Saturday, November 24, 2007

Another Side of Bob Dylan

“I always try to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.” ~ Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm”

Last month, when I saw Bob Dylan and his band in concert, I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I knew his plenty of his songs, but which would he play there? More importantly, what style would he play them in? I loved the show, but others around me were disappointed at the relative lack of classics he played. I smiled while they complained about the absence of “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” or “Isis,” the favorite of one nearby attendee. In a way, this encapsulates what I love and value about Dylan- not just that he’s got so many great songs to his name that no concert could possibly contain them, but also that he’s always confounding our expectations for him. Much like Joni Mitchell once despaired of becoming “a human jukebox,” Dylan was going to play whatever he damn pleased.

I thought of the concert, as well as every other memory I have of Dylan, when watching Todd Haynes’ latest film, I’m Not There. Rather than trying to pin down this most enigmatic, slippery, and arguably the most important musician of his time, Haynes’ film is a kaleidoscope of Dylan’s life, an image fractured into six distinct pieces. There’s the folkie wunderkind (Christian Bale) who later turns to Christ; the mid-sixties phenomenon (Cate Blanchett) overwhelmed and resistant to his iconic status; the outlaw (Richard Gere), hiding out in the changing West; the star (Heath Ledger) who is falling out with his wife; and the poet (Ben Whislaw) giving an interview that feels more like an interrogation. Perhaps most significantly, there’s the 11-year-old boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who takes to the road with his guitar under the name Woody Guthrie, and embodies the ramblin’ folkie backstory Dylan painted for himself as a young man. The character name is significant here, providing an added layer of irony to the taunt of a nameless British heckler, who memorably cried out, “whatever happened to Woody Guthrie?”

As you might have guessed from the description, I’m Not There couldn’t be further from the likes of Walk the Line and its ilk. Along with his half-dozen Dylans, Haynes tells each of their stories in a different style, ranging from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid-style Western in the Gere scenes, to the trappings of direct-cinema (with its tentative, reactive camera work) when Bale is onscreen. The era Blanchett portrays onscreen is the best-documented of all, and Haynes isn’t content to ape Pennebaker, instead melding the trappings of Don’t Look Back with the sensual overload of Fellini. Practically the only through line to the film is Dylan himself- his life, his legend, and of course his music.

Naturally, the songs are incontestably great, and Haynes both chooses them wisely and uses them to great effect. The film isn’t quite so consistent- while much of it works like gangbusters, the Gere segments are more interesting conceptually than they are in the execution. Likewise, I thought the film devoted too much time to the disillusion of Ledger’s marriage to Charlotte Gainsbourg, obviously meant to evoke his Blood on the Tracks-era mindset. And frankly, I wanted more of Christian Bale. But the stories involving Franklin and Blanchett more than compensate. Franklin is a natural, engaging performer, and this section’s evocation of Dylan’s falsified persona is spot-on. And Blanchett is sort of marvelous here, capturing both the detached amusement and the cornered-rat vitriol that so famously pissed off Roger Ebert back in the day. This is why Haynes’ homage of 8 ½ is so apt- surrounded by people who makes demands on him, Dylan could hardly be blamed for wanting to back away.

The biopic genre is full of movies about major figures, but few of them get the films that their lives actually deserve. Thankfully, Haynes does his subject justice. Fittingly, it has less to do with historical record than what Werner Herzog refers to as “ecstatic truth.” We don’t come out of the film knowing any more of the facts about Dylan, but we learn about him all the same. During the film, one of the Dylans states, “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” In the organized chaos of I’m Not There, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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