Trust in the myth of Bob Dylan goes a long way toward making Todd Haynes‘ I’m Not There make sense. But its portrait of this notoriously shape-shifting artist is not the film’s most significant achievement, or even its most interesting. That would be a more abstract and sometimes frustrating insight, concerning celebrity – as a curse and a conquest.
The casting of seven separate actors as Dylan is by now a much-remarked gimmick that makes a few worthy points. Dylan Per Se is a trip, an embodiment of potential meanings for fans and detractors, a performative opportunity for movie stars ranging from Christian Bale to Richard Gere to Heath Ledger to – most sublime – Cate Blanchett. The variety makes an obvious argument for Dylan’s multiplicity, as well as his changing times and his meeting of needs.
You know already that he’s a folk hero who went electric, a husband who went astray, a poet who spoke some truth to power and then found something else to say. The film offers all these and other versions of Dylan, some more profound than others, and in the process, also offers another way to conceive that most deadly dull of genres, the biopic.
Suffused with insider-friendly allusions and elusions, I’m Not There is smartest about that titular declaration: you won’t find a singular self or definitive self-performance here. Instead, each segment proffers a story of origins and consequences, coming together in a spin of likely fictions and possible verities.
The first incarnation (Marcus Carl Franklin) is black and 11 years old. Calling himself Woody, after his idol, the boy delivers himself into a railroad car, strumming an old guitar and chatting with his fellow riders. “What brings you around these parts?” asks one old man. “Carelessness,” says Woody, but of course that’s a lie. He has a plan, even if he’s unaware of it at the time (and that time would be ongoing, intimated by the film’s subtitle, The Lives and Time of Bob Dylan). “I lost my one true love and I started drinking.”
It’s a familiar story, even trite, but it’s most plainly a blues story. On one level an outrageous choice, the casting of Franklin, underscored by the film’s chronology, resurrects concerns that white pop music drew from “other” individuals and cultures, profiting emotionally and financially from legacies of grief and loss — enforced and disavowed by the white traditions and self-definitions.
“Boy,” says one down-homey supporter, “Looks like you found your freedom before you found your tongue.” When he insists that he means to express himself in songs about boxcars, a world not precisely his own, he’s warned to adjust his focus. “Live your own time, child. Sing about your own time.”
Woody doesn’t quite manage this, though he does serve as an example of how desire and ambition can be abused. Briefly adopted and applauded by a circle of affluent white adults, the boy plays user-friendly music and gains acceptance – or maybe it’s mere tolerance. At the least, it’s exploitation, performed here in a way that underscores the costs for Woody’s antecedents and the self-delusions of his consumers. He’s not there, but he’s just where they want him.
The next steps in showing Dylan’s career are less outrageous, though sometimes more poetic. Jack Rollins (Bale) is at once an earnest singer and an object for the Joan-Baezish Alice (Julianne Moore). As she looks back talking-head-style, Alice is radiant (soft-filtered) and nostalgic. “He saw what was going on in the world,” she rhapsodizes. He sings in Greenwich Village, he leans into his mic, seeking connections.
He’s of a piece with another incarnation, Robbie (Ledger), Method actor and star of a biopic about the disappearing Jack, titled Grain of Sand. Photogenic and self-absorbed, he’s cruel to his girlfriend Clair (Charlotte Gainsbourg, again incandescent), in pursuit of fame and meaning, not entirely incompatible ends, but not easily reconciled either, at least within the Dylan legend.
Ben Whishaw as Arthur provides occasional commentary – in a black-and-white interview format, as the poet constructs his own fable, utterly inorganic and jarring. And Gere shows up as a sweet-faced retired “outlaw” (circa Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), all rural and a-tumble in a mountain town, where rituals and poverty order daily existence.
Frankly, once Blanchett makes a first appearance as Jude, Gere’s scenes feel like they’re marking time while you wait for her to come back. Rebellious in a wholly conventional way, Jude speaks in aphorisms, shares wisdom with Allen Ginsburg (David Cross), and resists being “subjected” to an interview by a cynical and suspicious reporter (Bruce Greenwood).
While the Jack-and-Robbie juxtapositions open a particular door onto celebrity as a game of self-expression and evasion, Jude acts out the film’s interest in celebrity’s institutionalization, its endless drains, and damages, on products and consumers alike. And while I’m Not There makes clear that not being there — being distracted by merchandise and notoriety — leaves more crucial, historical concerns like the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement to backgrounds, noted on televisions.
Though the film grants Dylan’s own attention to such real-world “issues,” it also shows how increasingly convoluted media cycles and voracious fans (at least as they’re perceived by their object of adoration), conspire to deplete art. The film assumes the artist’s genius but doesn’t show it. Rather, it shows the processes by which Dylan (in this case) is crushed into bits of meaning, desired and concocted, strung together in mismatched sequences.
But there’s a catch. This Dylan, much like the “meaning” evoked by Trinh T. Minh-ha, “can neither be imposed nor denied” (“Documentary Is/Not a Name” October, v52, Spring 1990). I’m Not There is less a pleasurable story or even a cautionary tale than it is a pastiche (and as such, both story and tale). It leaves the parsing to its various readers, Dylanologists and art-filmsters, Haynes aficionados, and Blanchett buffs. If Dylan’s not there, you have to make your own decision about the “I”.