“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
“(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
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DIRECTED BY: Todd Haynes
PLOT: The intermingled stories of an itinerant child blues guitarist, a folk singer-turned-preacher, a philandering movie actor, an indulgent rock star, an aging outlaw, and a poet under interrogation, all of whom represent facets of the life of Bob Dylan.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: The biographical film is a genre ridden with cliché, perhaps an inevitable result of trying to condense decades of life into a limited running time, as well as the absurdity inherent in calling upon famous people to embody other famous people. I’m Not There sidesteps this issue by shattering its subject’s life into fragments, echoes of Dylan who are never quite Dylan, but united in the spirit of an artist with the soul of a poet and an aversion to being analyzed. You won’t leave the film having learned a single fact about the man, but you will feel like you know him far better than any encyclopedic review of his life could impart.
COMMENTS: Facing down his interrogators, a poet lays before them the seven simple rules for life in hiding. Our protagonists, despite some of their very public lives, seem pretty adept at the first six, having created chameleon-like personalities that defy categorization or understanding. But it is the seventh–“Never create anything”–that trips them up. As much as they want to avoid capture, no matter their revulsion toward fame or notoriety, as much as they want to leave past choices behind them, the urge to create is inescapable.
Todd Haynes is in love with metaphor. His films luxuriate in the power of a thing standing in for another thing. Some examples are more blatant than others (this reviewer has previously chronicled one particularly unsubtle instance), but he always comes back to the idea that coming at an idea directly is rarely as interesting as something more tangential. That makes him a good match for Bob Dylan, an artist who is noteworthy for his refusal to ever say anything right out. In Dylan, Haynes has found a muse who indulges his vision of the world through fun house mirrors. If Dylan is never just one thing, Haynes surmises, then he must be many things. And that’s what he sets out to dramatize.
The result is something of an anthology, with stories that sometimes intersect or echo each other, but are always their own narrative. This procedure permits Haynes to indulge in ambitious flights of fancy. To depict Dylan’s early interest in folk music, for example, the singer is embodied by a young black boy with Woody Guthrie’s guitar, the spirit of an early-20th century bluesman, and a hobo’s life on the rails. None of these things are literally Dylan (and the racial dimension just barely avoids issues of cultural appropriation), but they get at the heart of his curiosity and determination to slip the chains of his past identity to explore a new one.
Sometimes these depictions are very literal, such as Bale’s Greenwich Village troubadour. Other times, the symbolism is extremely heavy-handed, like naming Whishaw after Arthur Rimbaud, a poet who inspired Dylan’s lyrical obfuscations, or Gere assuming the character of Billy the Kid, whose own biography Dylan famously scored. Interestingly, the most Dylan-like character is Blanchett’s Jude Quinn, who takes on the precise look of the star’s “Judas” heyday, and yet occupies a esque fantasy landscape of parties in white rooms and giddy romps with coy models and fawning pop stars. Most of them revolve around music (but not all), many of them incorporate a faint whiff of impersonation of Dylan’s notorious nasal drawl (but not all). The one thing that unites all six version of Dylan is a stubborn refusal to be seen, to be captured and measured and sized up. Haynes wisely turns that inability to present the man into his boldest technique.
The biopic has matured over the decades, as filmmakers have largely abandoned regurgitated womb-to-tomb accounts in favor of more telescopic views of key moments from the life. In so doing, they’ve been willing to play with the form, demolishing linear time (like Chadwick Boseman’s electric embodiment of James Brown in Get on Up) or providing on-screen commentary (as in the to-screen objections of characters in 24 Hour Party People). Haynes does them all better by presenting a biography that doesn’t even feature its subject, Because while my review keeps saying Dylan Dylan Dylan, you’ll never hear that name in I’m Not There. Not once.
I’m Not There is definitely a weird watch because it has completely rethought the language of its genre. The life of the subject here is not character, it’s not plot, it’s not dialogue. It’s theme. And as such, it leaves interpretation to the viewer, even as its subject resists interpretation at every turn. So make of it whatever you will, knowing that you’re on your own. How does it feel?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The movie looks and sounds so purely pleasurable in isolated moments that I thought, more than once, that Haynes would’ve better served Dylan by putting together a DVD of music videos. In a way, that’s what he’s done anyway, and perhaps the whole weird, scattershot thing might play better when you can skip-search to your favorite bits.”–Rob Gonsalves, Rob’s Movie Vault (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)