Friday, August 01, 2008

I'm Not There

I recently saw Todd Haynes I'm Not There, which looks at various stages in Bob Dylan's life through the lens of six different characters, each played by a different actor or actress, none named "Bob Dylan." There is the sixties electric Dylan, played by Cate Blanchett, the Woody Guthrie worshipping Dylan played by a young African American actor, the protest singer/born-again Christian played by Christian Bale, the celeb Dylan played by Heath Ledger, and the weird America/Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid Dylan played by Richard Gere. It is an adventerous, risky movie that doesn't stick to a clear narrative, doesn't tell a clear story, and doesn't totally make sense. People steeped in Dylan's mythology will get the most out of this movie, as it assumes that you understand the characters it references, but I can't see aging hippies/baby boomers necessarily digging this. It's pretty out there, as out there as some of Godard's sixties work (Masculine/Feminine is explicitly referenced in the film). It's remarkable that Haynes got this thing made, considering it tackles an American icon who is still alive, and turns the life of Bob Dylan into an arthouse flick. The casting is also a little stunt, but all of the actors do a tremendous job, with the possible exception of Bale, who just sort of acts constipated. What I loved about the film was its cinemetography; this is one gorgeous film, with rich colors, and some stunning black and white work. I also loved how it tackled the issues Dylan faced rather than merely relate his life story. It didn't detail his change from protest singer to drug-addled rocker to born again preacher - it examined how he fought against being classified as merely a protest singer, and how constrained he felt by his image, his legend, and the expectations his fans and the media had of him. Even the rock cliche of drug addiction is handled well here: Haynes doesn't bother detailing Dylan's drug abuse, but instead shows how Dylan's amphetamine use is fueled in part by his desire to deal with and makes sense of the pressures around him. It doesn't end with him hitting rock bottom or making a brave comeback - it ends with him being shown as the real human that he is, warts and all. Perhaps the best thing about I'm Not There is that it doesn't pretend to be the truth. Bio pics always play fast and loose with the truth in order to weave a coherent story and make a compelling narrative. By not naming any of the characters "Bob Dylan," Haynes avoids the hypocrisy and deciet of most bio pics. Some may be put off by the lack of a coherent story, but at least Haynes isn't telling the same tired "rise from obscurity, reach success, succumb to sex and drugs, hit bottom, make triumphant comeback" narrative that is the staple of rock bios. (See every episode of "Behind the Music," or Walk Hard). I'm not sure I totally got I'm Not There, especially the scenes with Richard Gere, but it is a beautiful, interesting film, and a worthy tribute to an important musician.

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