I’m Not There

The enigmatic Bob Dylan is, and is not, the center of I’m Not There, the first film in five years by the experimental director Todd Haynes. This filmmaker likes to dab and dabble, trying on different hats, resisting classification and definition, so perhaps it was inevitable that Haynes would focus on a fellow artist whose hipster temperament mirrors his own. The movie ends up telling us more about Todd Haynes than about Bob Dylan, though still not much.

Individual shots and sequences are lovely; Haynes, with considerable assistance from cinematographer Edward Lachmann and editor Jay Rabinowitz, often finds just the right moody image or composition to match Dylan’s sound. It’s a sketchbook movie, though, with all the pacing problems that entails, and I kept waiting for the damn thing to be done. (I lost count of the times the movie kept on going after what should’ve been a perfect final shot.) I’m Not There is the sort of rarified art project I dearly wish I liked more — it’s exciting that a film like this can still get financed (albeit for pocket change), and that major stars like Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale agreed to be in it. The experience of the film, however, is as thornily remote as Dylan himself; we keep getting shuttled between various Dylans, various incarnations of the man throughout his career, and at two hours and fifteen minutes the experiment becomes wearisome.

Blanchett is getting all the accolades as the post-motorcycle-accident, going-electric-at-Newport Dylan, or essentially the Dylan we see in the classic documentary Don’t Look Back. This Dylan is a put-on artist, sick to death of being quizzed by the press about everything, as if he were some messiah. His response is to put forth a surly, almost philistine persona, denying whatever the press tosses at him. (If a reporter asked him during that time why his feet stayed on the ground, Dylan would’ve sneered “What is gravity anyway, man?”) Blanchett’s best moments here come when Dylan’s armor drops, as when Allen Ginsberg (David Cross, who does a more sedate Ginsberg than you’d expect) randomly idles outside Dylan’s limo and Dylan laughs like a little kid, or when he engages in high-speed frolicking with the Beatles in a bit seemingly inspired by A Hard Day’s Night.

Ultimately, Blanchett, like Bale and the other actors — Marcus Carl Franklin as a little boy calling himself Woody, Heath Ledger as an actor who once played Dylan in a movie (why he’s in this film, I don’t know, other than to sketch in Dylan trying to fathom domesticity), Richard Gere as a grizzled, ’70s-era Dylan — is merely part of Haynes’ design. I enjoy Haynes’ films intellectually, but they almost always leave me cold. (The exception was 1995’s Safe, which, with Julianne Moore’s help, took us terrifyingly inside a woman’s isolating illness.) For the most part, Haynes is too hip and uptown to make us care. I’m Not There is epic doodling, with quotes from Dylan cinema — obviously Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but also a nod or two to Dylan’s disastrous vanity project Renaldo and Clara. None of it adds up to much. Haynes doesn’t want it to, because Dylan wouldn’t want it to.

It’s possible to make a fractured portrait of a stubbornly unreachable artist — look at François Girard’s mesmerizing Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a vastly superior (and shorter) movie. The problem isn’t that Haynes doesn’t reveal anything about Dylan (that’s the whole point of the film); it’s that Haynes doesn’t offer much of anything to fill the void. If you’re not sold on the inscrutable genius of Bob Dylan, you may sit there and wonder why you’re watching this stuff. Every so often, too, we even catch Haynes snarking about the master — Bale’s Dylan figure, Jack Rollins, finds Jesus and preaches/sings to a tiny congregation in gray folding chairs. Say what you want about Dylan’s short-lived conversion, it merits a little more respect than this, well, Dylanesque sneer.

The movie looks and sounds so purely pleasurable in isolated moments that I thought, more than once, that Haynes would’ve better served Dylan by putting together a DVD of music videos. In a way, that’s what he’s done anyway, and perhaps the whole weird, scattershot thing might play better when you can skip-search to your favorite bits. But when a director more or less says that his movie is opaque and noncommittal because it’s supposed to be, I have to channel Dylan myself and call bullshit.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, biopic, overrated

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