Monday, May 19, 2008

I'm Not There

I finally caught up on home video with another of the 2007 fourth quarter releases that I wanted to see, but that slipped in and out of local theaters before I had the chance -- Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan-inspired film I'm Not There. It's a miracle. A series of inconceivable sequences (until one sees them, then they seem inevitable) which cohere into a fragmentary, yet coherent piece of cinema, with all that the Greek origin of that descriptor entails. Kinesis: kinetic, movement. Haynes uses a variety of tools, techniques, styles, pace, influences, lens, film stocks, palettes, moods, and a wildly diverse cast. Funny thing is, it works. The spirit of this country, 20th-century America in all it's glory and shame, pulses through this film. Evocative shots of boxcars snaking thru sun-dappled countryside and cool blue sequences of urban emotional disintegration are juxtaposed with news footage of Kennedy and LBJ and MLK and Nixon and Napalm. It's a world of hipsters and hobos, poets and preachers, sinners and saints. Haynes uses the biography and music of one man as a canvas to compose a tone poem on several decades of American history.

I'm largely ignorant of the details of Bob Dylan's life and not an afficionado of his music, although I enjoy it. The soundtrack is infectious. At times I'm Not There plays like a surreal musical, at other times like a concert film. To me "Dylan" is more of an idea than a real person, which may be why I responded so strongly to Haynes' impressionistic treatment. The main conceit of I'm Not There is using six actors to riff on seven evolutions of Dylan's career and persona -- most audaciously Cate Blanchett as the most recognizable Bob Dylan a/k/a Jude Quinn: the chain-smoking, pill-popping, wise-cracking Dylan of the mid-60s who became an American pop icon and hope of a disaffected generation before nearly self-destructing.

Blanchett gives a great performance (imagine having Galadriel and Bob Dylan on the same resume!), but so does young Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody Guthrie, a boxcar-hopping folk singer of uncertain origin. Christian Bale is Jack Rollins, the angry singer of protest songs turned born-again Christian minister (Haynes truthfully recreates the 70's era Vineyard Church in southern California where Dylan attended Bible studies and reportedly accepted Jesus into his heart). Heath Ledger reminded me of how he was such a strong screen presence playing a fictional movie star Robbie Clark. The "Dylan's" are rounded out by Ben Whishaw, playing rebel poet Arthur Rimbaud and Richard Gere as Billy the Kid. My favorite performance may have been Bruce Greenwood in his role as a British journalist intent on shattering the Dylan facade. Many of the film's best lines come during his confrontations with Blanchett.

I'm Not There is far from a perfect film. It's too messy for that. Pickpocket is a perfect film. Vertigo is a perfect film. It doesn't have the aesthetic qualities that I value most, or at least they don't predominate. Austerity, focus, strength of theme and beauty of form. But it's probably not fair to compare a film like this to those classics, or a hundred others I could cite. They inhabit different universes. Yet there's something of austerity and focus and classical form within I'm Not There, and as I mentioned before, there's a unity somewhere within the dazzling diversity of this kaleidoscopic piece waiting to be discovered. This is a film about Bob Dylan, but watching it felt more like listening to John Coltrane play sax. I think Haynes has created a piece of visual improvisation.

I'm Not There is available in a fine 2-disc DVD presentation. The image quality couldn't be better -- essential for a movie that alternates between oversaturated color sequences and various shades of black and white. A friend let me borrow his copy from Netflix, but I'll be purchasing this one eventually.

1 comment:

redeyespy said...

Excellent review, Stephen. This film is still swimming in my brain. I too enjoyed the tete-et-tete with the English journalist. As I watched, I kept thinking how fascinating it would be to have a one-act play with him and the Don't Look Back-era Dylan just hashing it out. Cate really shined in this.