It Ain’t He, Babe
Think more than twice about Dylan pic
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
I’M NOT THERE: Directed by Todd Haynes. Written by Haynes and Oren Moverman. Cinematography, Edward Lachman. Music supervisors, Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar. Starring Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The Weinstein Company, 2007. R. 135 min.
|Heath Ledger as Robbie in I’m Not There
There are more potential ways to review Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There than there are, within the film, versions of a character rather like Bob Dylan. In the amount of space allotted to a review, I could focus solely on the acting, the casting, the details, the homages, the styles, the people and things seen in passing that it would take multiple viewings to catch. With each viewing, a different revew might emerge; this is not a film that encourages one hard, definitive take, though some look for it anyway. It’s an adventure and an idea, a conceptual montage of life, fiction, themes and music. Dylan, and the many characters Haynes and cowriter Oren Moverman find in his life and songs, provides a base for a series of visions that get inside your head slowly and surely. The surface-level ideas about identity and mythology knot themselves together with Dylan’s songs (often, in the film, performed by others) until you find, later, that Haynes has worked a little trick: Listening to the Dylan albums that seem most analogous to the film’s inhabitants, you’re back in the film, the actors’ faces in your mind.
The film follows six characters: a young boy, Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), jumping trains in the 1950s and acting like he lives decades earlier; a sly poet, Arthur (Ben Whishaw), on trial (in a way) and narrating the film (in another way); a protest singer of the ’60s, Jack (Christian Bale, surprisingly out of his element) who later turns preacher; an actor, Robbie (Heath Ledger, bearing the lonely ghost of Ennis Del Mar), who strikes it big playing Jack in a film; an outlaw, Billy (Richard Gere), who lives in a metaphor in the guise of a town; and, in the piece that draws the straightest line from the real Dylan to its subject, skinny, fidgety Jude (Cate Blanchett), contrary and high. (At times, the fun of detail is too much to resist, and I found myself in awe of the familiarity of Blanchett’s mannerisms, Robbie’s bearing, Arthur’s speech patterns, Haynes’ remakes of scenes from Don’t Look Back; these mental snags all seem purposeful, as Haynes toys with expectations and specifics and the context of his stars playing another kind of star.)
None of these characters is Bob Dylan; all of these characters are Bob Dylan. What Haynes is concerned with is a complex combination of identity and mythology, and the places the two intersect and separate. Each slim slice of his film theorizes about a Dylan that was or a Dylan that might have been, and each character builds a new mythology around and about an era in Dylan’s life. The myths shift, change, take on meanings of their own; what matters is less how they started than where they wound up. Billy gets the short end of this undeniably creative stick; his folklore-steeped Missouri town, where it’s always Halloween, tumbles into the absurd, becoming Deadwood by way of a dreaming Tim Burton, and the best thing to come out of that segment is a music-video-like scene of Jim James crooning “Goin’ to Acapulco” in his otherworldly voice at a funeral. Woody and Jack also have less than satisfying storylines, though it’s awkward to call them that, for Haynes isn’t often focused on narrative. Too much narrative would obscure the point; the point is in the ideas.
Haynes takes the chameleonic existence of Dylan and shatters it into individual lives, which then only have the narrative push a single life, seen in a handful of scenes, carries. Robbie’s story is the most domestic, the most involved with other people, and there’s comfort in its structure and emotional weight. Jude’s scenes are the most recognizable, and thus they have a different sort of resonance. But despite the differences, these people, their stories, all boil down to the possibilities of reinvention, of mythologizing a figure or that figure mythologizing itself (a fantastic scene involves Jude and Allen Ginsberg, as played by David Cross, shouting at a towering statue of Jesus on the cross). We’re all different people, but we aren’t all different people in the public eye, shifting and changing, building a tower of others’ observations and implications and presumptions. I’m Not There couldn’t have been about anyone else; it’s also not about anyone at all.
I’m Not There ends Thursday, Dec. 6, at VRC Stadium 15, and starts Friday, Dec. 14, at the Bijou.