I’m Not There (2007): Haynes’ Deconstructive Feature about Bob Dylan’s Many Faces

Haynes’ most ambitious and challenging film to date, “I’m Not There,” his fifth feature, is a densely textured, highly provocative meditation on the lives and times of legendary singer-icon Bob Dylan.
Innovative in structure and style, “I’m Not There” is not a biopic in any sense of the term–a title card informs, “Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.” Nor is the film a linear narrative that means to be accurate or do justice to the complex, mysterious, and evasive songwriter, who became a spokesperson of his generation despite himself.

After playing all the fall festivals (Telluride, Venice, Toronto, New York), where it received mixed responses, ranging from raves to dismissals, “I’m Not There” will open theatrically in late November by the Weinstein Company in a platform release.

Dramatizing the life and music of Bob Dylan as a series of shifting personae, each performed by a different actor–poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of folk and rock and roll, martyr born-again Christian–the film boasts a wonderful cast of actors (including the brilliant Cate Blanchett) who impersonate different facets of Dylan’s complex persona in various decades of his life.

Stylistically, “I’m Not There” is inspired by such European auteurs as Fellini, in his 1960s era circa “La Dolce Vita” and particularly “81/2, and Godard, also of the 1960s with such deconstructive film essays as Masculin-Feminin” and “Two or Three Things I Know About Her.” But American influences can also be detected, particularly early on, when Dylan is seen as Woody Guthrie in what recalls Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory,” and at the end, in the Richard Gere’s “Billy” sequences, which bring to mind various Westerns, including Peckinpah’s “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid.”

Even so, “I’m Not There” is not a pastiche, and, more importantly, it is not structurally messy, as it would seem. Au contraire: Every single frame and transition from shot to shot and from scene to scene, are calculated and motivated, a product of careful planning and meticulous attention to detail.

Haynes, one of the truly visionary and indie directors around, has made an uncompromising film that will divide film critics and viewers, and is far less accessible than his previous outing, “Far From Heaven” (2002), which was nominated for four Oscars and became Haynes’ only commercial hit to date.

Like Fellini’s “81/2” and Godard’s best work, “I’m Not There” is also a personal, self-reflexive work. Those familiar with Haynes’ work should be able to detect recurrent themes and motifs in his oeuvre, prime among which is the fluidity of identity as a social construct, shaped by both personal and historical-political forces, and the impossibility of capturing any life life in a conventional narrative format, such as the Hollywod biopic. (This movie, like all of Haynes’ work, is essentially a critique of mainstream cinema genres).

This becomes very clear in the 1960s sequences, the film’s very best, with Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn in a posh London hotel. Reading what he perceives as embellished and distorted reports of his (mis)conduct, Jude says: “I’m glad I’m not me.” But there is really no “me” in this picture, or to phrase it differently, there are “so many mes,” that it’s up to the audience to select, absorb and enjoy disparate elements of Hayne’s open and open-minded approach. (At the end of the screening, you’ll find yourself thinking and favoring particular segments and performers over others).

Haynes is not the first filmmaker to use different actors to embody the same character. He follows in the footsteps of the late surrealist Bunuel in his great film, “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), in which two actresses played the same femme, as well as American indie Todd Solondz in his failed effort, “Palindromes,” in which a female teenager named Aviva was played by eight actors (including two adults and a boy). Yet arguably, Haynes’s strategy is the most effective, and the least gimmicky. It’s not a cinematic stunt, as it was in “Palindromes,” which really didn’t benefit from its multi-actor characterizations.

At first, the six thespians (and seven roles) follow more or less a chronological order, but then Haynes inserts them in a most unpredictable manner. Toward the end, there’s a brilliant second, in which all of them flash on the screen.

Arthur (played by British actor Ben Wishaw), a renegade symbolist poet, serves as the films narrator in a largely single, black-and-white set. Arthur is interrogated by a nameless commission (the Communist witch-hunting HUACC) about the suspicious motivations, subversive undercurrents, and political misreadings of his work. His witty, ironic responses provide counterpoint to the more prosaic chapters of his life that follow.

Saga begins in the late 1950s, with the young and ambitious Bob Dylan, played by the black boy Marcus Carl Franklin as a blues-guitar prodigy named Woody, in color sequences that are set indoors and outdoors, some of which aboard a train. A precocious train-hopper who, despite being 11 and black, calls himself Woody Guthrie, he has adopted in earnest the posture and tales of the dust bowl troubadour. To the mostly white supporters he encounters on the road, Woodys tall tales of circus escapes and musical glory provide evidence of his authenticity, even after his calculated impersonation is disclosed.

The character who first achieves success singing about his own time is Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a handsomer womanizer who moves to New York’s Greenwich Village and spearheads the protest-music scene of the early 1960s with his compositions, live performances, and LPs.

As the adoring public centers on the social and political consciousness in his lyrics, Jack severs ties with his “message” in a strange retreat from his lover and folk singing champion, Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore, standing in for Joan Baez) and his worshiping audience. Snippets of interview with Alice, which are not particularly illuminating, are inserted throughout the film, with Alice representing one of the few characters that calls too much attention to the saga’s academic conception.

Cut to Robbie (Heath Ledger), a New York actor and motorcyclist, racing to counter-culture fame with his performance in a 1965 biopic, “Grain of Sand,” of the now-gone Jack. Robbies troubled ten-year relationship with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is chronicled from their initial meeting in a Greenwich Village coffee shop through to their eventual separation against the background turmoil of the Vietnam War; a TV set with violent images of the War is always in the background.

The above are the film’s most overtly personal and emotional sequences, and also the most French cinema-inspired, with references to Godard, Truffaut, and even Claude Lelouche (“A Man and a Woman,” 1966).

In what’s the yarn’s most poignant act, which comes 50 minutes into the saga and lasts about one reel, Cate Blanchett plays Jude, or Dylan in his most popular and political phase, as both folk and rock performer, forced to confront issues of celebrity and fame and disappointed, crazy, abnd violent fans, one of whom threatens Dylan and entourage with a knife.

While Robbie struggles to balance private life with fame, Jude surrenders completely to the era’s sex-drugs-music spirit. Closely following Dylans mid-1960ss adventures, Jude shocks his audience by embracing amplified rock and an increasingly nihilistic, drugs-fueled persona. His new sound attracts artistic kudos from gay Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), underground ingnue-socialite Coco Rivington (Michelle Williams, Leger’s real-life companion) and international fame. But he also infuriates the protest-music old guard, and inquisitive journalists like Mr. Jones (Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood), who follows him incessantly demanding to know everything about him, especially feelings.

Christian Bale is the only cast member who plays two roles, mostly as Jack Rollins, but also as the Dylan who converts to Christianity. Evading emotional attachments and self-preservation, Judes dangerous lifestyle propels him into existential and nervous breakdown and he goes through a process of resurrection. Pastor John (Bale) is Jack 20 years later, a born-again Christian preacher who has jettisoned his folk music for the gospel in Stockton, California.

Arguably, weakest sections, which are set in the 1970s, involve Richard Gere, who impersonates the saga’s oldest character, Billy, a glasses-wearing cowboy, in full withdrawal from the world, loyal and attached only to his dog. As Billy, he has survived his famous showdown and found refuge in the metaphoric town of Riddle, Missouri in a self-imposed exile from the past. However, the towns impending demise forces a confrontation with his old nemesis, Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood, in costume), and Billy is forced to abandon his sacred retreat and move on; refusing to settle down and be tied to one identity, Dylan is always on the move.

Overly long and dull, with Gere often looking at the sky or the distant hills, this act is the least dramatic (though its not the actor’s fault), and could have been cut to half its length since it literally brings the narrative to a stop. We sigh with relief by the time Billy bids farewell from his dog and boards the train.

Fortunately, the film concludes on a poignant, highly emotional note, with a brief glimpse of the real Bob Dylan in a concert, performing the seminal “Mr. Tambourine Man” on his harmonica, which highlights the notion that at the end of the day what counts and matters is not the creative man, or his career, but his creation, his music, which would outlast both him and us.

The aptly titled “I’m Not There” suggests how impossible it is for fans, scholars and movie viewers to decode an artist’s life and have a real grasp on his persona and psche, because the artsit himself-Bob Dylan-may not know who he is or what he is doing.

The seven identities braided together are like seven interrelated organs pumping life through one dense and vibrant story. The movie begins with a series of graphic titles on the screen–“I’m he,” “I’m her,” “I’m here,” “I’m not here,” “I’m there,” “I’m not there”–encouraging audiences to think of the flow (or lack of) of their own lives.

Cast

Jack – Christian Bale
Jude – Cate Blanchett
Woody – Marcus Carl Franklin
Billy – Richard Gere
Robbie – Heath Ledger
Arthur – Ben Whishaw
Pastor John – Christian Bale
Claire – Charlotte Gainsbourg
Allen Ginsberg – David Cross
Journalist – Bruce Greenwood
Alice Fabian – Julianne Moore
Coco Rivington – Michelle Williams

Credits

A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.) release of an Endgame Entertainment, Killer Films, John Wells and John Goldwyn (U.S.) production, a VIP Medienfonds 4 (Germany) production, in association with Rising Star, in association with Grey Water Park Prods. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by James D. Stern, John Sloss, Goldwyn, Christine Vachon.
Executive producers: Hengameh Panahi, Philip Elway, Andrea Grosch, Douglas E. Hansen, Wendy Japhet, Steven Soderbergh, Amy J. Kaufman, Wells.
Co-producer: Charles Pugliese.
Directed by Todd Haynes.
Screenplay: Haynes, Oren Moverman; story, Haynes, inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.
Camera: Edward Lachman.
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz. Music supervisors: Randall Poster, Jim Dunbar.
Production designer: Judy Becker. Art director: Pierre Perrault. Costume designer: Jon Dunn.
Sound: Patrick Rousseau. Sound designer: Leslie Shatz. Special effects supervisor: Louis Craig.
Visual effects supervisor: Louis Morin.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 135 Minutes.