophet Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), an outlaw Mr. B. (Richard Gere), a fake Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an electric speed-freak Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), and a born-again Christian (born-again Bale). The seventh is actor Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) who plays Rollins in a bio-pic. This character also reveals an actor's private life.
It's a hodgepodge of characters. It's also a hodgepodge of references to Dylan -- to incidents, dialogue, confrontations, and even clothing from Dylan's past.
Dylan purists may dislike the film, because it takes things out of context, twists and misshapes and fictionalizes.
The opening with Woody doesn't work, and the section with the outlaw is distended. Other sections smack of self-indulgence, and they go awry.
But I'm Not There makes us consider Dylan with new eyes.
Each section is shot in a different style. Haynes uses the styles of Kubrick, Godard, Fellini, Peckinpah and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Pennebaker did the classic documentary Don't Look Back (1967), which captured Bob Dylan's three-week concert tour of England in 1965. Eons ago I brought Pennebaker to a university and introduced him before the showing of Don't Look Back.
It was a remarkable experience for me. In February of this year, Don't Look Back was released on DVD with commentary by Pennebaker. Don't Look Back is a considerable source for I'm Not There, and makes a revelatory companion piece to the new film.
Don't Look Back shows the 23-year old Dylan being petty, callow, feisty, and arrogant. It also shows the break-up of Dylan and Joan Baez. In I'm Not There, Julianne Moore -- a veteran of Haynes's movies -- plays a figment of Baez. Charlotte Gainsbourg artfully portrays an amalgam of two women in Dylan's life (Suze Rotolo and Sara Dylan). Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger capture intimacy and alienation.
But the tour-de-force, gangbusters, thrilling performance of the movie -- and the essential reason for seeing it -- is by Cate Blanchett as the electric-folk Dylan character, Jude Quinn. She has burrowed into the soul of Dylan. Blanchett is mesmerizing. Her withering stare at the camera blew me away. It should have been the film's final shot.
Haynes is openly gay, and Blanchett's androgynous performance is a brilliant stroke. But Haynes doesn't end with her looking at the camera. He slogs on.
Fortunately, during the credits at the end, Dylan's version of Like a Rolling Stone blows away the sludge. The final song during the credits -- when the theater is nearly empty -- is a cover of Knockin' at Heaven's Door by Antony and the Johnsons. Antony has been called "androgynous."
It's a piquant final emphasis.
I'm Not There is both off-putting and enticing.
Some of it is the best of the year, and some is among the worst. The bottom line is -- I don't know what the bottom line is.
And, at this point, that's good enough for me.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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