Friday, May 9, 2008

DVD Review: I'm Not There

Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Christian Bale

2007


Consider if you will the following scenarios, both of which really happened:

1. A daring and original filmmaker assembles a star-studded ensemble cast to make a film about a reclusive entertainer living in a world that doesn't make any sense. He fills the soundtrack entirely with Bob Dylan songs, mixing originals with covers by both well known and obscure artists. Dylan fans across the country flock to theaters to get a glimpse into his inner world and hear a rare track recorded with his touring band that has never been officially released before (!).

2. A daring and original filmmaker assembles a star-studded ensemble cast to make a film about a reclusive entertainer living in a world that doesn't make any sense. He fills the soundtrack entirely with Bob Dylan songs, mixing originals with covers by both well known and obscure artists. Dylan fans across the country flock to theaters to get a glimpse into his inner world and hear a rare track recorded with his touring band that has never been officially released before (!).

The first film is of course Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous, a bewildering clusterfuck of a film wherein Bob Dylan stars as Jack Fate, a troubador "who was famous long ago" released from prison to play one last show to save the world. At the heart of the soundtrack is a song that makes Dylanophiles salivate: the only existing live recording of "Cold Irons Bound," recorded with perhaps the greatest incarnation of his Never Ending Tour band.

The second film is of course Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, a bewildering clusterfuck of a film wherein six actors play six facets of Bob Dylan's ever changing professional identity. At the heart of the soundtrack is a song that makes Dylanophiles salivate: the only existing live recording of "I'm Not There," recorded with perhaps the greatest incarnation of any of Dylan's touring bands.

Confusing? No, not really. Todd Haynes is by all accounts a talented filmmaker but he is also an avid Dylan fan, an unfortunate character flaw that makes him uniquely unqualified to make a film about the man. Part of the appeal of Dylan's work is his mesmerizingly arrogant sense of entitlement; from nicking melodies and lyrics early in his career to the outright thievery from yakuza novelists and forgotten Civil War poets on his latest albums, Dylan has always appropriated whatever he feels like without apology or acknowledgment. Haynes, who received Dylan's approval to make the film, doesn't exhibit the same artistic chutzpah and I'm Not There commits the gravest of filmmaking sins - coincidentally the same sin committed by nearly every Dylan cover song - it is boring and predictable.


There are certainly inspired moments throughout I'm Not There, but ultimately no matter how many creative casting decisions, visual tricks, and winking references Haynes throws out, the truth of the matter is that his source material is inherently more interesting and capable of initiating challenging discussions on artistic integrity and personal identity in the modern media age than his film is. There is no shortage of iconic imagery and primary source material associated with Dylan - photographers and filmmakers contracted by Dylan and his management traveled with him for the better part of a decade and he gave extensive and frequent interviews - and Haynes does his audience a disservice by shamming rather than re-imagining this material. The Dylan captured by D.A. Pennebaker's cameras from 1965-1966 is infinitely stranger and more fascinating than Cate Blanchett's drag doppelanger and the little black boy pretending to be Woody Guthrie falls short of the real-life Jewish boy spinning fantastic lies of a carnival upbringing on Cynthia Gooding and Studs Terkel's radio shows in the early 1960s. Blanchett's character, Jude Quinn, physically resembles Dylan the most, but she only hints at the incredibly strange femininity and alluring charisma that Dylan exuded during the period. When Blanchett removes her glasses she only manages to look scared and tired whereas in the footage of the un-shaded, "real" Dylan we see in close-up at the end of the film he is shockingly drawn and emaciated, all dead-pan resignation and wasted eroticism. These final moments reveal the truth that I'm Not There spends over two hours building to; the greatest actor to ever play Bob Dylan is, of course, Bob Dylan.

The most interesting sequences in I'm Not There are perhaps not so surprisingly the ones focusing on a man who only pretends to be Dylan. Heath Ledger plays Robbie, an actor famous for playing Jack Rollins (Bale's version of Dylan). Robbie's story borrows just as heavily from the visual iconography of Dylan history, but is unique for being more emotionally and thematically speculative than the other segments. For the most part, Haynes's Dylans are little more than caricatures, the key elements in a series of elaborately arranged yet static tableauxs; Robbie, however, is refreshingly dynamic. Considering Dylan's litigious reaction to his unflattering portrayal in early cuts of last year's Factory Girl, Haynes is treading on very dangerous ground prying into the less glamorous details of Dylan's personal life and Robbie's relationship with his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg tackling the most elusive and fascinating figure in the Dylan universe) is fiercely combative and engaging. The content and perspective in Dylan's music has always been distinctly masculine - often bordering on outright misogyny - and Haynes's one truly daring move in this film is showing the majority of this segment from Claire's female perspective***. Bookended by beautifully executed sequences set to Dylan's own versions of "I Want You" and "Idiot Wind," Claire and Robbie's story of adult disillusionment following youthful passion most fully illustrates a crucial reality: Dylan, and by association I'm Not There, inevitably falls short of the ludicrous expectations his reputation creates.

Like much of Dylan's own output, I'm Not There is frustratingly inconsistent - a flaw that is only emphasized by the stretches of undeniable brilliance amidst the clutter. Haynes is caught between a rock and a hard place: it is 100% impossible to make a film that simultaneously satisfies Dylan fans as well as less invested audiences. There are plenty of subtle, and not no subtle, references to keep even the most savvy of Dylan fans happy (and any serious fan, whether openly or privately, considers themselves to be THE utmost authority) but these same esoteric tidbits scattered throughout the film are likely to frustrate and confuse neophyte fans. For all its flaws, I'm Not There is a game effort and Haynes deserves grudging respect not just for an innovative and ambitious approach to an impossible task but for daring to take on a lifetime of awkward encounters that begin with," Mr. Haynes, I really liked your movie, BUT...."


*** those interested in a female perspective on Dylan's early career might be interested in Suze Rotolo's upcoming memoir. A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties will be released on May, 13.

4 comments:

Maureen Gillespie said...

I'm really excited for the release of Suze Rotolo's book. I do think it'll be a very interesting perspective of a very interesting time in Dylan's life.

Also, thanks for the review, Josh. I liked the format you used.

Vernon said...

Oh, Sister. I'll limit my comment to 2 points. You wrote:

"At the heart of the soundtrack is a song that makes Dylanophiles salivate: the only existing live recording of "Cold Irons Bound," recorded with perhaps the greatest incarnation of his Never Ending Tour band."

Wrong. Dylan had already released a live version of "Cold Irons Bound": on the first "Love Sick" ep. The same recording later re-appeared on a bonus disk on an Australian re-release of TIME OUT OF MIND and then again on the Japanese compilation, LIVE 1961-2000: THIRTY-NINE YEARS OF GREAT CONCERT PERFORMANCES. "Dylanophiles" know this and were hardly salivating at its inclusion here. However there were 2 songs that Dylan had previously not released prior to the MASKED & ANONYMOUS soundtrack you failed to note: "Dixie" and "Diamond Joe" (not to be confused with a song by the same title on GOOD AS I BEEN TO YOU).

You then wrote:

"At the heart of the soundtrack is a song that makes Dylanophiles salivate: the only existing live recording of "I'm Not There," recorded with perhaps the greatest incarnation of any of Dylan's touring bands."

It's not a live recording. It's a studio demo recorded at Big Pink during the "Basement Tapes" sessions.

joshua francis said...

Ahh, the price of careless writing. Excellent catch.

I should have chosen my words more carefully. A more accurate description than "the only existing" would have been "currently available, licensed US release." Of course "I'm Not There" isn't live, but given its shambling half written nature, calling it a studio demo(even if that's exactly what it is) seems far too generous.

Also, my memory has failed me. "Cold Irons bound" was on the Masked & Anonymous soundtrack but of course is available elsewhere, and is by no means a rarity. The song I remember being excited about back when the film was released was the rarer "Dirt Road Blues," which was included in the film but sadly not the soundtrack.

I took some liberties with the review for style's sake and any astute Dylan fan will, as is their wont, find something to quibble with. You have proven my point that there is always someone who knows better than you in the Dylan world. Next time I'll be more careful.

Michael B. Luz said...

I just saw this last night and I agree with nearly all of your nominal comments.
Heath Ledger's Dylan is the most interesting because it isn't merely a caricature of one of the man's much already willingly publicized personas. The clever decision to make Ledger an actor who simply played Jack Rollins in a film once made his sequences that much more suggestive of the fact that even if Robert Zimmerman was no more by 1974, there was a man behind the mask with problems he was not always wont to share. But, as you say Josh, there is nothing new here.
The film's tragic flaw is endemic to its project; to make a film that, simply, does not need to be made. And in its execution, it is sorely uneven, at points seeming like an art film and others a "VH1 Behind The Music" program. It's no surprise that the most "real", or most conventionally shot and dramatized, is the Ledger storyline, while the rest formally stretch to contextualize each Dylan.
One thing that really bothered me about the movie is the constant usage of well-known Dylan remarks. Most notably, nearly half of his best lines from Dont Look Back are reiterated by Jude Quinn. However, because he is commonly viewed a synergistic imitator himself, the "form follows function" aspect of this theft may merely reflect the love, in a Deconstructive sense, Haynes has for Dylan and his legacy.
From the vantage point of a casual movie watcher or even a serious movie critic, this film falls flat and merely shows that, yes, "the greatest actor to ever play Bob Dylan is, of course, Bob Dylan." It tries to be too many things at once and sheds no new light on a well-treaded topic. However, as a rumination on the cultural significance of Dylan's non-identity, it succeeds in many ways, just not in any novel ones.