I'm Not There

Rating – Anything from 1 to 5

Directed by Todd Haynes

Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman

Starring Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore and Kris Kristofferson (narrator)

An interpretation of the life of Bob Dylan is told through a series of fractured scenes, with six different actors portraying characters meant to represent different phases of his life and work.

Any attempt to produce a bog-standard biopic of Bob Dylan would undoubtedly be doomed to failure, not least because he remains an enigma, despite the numerous books and hundreds of articles that have been written about him. On those terms, Todd Haynes’ approach makes a lot of sense and to a degree it does get to the heart of the apparent complexity and mystery of the man. Having said that, reaction to the film will entirely depend on whether viewers consider it to be a bold artistic statement or a piece of pretentious psuedo-intellectual claptrap. I find myself caught between the two, but veering towards the latter.

Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw portray Dylan. I did not particularly like Ledger’s portrayal, which deals with Dylan’s marriage to Sarah Lownds, who is represented by the character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Ledger’s performance sometimes seemed more like an impersonation of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in the film ‘Walk The Line’.

Christian Bale, playing the early 1960s Greenwich Village troubadour and the late 1970s “Born Again” Dylan, was, I thought, absolutely atrocious.

Cate Blanchett gives the performance that received most attention, playing Jude Quinn, a representation of Dylan in his 1965-6 “electric” phase. These sequences are clearly based on the famous D A Pennebaker documentary film ‘Don’t Look Back’, although the narrative is stretched to make room for Michelle Williams, playing a character based on Edie Sedgwick, who was allegedly the subject of Dylan’s song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, something certainly not confirmed by Dylan himself. Blanchett plays Dylan as a seriously wired speed freak. I did laugh out loud at a cameo appearance by “The Beatles” in these scenes – and by the first appearance of “Allen Ginsberg” (played by David Cross).

I rather liked the scenes featuring Richard Gere, playing Billy the Kid, representing Dylan’s time in Woodstock following his motorcycle accident in 1966, and also alluding to the film ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’.

I genuinely did like some bits of the film, which is very well made and unquestionably an interesting idea. Haynes clearly knows his subject, but I remain none the wiser if he particularly likes Dylan or not. Sometimes it seemed as if he were trying to wipe away the intellectual pretension that surrounds most study of the man by creating his own, which struck me as rather arrogant and pointless. The widespread praise for the performance of Cate Blanchett is understandable and warranted, but ultimately I really didn’t like the film much at all.

The film is clever, although I think it tries to be too clever and too oblique much of the time. To make any sense of it at all, it is necessary to be very familiar with Dylan’s life and work. Without that knowledge, it is simply meaningless.

‘I’m Not There’ has a 78% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 144 reviews. It had a worldwide box office gross a little under $11.5 million, which I think is rather impressive for such an unusual film. Previous films made by Todd Haynes include ‘Velvet Goldmine’ (a film about a fictional character based on ‘Ziggy Stardust’ era David Bowie) and ‘Far from Heaven’, an interesting if rather over-stylised film about racism in 1950s suburban America. That film starred Julianne Moore, who appears in ‘I’m Not There’, playing a character intended to represent Joan Baez.


whitelabcoat said...

Haven't seen this one yet, mainly because I suspected it would be pretty much how you've described it - pretentious and a bit pointless if you don't know what's going on in the first place. The best 'different' kind of biopic I've seen is probably Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, where the 'weirdness' was just right and Bobby Darin got pretty much the biopic he (rightly) deserved; having said that, maybe the same is true for I'm Not There, the difference being that, because Dylan is that pretentious anyway, any biopic that wants to reflect his character is going to be pretentious too.

I liked Far from Heaven, by the way - basically, Haynes making the Douglas Sirk melodrama that Sirk himself might have made without the obvious restrictions of the day, which I thought was a nice kind of tribute (plus, it has the most effective use of the F-word I think I've ever seen in a movie. The audience I saw it with actually gasped when it was uttered).

I don't know if or when I'll check out I'm Not There -- I think I'd have to be in a certain kind of mood to watch it; I'm more excited about the pending DVD release of Shine a Light, where we see Jagger's pretentiousness continue to crumble as soon as those first chords strike up.

alienlanes said...

I must admit you lost me with the reference to Mick Jagger, but I assume you mean the moment he walks out on stage with the Rolling Stones he reverts back to being the most charismatic front man in rock, as opposed to being Sir Mick of the celebrity jet-set tabloid world.

I have never particularly thought of Bob Dylan as being pretentious. I think there have been pretentious phases, the most famous of them (the whole ‘65 – ‘66 “cool” Dylan period) being the point at which time stopped for hard-line Dylanologists, who seek deep quasi-spiritual meaning in everything he does. Even then, I think Dylan knew it was all a game and he was just playing a role. Extreme fandom seems to like to believe it is very smart, but very rarely is. Cate Blanchett’s performance in the film does make the point that a big part of the reason Dylan was like he was at that time was because of the cocktail of drugs he was on, something his body could not have continued to cope with for any great length of time.

I suspect I would have liked ‘I’m Not There’ a lot more had I watched it, say, twenty years ago, when I would perhaps have been more inclined to read meaning into it – or, at least, work harder at finding meaning. These days, I don’t think the effort justifies the gain. I certainly don’t have the arrogance of youth any longer, although I do try to minimise the cynicism that comes with the passing of years.

With the exception of the sci-hi/horror films of the period, and a few other isolated examples, I am not generally very fond of 1950’s films. It is probably my least favourite decade of the “talkies” era. I appreciate the skill of Douglas Sirk, but I would not claim to particularly like his films – in the same way that I do not dispute the brilliance of Shakespeare or Mozart, but that doesn’t mean I actually like their work very much.

whitelabcoat said...

Mick Jagger - yep, that's exactly what I was getting at.

Actually, I was probably a bit harsh on Dylan re the 'pretentious' stuff -- I remember when I finally saw him live, for instance, being surprised by the genuine warmth that seemed to come across in his performance. I think what I was getting at was the 'game' you mention - yes, he is aware of it, but he also seems happy to perpetuate the mythology a lot of the time by, for instance, being 'mysterious' and/or cryptic (then being dismissive of the people who wonder what he's getting at). I get irritated by that (in a similar way that The Band irritates me - the supposed lack of pretentiousness comes across as very deliberate and designed to show just how superior they are). His biography, for instance, was predictably 'weird'; and I wasn't surprised that I'm Not There was 'weird' too.

I agree with the 50s movies thing - it's probably my least favourite era too (along with most of the decade that followed), but I have a soft spot for Douglas Sirk. All That Heaven Allows had a big impact on me when I was a youngster; and Imitation of Life was a popular movie in our family when I was growing up.