It Ain't Me
The most unexpected external fact about I’m Not There is that, having failed to secure Bowie’s music rights for Velvet Goldmine or those for cult short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes got Bob Dylan’s permission for this film through eldest son, filmmaker Jesse Dylan, and manager Jeff Rosen. Further, the elusive subject then kept out of the way and, the director/co-scriptwriter emphasized at a packed New York Film Festival post-screening press conference, in effect granted the artistic freedom he himself demanded to do “your own weird interpretation of Bob Dylan.”
On his way to Portland, Oregon, where he would soon move from New York, Haynes had rekindled his personal enthusiasm for the most continuously influential music-culture figure of the past half-century. But the problem for the filmmaker, and the advantage, too, is that no one, not excluding the 66-year-old from Duluth, is quite sure who or what that figure is. Stage chameleons Bowie and Madonna revealed as settled-in middle-aged parents, only the fellow Minnesotan Artist Formerly Known as Prince has equally obscured his own reality, albeit on a smaller stage. Folkie, drifter, country boy, outlaw, bard, poet, symboliste, spokesman, rocker, Jew, Judas, born-again Evangelical, poseur, genius, jester, manipulator, fraud, et cetera, until flesh-and-blood gets lost; indeed, one reaction to Scorsese’s non-fiction No Direction Home is that, as in a Poe story, behind the mask there is nothing, a boring man used up in pursuit of camouflage.
Excited with the “epic American feel” of this his first work in CinemaScope, Haynes conceded that the Scorsese consideration was already in the works when he began his own five-year-and-more project and that both directors had gone back more to the Pennebaker Eat the Document than his Don’t Look Back. Along with cinéma vérité, he also referred to influences in Fellini’s 8 ½, the Godard Masculine Feminine and Westerns Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and, of course, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
The physical subject itself is unreachable, shrouded in myth -- after his objective narration-less NYFF Dylan-at-Newport documentary, The Other Side of the Mirror, Murray Lerner denied that Pete Seeger had cut anyone’s amplifier cables, one of several legendary “incidents” which Haynes does include. So Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman subjectively re-invented that subject through seven personalities played by six actors, one of whom doubles up -- another, “’Charlie,’ got absorbed” -- the number seven appearing in some Dylan songs, and, anyway, one “had to stop at some number” with so much, too much, material.
The most ballyhooed is Cate Blanchett, the post-1966 Triumph 55 motorcycle accident singer on his British tour. The tall Aussie actress playing the small American remarks in BlackBook magazine that “androgyny can be a useful thing,” but, though done well enough, her Jude Quinn goes on too long, the character not interesting after a first few minutes. Indeed, that is true of almost all the chronologically back-and-forth personae, of which only two elicit empathy.
One of the two, the sole fully human being, is not even a persona but French painter Claire, wife of Robbie (Heath Ledger), an unattractive misogynist womanizer famous for his film performance as the rising protest singer Jack (Christian Bale) who flees into obscurity as California Christian revival Pastor John (also Bale). While macho husband Jack falls into the groupie snares of fame, Claire protects herself and the couple’s daughters Mollie and Carlie (Gabrielle Marcoux, Jessey Laflamme).
There may be conscious irony in that Claire is played by an excellent Charlotte Gainsbourg (victim of a recent aneurysm), daughter of Jewish Serge. When asked by a yarmulke’d reviewer why there are no references to the singer-songwriter’s debt to Afro-American rhythms or to his Jewish origins -- and apparent current return to the fold -- Haynes responded that the latter, his family roots, is the man’s “most successfully protected secret” and that it would be hard to conceive of a more complete acknowledgement of the former than that the film begins with, and recurs to, black eleven-year-old Minnesota runaway Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin).
Interspersed with other roman à clef characters, curious or furious, including a brief John, Paul, George and Ringo and an interviewed Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore) as unkind matured Al Capp Joanie Phoanie Baez, are Percy Dovetonsils poetaster Arthur (Ben Whishaw) deadpanning Arthur Rimbaud Illuminations to a vague government committee, and too much of Richard Gere as Mr. B., a survived middle-aged Billy the Kid whose cowboy town of Riddle is to fall victim to Progress headed by Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood).
Stitched together by threads here and there, or equally as unconnected, inflated and catchy as the original skipping reels of rhyme themselves, these multiform elements, settings and styles do not exactly cohere. Perhaps the whole is too ambitious. Some of the chosen personae, and what surrounds and interweaves them, should have been pruned, but ruthless editing, particularly of what may be good but is unnecessary, is a rare commodity today. Concurrent with the Dylan re-explosion of the last several years, I’m Not There will be praised as much as damned. Notable for its intentions and unusual approach, it leaves Dylan as unknown as before. Perhaps he knew, and that is why he said okay in the first place.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated "R" for language, some sexuality and nudity.)