Monday, May 5, 2008

I'm Not There

By David Luhrssen
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I was exasperated and intrigued by director Todd Haynesí unconventional account of Bob Dylanís life and times and music when it opened last fall. I didnít like I'm Not There, but didnít reject it. I wasnít entirely certain if I was unprepared for its unexpected form and approach to one of the most important musical artistís of the last century or annoyed at what I took for pretentiousness. I wrote a short film paragraph on Iím NotThere instead of a full review because I couldnít pin down my mixed, shifting feelings. I wanted to see it a second time but never got around to it.

Now itís out on DVD and have no excuse for putting it off. Iíve re-watched Iím Not There and think itís sometimes brilliant. Then again, Iím still not entirely in its corner. Maybe thatís because the film canít be cornered. Like Dylan himself, Iím Not There is resolutely determined to escape any narrow interpretation. It refuses to be cut and dried. It wonít be marched in a straight line and interrogated under hot lights. If nothing else, Iím Not There is not one of those boring VH-1 look-backs at a faded star.

The idea of fracturing the historic Dylan into six fictional characters played by different actors is a lucid strategy for unpacking the contradictory complexity of a songwriter who became the voice of his generation only to reject the role of spokesman. Maybe that should have been no surprise from someone who was slippery from the moment he appeared on stage. His original persona as a heartland Dust Bowl folksinger, a latter-day Woody Guthrie in a Huck Finn cap, was wholly invented. Dylan was really a Jewish kid from Minnesota electrified by rockíníroll in the 1950s but intrigued by the folk-blues revival that began to peak in the early Ď60s. When he became a star he hid himself from the glare of newspaper cameras and inane questions in a hall of mirrors, dodging behind a fun house of non-answers, non-sequitors and poses of sarcastic indifference. From there he retreated into enigmatic isolation, flirted with Nashville, became a secluded family man, worked hard to dismantle his reputation. Then he embraced Protestant fundamentalism and, afterward, slipped the net of meaning once again.

Making complete sense of Dylan would challenge the greatest biographer. Haynes decided to sidestep a linear chronology of explanations and events by sketching the suggestion of larger truths through merging fact, fiction and mythology. Haynes wanted to get at the essence of Dylan by splitting him into a set of characters whose plot lines donít entirely fit together. Iím Not There is like a Cubist painting in motion, showing its story from several angles in as close an approximation of simultaneity as a single screen film can achieve.

The result is puzzling at first. Like most great, important or at least interesting art it gives up its secrets little by little, layer by layer. Itís a film that demands mental and emotional engagement from the audience, not passive consumption. Iím Not There is bravura cinema to be sure. Do I entirely like it? I still wonder about two of Haynesí casting choices: positioning a barely adolescent African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) as a projection of Dylanís original fantasy of folkloric self-invention; and a white woman (Cate Blanchett) as the dandified Dylan of Carnaby Street hidden behind dark glasses. They are memorable performances but embodying Dylan in those ways still strike me as distracting. The casting inevitably becomes the subject, not the person or the ideas the actors represent.

And then there is the creative re-imaginating of Dylanís career, such as turning him into a successful screen actor of the early Ď70s. Maybe the reason for this will become apparent on future viewings. Perhaps itís an ironic comment on the failure of Dylan, who was always playacting, to make much of a mark on screen. I also donít care for the lapses into caricature, especially the response by folksinger Pete Seeger and the crowd at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Haynes shows Seeger as a lunatic hatchet man and Dylan being booed and jeered by mindless folkies for daring to play rockíníroll. The depiction reflects the legend surrounding that event but possibly not the reality. Recent historical accounts suggest that the uproar resulted from a rotten sound mix through the primitive amplification, not a wholesale rejection of Dylanís new music. Haynes, however, went with the myth of Newport, which like every myth conveys a truth regardless of factuality. The truth is that once an artist becomes popular, many of his fans will try to imprison him in their own preconceptions. They will try to pin him down to the sort of one-dimensional surface interpretation that Dylan, and Iím Not There, have worked hard and successfully to evade.

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