November 20, 2007

I'm Not There

Elizabeth: The Drag Queen

Grade: B
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, David Cross, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood, Julianne Moore, and Michelle Williams
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hour, 15 minutes

To both its credit and detriment, Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There is an utter cinematic manifestation of its subject—elusive and surreal, yet strangely calculated and manipulative. The film’s structure is nearly as abstruse as a free-associating Dylan ditty: Six actors, each cast under a different pseudonym, portray distinct stages of the singer-songwriter’s life. The first chronological bookend to this narrative is a character called “Woody” (Marcus Hope Franklin), an 11-year-old black boy who rides the rails and, like Dylan, spends his early singing career emulating the musical stylings of dust-bowl folk idol Woody Guthrie. At the other end of the line, there’s “Billy” (Richard Gere), an older, self-imposed recluse patterned loosely upon Dylan’s country songs and his retreat from the modern world.

Confused yet? Director Haynes has a high-art reputation, but his films usually bear the distinct influences of others, from Velvet Goldmine (based on David Bowie’s alter-ego Ziggy Stardust and sharing the narrative structure of Citizen Kane) to the Douglas Sirk-inspired Far From Heaven. Haynes’ new film, with its Hydra-headed Dylan, is an echo of Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, and he also employs a menagerie of styles to represent each chapter of his story. For example, a rather tepid faux-documentary tells the tale of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), representing Dylan during his early-1960s protest period, while the Billy tableau is drawn from Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, in which Dylan appeared and wrote the score.

The two strongest segments reveal the most emotionally accessible Dylan and, not coincidentally, the film’s two best performances. Heath Ledger plays Robbie, a countercultural screen actor embroiled in a tumultuous relationship with Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a stand-in for Dylan’s real-life marriage to and divorce from Sara Lowndes. More James Dean than Dylan, Ledger’s complex, brooding interpretation is framed within the backdrop of a French-cinema romance, with references to Godard and Truffaut.

The most captivating chapter is unquestionably Haynes’ nod to Dylan’s mid-1960s struggles with fame and his folk persona, filmed in black and white as a Fellini-esque pastiche. Under the moniker of Jude Quinn, Cate Blanchett – in a near tour de force – offers a version of Dylan that is both ethereal and childlike in its mischievousness, sparring with the press (embodied by Bruce Greenwood’s Mr. Jones, the notorious object of “Ballad of a Thin Man”) and carousing Warholian drug dens with the likes of Allen Ginsburg (David Cross) and an Edie Sedgwick doppelganger (Michelle Williams). This is also Dylan during his controversial electric stage, taking a figurative howitzer to his folk fanbase and executing perhaps his most brilliant act of nonconformity by embracing the strictures of pop-cultural conformity.

The overarching spirit of I’m Not There is in its enigmatic portrait of an enigma. Still, while the inherent contradictions of Dylan and this vehicle are undoubtedly intentional, at some point they become less provocative than debilitating. Moreover, it is worth noting that Dylan’s hipster indifference to celebrity has now been punctured by two officially sanctioned motion pictures this decade (the previous being 2003’s woeful “Masked and Anonymous”) that promote and capitalize on Dylan’s iconography. Ultimately, Dylan has always been what he claims to be—a master songwriter and storyteller—and what he will not admit to being—a brilliant, strategic self-marketer. During this holiday season, you can log onto and purchase Dylan-embossed hats, shirts, plush robes, coffee mugs and $20 teddy bears. The times might be a-changin’, but some things never do.

Neil Morris

No comments: