Saturday, January 21, 2012

Retro Review: I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 07)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2010 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.

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In the opening salvo of his near-Proustian length critique par excellence in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman called I'm Not There the movie of the year - and he may very well be right. In fact he could ostensibly exchange the word year for the word decade and still be very much within his rights. Easily the most daring experimentation in filmmaking (read: a bite in the ass of cinema) since Lars von Trier's Dogville in 2003.

Half casting stunt, half cinematic experimentation, Todd Haynes, the former Brown University semiotics major turned cinematic manipulator extraordinaire, and the man who gave us Far From Heaven, an impressionistic and socially rupturous homage to Douglas Sirk and a scathing indictment of American sexual mores, Velvet Goldmine, a kinky Citizen Kane structured ode to glam rock, [Safe], his diabolic take on the insecurities of humanity and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an absurdist Barbie-dolled super-8 mockery of everything America holds dear (sort of), now hands us his by-far fullest plate yet - a deconstruction not only of the enigmatic Bob Dylan, a man who playing his own game of propagandism, already sliced and diced himself into a multitude of ideas and ideals, but of the very concept of cinema itself. Taking the typically one-man (or one-woman) ultra-polished horse and pony show that is the biopic genre, Haynes flips it on its already much beleaguered head and shows us not one man, but six (or really seven) different aspects of one man, here personified by six different actors, all of different ages, races and even genders. Six actors, but in search of what?

With influences ranging from Fellini and Godard to Laurence Sterne and James Joyce, with a bit of Rashomonian Chaucer thrown in and an undercurrent of Marshall McLuhan to boot, Todd Haynes has created not only a film "about" Bob Dylan, but also a film that plays at times as being from Dylan, to Dylan, by Dylan and even on occasion, becoming Dylan. Breathed of the same cubist air in which Dylan created his own self-imitating (and oft-maligned and highly underrated) opus Renaldo & Clara back in 1978, and possibly with many of the same box office blockades (as far as the common moviegoer is concerned - length, unwarranted philosophizing, a dibilitatingly obscure linear structure et al), Haynes' film is a stroke of mad genius mixed with an air of semi-satiric superiority and blended with the mystique of frustrated stardom - all rolled into some sort of postmodern concoction of deconstructive catharsis.

First up (and I say that with an air of trepidation since the film is only superficially linear and Haynes cuts back and forth at the slightest provocation and/or whim) is Ben Whishaw as the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the personification of Dylan's poetic aspirations. In the midst of an interrogation being held by an off-stage voice, Whishaw is both mouthpiece for Dylan and his very own Joan of Arc, his face as blaise here as Dreyer's Maria Falconetti's was tormented. He is the voice of dissident, and diffident, reason.

Next comes Marcus Carl Franklin as a ten year old train-hopping black runaway in 1959 who goes by the name Woody Guthrie. Rather appropriately played by a black child actor, considering Dylan's youthful exuberance for Guthrie and his being led to the origin of blues music through this exuberance, this is the boy the man would become. Obsessed to the point of believing his own lies, Woody is Dylan as Dylan perhaps dreamt himself as a child. Tremulous at times, yet full of verve and desire. Replete with likely apocryphal tales of being a serial runaway, Dylan's childhood fantasies of becoming his one-time idol - fantasies which have many times over either been surpassed or missed altogether - play as both prelude and omen to what is to come. Where Rimbaud is his mind, Woody is the heart of Bob Dylan.

After the child prodigy incarnation of Woody vanishes from the screen (for now), we are given Christian Bale as the finger-pointing, political singing-songwriting-harmonica-playing troubadour Jack Rollins, here accompanied by Julianne Moore doing her best Joan Baez in full VH1 Where Are They Now? mode, giving us the early acoustic-strung world shattering aspirations of a still quite green Dylan. We watch wide-eyed naivety turn to jaded indignance in Bale's superbly bitter (and typically tortured Bale-ian) performance. This is Dylan turning his back on what people "expected" him to be. This is Dylan refusing to be the left-wing lap-dog they wanted. This is Dylan turning toward a different left. The left of the counterculture. The left of his Beat idols like Ginsberg and Kerouac and McClure. This is the soul of Dylan, aching to be alive.

This turning away from the "established" folk-centered left and turning toward the beat aesthetic is perfectly played in what is surely the centerpiece of Haynes' cubist masterwork (as well as the film's most sincere shot at Oscar gold) - Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, wild-eyed speed-freak electric rock & roll rebel at the apex of his (or her - does it even matter at this point?) circus cannonball blast to stardom. Shot in black and white and layered after both D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 Dylan doc Don't Look Back and Fellini's 1963 masterpiece of misinterpretation and misdirection 8 1/2, this section is rife with allegorical slaps at modern-day mass-hysteroid media and the often stampeding effect it has on celebrity, complete with a queer little helium-voiced "cameo" by four mop-topped lads from Liverpool, playing A Hard Day's Night/Help!-like with a similarly frolicking Jude/Dylan/Blanchett.




And if Dylan truly is the hero of our story then Bruce Greenwood as a quite nasty little Brit TV talk show host amalgamation known as Mr. Jones (who incidentally provocates a spectacular rendition of The Ballad of The Thin Man) is the villain. Snidely mocking Dylan's pretentiousness while snarkily being counter-attacked by Dylan/Quinn/Blanchett's sharp-tongued back quips, these Pennebaker-inspired sparring matches are the epitome of Dylan's jadedness toward the media. Meanwhile, amidst this Felliniesque circustry, we get David Cross as a pitch-perfect Allen Ginsberg making his entrance a la golf cart and Michelle Williams as part Edie Sedgewick, part personification of Dylan's fading muse. It was shortly after this time period - the Blonde on Blonde era and what many call the apogee of Dylan's songwriting career - that Dylan crashed his motorcycle and became a backwoods recluse for several years.

This segues nicely into Dylan's recluse days (the first version of them that is) and into the "family" life of Dylan personified here by Heath Ledger, doing his best James Dean (yet another Dylan idol). Ledger plays Robbie Clark, half rising half fading star of the silver screen and the incarnation of Dylan as Dylan himself showed in parts of Renaldo & Clara. Failing actor, failing husband and failing father. The "macho" antithesis of Blanchett's foppish Jude, Ledger's Robbie is a man at constant odds with himself and all those around him. Playing Robbie's wife (and stand-in for Sara Dylan, Suze Rotolo and other Dylan loves and muses - as well as Haynes own personal Anna Karina) is French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, appropriately (and surely uncoincidentally) cast in the role of spotlight mother, herself coming from the womb of a fashion model and the loins of a pop star. This is Dylan as false God. This is Dylan as faker. This is Dylan's lost soul.

And what would a lost soul be without someone to find - and save - it. This is exactly what happened to Dylan in the late seventies when he "found" Jesus and this is just what we get from Christian (aptly named?) Bale in redux. Former musical instigator Jack Rollins is now evangelical minister Paster John in what plays as a brief interlude from the rest of the story - which may just be what Dylan's own "rebirth" was.   If Ledger's Robbie was his false God, then this could very well be Dylan as false Man.

Then comes the final act. The reclusive hermetic Dylan. The fantasy Dylan. The dream Dylan. He comes in the package of a frazzled greying Richard Gere known as Mr. B, or as we later find out, Billy the Kid. Running from the law, running from his music, running from his fans and running from himself perhaps, Gere's Billy the Kid appears in what could very well be a dream world, full of surreal imagery and replete with masked men, women and children. Everyone, even in his dreams, are hiding - and Dylan is no different. With the sudden (re)appearance of Bruce Greenwood, this time behind his own mask as an aging Pat Garrett, Gere's "Kid" goes on the run and finds himself hopping back on the trains of his youth - and in doing so, we are taken right back to the beginning again. Structured in many ways upon Joyce's Finnigan's Wake, it is Billy's temporally implausible discovery of Woody's guitar aboard an empty boxcar that brings Haynes' film river running itself right back to where we started from.

And still, while much of the film takes on a Joycean life of its own, and it is, of course, based on the life of (if not the ruminations of) Bob Dylan, not to mention the melange of influences cited earlier, there is yet another must-see influence weighing heavy upon the auteuristic stylings of Mr. Haynes (could it be that Haynes has as many sides as Dylan himself?), and that influence is Jean-Luc Godard. Beginning and ending (as useless as those relative terms are in this case) in much the same gunshot fashion as Godard's Masculine/Feminine - not coincidentally the only one of Godard's seemingly endless oeuvre to openly reference Dylan - Haynes, at his most Godardian (and really, what current filmmaker is any more Godardian than Haynes right now?), lock stocks and barrels his way through the life of Bob Dylan with the stream-of-consciousness rhythms of a deconstructionive mad scientist. Haynes as the all-knowing, all-seeing (all that can be known and/or seen that is) doctor, and the many ideas of who or what or where or when Bob Dylan is, as his somewhat flawed yet genius monster - all the while never kow-towing to what one expects from the genre of biopic. After all, as Haynes recently more than alludes to in an interview in Cineaste, there are lies in all biography, but at least here we are let in on the joke.

I have a good friend who is, and I don't think he would be the slightest bit offended by the choice of adjective, obsessed with all things Dylan. Having seen him in concert about 953 times or so and owning just about every recorded piece of music, bootlegs and all, and much of it on vinyl, and referring to Dylan as The P.I. (for those of us in the know, that stands for Prophet Incarnate), and being a true Dylanologist of the highest order, I am sure he would get many more of the referential moments than even I did. Which may very well beg for a precursive crash course in Dylanology for those out there not so inclined toward The P.I., and though the recurring tarantula should be quite obvious to even the novice Dylan acolyte, I'm sure a primer in watching Scorsese's expounding doc No Direction Home (a great film even outside of the predications of I'm Not There) wouldn't hurt anyone.

In sum, there are not many people who have been able to successfully metamorphose into so many different creatures (possibly John Lennon or Miles Davis or the aforementioned Godard), but still this film is not just about Dylan. Never uttering the name throughout, this film is as much about Bob Dylan as it is not about Bob Dylan. Taking Proust's idea of a "succession of selves" and running with it - as Dylan has done to himself throughout his career (we are still not sure of many of the facts) - Haynes shows us not just another life (or another movie), but life (or Cinema) itself.   


[Originally published  at The Cinematheque on 12/16/07] 

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