BOBBING ALONG: Heath Ledger plays one of several Bob Dylans in 'I'm Not There.'
'I'm Not There' paints Bob Dylan as a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in Riddle, Mo.
By Richard von Busack
THERE WAS NO Dylan, there were Dylans, and there may not even be a there, there. But Todd Haynes' I'm Not There is a masterpiece of deconstruction. Actually, it's a masterpiece, period. The film represents the culmination of ideas the director of Far From Heaven took up years ago in Superstar, his unauthorized Barbie-doll biography of Karen Carpenter. Later, Haynes' sometimes maddening Velvet Goldmine tried to dissect the chameleon David Bowie but ended with nothing more substantial than a group of roman à clef phantoms.
The third time is the charm. Haynes has a complex artist to admire and a tremendously well-sifted song catalog. I'm Not There's/ starting point is the 1966 motorcycle accident that supposedly almost killed Bob Dylan (or scared him into detox, more likely). A man like that leaves more than one ghost, Kris Kristofferson's narrator tells us.
And if only Toys "R" Us had the action figures. ... Here before us are a half-dozen Dylans: a poet under the alias "Arthur Rimbaud" (Ben Whishaw); a rising folk singer (Christian Bale); a movie star and straying husband Robbie (Heath Ledger); a born-again preacher (Bale again); an Old West hermit (Richard Gere); and a childlike disciple of Woody Guthrie and other bluesmen (the endearing young Marcus Carl Franklin). Finally, we have the most authentic Dylan: "Jude" the jabbering, speeded-out London Mod (Cate Blanchett), pissed off at the pissed-off fans who couldn't accept amplified music.
Haynes must have a sweet spot for the Old West Dylan of John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes era. The film's title comes from a rare and ethereal ballad, a bootleg song that didn't make the official Basement Tapes release in 1975. Haynes erects a symbolist frontier village called Riddle, Mo. It's a movie version of album-cover art, like walking right into The Basement Tapes' cover with its broken accordions, greasepaint and carnies.
In this sequence, a grave and courtly Gere plays Billy. He's ruddy, bespectacled, like Dylan's outlaw Alias in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. A six-lane freeway is coming through town—the highway is just like the railroad displacing the small-town people in the old Westerns.
In the black-and-white swinging London sequences, Blanchett's Jude speeds his brains out, sending the sparks flying in all direction. Stalking Jude is a blonde debutante; Michelle Williams does a miles-better Edie Sedgwick than Sienna Miller's recent stab at the part in Factory Girl. Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) shows up to cool Jude off with some philosophical solace. Meanwhile, an indefatigable journalist (Bruce Greenwood) tries to crack the artist for an interview. He ends up swallowed whole into a visual rendition of "Ballad of a Thin Man."
I'm Not There fights myth with myth, zeroing in on this life-long smoke-screener, this vanishing-act artist. Whatever Dylan's codswallopy self-mythologizing meant to Dylan is up to Dylan. It's what the myths meant to us that Haynes mulls over, how the cryptic words stuck in our heads and became koans and prophecies.
The film's principal delight is how it succeeds despite the seeming impossibility of success. I dreaded something like Across the Universe, with its coy, tedious '60s worship. But Haynes avoids the more tired songs, and every variety of obviousness. This isn't a reprise of the self-love orgy of Renaldo and Clara, or of the elderly kvetching of Masked and Anonymous. Haynes may be the first filmmaker ever not to approach Dylan on bended knee.
For example, Haynes is smart enough to be critical of these Dylans' sexism. (His generation could rarely take women for equals.) There are good parts for the women, in addition to Blanchett. Julianne Moore does such a deft Joan Baez character that the laughter bubbles up every time you see her. Yet there's not a trace of caricature or condescension on Moore's part.
The rugged-looking Charlotte Gainsbourg is called "Claire" (in honor of Sara Dylan's own alias in Renaldo and Clara. Prettiness isn't Gainsbourg's virtue—who cares, prettiness is a small virtue—but she looks warm and alluring with false eyelashes and untidy hair. She brings in what I'd call a bass note of feminine solidness, carrying her man to temporary rest in a tangle of limbs during the song "I Want You."
Haynes telescopes the various editions of Dylan so well, that there's not a single mixed metaphor in the film. This tour de force of music love coalesces on one image: the real Dylan at his most angelic, his face invisible in a nimbus of spotlight, playing the waxing, waning, so sad, so sweet, blues-harp solo in the live version of "Mr. Tambourine Man."
Throughout, Haynes insists that Vietnam was essential to Dylan's run for cover. Yet by not slamming home the parallels between 1968 and 2007, Haynes matches the two eras better than any fiction filmmaker has yet done. Dylan's songs were right for that terrible age of violence, confusion, rudderlessness and loss. And ours.
I'M NOT THERE (R; 135 min.), directed by Todd Haynes, written by Haynes and Oren Moverman, photographed by Edward Lachman and starring Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Christian Bale, opens Nov. 21 at selected theaters.
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