Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I’m Not There: Todd Haynes (director). This smart, fun new movie by oddball director Haynes is one of the most enjoyable films I have seen in a while. The all but unprecedented genre of celebrity fantasy bio-picture makes this a delightfully difficult movie to classify. Perhaps Haynes’ own unseen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story would be the place to start. I cannot help there. So let’s begin in the obvious place: Haynes choice of actors to portray his protagonist(s). This is the gimmick promoters are using to sell the picture, and it is no doubt the handle critics will seize to size up this remarkable movie. So why should this critic be any different?

Haynes employs not one actor, but six to play his Dylan figure. The fact that Dylan’s name is not used should indicate just how iconographic the idea of Dylan has become. It also might indicate that Haynes (or his financers?) is gun shy after his experience with Karen Carpenter.What we have are six actors in search of a character. Christian Bale plays a duel role, Jack Rollins, the folk singer and the disturbingly on-target Pastor John, a creepy, born-again former rocker. Cate Blanchett is as-always brilliant playing the self-possessed rock star, Jude Quinn. Heath Ledger, an actor I heretofore would have dismissed, is very effective as Robbie Clark, the actor. Ben Whishaw plays Arthur Rimbaud, though not exactly the famous French poet of that name. A very young African-American actor named Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody Guthrie, though not at all the famous singer/songwriter of that name. Confused? Don’t think you are alone.

Confusion was obviously the goal of Haynes' mix and match cinematic strategy. Yet by film’s end the director has woven a picture of a character that in many ways is Dylan. All these characters are a piece of the man and artist known to almost everyone as Bob Dylan. There is one striking moment when the audience is led to believe some representative of authority is about to declare that the man’s real name is “Robert Zimmerman.” Of course, in keeping with the obvious anonymity employed throughout the film, some other similar name is used. Dylan is a conman, a liar and an asshole. Or was he? The schizo-Dylan of I’m Not There is all these things and none of them.

Perhaps the two most intriguingly interwoven characterizations are Woody Guthrie and Billy the Kid. Youthful actor, Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young myth in progress. We meet Woody on a boxcar talking to two ancient hobos. Haynes cleverly reverses role expectations, showing these elderly men entranced by the stories a child has to tell. Likewise, Billy is no kid. Richard Gere re-imagines the Kris Kritofferson role from Sam Peckinpah’s classic, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. According to Jurgen Muller, discussing the Peckinpah film: “Kristofferson gave Billy the aura of a hippie idol – and with the outlaw’s demise, the film also buried the hopes and ideals of the Woodstock generation.”Haynes does not kill Billy/Gere. Instead we see our hero catching a ride on a boxcar, taking the real role of the kid, returning to the safety of youth and dreams and perhaps leading onward toward Dylan’s post-born-again era. The film does not otherwise address the last 25 or so years of Dylan’s prodigious career. And this might well be its greatest weakness, because it is Dylan’s ability to comeback (artistically) and continue to produce better than most records long past his heyday that most distinguishes Dylan from his contemporaries (Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, Van Morrison, etc.). Although in our current reunion friendly era, where nothing seems to be musically dated, and likewise, nothing much represents the now sound, Dylan is more and more looking like just one of many great oldsters who occasionally manages to eek out a new decent enough record that will be championed as a five star item in the pages of Mojo or whathaveyou.Perhaps I’m Not There is needed to remind younger viewers just how special Dylan was. Unfortunately, I am uncertain that this movie does any such thing. One hardly needs to admire and understand Dylan to watch this wickedly time-warped film. History is non-linear, if not non-existent under Haynes direction. Truth and fiction are carelessly blurred and whether novice to Dylan’s story or aficionado, viewers come out of this movie with a decidedly impressionistic image of a Dylanesque character study.


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