The many faces of Bob Dylan… even the female ones

By Joseph Houlihan

What movie are you guys talking about? Oh yeah, I saw that movie; it was pretty sweet. The basic premise is that of a biography, but the method of the film is fairly original. Writer and director Todd Haynes recruits six actors to portray different iconic visions of Bob Dylan. “Palindromes,” a rather sordid 2004 film by Todd Solondz, applies a comparable technique by having different actresses switch into the same lead; but in that film, the continuity of the lead is never jeopardized. In “I’m Not There,” the six personas presented are independent; they are protest singer, movie star, rambling eleven-year-old Woody Guthrie fan, newly electric folk performer, outlaw, and Arthur Rimbaud. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, and Ben Whishaw, respectively, assume these roles. Above everything else, this film is a joy. It is playful and, at times, surreal. Its appropriately lax confines of reality reminded me of “Klimt”, the 2006 biography-piece similarly constructed, in this, the age of reason, for an audience out of short-pants. The narratives in “I’m Not There” interweave tastefully, offering different fragments of each story and developing the characters in a seemingly chronological manner. Haynes proves his erudition, co-opting a scene from Godard’s “Masculin, Féminin” for a mushy beginning in the most traditionally themed story in the film: the Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg marriage. It is this relationship that provides a human grounding for the movie’s other, more abstract, meanderings, although its aesthetics occasionally evoke a Gap advertisement. The central theme of the movie is epitomized in the Cate Blanchett sequences, this theme being a rejection of assignation.

I saw “I’m Not There” downtown in Chicago; and as luck would have it, after the screening, James Stern, one of the film’s producers, accepted questions from the audience. He identified the use of six personas and the decision to cast Cate Blanchett in a male role as techniques in the vein of Bertolt Brecht, seeking to alienate the movie’s characters and subject, Dylan, from the audience. During the Q & A, the concept of target audience arose. I would like to dwell a little upon this question of audience, as it highlights one of the film’s main contradictions.

Throughout the film, instead of appearing alien, the scenes and dialogue all seemed very familiar. Not being, as others in that theater professed, a Dylan aficionado, I could not help but marvel at my own apparent abilities of premonition. I soon realized the source of this was, of course, the documentary released on PBS two years ago, “No Direction Home,” directed by Martin Scorsese. I, like many of the other audience members, had seen this (which, although a better Bob Dylan movie, is not a better movie) so that while watching “I’m Not There,” we already knew the lines-from the music and from the reel clips- and with these materials Hayne’s film could not provoke the desired effect. There was no alienation; there was only Dylan. He was everywhere; it felt inescapable. From the opening seconds of Kris Kristofferson offering a grizzled narration in his own outlaw voice, the allusions to Dylan-lore were laid on pretty thick.

The strongest part of the Scorsese documentary is its demystification of Dylan, which it accomplishes by including footage of personal interviews with the reclusive performer. By framing his film as a treatment of six personas, Haynes again muddies the once cleared waters. Stern called aspects of “I’m Not There” critical of Dylan, but a more appropriate term would be hagiographic, for even faults are presented in a light of glamour and mystery. The underlying paradox of “I’m Not There” is an assigning of six mysterious personas to a performer that vocally opposed such assignation. For everything that Bob Dylan is and was, he was never a nineteenth century French symbolist poet. And as good as “I’m Not There” is, I really think it would have been more fitting treatment for a different subject, one whose story has not already been so well told. My suggestions for such a subject are Mike Royko, John Coltrane, Arthur Rimbaud and Todd Haynes.