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Self-Made Man: I?m Not There

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Weinstein Co.)

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007



I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
(Weinstein Co.)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

“There’s no politics,” Robbie (Heath Ledger), one of six incarnations/representations of Bob Dylan featured in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, tells a friend. When asked what, in fact, there is, Robbie replies, simply, “Sign language.” For Haynes, however, there is both. And that’s what makes I’m Not There, in its response to Robbie’s apolitical resignation and in its myriad of other themes and ideas, such an ambitious, rich, but unfulfilled film: It takes on the task of being at once a semiotic playground for the mythology surrounding Dylan and also a political investigation of identity in American culture, of the artist as political subject. Trying to achieve the objectives of two such serious missions — while simultaneously donning roles as entertainment and narrative experiment, as aesthetic collage and rock star bio — is pure cinematic daring, and Haynes almost pulls it off. But I’m Not There remains stuck at the level of audacious concept. It fashions a grand, multifaceted design that befits the musician who is its larger-than-life inspiration. Yet once one actually looks into the film’s inner workings — the nuts and bolts of scenes, performances and thematic connections — it doesn’t hold up.

I’m Not There’s failings can be blamed in part on the fact that its concept isn’t so much a breakthrough as a foregone conclusion. Dylan as Picasso-esque shape-shifter has long been the invention, or constant reinvention, of Dylan himself — his life’s work. It’s in the man’s music — which even before the move to electric rock was a funhouse of traditional American music, attitudes and characters — and in his ongoing quest to don new ideological cloaks when his fans least expect. The title of the obscure Dylan song that gives Haynes’ film its name perfectly summarizes the effect of this parlor trick: As performer, image and icon, any possible “fixable” Dylan is absence rather than presence. Haynes’ plan, then, to reflect Dylan through a prism separating his persona into disparate guises (along with their complementary film styles, allusions and modes of address) is a terrific idea, but also not as radical as its proponents would have us believe. There’s a reason Mr. Zimmerman, for the first time ever, allowed Haynes the exclusive rights to his life story: I’m Not There is not so much an explosion of the Dylan myth as a following through.

This is all fine, except that many are acting as if I’m Not There takes a novel approach toward Dylan and, because the film is not solely about Dylan but attempts to go beyond him, marks a new direction for cinema itself. The first claim ignores the fact that, again, Dylan has already done much of the legwork. Only three years ago, for example, he published the first volume of his memoirs, the similarly alinear, genre-defying, quasi-stream-of-consciousness Chronicles. The second pretends as if the film’s ground-level mistakes don’t matter as long as its conceptual nature can be expounded upon with unchecked hyperbole. Larry Gross, writing in Film Comment, is typical in such praise: “Older, realistic, anecdotal, pathos-driven narrative structures aren’t merely critiqued or deconstructed. They’re bypassed, ignored. They’re surpassed.” This is patently untrue. And it’s untrue, because I’m Not There’s individual components — the ones Gross barely mentions — suggest otherwise.

So what is I’m Not There really? In it, Dylan’s many moods and stages are parceled into surprising concoctions, none of them named Bob Dylan: a thirteen year-old boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) as the train-hopping aspiring folk troubadour named after his idol Woody Guthrie; Ben Whishaw as a Rimbaud-like rambler interviewed in a single setting; Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, a protest singer turned disillusioned and then evangelical preacher; Ledger as Robbie, a captivating method actor who plays Rollins in the movie of his life but who also acts out Dylan’s real-life divorce; Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, who mystifies fans and the press by “going” electric and drowning in rock-star excess; and Richard Gere as Billy, a former musician hiding out from Pat Garrett in a small Missouri town in the early 20th century. Haynes plays these aspects of Dylan’s personality, whether real, imagined, or in between, off each other to draw potentially vital understandings about this singular character, his ever-hungry desire to remain free from artistic and ideological shackles, and that desire’s relation to some sort of American essence.

That freedom is exercised in the film’s freestyle jumping from segment to segment, often using metaphor or visual matches rather than strict chronological advancement as an editing principle, and in its heterogeneous aesthetic. Fellini-esque subjectivity and Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document are referenced in the Quinn segments; Godardian direct address in the Robbie segments (though the French director, as important to and difficult for cinema as Dylan is to popular music, presides as a sort of patron saint over the entire experimental endeavor); Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home documentary in the Jack Rollins segments; and the Seventies revisionist western and Dylan’s post-motorcycle crash return-to-roots-music in the Billy the Kid segment.

But I’m Not There suffers from the overstuffed film’s usual fatal flaw — the spreading thin of potentially substantive material. While Cate Blanchett and Ben Whishaw get the meat of Dylan and Dylanesque riddling in their segments (“A poem is like a naked person”; “Traditional music is too unreal to die”), Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg struggle in the “Dylan in love” and “Blood on the Tracks Dylan” segments, which feel like TV movie montages of wide-eyed Bohemian living and eventual breaking up. Robbie’s acting career therefore remains undefined. Is his womanizing and self-centeredness the product of attempts to live up to the Brando/Dean persona he cultivated while playing Jack Rollins? Or is the illusionary nature of being a star to blame? We never get a chance to find out — much of I’m Not There works according to hints, but too much is elided for this particular hint to go anywhere.

Similarly, Haynes shoehorns feminist and political rebuttals into Robbie/Dylan’s absorption in the pop star lifestyle without proper development. His misogynist dismissal of female creativity is easily dismissible as a product of his unique callousness, while the comparison of his and Claire’s marriage to the Vietnam War (signaled in Kris Kristofferson’s voiceover narration and by intrusively inserted news footage) is blunt and unimaginative. Haynes made the same mistake with the Vietnam metaphor in Superstar, and you’d think someone so intelligent would realize its unenlightening broadness (was every divorce in the Sixties and Seventies comparable to the War? If not, why are Robbie and Claire so privileged?). But there it is, and it goes all the way until the Robbie and Claire’s settlement is, through the magic of editing, linked to Nixon’s diplomatic visit to China. Robbie is the worst “Dylan” in the film, if not for all the reasons above (if Franklin and Bale’s Dylans are threadbare, Ledger’s is muddled) then for the sole reason that his profession is acting, literalizing the identity-changing identity of Dylan.

Naïve literalness is the Achilles heel of I’m Not There. For all the “surpassing” of traditional form, the film’s attempts to replicate Godard’s methods of quotation and Fellini’s forays into the outer limits of artifice can’t work when the Dylan re-renderings are so often obvious. This goes for representing the importance of black music to Dylan’s art by casting an African-American as a fantasy vision of his younger self as much as it does for the shockingly uninspired use of Dylan music. “I Want You” accompanies a recreation of the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as part of the “Dylan in love” montage, while the infamous Black Panther interpretation of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” with Bruce Greenwood’s pestering British reporter encountering an actual geek show, is awkwardly referenced.

Some of Haynes’s touches are genuinely effective, like the way he puts twists on Dylan’s desperate jousts with the press (“Surely we all know the definition of ‘people.’” “Do we?”) so that Quinn’s alienation, with the help of Blanchett’s good but undermined performance, becomes more palpable. He demonstrates savvy in having Jim James and Calexico’s haunting funeral-dirge version of “Goin’ to Acapulco” completely rescue a Billy the Kid segment that’s otherwise an afterthought and as kitschy in its surrealism as Quinn’s freak-outs (which are more Stardust Memories than 8 ½).

But since much of I’m Not There falls short in the lived moment, its individual threads don’t lead back to Haynes’s larger concerns. Robbie’s myth-making Jack Rollins movie is a hypocritical denunciation of the commercialization of Jack Rollins, but what are we to make of a film that proposes to go deeper into the Dylan story and its attendant myths about artistic “freedom” (Greenwood calls Quinn out for his self-conscious bucking of politics, but is knocked down as a straw man when shown to be the same actor who plays Garrett) and in the end resorts to mimicking Dylan’s own words about purity and contradiction (“Meaninglessness is holy”; “The more you live a certain way, the less it’s freedom”)?

I don’t doubt Haynes is a smart, passionate filmmaker. But too frequently he’s an academic one trying to play the entertainer and getting stuck on things like real moments, especially moments of real creative transcendence. For him, an adage like “the political is personal” can never be realized with an actual person, even a purely cinematic one who’s divided into six. “Cinema,” Godard once said, “isn’t the reflection of reality but the reality of a reflection.” Haynes has tried to implement this idea in I’m Not There, but his film is almost all reflections of reflections, with little reality for those reflections to reflect any of the personal, political or otherwise, back at his audience.

 

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