Friday, August 17, 2012

It's alright, Bob (I'm Not There)

As most people who know me well enough are doubtlessly aware, around new years or thereabouts, I spent spent about two or three months of my sordid little existence indulging in a minor obsession over the music and persona of rock and roll’s self-styled poet laureate, Bob Dylan.

To me, Bob is really a musician like no other. When he was bad, and he had his lacklustre periods, he churned out some godawful stinkers. But when he was good, which he often was, he was so far ahead of the competition that it makes my head spin like a centrifuge - his mid-60’s beatnik lyricism, for instance, continues to twist my noodle each and every time again. Bob’s life and career contain so many contradictions that you could spend decades studying him and still discover new things each and every day. Like him or not, it’s undeniable that he’s a fascinating figure. There’s a reason that Dylanology is actually a thing, as stupid of a word as that is.

Thus, it's only natural that when I started reading and hearing all sorts of interesting things about I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ 2007 biopic about Bob Dylan, it didnt take me long to hunt down a copy of the film to give it a watch. Just looking at the trailer got me interested, and the poster for the film would’ve raised an eyebrow even if I were not a Dylan fan. “Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whislaw are all Bob Dylan”? That’s the kind of tagline you need to sucker me in! I’m game! 

Be honest, you're just a little bit curious.

Yes, you read that right. Not content to have just one Bob Dylan in his movie, that greedy bastard Haynes casts six different actors to portray different iterations of everybody’s favourite sandpaper-voiced musical icon – including the Joker and the Batman, as well as a woman and a black kid. 

To non-Dylan connoisseurs I should explain this is not as bizarre a casting method as it’d seem. The above-mentioned contradictions that characterise Bob’s career are in no small part due to the many different public images he’s taken on during the last decade. His most enduring persona, the aloof rock star in shades of the mid-60’s, might be hard to reconcile with, say, the Felliniesque vagrant in white clown-makeup of the mid-70’s Rolling Thunder Revue, or the aged, dishevelled bluesman with the silly hat and pencil moustache he’s become in recent years. Todd Haynes tackles this multiple Dylan problem by using his six actors to portray six characters inspired by these different personas taken on by Dylan throughout the years. None of the characters are actually named Bob Dylan, but the intended parallels to Dylan’s life are obvious.

The results are interesting, to say the very least – though in all honesty, in hindsight I’m not entirely sure how well all of it works.

The film’s greatest performance is given by Cate Blanchett, who plays Jude Quinn, a former folk singer who went electric and became a rock star, infuriating his former fanbase. Quinn is the obvious parallel to Bob’s enduring mid-60’s persona: the haughty and sneering celebrity, constantly strung out on pot, sporting his iconic pair of dark sunglasses under a chaotic afro-like bob that looks like it’d break any comb in half that would as much as go near it. Quinn’s narrative evokes the infamous electric Dylan controversy, which started after Dylan played with a rock band backing him at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and released a trio of electric albums, creating an outrage amongst his fans and the Greenwhich Village folk circuit. In a surreal scene, Haynes portrays the Newport incident as Quinn and his band walking on stage, opening their guitar cases, taking out a bunch of Tommy guns and opening fire on the crowd. Blanchett’s part of the movie is shot in black and white, in a style echoing Felini’s as well as the 1967 Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker, which portrays the same era of Dylan’s career. It contains a number of other surreal sequences, such as a short cameo of the Beatles as they roll around in the grass with Quinn in a cloud of smoke and chirp to each other in high goofy voices, eluding to Bob's historic meeting with the fab four during which he's said to've introduced them to marijuana. Blanchett’s resemblance to Dylan is uncanny, both in appearance and in mannerisms. Jude Quinn is aloof and rude, verbally sparring with interviewers and putting down friend and foe alike. At the same time however, Blanchett’s Quin brings something almost femininely frail to the mid-60’s Dylan, showing him to be struggling with the burden of his fame, his drug problem and people’s expectations of him. Blanchett is simply a joy to watch in the role, and her scenes end up becoming the best part of the film by far. 

Some of the shots and sequences in Blanchett's scenes are simply stunning.
The rest of the film is a bit of a mixed bag, though leaning towards the good. Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody Guthrie, a black kid who hitches rides on trains and busses to travel across rural America, earning his keep by playing songs on his guitar at shows and carnivals. He’s named after the folk singer who inspired his Bobness during the early stages of his career, and is meant to evoke Bob’s youthful beginnings and his tendency to lie about his origins. The plucky Woody is seen telling various contradicting tales about his past to the people kind enough to take him into their home for a day or two. He’s a trickster, but he’s got a compassionate heart (boy, that sounded like the corny tagline to a family film), which we see as he visits the true Woody Guthrie in a hospital and plays him a solemn song on his six-string as the man lies sick and dying.

Christian Bale gives a convincing performance as the young and shy but extremely gifted Jack Rollins, a Greenwhich Village folk musician meant to evoke the early years of Dylan’s career and his involuntary stint as the ‘voice of a generation’. Later on, Rollins becomes Pastor Jack, a born again Christian, echoing Dylan's controversial religious phase in the early 80's. Bale’s segment of the movie is shot in a mock-documentary style, complete with a cameo of female folk singer Alice Fabian, who represents Joan Baez, the woman who helped make Dylan famous but was soon left behind by him as he tore himself free from the folk circuit. Jack seems to exist in the same universe as a fourth Dylan interpretation, Robbie Clarke (portrayed by Heath Ledger), an actor who plays Bale’s Rollins in a Hollywood film. Clarke is likely meant to represent Dylan’s reclusive period in the late 60’s and early 70’s after his famous motorcycle crash, as well as his role as a husband and father and some of his rumoured misogynistic tendencies. Clarke’s part of the film is essentially a love story, as we see how he meets his wife Claire (the film’s analogue to Sara Dylan), how the two get hitched and how, in a number of heartbreaking scenes, their marriage slowly disintegrates. 

The most enigmatic parts of the film belong to Richard Gere and Ben Whislaw. Gere is cast in the role of a friendly outlaw named Billy the Kid, who wanders through a small, picturesque nineteenth century American town and confronts a sheriff named Patt Garet. Both characters are named after the 1972 film Patt Garet and Billy the Kid to which Bob did the soundtrack, the source of one of pop music’s most frequently covered ditties, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. Gere’s scenes seem highly allegorical, but their significance eludes me. They contain various bizarre elements, like many of the townspeople wearing masks and outlandish costumes and a band playing on stage with the corpse of a girl sitting in an open coffin. At one point there’s also a giraffe walking around in the background. Perhaps they portray the paranoia Bob's been accused of harboring, with Gere being a sort of eccentric outsider in a world of freaks? ("clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right", Stealer’s Wheel sing in their Dylan parody “Stuck in the Middle With You”) Do they signify the role of the artist as spokesperson and protector of the people? Or are they connected with Dylan’s fascination with old-timesey Americana on albums such as 1968’s John Wesley Harding? Ben Whishlaw plays Arthur Rimbaud (the name of a poet whose work influenced Dylan) and appears in a number of sequences without any real narrative continuity, as he is questioned by a tribunal and responds with quotes from mid-60’s Dylan interviews. He's likely meant to represent Dylan’s poetic qualities, spouting many mystifying one-liners which give some fascinating food for thought (“Silence, experience shows, is what terrifies people most”, he states at one point), but I’m not sure if he adds a lot to the film. 

Yup, this is a movie in which Bob Dylan is portrayed by a little black kid. If that don't beat all.

Scenes from the narratives of Haynes’ various Dylan interpretations intercut eachother throughout the film. Though I’ll give that a certain logic behind the choice of montage sequence might become apparent upon repeat viewings, my impression was that this was done mostly with little apparent rhyme or reason. After the opening credits (over which we hear Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues again”, which I have to say is a fantastic choice for an opening tune) we get a scene of Franklin’s Woody hitching a ride on a train and making conversation with a bunch of hobos, after which he’s seen staying at the home of an elderly colored couple and playing some Dylan songs with two guitar-strumming negroes out on the porch. Afterwards we suddenly cut to documentary footage of Bale’s Jack Rollins, then it’s back to Woody, then it’s over to Robbie Clarke and his marital troubles, and so on and so forth. 

The result of this is that I’m Not There ends up feeling like a very fragmented viewing experience. Of course this is likely part of the point that the film is trying to make. It’s quite clear that I’m Not There, much like Citizen Kane, is attempting to foreground the theme of identity through presenting us with these various Bob Dylan interpretations. We have all these images of Bob, all these ways he’s manifested himself in the public sphere, but which of these is the real Bob Dylan? Or are these preconceptions about him that we’ve constructed all incorrect and is he someone else entirely? Is he, indeed, Not There at all? Robbie Clarke, portraying Bale’s Jack Rollins on film, motions at a promotional billboard of Rollins on a nearby building and says: “It’s not about me anymore, it’s all about him!” Like Jude Quinn is struggling with the discrepancy between who he is and what his public expects of him (and I almost typed her there, stupid sexy Quinn), Jack Rollins is despairing at the fact that people only see him as this figure the media has built him up to be, not as who he really is (indeed, from the mid-60’s onward Dylan strongly rallied against being labelled as the prophet of his or any generation). The confusion here is deepened by the fact this isn’t Jack Rollins who’s speaking but Robbie Clarke, an interpretation of Dylan portraying another interpretation of Dylan. 
Through this fragmentation Haynes seems to be implying that it’s impossible to answer the question of Bob’s identity (and that it might indeed even be a bit of a silly question to ask). The real Bob Dylan will not stand up, so all we’re left with are these various fragmented interpretations of his character, a fragmentation that the movie further thematizes by presenting us with a disjointed mishmash of the various narratives of these interpretations interspersed with each other. Still I can’t help but wonder if this structure (or rather lack of structure) was really necessary, as it makes I’m Not There feel like a very disjointed movie. Without the switches between the different narratives being announced, framed or explained in any logical fashion (like Welles does in Kane, as I’ve described) the film just feels fragmented for the sake of being fragmented, experimental for the sake of being experimental, which might turn off a lot of viewers.

I never knew Christian Bale recorded Dylan's The Freewheelin' - wait, my bad, Travelin' On
As you’ve no doubt already guessed, I’m Not There ends up becoming a bit of a specialty event for Dylan enthusiasts. Todd Haynes has done his homework: the film is peppered with references to pieces of Dylan trivia. Woody’s guitar case has the text “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” emblazoned on it in bold black letters, just as the guitar case of the young Bob’s idol Woody Guthrie. When Blanchett’s Quinn and poet Allen Ginsberg (portrayed by David Cross, and along with Guthrie the only historical character not given a pseudonym) are looking at a statue of Jesus on the cross, Quinn cups his hands and shouts at the statue: “How does it feel?’, a line from “Like A Rolling Stone”. This is probably a reference to a ‘66 live performance of the song, where Bob cupped his hands and shouted the “chrome horse” line into the microphone. There's a hilarious scene where Robbie Clarke goes out to buy a motorcycle, asks to take it for a test drive and promptly crashes it into a pile of discarded car tires - here Haynes is of course eluding to Bob's motorcycle crash in 1966. At one point Robbie and his girlfriend Claire are seen walking down a street arm in arm, Robbie wearing a brown leather jacket, the scene obviously evoking the cover of Bob’s first big album, 1962’s The Freewheelin´. The soundtrack is fantastic, with a smattering of Dylan songs, both originals and covers, often employed at just the right moment. To name just one example: as we see the cracks in Robbie and Claire’s relationship start to widen, “Simple Twist of Fate” plays in the background and I damn near cracked into a sniffle as well. Probably had more to do with the power of the song than the film, but a great choice of tune nonetheless. 

However, as Whislaw’s Rimbaud, quoting Dylan, says at the start of the movie: “a song is something that walks by itself”. And I’m afraid that this movie doesn’t walk without aid all that well. If viewed without the supporting crutch of a certain amount of Dylan expertise, it kind of stumbles and falls flat on its schnoz. I’m Not There does actually thematize questions of identity and fragmentation thereof in ways that might be interesting to those not familiar with the minutia of his Bobness’ career. The film opens with a scene of Blanchett’s Jude Quinn lying in a coffin, dead. A voiceover is heard: “There he lay. Poet. Prophet. Fake. Outlaw. Star of electricity.” A reel of mug shots of our six Dylan interpreters goes by, stopping at each epithet given by the monologue, implying that these six characters are all meant to represent sides of the same character. But the way in which the film unfolds itself, showing us scenes from the stories of these characters with no framing device or any sort of logic to explain the fragmentation, makes that those coming in without the necessary background information will likely walk out confused and baffled. I could excuse this if the film was explicitly framed as a Dylan flick all the way through, but the man's name never appears on-screen except in the opening credits: "inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan". This implies that the film can be fully enjoyed and understood even if one comes equiped without the Dylan context, which to me simply doesn't seem true.

"There he lies. God rest his soul... and his rudeness."
Shame, really. By divorcing the film a bit further from the Dylan context and giving it more of a logical structure, I’m Not There could have been a fascinating experience for both fans of Bob and just fans of good film alike. Alternatively, by emphasizing the Bob minutia even more the film would have been even more of a treat to Dylan diehards, though obviously fully inaccessible to casual viewers. By straddling the fence the movie just kind of ends up falling between the cracks. That’s not to say it’s a piece of shit. Let me go on record saying that despite its faults, as a Bob fan I enjoyed the hell out of it and I’d heartily encourage Dylan enthusiasts to go see it. And if you’re not into Bobby Dylan, I suppose this flick can still be fun. How the entirety of the movie fits together will likely be lost on you, but the various narratives can be enjoyed in and on themselves (especially the Blanchett scenes). And who knows, maybe I'm underestimating the uninitiated audience: this film might tell those unfamiliar with Bob's career something about him after all.

In short: bit of a failed experiment, but a fascinating experiment nonetheless. To Dylan fans, this one comes recommended. To those not into Dylan, not saying you should stay away per se, but approach with caution.

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