Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): I'm Not There

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'm Not There

I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' 2007 biopic (of sorts) is as inscrutable as Robert Zimmermann at his most enigmatic, but seldom as interesting. Whereas each phase in the singer's career came from somewhere (however hard it is to discern that "somewhere" from the outside) and resonanted one way or another, here they're just a series of poses. The choice of different actors to play each persona of Bob Dylan, accompanied by very different styles, only deepens the incoherence and the decision to intercut these segments dilutes whatever virtues these flawed and incomplete storylines hold.

Why is it a cardinal rule of multiple-storyline movies that said storylines must unfold concurrently? Sometimes it works, but here the mishmash of moods and styles and personalities creates a jagged work unable to build up and sustain its various moments. If the point is that any man, and Dylan especially, contains multitudes which cannot necessarily be reconciled why smush them all together? A more powerful picture would let us immerse ourselves in each stage one-by-one. It would trust our memories and outside knowledge to connect whatever dots there were to connect, to notice the contrasts and disparities while still allowing us to enjoy what each moment has to offer. Later in the film, the intercutting slows down and we are allowed to take a breath and look around. Of course, this also reveals how thin most of the storylines really are; perhaps this is why Haynes chose to interweave them all.


Still, these wispy threads have their charms. Richard Gere's segment takes place in some kind of frontier never-never land and presents a pleasingly Felliniesque Americana in which giraffes compete for screentime with twangin' townsfolk and a kid dressed up as the Salter's Peanut man (complete with monacle). The Heath Ledger scenes, which picture Bob as a sold-out 60s actor who is (I guess) supposed to correspond to the melancholy divorcee of Blood on the Tracks, have a nice mellow feel to them. However, they feature a rather unfortunate and ultimately quixotic attempt to parallel the pseudo-Dylan's marriage with the Vietnam War. Actually, "attempt" is generous; clips of napalm and Nixon speeches are intercut with scenes of the actor and his wife drifting apart, all while a narrator portentiously informs us that the relationship started in '64 and ended in '73 just like the War! Far out... Equally fatuous are the Village folkie scenes with Christian Bale, whose deer-in-headlights expressions and stumbling, twangy voice recall a certain U.S. president rather more than an early 60s protest singer. These scenes, along with the early Ledger ones, are the film's most heavy-handed, trying to convey that freewheeling 60s spirit without any of the spontaneity to be found in primary 60s documents like Easy Rider, Gimme Shelter, or Don't Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker documentary starring Bob Dylan himself. There's more iconoclasm in one frame of Pennebaker's film than in every over-stylized, dripping-with-meaning sequence of Haynes' film. When it comes to that decade, you have to be there; imitations rarely satisfy.

Yet amazingly, it is precisely the scenes which most egregiously rip off Don't Look Back (or more accurately Pennebaker's unreleased follow-up, Eat the Document) that are the most successful in the film. In large part, this is due to Cate Blanchett's much-praised gender-bending interpretation of a lecherous, narcissistic, and amphetemine-addled Dylan. I was prepared for Blanchett's performance to be overrated, an impersonation rather than an embodiment but I was pleasantly surprised. Playing the singer at his most iconic (on the '66 British tour right before the notorious motorcylce crash that pulled him out of the changin' times he'd prophesized), she is ironically the only actor to withstand the film's conceit and she creates a fierce and unique character. More fragile than the Dylan we see in documentaries like No Direction Home and Don't Look Back, she's also more unhinged and her energy and charisma give a boost to Haynes' style so that for once the trickery (sharp black-and-white images and psychedelic stunts like having LBJ speak the words to "Tombstone Blues") works its magic without seeming too contrived. Also, the '66 sequence includes a hilarious performance by David Cross as Allen Ginsberg, though I'm not entirely sure that was intentional. Cross doesn't do anything particularly funny but it's like one of those SNL impersonations where the actor comes out all dressed up and you laugh before he's even said anything.

Other actors are worth mentioning: Charlotte Gainsbourg, lovely as the wife (though she's more of a dead-ringer for early girlfriend Suze Rotolo to my eyes); Julianne Moore who plays Joan Baez to a T without ever actually seeming to try and imitate her; Richie Havens in a poignant cameo; and Marcus Carl Franklin as the little black boy Bob Dylan seemed to wish he was, riding the rails and calling himself Woody Guthrie. His deceit is twofold: the obvious tall tales he tells but also his very existence (one is reminded of The Jerk, "born a poor black child"). Here, as elsewhere, individual scenes are compelling but don't add up to much, and their innocent appeal sits uneasily next to the sharper and colder scenes Haynes shoves them up against. It's all a sleight of hand to conceal the zero at the film's center - save for Cate Blanchett's portrayal of a public Dylan we're already familiar with, Haynes takes the film's title all to literally. Then, in the last few seconds, fleetingly, we got the real Bob wailing away on his harmonica, eyes focused on some hidden point on the horizon, sweat dripping off his curled locks. He was there all right, but this film doesn't bring us any closer.

No comments: