I'M NOT THERE
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexuality and nudity)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 11/21/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
I have a sneaking suspicion that the primary audience of Todd Haynes' experimental Bob Dylan biopic is Bob Dylan himself. It's not aimed at fans, who will definitely get something from the movie, and certainly not at newcomers to the singer/songwriter, who will be perplexed out of their gourds. It's a strange movie, and there's a battle within me about whether it's a good strange or not. On a conscious level, I understand and admire what Haynes has done. He's taken one of the more mysterious figures in music and made an equally mysterious vision of the man's life.
Watching the movie, though, I'm Not There rambles from one phase of Dylan's life to another, and sometimes the movie's leaps of dramatic license delve into pure fantasy, like a section that sees him as Billy the Kid or another that envisions him a movie star. Six actors portray Dylan (never named outright, and each "character" has a different name), and they're all fine at imitation (save for Richard Gere, who has the Billy the Kid role, and 11-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin, who plays Dylan at 18—neither of whom need to imitate the man). In one section, the movie settles down and sees Dylan as a man conflicted with his public perception, and there it finds its strength.
The movie opens with a POV shot going from backstage to the stage and, soon after, a dead Dylan (Funny, I saw him in concert earlier this year). Kris Kristofferson offers narration: "His ghost was more than one person." So we're introduced to those people. There's a young drifter who calls himself Woody (Franklin) and hops trains with his guitar ("This machine kills fascists," scrawled on the case), and while he's good at singing the blues and songs supporting the Union, he's told to sing about his own time to make an impact.
Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) does just that, becoming the face of the folk music phenomenon of the '60s, which is detailed in faux documentary fashion. Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) is a movie star in the making, and while he has a wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and two daughters, he's also having an affair on the shoot of his new movie. Arthur (Ben Whishaw) waxes philosophical in the downtime, and Billy the Kid eventually rounds out the whole thing. There's still Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), who's on tour in London after a disastrous transition from acoustic folk to electric folk at a New England festival. Quinn has to deal with angry fans and a critical journalist (Bruce Greenwood).
The script intercuts between each of these sections liberally. There's no real sense of time, and the personas blend together to tell what is essentially the same story. The Rollins, Arthur, and Billy the Kid storylines feel like filler, while the Woody, Clark, and Quinn segments do actually present a portrait of Dylan as a person. The Rollins section exists, it seems, solely to give us a series of familiar images of Dylan, from album cover art to iconic concert footage. On the other hand, Woody's tale gives us the idea of an old soul in a young body, trying to find his way in the world (and at one point, symbolically swallowed by a whale), and Clark's troubles with his wife come as close to a critical portrayal of the man as a flawed individual.
The three filler sections don't add up to much individually, and Woody and Clark's stories feel underdeveloped. The movie's best, most intriguing segment follows Quinn. Quinn represents Dylan's enigmatic public image as a musician, a man who wants his music to speak for itself even if the public has no clue what it might be saying.
The picture as a whole leads to a shadowy portrait of the man, but the Quinn section is the only one that stands on its own. We see Quinn at a press conference, speaking in riddles, and at a party, where he parties with the Beatles (a hilarious homage to A Hard Day's Night). He, of course, is Cate Blanchett, who gives a remarkable performance, transcending gender and caricature. Quinn also meets up with Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), but his confrontation with the journalist is the focal point, leading to his writing "Ballad of a Thin Man."
The journalist is critical, but the movie is far from it. Haynes and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman have written what essentially amounts to hero worship in their portrayal of Dylan. As portrayed here, he is a mythical figure. Critics and disillusioned fans be damned; he is above such petty concerns—not only in his multiple personas' respective minds but also in Haynes' eyes. How else can one explain the Billy the Kid portion of the movie, which replaces one figure of American mythos with the movie's own (and in quite the confounding, left-field way, I might add).How much one enjoys I'm Not There is directly proportional to one's esteem of Dylan himself. Fanatics will eat it up, and even I, who likes the man's music and appreciates his longevity, can't deny that Haynes has made an ambitious biography. As an imaginative reflection on a huge, influential career, the movie works, but there's simply too much myth and not enough man.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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