Friday, January 11, 2008

I'm Not There: A mosaic of persona, with each of us in the mix

Save the imminently memorable closing image fade-out, Bob Dylan, or any direct representation of Bob Dylan, is, strictly speaking, nowhere to be found, nor ever mentioned, in Todd Haynes’ new movie, a biopic –or is it perhaps an anti-biopic– about Bob Dylan. Rather, we get a slyly assembled sextet of Dylanesques and Dylanguises: Dylan as a riddle-smith Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), Dylan as Woody Guthrie as a black little kid (Marcus Carl Franklin), Dylan as one Jack Rollins, the remote avatar of troubled social conscience who later finds God and polyester suits (Christian Bale), Dylan as an actor playing Jack Rollins in a mid-60s biopic (Heath Ledger), Dylan as a drug-addled, gender-blending provocateur on tour in England (Cate Blanchett, in the role closest to a recognizable Dylan, circa
Don’t Look Back), Dylan as Billy the Kid in hiding after faking his death (Richard Gere). Among the countless conceptual marvels on display here is the forming of a mosaic of personas that collectively embody our collective Dylan, with not a single one of them staking any claims on any sort of definitive biographical portrait. I’m Not There, indeed.

It sounds like a radical exercise in semiotics. It is. (Godard looms over the film as much as Dylan.) It’s about the paradox of a popular artist’s obligation to speak only for himself while also speaking for all of us, and the accompanying schisms this incites between his private and public life. Crucially, it’s about the unavoidability of politics playing into personal expression. But can I please ensure you that it’s also wild and vibrant, often giddily entertaining and funny, and, at it’s very best, absolutely heartbreaking and unexpectedly cathartic. It is also, like anything hoisted up with such vision and audacity, flawed –some parts just work better than others– yet to remove any of its individual parts would render it far more flawed. All this is to say I’m Not There ain’t no Ray or Walk the Line. This isn’t your Auntie Linda’s biopic. But for god’s sake see it already. And take your Auntie Linda along with you. After all, it’s about the 1960s.

Did I mention the tremendous music? I’m Not There is of course not only bursting with it but guided by it. Dylan’s songs, many of his very best, supply the soundtrack just as they inform the shape and tone and playfully baffling hairpin turns of the story. Just like Chronicles Volume One, Dylan’s recent memoir, the film flows along with the restless, associational, merrily anachronistic funk of Dylan’s verse. Thus each of Haynes’ Dylans appear and reappear throughout, prompting one and other, conspiring toward a strangely coherent narrative thread that’s not at all apparent while we’re in the thick of it.

Early on, Franklin’s Woody, at once a reincarnation and a throwback, is taken to task for singing folk songs tinged with nostalgia for the Depression instead of facing up to the problems of the day. Much later, Gere’s Billy will see flashes of Vietnam in the rolling wooded hills he inhabits like some horseback Unabomber. In between, Blanchett assaults audiences with machine gun rock and fends off journalists with razor sharp witticisms, while, in what for me is the film’s most compelling, beguiling and deeply moving section, Ledger copes with romance, marriage (to a marvelous Charlotte Gainsbourg) and family life while trying to maintain a role in the outside world that may just be coming to define himself. Along the way there are concerts, commentaries (by Julianne Moore as Joan Baez!), cocktail parties, and more than one ominous scene of fumbling with motorcycles.

“You never know how the past will turn out,” is one more gem of a line one of these Dylans tosses off, yet it’s at the heart of Haynes’ stratagems. The caveat in the title of Pennebaker’s classic Dylan doc implies a consequence: if you look back, what lies behind you will change, and the path you’re following will change along with it. I’m Not There looks to and reconfigures the past as a way of discovering ecstatic truths about the culture we share as emblemized by this tremendous individual who means something different to everyone. It’s one hell of a hall of mirrors, and one in which you just might find yourself gazing back.

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