Last night I finally got a chance to see I’m Not There. As an on again off again unpredictable but rampant Bob Dylan fan, I was bound to like the movie more than most. Because without the background knowledge of other Dylan iconography, it’s hard to get a handle on the pastiche presented in Todd Hayne’s latest work. Like watching Velvet Goldmine without any knowledge of glam rock or David Bowie, or Far From Heaven before seeing anything by Douglas Sirk (two things I’ve been known to do), these movies are best experienced on multiple planes of recognition.
That’s not to say that I’m Not There can’t be enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read the biographies, seen the documentaries, or even listened to the music. On the surface, I’m Not There functions as an interesting rock-biopic with fabulous performances (Cate Blanchett put a sock in her pants so she could walk like a dude). But, I think, it’s the recognition of the various levels of pastiche that offers a viewer that deeper enjoyability. Probably self-congratulatory, but in the way that I love to be congratulated by myself.
Okay, so each story is representative of a different persona that Dylan either alluded to or adopted (my favorite is the inclusion of Christian Dylan played by Christian Bale. Get it??). And then each film style that each Dylan operates in is representative of a different period of Dylan’s life and the ways in which he was represented in those periods. So the Dylan that Cate Blanchett plays, as a character called Jude Quinn (a reference I still haven’t pinned down), is shot in the exact way that D.A. Pennebaker shoots Dylan in his observational documentary Dont Look Back, with hand held cameras, black and white footage, and unpredictable edits. (My favorite example of this is when Haynes shoots representations of the Beatles fooling around in fast-motion, exactly like my favorite scene in Hard Days Night.)
Still from Dont Look Back. I think they should have kept the apostrophe out of I’m Not There, too.
BUT, the music doesn’t correspond with each Dylan. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) plays “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” for migrant workers, evoking the same shot seen in Dont Look Back of a concert in the late 50s, before Hattie Carroll was even killed in 1963. Similarly, Dylan’s love life is liberally sprinkled throughout the film, with Joan Baez’s representation (named “Alice Fabean” and played by Julianne Moore) situated chronologically before Dylan’s girlfriend Suze Rotolo (named “Claire” in the film and played by Charlotte Gainsbourge) who is shown walking down the street in the same pose as the Freewheelin’ cover.
There are pieces that don’t seem to fit so closely. For example, Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) is another reincarnation of Dylan, but in an early time. This might be a reference to Dylan’s small part in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, or it might just refer to Dylan’s admiration of the Kid specifically and American outlaws in general. The style in this segment is more carnivalesque (it is, after all, Halloween in the small down where the Kid is living) than old-west, though, which breaks from Haynes other fidelity to other decades presented.
I guess I could go on all day, trying to uncover the various references and pastiche. It’s hard for me to predict whether or not a non-Dylan fan would enjoy I’m Not There, because I’m obviously so entrenched in the mythology of Dylan as an American character. I’m inclined to believe that the film still packs an emotional punch, even if you aren’t a huge fan. Just as Dylan’s music can appeal to a wide variety of people – especially when you consider his multiple styles that he has embraced over the years – I think the film can capture the attention of those who are willing to sit through an attempt to translate poetry to images. This film seems more of an aesthetic effort than any sort of accurate portrayal, and I really appreciate the effort. There are moments that are, perhaps, ill fitting, and, likewise, moments that conform too much to the genre conventions of a biopic. However, it is the often tragic and always interesting presence of Dylan himself (through references and music) that prove the backbone of this film and what, I think, make it the most beautiful documentation of his life.