I’m Not There

Reposted from 2007

I knew even before the house lights went down that I needed to approach this film in the right frame of mind. I knew not to expect a rational or linear plotline, that my disbelief would need to be firmly suspended, and that I would have to forgo any spirit of antagonistic criticism.

All that said, I found it a brilliant piece of work. Let me state, for the record, that I’ve never been the world’s biggest Dylan fan. I respect him as a titanic figure in American music, and my personal favorites list contains a decent sampling of some of Dylan’s hits (“Like a Rolling Stone”, “Lay Lady Lay”) and rarities (“One More Cup Of Coffee”, “Million Dollar Band”), but I’m no Dylan cultist. My interest in the film came less from a love of Dylan and more from an interest in what the film would say about art and life.

I think the best way to approach the film is with an understanding that none of the six Dylanesque main characters is meant to present a factual account of Dylan’s life. Rather, each represents an extended meditation by the filmmaker on aspects of Dylan’s history, mythology, and songwriting.

This much is clear from the film’s opening scenes. Clearly, Bob Dylan never was a teenaged black hobo, riding the rails, singing for his supper and appearing in freak shows for spare change. And yet there is some sense in which Bob Dylan presents himself as having that history (or its equivalent), at least in his songwriting, and at least in the mind and through the lens of the filmmaker, Todd Haynes.

The movie reminded me, in its early and late scenes, of the movie “Big Fish” which also dealt with an invented life story. Like the earlier film, “I’m Not There” comes down firmly on the side of the mythic truth rather than the factual truth. There is a key moment near the middle of the film where Dylan’s primary antagonist, a straight-laced British journalist, exposes Dylan’s “true” childhood story as a privileged Jewish kid from a middle-class suburb. Dylan (or at least his filmic alter-ego of the moment, as portrayed by Cate Blanchette) seems momentarily made vulnerable and naked by the revelation. With the advantage of history, however, we know that the journalist’s vindictive moment of triumph will be fleeting and irrelevant.

Part of the movie’s point, as I saw it, is that the mundane details of the life of Robert Zimmerman alias Bob Dylan are only of passing interest. The Dylan who compels is the Dylan of the songs. That seems to be a message Dylan has consistently presented in his rambling interviews, and it rings true here. The voyeuristic looks into Robert Zimmerman’s life are pointless, they do not illumine, the real Dylan is “not there.”

Instead of falling into that trap, Todd Haynes, I think, has made an inspired inversion of the entire idea of a “bio-pic”. In fact, if they ever did a movie about me, this is the style I’d like to have it done in. Gone is the standard pretense that one can pick out facts from the subject’s life and endow them with the resonance of the songs. Instead, the process is reversed. The Dylans presented in the movie are invented to embody the lives presented through the work. For me, a particularly effective instance of this technique was Christian Bale’s portrayal of alternate-history Dylan who drops out of fame and the musical spotlight to become an evangelical pastor of a tiny community-center congregation. As he preaches the gospel to a tiny but diverse group of congregants, there for the message, not the messenger, he felt utterly authentic both as a character in his own right, but also as a valid extrapolation of the gospel Dylan of the 70s.

As a member of the short attention-span generation, I found the movie a bit long, especially given that it suffered a bit from false ending syndrome. At the same time, I’m not sure what I would have cut. Many reviews I’ve read have attacked the Richard Gere scenes as extraneous, but I enjoyed them. They take place in the film’s most consciously surreal location, the town of “Riddle,” and for me, represented the magic and mystery drenched Dylan of my favorite of his songs, “One More Cup of Coffee.”

In the end, I found the film well-worthwhile. Even while shying away from the facts, it contextualized many of the songs for me in a way that was valuable and revealing. For example, I’ve always hated Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm.” It seemed to me like nothing more than a jokey piece of pseudo-Americana. But placed in its (historically accurate?) context of Dylan-going-electric at the Newport Folk Festival, it comes across very clearly as an agressive kiss-off both to the fans and to the entire folk music scene, with Dylan playing the role of the exploited and rebellious laborer. Similarly, the song “Ballad of a Thin Man” –previously unknown to me– crackles with the electricity of Dylan’s antagonistic relationship with fame, the media, and the mainstream public.
In summary, not for everyone, but a brave, a bold, and ultimately (for me) a successful experiment by Todd Haynes. Go see it.

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