Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm Not There

Dir. Todd Haynes

Viewed: From the Couch


I'm going to go on record here and say simply, I don't like Todd Haynes' films. Never have and, I'm pretty sure now, never will. In his most recent film, I'm Not There, he takes the life of Bob Dylan and separates it into five or six different characters that are meant to represent five or six different sides of the man -- different personae he's used during his career as arguably the most influential and groundbreaking singer/songwriter of all time. It's certainly a novel way to go about making a movie about Bob Dylan. Unfortunately it only manages to come off as a muddled experiment that does next to nothing to shed any light on a impenetrable and reclusive figure, and if I didn't already know better I'd come away from this film thinking the guy's somewhat of an ass. Basically, after spending 2+ hours rooting around in the head of Dylan we exit out the front door thinking, Wow, he sure is an impenetrable and reclusive figure, that guy.

One of the film's conceits is that as it jumps around from personality to personality we're also making stylistic jumps from black & white to mock-documentary to warm 70s tones to panoramic western, etc. This has been one of my problems with Todd Haynes pictures -- his films lack any personality. In a movie like his ode to 70s glam rock Velvet Goldmine, or Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, this style over substance technique can be excusable but to go from project to project where the most important aspect becomes how to most accurately ape the style, often shot for shot, of another director, it can get downright boring and drain any real emotion from the film. He's answering the question of what would have become of Gus Van Sant if he never let go of the instincts that got him to do his Pyscho remake. The other problem is that he tends to be brutally on-the-nose and blunt with every note where, especially in a movie about Dylan, he really shouldn't be.

The movie spends the bulk of it's time with Cate Blanchett as the alter-ego named Jude Quinn (don't ask me why). It's perhaps the most widely recognized Dylan persona -- from the period forever immortalized in the great documentary Don't Look Back -- all tea shades, big curly hair and cigarettes. These scenes are shot in black & white and has Haynes in Fellini mode, sometimes lifting scenes wholesale from 8 1/2. How cute. Certainly there can be parallels to be made between the director seeking refuge in 8 1/2 and Dylan circa 1965, but does getting so damn meta really bring us any closer to the subject matter? No, actually it completely separates us even further from making inroads to a character that is already telling us that we'll never get to know what's going on in their head. So what's the point? Look at what I can do while we spin our wheels?

For a movie that seems to be trying to break down the usual conventions of a bio-pic (which were wonderfully dealt with in the much more enjoyable Walk Hard, by the way) these sections of the movie with Jude Quinn do nothing but go down the checklist of important moments and even go so far as to shoehorn song titles into the dialog, adding to my list of groan inducing moments. The movie doesn't fare much better in this regard while in the Jack Rollins moments of the film either. Played by Christian Bale, Jack is supposed to represent the idealistic, working class, Time's Are A' Changing persona. This character is tied to these redundant talking head pseudo-documentary interviews with people in his life that state obvious sound bites that segue us into hopefully better scenes. Thankfully our moments with Jack are few and far between. I'm not sure how you go about draining the charisma from Christian Bale, but this movie manages to do that quite well.

The only use I could find for the Jack character is as a way to introduce us to the best part of the movie with Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark (and yes it is odd to see Ledger and Bale once again playing two sides of the same coin), representing the private life, the relationships, the Visions of Johanna persona. Not only does Ledger's great performance give us a break from the Dylan impersonations, but the scenes actually resonate, create some inroads and make Dylan actually seem like a human being. Robbie falls in love with a french artist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, an actress I enjoyed watching in The Science of Sleep and enjoyed even more here. She has a beautiful loneliness that is used well again here as her relationship with Robbie quickly moves from bliss to your typical rock star pitfalls -- long periods of separation, cheating with groupies and living under the scrutiny of the public eye. Add a bit of a misogynistic streak and the relationship is stretched to it's breaking point. Whenever the film returned to this couple my interest consistently returned. Ledger and Gainsbourg have great chemistry and even though their story is pretty much by the numbers it is a pleasure to watch them go about their business. Perhaps it's because there is little of the stylization that coats the other sections of the movie or perhaps it's because this is an aspect of our subject's life that isn't as widely known to a run of the mill Dylan fan but I found the boring, kitchen sink side of the story the most interesting.

The two more adventurous parts of the film have to do with Marcus Carl Franklin playing an 11 year old black vagabond troubadour character named Woody Guthrie and Richard Gere paying an aged Billy the Kid in exile. Both are pretty hit and miss in their efforts to convey Dylan's earliest inspired musical period in the Guthrie character and his imagination and desire for seclusion in Billy the Kid. The Guthrie scenes are effective despite Haynes continued desire to beat you over the head with every metaphor. They work when they do thanks to Franklin's surprising tenderness in the moments when he's confronted with reality. When his true past as a delinquent from the suburbs of Minnesota tries to catch up with him as he's playing for a living room full of enchanted upper crust and when a rural southern black family takes him in only to question his authenticity are two of the more memorable moments of the film. This Woody Guthrie character intersects with Billy the Kid in a later portion of the film (and in case you didn't realize what the moment represents, Haynes will of course take a moment to have a character spell it out for you) as Billy is forced to leave his cabin and finds out that a grizzled, wheelchair bound Pat Garrett is threatening to destroy his tiny old-west town to make way for the encroaching modern world. Gere gives a welcome, understated performance and the scenes have a gracefulness that's missing from the others even though like most of the threads in this movie, it ends up going absolutely nowhere.

I would have loved to seen a full movie of Bob Dylan as an old Billy the Kid trying to keep his community of misfits together. It's the kind of movie that befits Dylan, so I enjoyed the relatively small part this scenario played in the film. The kind of movie that does not befit Bob Dylan is a devoid of subtle (it's like they shot the audience with machine guns at the Newport Jazz Festival! "How does it feel? Rawr!") exercise in stylistic hopscotch like I'm Not There. It tries to build up the myth with one hand and take it down with the other. It's another movie that tries to have it both ways but unlike Funny Games it can't even succeed at one way. It is simply another one of these quasi-indie movies that can't look past the end of it's own nose. There's a good movie in there somewhere but it comes to you so in love with itself that you have to chisel through layers of useless artifice, applied so as to make itself look pretty but in the end makes it a needlessly heavy and dense mess.

Paddy, you're one of the biggest Dylan fans I know, what did you think of this one? After watching this mess I couldn't help but think of Masked & Anonymous; a much better, more enjoyable mess of a movie than this one that plays like you're watching an epic Dylan song. It's adventurous and captures the spirit of Dylan and isn't that the closest we should strive for? Do you think there's any use in even trying to make a movie about Bob Dylan?



I wouldn't say Masked & Anonymous is like watching an epic Dylan song (Sad-eyed Lady, Desolation Row, Highlands)- those tend to be immaculately structured and logical, and Masked was a really loose and uneven, if still enjoyable, picture. Maybe more like watching an extended outtake from Dylan and The Band rehearsing for the Basement Tapes sessions.

I'm going back a few months to when I saw I'm Not There, but I definitely enjoyed it. I'll try to explain why, even if it might be a bit hazy. Oddly, I really thought it did give you a sense of Dylan - I mean the guy is inscrutable, and any bio pic that tried a more conventional narrative may have been more enjoyable, but would have been pure fiction. It was pretty clear in interviews from the time that Haynes really didn't like Ray and Walk the Line because they were false, just simply false accounts of how people's lives work.* We may convince ourselves of some personal narrative that involves suffering, redemption, and music montages, but life is much more like the grab bag of random personae that we see in I'm Not There.

*Walk Hard may have laughed at the conventions of the genre, but certainly didn't suggest anything different. The best a spoof can do is make people roll their eyes the next few times they see a bio pic, until they eventually forget and go back to falling for the same thing.

One reason why I like Dylan so much is that he refuses the near-universal assumption that each of us are some single, unique person, with fixed ideas, tastes and a thing called a personality. I tend to think this idea of fixity is horseshit - that we are capable of constantly reinventing who we are and what we want, so long as we have the courage to abandon the very comfortable trappings of the unique personality (after all, what's easier than saying "that's not me.") Dylan's embraced the American ideal that you can make yourself into anyone (though most in the Horatio Alger story only do it once!) so I give Haynes credit for trying to get this concept into a biography, which tends to favor smooth transitions in life over abrupt changes. I guess you could argue that Dylan is just so complex that you shouldn't even bother with a movie on his life, but that's a cop out. It was a ballsy movie to make - to try and capture what cannot be captured - and I like that.

Like you, I had different opinions of each of the personae, but I actually disliked the Robbie Clark character the most (or maybe second most, but Bale's character was hardly on the screen). I don't really remember why I didn't like it, but I think it's telling that you like the part of the movie that most resembled the standard melodrama of bio pics. It was clearly the most familiar character - a boozing, out of control musician arguing with his wife, life on the road, - but also, for me, the most forgettable. Instead I liked the Gere scenes the most, followed by Jude (assuming it's a reference to the fact that he was famously called "Judas" on that tour). I can't really remember the Billy the Kid stuff, aside from the fact that it was just great to look out, somehow incredibly moving but with a light touch.

I'm not really sure why you are so hostile to the Jude scenes. Not only are they like Fellini's portrayals of celebrity, but they mirror Don't Look Back, which itself was almost more Felliniesque than Fellini himself! I thought that was an inspired idea, and the Fellini 'lens' was the best way to capture what was going on at the time. You're just not going to know "what was going on in Dylan's head"; to ask that of Haynes is just to repeat the same reporter's questions to Dylan that he parried away with laughs and non-sequitors in Don't Look Back. It's the cinematic equivalent of asking what the lyrics mean. Who cares what's in his head? Show me his world.

I'm Not There is far from a masterpiece, but I think it's the most honest cinematic take were likely to get on Dylan. It was a lot to take at one time, because it was simply such a new kind of movie. Sure some of the symbolism may have been too literal or obvious, but I bet there was a lot more that wasn't, and it was probably no more obvious than a good Dylan song, where you get a few of the references but are baffled by most. Maybe Dylan really is impervious to such an imperfect medium - you're certainly never going to get a better understanding of the guy than by listening to his music - but if the choices are to make a false conventional film, make no film, or make an odd and ambitious film, I'll choose the last every time.



I'll refrain from calling it a gimmick but like I said, I do think it is a novel and ambitious way to get at Dylan (though I'm not completely convinced that it could ever work), but it's so badly executed that any merits I would give for this grand design is lost in the way it's handled. The transitions are so clumsy and obvious, the imagery and dialog so excruciatingly force fed to the audience that I spent the majority of the movie uncomfortable in my seat and cringing more than anything else. I came away from this film with nothing new about the subject matter (and I'm no Dylan expert) except for what was covered in the conventional melodrama part. I enjoyed this part of the film not because of its conventional nature but that it was showing me a Dylan that I haven't seen before and it was giving me something that actually held my interest albeit ever so slightly (I certainly wouldn't want the whole movie to be like this). I really don't need to see Cate Blanchett shuffling around, whining in a Fellini world about being misunderstood. I'm not getting anything from it besides this cutesy movie connection. Why bother? It's one thing to point out the parallels of Don't Look Back to 8 1/2 but it's another to create the bastard child of the two for half a movie. The two movies work on their own for the very same reason they don't work in this context. Don't Look Back is perfectly not staged, 8 1/2 is overtly staged. I don't need to see scenes lifted directly from Don't Look Back and filtered through 8 1/2 or vice versa and then propagated with the most obvious imagery possible. That strikes me as a thematically lazy, on-the-nose stylistic exercise that exists mostly to say, Hey didja see what I just did there?, and only serves to distance me from the subject by suddenly being a movie within a movie within a movie. As does the fakey interviews and the poet character (his name is Arthur Rimbaud... poet? get it? eh?) popping in from time to time for the sole purpose to deliver some stock Dylanism to beat us over the head with like some pissed off greek chorus.

And trust me when I say the reasons for my dislike has little to do with the structure of the film -- this could have been pulled off well (though the more I think about it the more I doubt it). I'm all for breaking the conventional rules of every genre out there, but like I said, looking at the results, this movie still adheres to most of those rules, by going down the list of important moments and replicating those iconic images, more than it breaks any new ground. It's not nearly as abstract as one might think it is and this certainly isn't the first time a character has been deconstructed on film. Scene after scene, right on down the line, the movie presents us with some drama and then cues a Dylan song that best represents what sort of mode of Bob we're supposed to be watching in the scene. Again, blunt and no subtlety. There's nothing in this movie that is left for interpretation. Everything is so pinned down which is the most typical attribute of the bio-film.

Haynes does excel at putting us into a world -- he's got a fabulous art and costume department and cinematographer working with him. But maybe I've seen enough movies that take us to the tumultuous 1960s that I found nothing rewarding about this trip. If I never see another montage set to stock footage of 1960s protesters I think I'd be just fine. At the same time, Haynes seems interested in reinforcing the superficiality and a whole lot less interested in finding any truths or discovering anything that isn't obvious. If we're really supposed to look at this movie as not trying to peer into Dylan's head but rather the world around him, there's an infinite amount of better ways to achieve that goal than the stylized to the max, faux meaningfulness on display here.

I'm a firm supporter of ambitious messes. Last year I glowed about Southland Tales largely for it's unwavering gonzo ambition -- and what a mess that movie is. So I can appreciate what Haynes went for here. But there's no doubt in my mind that it's misguided from the get go and executed with little success. Honestly, if you met someone who has never seen one but wanted to watch a movie about Dylan, would you recommend this? And if this movie is designed for people already seeped in the Dylan mythos, and with all its wink wink nudge nudges it probably is intended to be taken this way, than why is it so superficial? I'm Not There could have gone 100% allegorical with Billy the Kid and black 11 year old Woody Guthrie and created a unique yet familiar world around them and I would have probably applauded that ambition even if it didn't completely hit the mark. But as it is, all we have is some good performances and some amusing eye candy strung together with only the slightest thought put towards the most important point: What is the point?

[Now for the much more, likable, entertaining, real version:]

[And just because I find it kind of fascinating...]

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