Some guy in the lobby of the Varsity Theatre looked at me and said "Strange movie, eh?" I just shrugged, man. I couldn't get into it with him and didn't want him spoiling what was going on my head at the moment. I had just seen I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' masterful portrait of that great American vapor known as "Bob Dylan", and was in a daze over its richness. I should've expected to hear such grumblings, though. Much like Dylan himself, I'm Not There cannot be easily digested or classified. Even though I'm a Dylan nut, I know it will take me several viewings to pick up on the wealth of illusions, allusions, myths, lyric references, cultural significances, etc, etc, that Haynes threw into his film. Just as people have picked apart Dylan's work over the years, Haynes has made a work of art that deserves the same. This isn't a movie about Bob Dylan. It's a movie that uses our idea of Bob Dylan as the vehicle for a story about America, about fame, about self-invention, about theft, about greed, about arrogance, about transparency, about the stories we tell ourselves, how the true American spirit is lonely, cold, and murderous, and how laughable it is that we would even think about such things.
First, the obvious: Cate Blanchett, in her role as 1966-era Dylan, was astounding. It wasn't just how she looked, it was how she rubbed her tired eyes, pecked at the typewriter, clawed at the piano, held the newspaper, giggled, sneered, and contradicted. Even her fingernails were cut to the same creepy length as Dylan's. This era will no doubt be the one casual viewers immediately associate with, for it's arguably when Dylan was most visible. It's also the era most crucial for understanding the rest of the movie, because it's so pivotal.
The movie is a hodge-podge of styles, some hokey and others deathly straightforward, but each one serving a purpose. Haynes steals (yes, steals, and for very good reason) the film styles of Fellini, Pennebaker, Scorcese, Antonioni, Douglas Sirk, Sam Peckinpah, bad television, Bob Dylan (see: Masked and Anonymous), and probably many others. I'm sure Haynes used this to parallel what a mix of influences Dylan ultimately is, but also to drive home a point about American art: we are at best, like T.S. Eliot suggested, a bunch of crooks.
Each different section of the movie works to a different degree. The segments featuring Marcus Carl Franklin, the 11-year old black boy who calls himself "Woody Guthrie", felt purposefully hokey. I walked away from it thinking Haynes did this to drive home two points, 1) Dylan romanticized an America that never quite existed, and 2) the idea of the largely white, upper class folk music revival, was a fucking joke.
At first, I felt Christian Bale's portrayal of the "world-weary folk-singer Dylan" and "evangelist Dylan" was transparent. He acted like an actor trying hard to act like an actor, which I chalked up to his inability to act. Mulling this over the next day, I had a hunch it was probably intentional on Haynes' part. I mean, all one needs to do is glance at The Times They Are A Changin' album cover to see right through Bobby Z's James Dean/Woody Guthrie mask. It's also during these scenes that I'm Not There splices in its second-most most captivating performance: Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez-esque character. Her scenes are faux-documentary style and feature her in her bougie home, wearing turqoise jewelry, hair chopped to middle-aged woman length. Here, Haynes pokes fun at the simplification someone like Baez gives for Dylan's shift from protest songs to rock n' roll art; that he didn't think a song could change the world. When Haynes counters this with a scene of Bale getting all drunk and pissy at some establishment dinner, it proves that a person's past cannot be accurately boxed-up, and that, like so many other Americans, we can rarely explain our anger, frustration, and disillusionment. Not to mention that, rather than dealing with it, we prefer to live with it.
My wife and friends all felt that the Richard Gere portion of the film was half-baked. I agree with them for the most part, but it's the one I find myself thinking about the most. Here, we have Gere playing a guy named Billy the Kidwho is wrestling with his own past and imminent future in a town called "Riddle", which exists in a vaporous region between the Old West and Woodstock, New York. Here we have a man who is lost in the world he has created for himself and for his art. He's a cowboy kinda guy with a shady past who wakes up to see both of his worlds facing imminent doom. This entire segment is ripe for decoding simply for the Basement Tapes references, the allusions to "Desolation Row", his romantic vision of an Old Weird America and how it always faces impending disaster ("Crash on the Levee", High Water"). I haven't yet begun to piece all of this together and how it works with the rest of the film. Maybe it doesn't.
There is so much to be said about I'm Not There, and I didn't even touch the characters played by Heath Ledger, Ben Wishaw, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It's a love/hate work of art, and it wouldn't be right if it were a universally loved motion picture. Ultimately, the effect is like Dylan's music, and when watching this film, you have to ask yourself: "Did I like Dylan right away? Have I fully understood 'Desolation Row' all these years?" Also, if you didn't like one aspect of the film right away, you might a few years from now (the Dylan fanatic eventually grows to enjoy Street Legal, right?). And more importantly, with each different segment, it's hard to tell who this guy really is. It's almost as if he doesn't know himself.
In my opinion, Dylan couldn't have asked for a more fitting tribute.