I’M NOT THERE (2007, directed by Todd Haynes, 135 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
I’m Not There feel like a masters’ thesis on the themes that director Todd Haynes has been exploring for the last 20 years: the symbiotic relationship of image and identity, celebrity and anonymity; the porous borderlands of gender and sexuality and extending the outer limits of cinema’s artistic reach.
With 1987’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Haynes treated the bland exteriors of The Carpenters’ muzak-y cheese as a blank canvas and with 1998’s Velvet Goldmine he re-cast London in the Glam Rock 70s as a riotous masquerade ball of sexual identities. Somehow he made two of the most beguiling rock films of all-time out of these two cultural sidebars, can you imagine what he could do with one of the premiere musical legacies of the 20th century?
With I’m Not There Haynes pays homage to Bob Dylan as a capital-A artist who casts a shadow as far and wide as Warhol or Picasso, and illustrates Dylan’s unique ability to inhale and exhale all the sepia-toned legends, lies and contradictions of the American narrative. And like the subject it attempts portray, the film is often a dizzying enigma wrapped in a riddle. If Haynes’ film occasionally fishtails into oblique incomprehensibility, it still has enough sustained moments of giddy, ecstatic poetry to make it one of the stand-out films of the decade and quite possibly the greatest biopic ever made about a significant figure of popular culture.
There’s been a lot of press about the fact that not one but six actors play Dylan, and since Dylan’s name itself is a pseudonym (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) it makes convoluted sense that none of these Dylans answer to his name either. Instead of a linear narrative arc, I’m Not There chops up the timeline of Dylan’s life into a series of loops that run concurrently, like a mash-up. Instead of seeing Dylan’s life as a line with a beginning, middle and end, Haynes sees it as a series of intersecting concentric circles — past, present and future — all happening in the eternal now.
Dylan’s aspirational childhood is represented by a young, negro bluesman named Woody Guthrie, a mystery tramp hopping freights and riding rails, setting a course for adventure and revelation through boxcar post-War Americana. Dylan’s Greenwich Village protest period is represented by Christian Bale’s Jack — who will later embody Dylan’s Born Again period when he converts in the bad perm 70s to Christianity and becomes Pastor John — with mixed results. Ben Wishaw plays French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud who spends the film being interrogated about aesthetics and metaphysics by what appears to be the House of Un-American Activities Committee. (His relevance to these proceedings is that the Dylan we know best is essentially a composite of Woody Guthrie and Arthur Rimbaud.)
Heath Ledger plays the angry asshole divorcee Dylan of Blood On The Tracks a little too close to the vest (although Charlotte Gainsbourg is just divine as the Sara character). I’ve never cozied up to The Basement Tapes era stuff like most fans, maybe that accounts for my impatience with the section in which Richard Gere is Dylan as Billy The Kid stuck in a surreal Peckinpah-styled wild west town. However, the funeral scene with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James in white face and a rain-warped 10 gallon hat, backed by Calexico, belting out “Acapulco” with gospel-singer aplomb is one of the films many jaw-dropping moments.
And despite the relative strength of all these performances, it is Cate Blanchett who utterly inhabits her character. She gets to play the best Dylan, the unwilling generational oracle of the Blonde On Blonde-era: Jude Quinn, the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid of rock, speaking in fever dream parables and paranoid meth riddles about the nature of consciousness from behind impenetrable black sunglasses.
As “Jude” Blanchett inhabits a Fellini-esque limbo shot through with whimsy, persecution and druggy exhaustion — giggling highly through a slapstick stoner scene with the Beatles, pondering the martyrdom of Christ with David Cross’ Allen Ginsberg, and driving that pacifist Pete Seeger to grab an ax to stop the onslaught of his electric sacrilege at Newport. (Like Blanchett’s performance as Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, it is an impressive use of voodoo that she can not only mimic the oversize mannerisms of her iconic subject, she can make you believe she’s the living, breathing source of them. It will be hard to resist burying her in more acting awards for this spooky and mesmerizing performance.)
Somehow, Haynes manages to keep all these balls in the air at once, and all his artsy ambition, bold experimentalism and high falutin’ concepts never threaten to overwhelm the subject itself. For as ubiquitous as Dylan can seem, he hasn’t been exactly carefree in allowing his recorded performances to be licensed to commercial projects. When classic Dylan performances like “Positively Fourth Street” come crackling out of the theater’s soundsystem they give Haynes’ dreamy historical recreations an intoxicating shot of adrenaline that made this longtime Dylan fan feel like I was hearing the singer for the first time.
I’m Not There may be the ultimate rock biopic because it doesn’t try to make you feel like you “know” its subject, if only because its subject is un-knowable, even to himself. We can only follow the psychic footprints to where he’s been, knowing fully well that by the time we get there — much like Jesus when the disciples roll away the stone from the tomb — he’s already gone.