Thursday, October 18, 2012

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

Upon its release, I'm Not There struck me as a hollow experiment, a nifty "what-if" but nothing more. Not helping matters, certainly, was my own lack of familiarity with Bob Dylan, a sacred cow whose enigmatic profile (as evidenced by this fragmentary "biopic") split into so many personalities that I never knew how to approach him. For all its dazzling formal techniques, I'm Not There frustrated me for doing nothing, it seemed, to explore Dylan's real personality. Its much-ballyhooed division of Dylan's various artistic reinventions into separate roles for different actors was its greatest weakness.

Of course, Bob Dylan's refusal to be defined as any one thing but Bob Dylan (and sometimes not even that), is what has made him endure as much as a mystery as a legend. Haynes does not attempt to "solve" Dylan, and if I'm Not There ultimately concludes that there may be no real Dylan under all those smokescreens, it nevertheless paints a compelling portrait—well, collage—of a man who exists wholly within pop culture. The trait that links the six characters representing Dylan's personae is a hint of persecution by those who love him, of devotion and mistrust displayed in equal measure. Even the earliest incarnation of Dylan, a mere child faces hardship, even if he has to invent some of it.

That child (Marcus Carl Franklin), who calls himself Woody Guthrie represents Dylan's beginnings as an ambitious folkie who drifted out of the Midwest as if a dissatisfied spirit of the Depression spat him out at the turn of the '60s. But by casting an African-American as the boy, Haynes begins a subtle but consistent critique of Dylan's public image wrapped up in the loving tribute. Woody spins all kinds of tall tales as a backstory to the families and hobos he meets riding the rails across the country, stories that appropriate misery and strife to make his life more compelling. Yet the child actor's race is the biggest appropriation of all, the artist who would become the ultimate in white liberal hipness seeing himself as a poor black kid at heart in a too-forward sense of identification with the truly downtrodden.

Yet the leap from this child, introduced circa 1959, to actors pushing 30, if not already past the line, could be seen as a respectful view of the artist's rapid maturity. Christian Bale takes the baton from Franklin to play Jack Rollins, the Dylan who erupted in Greenwich Village as the superstar of the '60s folk scene. The difference between the two characters is as vast as the gulf between Dylan's self-titled debut, filled mostly with passable covers of folk standards and his sophomore effort, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, such an instant, out-of-nowhere classic many still believe it is his true first album. Franklin's Woody, naïve and romanticizing the past, is the only character younger than Dylan was in each respective career phase, but Bale emerges a man of the moment, crystallizing the social ills of the day rather than hiding out in the past. Even so, Dylan is still a young man, barely over 20 when he becomes a cause célèbre and not yet 25 when he sends shockwaves through his devoted fanbase. He may have the voice of a man who has lived lifetimes, but he is still barely an adult.

Nowhere is this blend of maturity and youth more strikingly displayed than in Cate Blanchett's performance as Dylan's "going electric" avatar, Jude Quinn. This period of Dylan's life has been documented more than any other, a fact Haynes does not even attempt to hide as his grainy black-and-white stock and verité style recalls D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. That film showed off a combative, evasive boy sneering at the press (and fans) who hung on his every word. Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, looks at that same material from a retrospective angle, clarifying Dylan's seeming aggressiveness as the result of his unwillingness to be the voice of a generation, with all the baggage that would bring.

Not even the real Dylan, however, brings as much sobering insight into his younger self's belligerence as Blanchett. The actress' agelessness here serves as a trap for Jude. Wearing Dylan's black sunglasses, Blanchett plays Jude as peevish and vulgar, being outlandish just to get a rise out of those who feel he owes them something. But Blanchett's jittery leg twitching and head jerking suggest amphetamine addiction. The illicit substance keeps Jude going through his concentrated period of artistic fertility; the three album stretch Jude personifies is perhaps the most radical evolution of pop songcraft of the 20th century. It also leaves Jude strung out and nervous, his already apparent discomfort with superstardom exacerbated by a lack of sleep and an overstimulated brain. Jude takes off his glasses regularly, but one shot in particular, situated at the film's end, holds on Blanchett's face as she looks with uncovered eyes into the camera, lines practically forming around her eyes as her deflated, neutral facial expression communicates an endless weariness. It is ravaging enough to be either Jesus or Judas. Dylan at this time was both, and as Blanchett's Jude ages in that late shot, the motorcycle crash that Dylan fans know is right around the corner could almost been seen as a deliverance.

Blanchett owns much of the film in terms of screen time and presence, but the lesser-seen personalities contain their own insights, affections and critiques of the subject. Ben Whishaw appears as the poet side of Dylan, on trial by an unseen prosecutor that could be jilted radicals as easily as the Establishment. Richard Gere, playing Billy the Kid in a reference to Dylan's involvement with Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, shows Dylan in exile after his crash. The real Kid died at 21, but Gere recalls the 36-year-old Kris Kristofferson of Peckinpah's film, not a boy who lived fast and died young but a weathered and withered vision of a dying symbol. The child Woody made out like he had the weight of the world on his shoulder. Blanchett's Jude didn't have to pretend, and Gere's Billy still smarts decades later from all that pressure.

I'm Not There contains its share of in-jokes and references. Haynes employs overt Hard Day's Night quotations when Jude meets the Beatles, and the funniest joke of the movie involves Jude introducing Brian Jones of the Stones as being "from that groovy covers band." Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) takes the film's metatextual elements to a new level as an actor who plays Jack Rollins and becomes a Dylanesque figure himself (he even marries the equivalent of Sarah Dylan, with whom he casually recreates the cover for Freewheelin'). These might be considered part of the typical pandering biopics do for fans, but then, the whole film requires a working understanding of Dylan's work and life from his early days through at least the '66 crash and a few scattered bits after that. The opening credits, played over shots of the outcasts of the world—complete with high-contrast, finely detailed images of coal-faced workers that recalls Gregg Toland's cinematography for The Grapes of Wrath—is clearly meant to evoke "Desolation Row." Unless, of course, you haven't heard that song, in which case the whole credits will be confusing. And the sly recasting of Bale's Jack Rollins, seen as a prophet to '60s radicals, as Dylan's Born Again avatar is a wry joke, for those who get it.

But perhaps this is how biopics of legends should operate, diving into the esoterica and letting those who have no familiarity with the artist—like my 18-year-old self—be left out in the cold. Why, after all, should the millions who love Dylan (or Cash, or Ray) and thirst for a real insight into the artist be forced to sit through a feature-length "greatest hits" for the sake of the clueless? Even if Haynes reinforces the notion of Dylan as fundamentally unknowable, his evocative, obscure shots and scenes say more about the artist than a host of documentaries and books. Case in point: Bruce Greenwood appears during the Jude section as a hostile journalist who hectors the artist for his immaturity. Greenwood is old enough to be the Establishment, his dismissal that of the older crowd who never understood why kids bothered with this guy anyway. Yet the actor returns for Billy's segment to play Pat Garrett, forced to confront the Kid one last time having failed to kill him in this universe. As Garrett stares into Billy's eyes, though, Haynes flashes back across characters as Mr. Jones harangues Jude, ignoring the young man's instability to attack its childish manifestations. Greenwood's Garrett feels the remorse of that memory; he did not kill the Kid here, but he did in a past life. This subtle connection says more about artistic martyrdom, misunderstanding and critical reevaluation than all the talking heads in the world.

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