I'm Not There: Deconstructing Dylan

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I'm Not There

Let's get this out of the way immediately: Of the six people who play versions of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, the only one who looks the least bit like him is yes, Cate Blanchett. It's something about the frizzy hair and the cheekbones. The one who looks the least like him is a young black kid, Marcus Carl Franklin, who rides the rails and wanders the back country and finally pays the legendary visit to Woody Guthrie as he lies dying in a hospital. Everyone else — among them Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale — just look pretty much like themselves.

Of course, the conceit of Todd Haynes's movie is that none of them is really playing Dylan. They're playing fictions named Jude and Billy and so forth, each of them a fictionalized aspects of the icon's life and the problems he has encountered living it. The black lad represents the soulful yearnings of his art, Gere plays his outlaw impulses, while others engage with his romantic and marital difficulties. Blanchett does him at the height of drug and celebrity-addled fame, which Haynes largely shoots in a Fellini-like manner (at one point she is obliged to wrestle around with the Beatles), which may not be the wisest possible choice.

In fact, the movie is a compendium of not-so-hot ideas — aside from the controlling one, which is inherently daring and at least theoretically interesting. One can understand an ambitious filmmaker like Haynes, whose Far From Heaven was a quite successful Douglas Sirk pastiche, being fed up with biopic clichs and pieties, and trying radically to reanimate the genre. The trouble is that he does not escape these conventions in I'm Not There. He just dresses them in different clothes. Most basically, this is the same old-same old — visionary artist struggles successfully to realize his particular vision, gets famous, gets laid, gets in trouble with the whole celebrity thing, tries to escape the demands of his exigent fans (wow, do they hate it when he turns from the acoustic to the electric guitar at the movie's version of the Newport Jazz Festival shocker), ends up sort of beloved, sort of intact, but sort of unfulfilled, too.

And sort of distant. Partly that's because none of the multiple identities the movie explores is given time to establish itself. I understand, I understand — all of us play many roles over the course of a lifetime, and it is worthwhile for any biographer, whether in film or print, to explore the contradictions inherent in that condition. But, especially in the movies, we have a primitive need for a narrative through-line, something for us to cling to through all the ups and downs, the bad behavior, the self-romanticizing and the self-delusions. I'm not saying that need can't be violated, but to do so requires an artistry that seems beyond Haynes and his co-writer, Oren Moverman. What they have for a central idea is Dylan's developing notion (I have no idea if this is historically true) that songs cannot change the world, and that his fans' insistence that he must keep trying to causes him (and them) much unhappiness. Yeah, sure, we say, you're right, Bobby. But we don't really care very much about his need to find his own bliss.

The movie's style enhances our indifference. It sometimes takes the form of a mock documentary with talking heads facing the camera and telling stories about their anti-hero. It includes some historical footage. It recreates, in a tight-budget sort of way, big moments in Dylan's life. Sometimes it just fictionalizes, often quite a prettily, his private life. This is not carelessness; it is a studied and highly self-conscious. But it doesn't work. It is just a mess — though the sound track, full of Dylan songs is, of course, good to hear. But it is not better than the track on Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home documentary of two years ago. That film also caught the messiness of this life and, as its title implies, its lack of a thumping conclusion (good as it was, it just kind of petered out). You have to give credit to Haynes: he's bravely trying to challenge our comfortable expectations of the biopic genre. Too bad that he doesn't come close to shattering them.