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'I'm Not There'


Like each of director Todd Haynes' previous films, the new Bob Dylan anti-biography I'm Not There is a confounding mess that aspires for greatness, but falls just short enough of brilliance to become little more than a stylish and meandering exercise on film.Im_not_there_one_sheet_5

The premise: the legendary and mysterious Bob Dylan is too rich and complex a character to justify a traditional Ray or Walk the Line-style Behind the Music biopic, so Haynes cast six actors to portray Dylan as a series of shape-shifting personae, weaving together an unconventional portrait of an elusive American icon.

Marcus Carl Franklin is Woody, a precocious 11-year-old black child channeling the soul of influential folk singer Woody Guthrie; Ben Whishaw is Arthur, a poet modeled after Dylan influence Arthur Rimbaud; Christian Bale is Jack Rollins, and later Pastor John, a The Times They Are A-Changin' era protest singer who throws it away to become a Christian minister;  Heath Ledger is  Robbie  Clark, an actor who plays Jack Rollins in a movie; Richard Gere is Billy the Kid, an Old West outlaw living in seclusion in the wrong times; and Cate Blanchett is Jude Quinn, an androgynous and electrified Dylan of the 60's and the documentary Dont Look Back.

And they're all Bob Dylan. Or maybe none of them are.


The inherent challenge in cutting up Dylan's life, then trying to add it all up again like some complicated calculus formula, is making the puzzle pieces fit in a way that  is somehow more interesting than the sum of  its parts.  Individually,  none of the characters or stories in I'm Not There reveal much about Dylan that fans wouldn't already know. But together, the segments congeal into a fascinating portrait of an ever-changing American artist.

But like I said before, this film is a mess. Even though Haynes and his co-writer Oren Moverman clearly  know their subject (as well as anyone other than the man himself probably can), a unified "Dylan" remains out of reach. Gere's Billy and Ledger's Robbie offer insight into the man's private life, while Blanchett's rock star Jude, Bale's prophet Jack, and Whishaw's poet Arthur only seem to regurgitate the most familiar elements of his legend. Franklin as Woody is perhaps the most ambitious casting  choice,  the only character to fully capture Dylan's baffling chameleon qualities that inspired this project in the first place.


I'm Not There combines stylistic elements of Haynes' previous films, from the multiple disjointed stories and varied techniques (documentary, narrative, fantasy, etc.) of Poison, to the fictionalized biopic treatment of rock stars David Bowie and Iggy Pop in Velvet Goldmine, to the grand beauty and loving homage of Far From Heaven.

Unfortunately, it also keeps those films' cold distance from their respective subjects, something I feel Haynes has never been able to overcome. By telling several stories at once, in ways that rarely connect A to B, Haynes reminds the audience that they shouldn't care about only one version of Bob Dylan--and as a result, we don't really care about any of them. Instead, the film devolves into a guessing game for Dylan fans (What song is that dialogue from? What obscure reference can they squeeze in next?) and a baffling brain teaser for neophytes.


This is where it all starts to fall apart. For all the subtly clever insights into the many lives of a man who is continually, almost obsessively, reinventing himself, there are far too many obvious and jarring moments based on his fame. Some familiar scenes are translated directly from previous interviews, documentary footage, or bootleg concerts. A whimsical homage to The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night is fun but quickly overshadowed by more unnecessary (and far less Dylan-related) references to Fellini and Godard.

Blanchett, who as Jude is the film's powerful central force (and gives by far its best performance), speaks almost entirely in Dylan quotes and lyrics. When in conversation or sparring with reporters she laughs the line "Just like a woman!" or sneers "How does it feel?," and the effect is laughable and cringe-inducing.   Franklin's lines are also almost exclusively cribbed from lyric sheets, but this is more forgivable because of Woody's nature as a pretender trying to make up his own mythical back story, based on his Depression-era folk and blues heroes.

Maybe I'm just a little gun-shy in a year that has also seen the release of Julie Taymor's Beatles-based Across the Universe, but literal interpretations of lyrics on screen, or character names based on popular Dylan song lyrics or titles, make me gag. A girlfriend named Louise is accompanied on the soundtrack by "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," the song from which her name came; British journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood) finds himself trapped in an interpretive performance of "Ballad of a Thin Man" (and even sees "somebody naked, and asks 'Who is that man?'"); Jude Quinn's last name originates in "Quinn the Eskimo (The Might Quinn);" and of course, young Woody is Woody Guthrie (and even writes "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar).


In supporting roles, David Cross as beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Julianne Moore as the Joan Baez-type folk singer Alice Fabian are two bright spots. Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Ledger's French wife, is satisfactory but is given far too much screen time on her own, so that their shared story becomes muddled and less about Dylan than his family back home.

I'm Not There is a complicated, contradictory film about a contradictory artist, and criticizing it as such risks missing the point. Kudos to Haynes for trying something so utterly ambitious and fresh, and in doing so crafting his masterpiece; it's just disappointing that once again, the auteur falls just short of capturing brilliance--either Dylan's or his own. But after seeing it, I found myself wanting to talk about it nonstop, and even now continue to change my mind as my opinions remain malleable. And maybe that's the point, after all.

The big question remains: is I'm Not There aimed toward Dylan fanatics looking to spot every reference, or casual viewers who are willing to just sit back and enjoy the ride? If you've seen it, leave a comment and let us know what you think.

I'm Not There is currently at Film Forum in NYC.

-- Daniel Lehman

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