Saturday, November 20, 2010
I’M NOT THERE (2007): The Fictional Bob Dylan
A number of actors take on a number of character names while playing various personas of Bob Dylan in the film I’m Not There. That one of them happens to be an eleven year old black boy calling himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), another happens to be a woman playing a man called Jude (Cate Blanchett), and still another calls himself Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) searching for his dog and shortly thereafter is arrested by Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood) alerts the viewer early on that the film does not follow a conventional storyline. We also have a couple of films within the film. An actor by the name of Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) plays a folk singer in a bi-op piece called Grain of Sand. Clark is playing the part of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) who also happened to be featured in a documentary film. (Admittedly, this is hard to ascertain in one single viewing of I’m Not There.) And we have a character with the same name as poet, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), being interrogated by God knows who while providing nonsensical answers to his questioners.
The reviews of I’m Not There have been somewhat mixed. Critics either tended to find a connection to Dylan that others did not or else could not find any sense in the film whatsoever. Some of the critics felt defensive like they were somehow being taken in by what they were viewing. Others went all out to demonstrate their great understanding of all things Dylan. For example, I find amusing the following quote by Luke Davies of The Monthly when he says: “I’m Not There would be utterly incomprehensible if you knew nothing about the Dylan story in the same way that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ would be incomprehensible if you knew nothing of the Jesus story.” Now Bob Dylan, whose own conversion to Christianity made many of his fans uncomfortable, would probably himself be uncomfortable with such a comparison to Jesus. And even if you are familiar with the “Dylan story,” there’s a good chance that you will still find the movie incomprehensible. Director Todd Haynes tries so hard to confuse us throughout this 135 minute movie that it’s difficult to know what conclusions we should derive from viewing it in its entirety. Like all that has been written about Dylan (especially when inquiring into his private life), the critics see more into this movie than can possibly be fathomed. Just by reviewing the casting for this film, one should not be surprised to find a theme that is absent and a structure that is anything but coherent.
I suppose that I’m Not There does have star power. We have Richard Gere riding around on a horse and Heath Ledger in one of his final films. However, we probably could have had dozens of other actors playing the same parts without any noticeable detriment to the quality of the movie. Cate Blanchett received the most acclaim for this film. She won a Golden Globe award for her performance for being so able to imitate the Dylan we came to know from the documentary Don’t Look Back. (There we see the young and sensitive Dylan just making the transition from acoustic to electric music. We also see a picture of the Dylan probably just beginning his experimentations with drugs.) Without question, Blanchett acts formidably in the role. However, her acting notwithstanding, I enjoyed the film more by the sheer surprises it presents than because of the skills in acting or directing. I watched it only because I was not sure what would happen next. When Haynes stuck to closely to the actual story of Bob Dylan the movie becomes pretentious. It is at its best when it is the most preposterous.
I’m Not There is unique like the individual it was supposed to be based upon. If Bob Dylan is remembered so much more than his contemporaries like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, it’s in part because he has never become a type. Dylan has avoided becoming caught up in any trend. He can’t be identified simply as a folk singer or country singer or Rock & Roll singer or gospel singer. Because of this his music has never become dated. We will listen to his songs again and again. Unfortunately, I’m Not There only survived a single run at the theatres and was only shown at a select number of movie-houses at that. This is understandable. I’m Not There is not a work of genius nor a preposterous failure as it has been dubbed by some who need other things to write about. It is a sometimes funny, often dull and always a strange piece of filmmaking. I’m pleased that I watched it, and equally pleased that I will probably never watch it again. The soundtrack will be pleasing for any Bob Dylan fan, but so would be listening to Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks.
© Robert S. Miller 2010