Sunday, December 02, 2007

I'm Not There (2007)

We saw I'm Not There Friday night, the Todd Haynes-directed, mytheo-pic about Bob Dylan. We had a great time. Both of us had seen a couple of reviews or responses to the movie and expected to find a non-linear, if entertaining, assemblage of disconnected takes on the Dylan myth. Well, entertaining it is, there's no question about that. But when it was over, Aimée said she didn’t recognize the movie she'd seen in the reviews she'd read. She said: "I was expecting something a lot more difficult, but I was surprised by how literal it is." It's true. While the movie does, as you've no doubt heard, feature six or seven actors portraying different aspects of Dylan and plays with various elements of his life and legend, it's a mistake to say that the movie does not hang together. It not only hangs together, but it has a definitely discernible through-story. If you like Dylan's music at all, then I highly recommend seeing it. (If you don't, then I'd steer clear of it. The movie is saturated with it.)

Aimée called the movie "literal". She didn’t mean that the movie tells the story of Dylan's life in a more or less straightforward fashion, or that it shows us Dylan as a musician or as a working songwriter. That’s hardly what the movie’s about. What she meant, I think, is that the movie, while somewhat impressionistic, is not especially avant garde or remotely difficult to watch or understand. I came to the movie as a big fan of Dylan’s music, and I know a fair amount about the basic story told about him--and enough of it to know where certain elements of that story are either obviously not factually true or more than a little embellished. Aimée likes Dylan’s music, but didn't know much of anything other than that he was part of the protest folk music scene that included Joan Baez and that he later went electric, to the dismay of some people back in the mists of time. She didn’t even know, for example, anything about his Christian phase.

On to the movie, then. I'm not going to attempt a formal review, but I'm also not going to try to avoid going into detail, so if you're worried about spoilers or whatever, then I suggest not reading the rest of this entry. My belief is that the movie is not nearly so disconnected as we were led to think it would be, yet my comments will themselves be disconnected. I would need to see it again in order to attempt anything more cohesive. (And as much as I enjoy it when film critics actually discuss movies as a visual medium, I am not a film person myself, so I won't be talking about how Haynes achieves the effects he achieves. I will say that the movie looks great, and rarely lags, despite its 135 minute running time.)

The movie is full of excellent performances, and as with most everyone else, our favorite was Cate Blanchett's. She is Jude Quinn, and her resemblance, in look and mannerism and voice, to the mid-60s, amphetamine-fueled, plugged-in Dylan is uncanny. It's easy to try to dismiss such acting as mere mimicry, but Blanchett is so good here, so completely disappears into the iconic Dylan character, that such complaints strike me as churlish. I enjoyed just watching her face as she smoked a cigarette, or moved her mouth and eyes, looking just like Dylan one second, then bleeding into "Cate Blanchett" the next. Perfect. (I should say here that the scene in which Quinn and his band play at the "New England Folk Festival" is almost physically painful. This is the only scene in the movie in which the music is difficult to listen to: it's loud, overbearing, and sounds like it's about to destroy the amps. This, I think, is important to remember when we talk about the poor, addled folkies complaining about Dylan's electric music. I'll have more to say about this, I hope, in another post. But suffice it to say that the scene begins with an image of the band machine-gunning the audience. This makes sense from the perspective of the audience itself, which might have felt like it was being attacked, which in a sense it was.)

My second favorite part of the movie was the much-maligned segment featuring Richard Gere. I've seen comments that these scenes are "bullshit" or boring or else completely incomprehensible. I'm happy to be able to report that this is not the case. They are enjoyable in themselves, but more importantly, they are crucial to whatever sense the film hopes to make. Gere is an aged Billy the Kid, hiding out in a rustic setting, away from the noise of the world. Dylan, of course, appeared (not as Billy the Kid) in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (and supplied the soundtrack, which included one big hit, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"). This fact has been said to be a little too neat, too cute, but I think that's a lazy criticism. Here, Billy has obviously survived his encounter with Pat Garrett. And the people he meets could be extras from the photo-shoot for the cover of The Basement Tapes, or characters from those songs, the population of the "Old, Weird America", to use Dylan’s own phrase (as reported in Greil Marcus’ fascinating, if occasionally tedious book about Dylan and the Basement Tapes, Invisible Republic). It could be, and has been, argued that these scenes will only make sense if you know a lot about Dylan and American traditional folk music. But I don't think this is true. This was an aspect of Dylan about which Aimée knew nothing, but she had no trouble with these scenes. Many reviews have observed that the movie is about Dylan's need to constantly reinvent himself (hence the use of so many different actors to portray different aspects of his story). This is true, but in the movie, where the "Dylan" character resists being nailed down to any particular style or opinion or even coherent statement of any kind, this is made physically explicit more than once, as the different manifestations of Dylan try to evade capture.

Some other observations and comments:
I didn't realize while watching that the same actor (Bruce Greenwood) who plays the elderly Pat Garrett also plays the establishment, Don't Look Back-like Quinn-interviewer, Mr. Jones ("You know something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" from "Ballad of a Thin Man"). This has been said (in comments to this review at The House Next Door), to be a cheap move on Haynes part, to too eagerly assign Dylan role as the besieged victim. I disagree; I don't think the movie sees Dylan as a victim.

Marcus Carl Franklin is excellent as the 11-year-old black kid who calls himself Woody Guthrie. His Woody sings some Dylan songs (including “Tombstone Blues”, with Richie Havens) and songs about trains and hobos, like he's a Guthrie-like Depression-era troubadour. Like Dylan making up his biography as he went along, changing the details depending on who he was talking to, Woody tells fabulous stories about where he's come from and where he's going (Hollywood, he says), and is on the run from a juvenile center in Minnesota (again, evading capture). One woman advises him to stop with the hobo songs, to look around and see the struggles real people are going through now (it is 1959, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement), to live in his own times.

Christian Bale is the protest-singer, Jack Rollins. These scenes look like some combination of the non-electric parts of Scorsese's No Direction Home and Christopher Guest’s sort of funny but mostly annoying mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, complete with comfortable old folkies looking back on Rollins and his role in the protest movement. Julianne Moore plays Alice Fabian, an obvious Joan Baez analogue, and she looks back on Rollins with the same amazement and disappointment that Baez shows in No Direction Home. Moore's Alice is incredibly earnest and seems pretty clueless. Moore is good, as usual, but her scenes are played for laughs and come close to being unnecessarily mean to Baez.

Rollins, like Dylan himself did, converts to evangelical Christianity. Here the move happens earlier, and it results in Rollins completely abandoning popular music. For two decades, Rollins has been working as a minister (Pastor John) where he is tracked down by an interviewer for another documentary-like segment. We see him delivering a fiery sermon about the evils of music that doesn't glorify the Lord. I thought this was an interesting twist on this poorly understood era of Dylan's life. Bale is excellent here as well. (I almost always like Christian Bale.)

Heath Ledger plays an actor, Robbie Clark, who portrays Bale's folkie Rollins in a movie. Robbie's marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems to run parallel with Dylan's own to Sara Lownds, and ends with the end of the Vietnam War, the original version of "Idiot Wind" playing on the soundtrack. Robbie is a jet-setting movie star, a poor husband, and a womanizer. He has walked away from whatever values he once claimed to have, scorning those who still want to change the world. I felt that the energy of the movie lagged when Ledger and Gainsbourg first appeared on screen, though their later scenes were better.

Ben Whishaw's Arthur Rimbaud, who appears as a recurring interview subject, also like the mid-60s Dylan, has some of the best lines in the movie. One of our favorites: "I can accept chaos; I don't know if chaos can accept me."

David Cross as Allen Ginsberg is a little goofy, but that's about it. His casting carries no implications for the rest of the movie. One very silly scene involves Quinn and Ginsberg dancing around a large, white sculpture of Jesus on the Cross, shouting at the crucified Jesus. At the end of this Quinn shouts: "Why don’t you do your early stuff?" This might read as a bit heavy-handed (Dylan, again, as victim, the crucified artist), but in context it was actually very funny.


Erik Samdahl said...

While I was very confused by most of the movie, knowing nothing of Bob Dylan's life or career - or even liking him - I'm Not There is a very impressive movie. Here's my I'm Not There review if you're interested.

Ellis said...

It maddens me that this mouth-watering movie is not yet on release in the U.K.

(I don't mind Dylan's Born Again phase, it's the Zionist bit I detest.)