I’m Not There (Weinstein Company, R)

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Blanchett, who’s given the most screen time, is the pick of the lot, one of the few aspects of I’m Not There that truly exceeds its own lofty expectations.

 

 

 

 

 

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When Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Poison, Far From Heaven) announced that he was working on a film about Bob Dylan in which he’d cast multiple actors as Dylan in various stages of his life, the thought of such an endeavor sounded alternately fascinating and horrible. As pre-production began, Haynes mentioned in an interview that he wanted either Oprah Winfrey or Beyoncé to play one of the Dylans, and the excitement escalated. This, however, didn’t work out, and once the idea of seeing either woman play Bob Dylan became stillborn, my interest waned.

It’d befit most people when writing about I’m Not There to bluntly state their relationship to Dylan. For me, I left Dylan for the other moppy-haired high school boys and stuck closer to the subjects around which Haynes would base his Velvet Goldmine. I "came of age" musically around the time his son, Jakob, and the Wallflowers shot onto the music scene, further pushing any real interest I might have had in Dylan, the father, from my sights. Dylan remains today, in my world, around the peripheral, an obvious influence to some of my more preferred musical artists like Tom Waits, The Velvet Underground, or Tim Buckley who will more than likely remain in their position. I offered that background for the purpose that I’m Not There really is a film for the Dylan diehards. It’s an experience that lives up to the expectations I had during the film’s production—fascinating, irritating, exciting, bewildering, and as alienating a motion picture you’d imagine about an artist you haven’t come to know intimately.

In place of Winfrey or Beyoncé, there are six Dylans (though the name"’Bob Dylan" is never uttered throughout the entire film): Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Richard Gere, chronologically (though the film doesn’t transpire that way). These "lives" or "personas" intertwine with one another in the narrative, illuminating (or confusing,depending on your familiarity) the artist throughout his many forms. Blanchett, who’s given the most screen time, is the pick of the lot, one of the few aspects of I’m Not There that truly exceeds its own lofty expectations. As "Jude," a Dylan incarnation circa-Don’t Look Now, she’s ablaze onscreen, transcending the novelty of Cate Blanchett, Academy Award-winning actress, playing Bob Dylan, musical icon. In her scenes is when Dylan makes the strongest leap from his fans, abandoning the socially-conscious folk movement for a new breed of music and lifestyle. Her Jude chases after a Warhol vixen (Michelle Williams), laughs at Jesus with Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), meets a man (Bruce Greenwood) out to ruin him whether it’s only in his head, and evades fans and reporters in Europe in a peculiar homage to Fellini’s .

What’s certainly assuring about Haynes’ vision is his refusal to either appease those unversed in Dylan or turn Dylan into that cookie-cutter Hollywood biopic artist, a horrific machine that’s somehow turned the likes of Ray Charles, Jackson Pollock, Edith Piaf, Johnny Cash, and Tina Turner into the same person. For the unversed, Dylan remains as mysterious a figure as he was beforehand, for better or worse. Though you can certainly find critics elsewhere creaming themselves over Blanchett, what struck me most was Haynes’ restraint in trying to turn all of his actors into a literal Bob Dylan. Never did I look at Christian Bale and think, "Wow, he really embodied Dylan to the fullest!" (you could insert any of the actors in place of Bale for that statement). Rather, Haynes keeps them as "personas," and while it’s hard to deny any sort of transformation the actors might have taken on, it’s always clear that these are "performances" which do their finest at exposing and concealing truth.

Stylistically though, Haynes is a mess. Though many will complain about the music video-within-a-film that is scattered throughout Velvet Goldmine, its structural faithfulness to Citizen Kane keeps it in check. In I’m Not There, Haynes allows for Christian Bale’s "Jack" to become Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ "Brian Slade." His tale is revealed through talking-head interviews with the likes of Julianne Moore and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, depicting his immergence as the voice of the people to his descent into Christianity. With Heath Ledger’s "Robbie," I’m Not There explores most accurately his girlfriend, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose initial charm with the actor version of Dylan fades as he becomes more elusive. There’s a reluctance to accept this tale due to its rank familiarity. It’s easy to see what Haynes is doing by depicting the lover of Dylan in achieving a more rounded understanding of the man, yet their relationship goes in every direction you predict it to. It’s a distraction when you consider that Haynes is trying so hard at giving you something you’ve never experienced before.

As much as I’m Not There wants you to believe its multi-layered façade, there really isn’t much available to someone other than the Bob Dylan elite. I’m Not There thus becomes a beautiful mess, where truth and artistry tangle together with self-congratulatory exclusion. The structure of the film certainly fits Bob Dylan more than, I dunno, Mariah Carey, but Haynes’ acute portrayal of the many faces of Bob Dylan isn’t the fascinating art piece it wants so desperately to be. More exactly, I’m Not There is the strictly exclusive club that’s forgotten to draw its drapes. | Joe Bowman

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