Todd Haynes: Far From Hollywood
With his kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan anti-biopic, the director takes a
bold leap back to his avant-garde roots
By DAVID EHRENSTEIN
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Though we first met back in 1991, when the NEA-funded homoeroticism
of his first aboveground feature, Poison, was rattling the halls of
Congress, Todd Haynes and I "bonded" (as the saying goes) in April of
1995, when we served as jurors for the short-film competition at the
USA Film Festival in Dallas. On our day off from jury duty, we went
downtown and visited the spot where John F. Kennedy was assassinated
Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum created out of the
erstwhile Texas School Book Depository and came to the immediate
conclusion that not only did Oswald "do it," but that shooting fish
in a barrel would have presented a greater angle of difficulty.
As excited as I was by Haynes' prospects then, I never could have
imagined they would take the shape they have or move so swiftly into
the sightlines of a large public. Released two months after our
Dallas confab, Safe, his drama about a woman suffering from an
"environmental illness" that does double duty as a metaphor for AIDS,
had no gay "shock value," but shocked many who hadn't suspected this
heretofore fringe figure was so cinematically accomplished. Starring
his soon-to-be-muse, Julianne Moore, as a San Fernando Valley
housewife, the film was in many ways Haynes' own nightmare of
becoming a San Fernando Valley housewife, for he hails from that
fabled L.A. region home of middle-class tranquillity and hardcore
Three years later, Velvet Goldmine picked up from where Poison left
off in detailing the polymorphous perversity of the glam rock era,
complete with a nod to the man Haynes saw as its patron saint: Oscar
Wilde. But things got queerer (if also more accessible) still with
his next feature, Far From Heaven (2002), a full-blown re-creation of
the melodramas of Douglas Sirk that dealt frankly with subjects Sirk
couldn't have touched: interracial love and gay husbands bursting out
of the closet. Another showcase for the talents of Moore, with great
support from Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson, and
the last film score by the great Elmer Bernstein, Far From Heaven won
the hearts and minds of critics and discerning art-house audiences,
and picked up four Oscar nominations in the process.
But rather than move further into the mainstream, Haynes has taken
his most radical leap to date with I'm Not There. Initially subtitled
"Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan," but now more modestly
labeled as "Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan," it
features six different actors playing six differently named
characters that either embody or reflect aspects of Dylan's life and
art, ranging from Christian Bale as the Dylan of early fame and
born-again Christianity to Ben Whishaw as an enigmatic Dylanesque who
calls himself Arthur Rimbaud to Heath Ledger as an actor who plays a
Dylan-type character in a film-within-the-film. That's not to mention
Marcus Carl Franklin as a black 11-year-old who calls himself "Woody
Guthrie," Richard Gere in a period setting as Billy the Kid, and,
most queer-radical of all, Cate Blanchett as "Jude," a '60s-era pop
star whose frizzy hair, sardonic manner and controversial penchant
for electric guitar plainly represent the Dylan of his most
artistically aggressive '60s period. Add Julianne Moore as someone
not unlike Joan Baez, Charlotte Gainsbourg evoking both Dylan's
important girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his first wife, Sara Lowndes,
cinematography that veers from black and white to color and back
again, and a host of Dylan covers by a raft of contemporary artists,
and you've got yourself two hours and 15 minutes of rich and strange
filmmaking that's seldom been seen before.
I'm Not There is an instant classic of the most experimental end of
the rock-movie genre which is to say, Peter Watkins' Privilege,
Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance, and a little-known
film called Renaldo and Clara made by Dylan himself (see "Dylan by
Dylan" sidebar). Above all, it's a film by Todd Haynes, capped by its
dedication to the memory of James Lyons, Haynes' editor, frequent
actor (he starred in Poison) and, until their 2000 breakup, his
lover. Lyons, who died this past April of AIDS-related causes, is
what semiotician Roland Barthes would call "a structuring absence of
the text." And being that Haynes majored in semiotics at Brown, this
was bound to come up when we spoke recently by phone.
L.A. WEEKLY: Coming after Far From Heaven your My Own Private
Idaho, as it were this is the point at which you should be making
your Good Will Hunting. But you've gotten more experimental rather than less.
TODD HAYNES: [Laughs.] Well, [with Dylan] I had quite a standard to
live up to in terms of not shying away from challenging the popular
form. And I took that very much to heart with this film.
It might be described as an "anti-biopic."
Yeah, I guess it could be. Yes.
You were born in 1961, so you were a toddler during most of the years
the film covers. I remember New York very, very well from back then,
and I'm amazed at how much of it you got right. 1961 was my freshman
year at the High School of Music and Art. I remember Bob Dylan from
back then. He dated a Music and Art girl.
Before Suze Rotolo?
Around that time. There were women all over the place. He was a babe
magnet. He was an incredibly romantic figure. But we Music and
Arters were very, very snotty: "Oh, his real name is Zimmerman, and
he's just this Woody Guthrie imitator." Laura Nyro was going to Music
and Art right at that same time, and we didn't like her either.
Was there a point when you guys started to feel differently about
Dylan after he got over his Woody Guthrie act?
Oh yeah, certainly with Bringing It All Back Home. Just like the
Beatles, he was the soundtrack of that period. "The voice of a
generation" sounds terribly pretentious, but it's apropos. Because if
you want to know what was on people's minds in that era, the best way
is to listen to some of those songs. And [D.A. Pennebaker's
documentary] Don't Look Back was quite the deal. There are little
bits of Don't Look Back in I'm Not There, but you don't really use it
as a template. The main movie you're "sampling" is 8½, which strikes
some people as truly odd.
The reason for 8½ in that part of the film is that, basically, I was
looking for cinematic references for getting to the root of each of
these little stories and what they were about how to differentiate
them. And usually that had everything to do with the music that was
defining that particular period of Dylan or phase of Dylan or psyche
of Dylan. And in the "Jude" story, I knew I wanted to do it in black
and white. The very first movie proposition that came to mind was
Don't Look Back, of course. But when I was thinking of the music of
that period Highway 61 and, especially, Blonde on Blonde I very
quickly realized that Don't Look Back, a cinéma vérité masterwork, is
far from the sensibility of the music at that point in Dylan's
career. It didn't take me long to come up with 8½ and find in that
film, and in Fellini in general at that time, what I thought was a
beautiful parallel to that sensibility of Dylan's baroque but utterly urbane.
To me, the "Jude" section is the "most Dylan" because it deals with
when he "went electric." The backlash was quite pronounced from a lot
of people who saw him as a simple folk/protest singer, and you
re-create that. We see people coming after Jude in the same way they
came after the Guido character in 8½. And the journalist played by
Bruce Greenwood is a bit like the co-screenwriter character played by
Jean Rougeul in Fellini's film.
To some degree, they're alike. I think the demands people make on
Jude in my film come across a bit more gently than what goes on in Fellini.
And you rebuilt that chair from 8½ that enormous curved white thing
that Barbara Steele sits down in at the spa to put on her shoes.
Yes, we did we absolutely did. That was the clincher for me. It
wasn't just a stylistic sensibility that was involved. The language
of Fellini's film made perfect sense in relation to Blonde on Blonde.
For it also had at its center the story of an artist being besieged
by the media, and questioned as to his motivations: Why was he making
these weird movies that nobody could understand anymore? That's why
8½ just seemed absolutely inescapable.
Your film seems to be directed at an audience that knows a lot of
things, like about Dylan's novel Tarantula, and therefore will react
when you show an actual tarantula onscreen. On the other hand, the
extreme Dylan may be very upset by what you've done. Of course, you
don't go through his garbage like [Dylan to English Dictionary
author] A.J. Weberman, but I can imagine some people seeing you that way.
I didn't intend it. I wasn't tailoring the film to people who would
pick up on every single reference. They're all there to be found, to
be discovered if you choose to do so. But to my mind, the film
doesn't rest on that extra knowledge, that secondary level. All films
are made up of references, whether they're conscious or not, whether
they're generic returns to certain forms, or references to other
films we've seen before. The audience is "reading" all the time, but
not cognitively. This film just takes that further, and has every
component of it come out of the Dylan universe. But if it doesn't
work purely on a sort of graphic and gut level as well, then it isn't
To me, the film is 50 percent Dylan and 50 percent the '60s.
Well, that was a conscious choice. I realized that all of these core
characters I'd settled on had their roots in the '60s. This was the
era that defined him and that he defined. There was so much going on
in that period at the same time Dylan was becoming a star, so making
this film was a chance to do a film about that period and do it in
a different way.
The other part of I'm Not There that really stands out are the
sequences with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger, which you can
say relates to Dylan's marriage and relationships but is also about
other things about the '60s, like the first stirrings of the women's movement.
Yeah. It's an extrapolation of things I collected in my research
about his relationship to both his girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his
marriage to Sara Lowndes. My criteria of how I put together the
pieces of the film is that I tried to pay as much attention to his
life as to his work. So the love songs themselves, which are outside
the specifics of his relationships, are the product of those
specifics. But they stand on their own, which is, of course, why we
all can identify with them. So it was the love songs themselves that
ultimately formed that particular story. In other words, not just the
marriage but all sorts of things about the women he was attracted to.
It made me very happy to hear that Suze Rotolo saw the film and
really loved that section of it and actually felt it was all about her.
Where is she now?
She actually just finished a book her own memoir of the period.
Finally, the woman speaks! I don't know a lot of what she's done over
the years, but I know she's maintained various careers in the arts.
She was a visual artist at the time she and Dylan were going out. And
she really did provide him with that sort of political involvement.
Her interest in Brecht, Rimbaud and the other poets that totally
Where did you find Marcus Carl Franklin?
Isn't he amazing? [Casting director] Laura Rosenthal found him in New
York. He was the little boy in Lakawana Blues. I met him before I saw
that film, and then I saw it and met with him again. He just floored us all.
Did you conceive the character as being a little boy, or did you make
the character a little boy once you found the actor?
It was always an 11-year-old black kid.
Because it's hard to get an 11-year-old kid who can act that knowingly.
Oh, I really lucked out. Every impossible demand this film made on
me, I lucked out. It was only after I found what I needed that I was
able to look back and consider the ways it could have failed and
get terrified in retrospect. But I guess that's part of being a
director you're just in a state of fright all the time and you keep
marching forward. If you look back, you'll turn into a pillar of salt.
The other cinematic disparity that's really interesting is that the
Richard Gere/Billy the Kid sections aren't like Peckinpah's movie Pat
Garrett & Billy the Kid, which Dylan acted in and wrote the score for.
No, they're not. It's not the most beautiful film, Pat Garrett &
Billy the Kid. I was much more taken with films in the same category,
like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and McCabe and Mrs. Miller
and Dylan's Renaldo and Clara.
In watching the movie, there's a kind of generalized logic to why
we're moving from one story to another and one style to another. But
there are many people who will have never seen anything like this
before. I think there are going to be a lot of people very angry with
you over this for reasons that they can't quite explain. There's a
kind of sneaky audacity to doing a movie like this an "art movie"
for a general public. You're prepared for a backlash, I trust?
I am, but I was prepared for a lot more of it than I've been
receiving. You may have encountered resistance in conversations with
some people you know, but the general reaction to the film has been
good. I've been stunned at how positive people have been and that
they've just let it all flow. But believe me, I was prepared for the
contrary in today's market. I was resolved to not care, to just let
it be in the world and take the time it takes to be appreciated.
Instead, starting with the premiere in Venice and the awards we got
right away, the reception has been open and warm. I don't mind trying
to talk to people about it and helping them relax a little bit. But
again, as you say, it's the kind of movie people aren't prepared for
today. That doesn't mean we were at other times particularly the
time the film's reflecting. When I went to see 2001 with my dad at
age 7 or 8, you went to that film, and so many other films, to not
understand it. That was the excitement to go and have
interpretations, to see it again and basically go on a trip that was
not cognitive, that was not rational, but that was so ultimately
cinematic that you couldn't look away.
Well, that was the big '60s film experience. You went to see
L'Avventura to argue about what happened to Lea Massari and why she
disappeared. Blowup even more so.
Exactly. But there were a great many films like that then. And those
are the kinds of films, when you're young and you have a creative
sensibility, that blow it wide open and make you want to make things
like that yourself. But the key what people forget 'cause Dylan is
so famous, and so successful is how unbelievably radical and
"unclear" and untraditional a popular artist he was. What he did to
the popular song was inconceivable before he entered the scene. And
the amazing thing is that he was actually popular.
"When you're lost on the road to Juarez and it's Easter time too"
what in hell was that?
Exactly. And you don't question it you go with it. That's how music
works. I don't understand all of Dylan's lyrics or sources or
references. That's not the point. You just got to hope people are open to this.
When did you first come across Dylan?
In high school. I'm sure I heard "Blowin' in the Wind" as a kid. I
also have a memory of singing it in Hebrew school, along with "Silver
and Gold" and other true traditional folk songs and not knowing that
one was a contemporary song that had been written only a few years before.
Do you remember when Dylan first really grabbed you?
Blonde on Blonde was my favorite album. It probably still is. It's
one of those astounding pieces of work that is both popular and so
much more. But I remember loving Blood on the Tracks and The
Freewheelin' Bob Dylan too. I vaguely remember Desire and Street
Legal, but I definitely remember Slow Train Coming. Then I really
stopped listening to Dylan for about 20 years. Not out of rejection,
though I'm sure "Oh, he's gone all Christian now" was part of it. But
I was going to college, and it was time for David Bowie and Roxy
Music and Iggy Pop and all that stuff.
Blonde on Blonde was as big a "concept album" as Sgt. Pepper, and to
me, everything Dylan related will always center on that. It was a
The first of that era.
Right. And these songs just went on forever. "Sad-Eyed Lady of the
Lowlands" was a whole side of a record. That really blew everyone's mind.
It's incredible to think that something so sophisticated, elegant,
rich and complex could be that popular. It was an instant classic.
Minds were ready to be opened at a certain point in our recent past,
and we really haven't been that kind of a culture in a long time.
Well, now we're getting into the stuff where I wish I was right there
instead of talking to you over the phone.
Yes, it would be so much easier to talk in person, and hang out.
I would rather be looking at you face to face right now because
well, let's cut to the chase. The film is dedicated to James.
Would you say there's a lot of you and your relationship with him in
the movie? Some of it?
[Pauses.] I don't think it ever occurred to me.
Well, among other things, this is the first movie of yours he hasn't edited.
That's right. But I hadn't really thought about it... maybe I should
have... it wasn't part of any conscious thing.
I'm not talking about in a literal way. I'm talking about echoing or
relating to, for example with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger's
characters having this big tumultuous relationship. I was thinking
that there might be something there that was you guys back in the day.
Yeah, there probably is. It's funny how little I "identify" with
Dylan on conscious levels. But I am a fan. I love his music. I was
utterly obsessed with him when I returned to him in 2000. He entered
at a transition point in my life as a kind of guide for positive
change at a time that I really needed to be reminded that change was
possible. It coincided with my leaving New York and going to
Portland. I made Far From Heaven there. And then I decided to stay.
How is Portland?
I love Portland. I love it every day.
You're there. Gus Van Sant is there. If a bomb drops on Portland,
that kills off half of the New Queer Cinema.
It's great here. It's a creatively vital place.
Do you hang with Gus much?
Oh yeah. As much as I can. We knew each other before, of course,
before I moved there. But we've become closer. Not like every day.
We're both very busy. We see each other whenever we can. But it's
been so cool 'cause he's been doing such great work during the years
I've been living there in Portland. He was so excited when he saw I'm
Well, it's right up his alley.
He dug it, and you never know how people are going to react to stuff.
Scorsese says the audience has an advantage that the filmmaker
doesn't because "They're going to see my movie for the first time."
Completely. When you hear from a viewer, it's one of those rare
moments when you really see your own work.
WEINSTEIN CO. PUBLICIST: I'm sorry, but we're going to have to wrap
up the interview now.
Okay. Todd, I'll see you next week in L.A. and we'll hang.
Yeah, we'll hang!
I'm Not There: Tackling Pop Culture's Greatest Enigma By SCOTT
FOUNDAS One of us must know
Dylan by Dylan By TIM GRIERSON Revisiting the music icon's preI'm
Not There filmography
Bob Dylan's Most Mysterious Recording By RANDALL ROBERTS Inside the
elusive history of "I'm Not There"
I'm Not There: Tackling Pop Culture's Greatest Enigma
One of us must know
By SCOTT FOUNDAS
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Something about that movie though, well I just can't get it out of my
head/But I can't remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed
to play. Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, "Brownsville Girl"
Literally speaking, Bob Dylan isn't "there" in Todd Haynes'
staggering mixtape biopic I'm Not There. Or rather, he's everywhere
and nowhere a Heisenbergian particle whose locus shifts with our
every attempt to pin him down. Of course, his words are there, in the
nearly three dozen Dylan songs that fill out the movie's soundtrack.
As is his voice, belting out "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis
Blues Again" over the panoramic opening credits. And his image, from
the blue jeans and work shirts of the Freewheelin' days to the outré
Jew-fro and polka dots he sported circa Blonde on Blonde. But not
once in all of I'm Not There do the words "Bob Dylan" pass anyone's
lips, and the various Dylan surrogates who parade before Haynes'
camera range from the eerily look-alike "Jude Quinn" (played with
jaw-dropping mimicry by Cate Blanchett) to a pint-size, pre-teen
African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself "Woody Guthrie."
The concept is as simple to describe as it is audacious to behold: a
portrait of an artistic giant not as an A-to-Z chronology of his
life, but rather as the sum of his influence and influences, and of
the many fragmentary identities he has donned. Just how many Bob
Dylans have there been? Fans will argue that point into oblivion, but
Haynes and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman set the number at six (or
seven, depending on how you interpret the double-sided Dylan avatar
played by Christian Bale) and make a compelling case for each of them.
In addition to Woody and Jude, there's "Jack Rollins" (Bale), a
stand-in for the folksy, acoustic Dylan of the early '60s,
reconstituted later in the film as "Pastor John" (also Bale), who
represents the critically derided, born-again Dylan of the early
1980s. The waiflike British actor Ben Whishaw appears fleetingly as
"Arthur Rimbaud," an amalgam of Dylan's poetic influences seen
spouting coy, discursive testimony ("I don't call myself a poet
because I don't like the word; I'm a trapeze artist") before a
vaguely Kafkaesque tribunal. For Dylan at the time of his divorce
from his wife Sara (here a composite character played by Charlotte
Gainsbourg), we get Heath Ledger as "Robbie Clark," an actor who once
played Jack Rollins in a Hollywood movie. Finally, there's Richard
Gere as an autumnal "Billy the Kid," having survived his final
confrontation with Pat Garrett and retired to a landscape somewhere
between the Old West and the lush hillsides of Woodstock, New York,
where Dylan (who co-starred in and composed the soundtrack to Sam
Peckinpah's 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) himself laid low
following his purportedly near-fatal 1966 motorcycle accident. I'm
Not There begins and ends with that crash and resurrects Dylan a half
dozen times in between, hopscotching the decades with Proustian grace.
Having said all that, I've still barely scratched I'm Not There's
dynamic, polymorphous surface. Within each of the individual strands
there are more, densely packed layers of references and meaning
regarding Dylan, of course, but also the cultural epochs he's
traversed and helped to inform. In one of his more audacious strokes,
Haynes (in collaboration with the cinematographer Ed Lachman) styles
each section of his movie after the movies of the corresponding time
period not just any ones, but the ones Dylan (who has dabbled in
filmmaking over the years, and who has written songs for and about
movies) may have been inspired by or seen something of himself in.
For the public persecution Jude feels in the wake of "going
electric," I'm Not There adopts the form of the paranoid fantasias
from Fellini's 8½, while the muddied palate and moody malaise of the
1970s' acid Westerns give shape to the Billy the Kid sections.
It sounds like a recipe for the most pretentious movie ever made or
at least since the '70s with mainstream stars and a decent budget,
by a director whose best work (Safe, Far From Heaven) has never fully
belied the academic touch of his Brown semiotics education. But I'm
Not There turns out to be a triumph of intellect and cinematic
imagination that feels light rather than heavy, and such a novel
approach to film biography as to leave every Ray and Walk the Line
looking especially clueless. Haynes pulls off the seemingly
impossible he takes one of the most discussed, written-about,
imitated, lusted-after public figures of the 20th century and shows
us not something new, but something deeper. Indeed, the Bob Dylan
whose "music and many lives" are the credited inspiration for Haynes'
film isn't the mere mortal who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in
Duluth, found his way to New York at the dawn of the '60s folk boom,
and whose songs formed the soundtrack to the last great hurrah of
American counterculture. He's another kind of being a pop
star-child hurtling through the cosmos beneath our immortalizing gaze.
If Blanchett's Jude is the most recognizable Dylan and the
performance that even those who hate the film won't be able to stop
talking about then Gere's Billy the Kid is the most enigmatic, the
one who seems at once the ghost of the musician's roots-music past
and the spirit of his eternal present, the living phantom embarked on
his self-proclaimed "never-ending tour." "You've got yesterday, today
and tomorrow all in the same room/There's no telling what can
happen," he muses late in the film, at once paraphrasing Dylan (from
a 1978 interview about his songwriting style) and succinctly
summarizing the Moebius-strip structure of Haynes' film. And so the
most indelible image of I'm Not There may well be its last, in which
the Kid picks up Woody Guthrie's guitar and hops yet another boxcar,
as a train pulls down the line and a soulful harmonica blows its ageless tune.
I'M NOT THERE | Directed by TODD HAYNES | Written by HAYNES and OREN
MOVERMAN | Produced by CHRISTINE VACHON, JAMES STERN, JEFF ROSEN and
JOHN GOLDWYN | Released by the Weinstein Company | The Landmark,
ArcLight Hollywood, Monica 4-Plex, ArcLight Sherman Oaks
Dylan by Dylan
Revisiting the music icon's pre–I'm Not There filmography
By TIM GRIERSON
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
After seeing I'm Not There, some Bob Dylan fans will undoubtedly
accuse director Todd Haynes of committing heresy with his radical
reinterpreting of the singer-songwriter's mythic persona. But such
dissenters would do well to remember that when it comes to
desecrating Dylan's good name onscreen, no one has done the job as
meticulously as the man himself.
Though he has been the subject of two celebrated documentaries D.A.
Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967) and Martin Scorsese's No
Direction Home (2005) that, respectively, contributed to and
dissected his legend, Dylan has authored several films on his own
that present a first-person perspective on his mysterious inner self.
Those movies have been forgotten, derided and/or nearly impossible to
obtain. But examined as a whole, they provide a fascinating (if not
always pleasurable) overview of Dylan's five-decade relationship with his fans.
The 1972 documentary Eat the Document sets the tone for Dylan's
self-made films. Shot by Pennebaker during Dylan's 1966 U.K. tour
the infamous "gone electric" tour that followed the one chronicled in
Don't Look Back Document ostensibly covers the same thematic
terrain as the earlier film: celebrity, the media, the agony of the
road. But with Dylan overseeing the editing, Document became a
confrontational, nonlinear exercise in how much jerking around a
loyal audience can withstand.
Where Don't Look Back maintained a critical distance from its subject
a boyish 24-year-old artist at once toying with and spurning his
adoring throngs Document both suffers and gains from its lack of
any such distance. The contemptuous Dylan of Don't Look Back, who
enjoyed taunting clueless journalists, calls the shots in Document,
and the film's disjointed snippets of late-night bull sessions, angry
folk-purist fan commentaries, celebrity encounters (including John
Lennon and Johnny Cash) and some stellar live footage are clearly
meant to reflect the mindset of a cocky prodigy high on his own
genius, confident that anything he creates will be brilliant. Fight
the urge to smack Dylan, though, since Document's sometimes-grating
incoherencedoesexpertly convey the blurry, sleep-deprived rush and
soul-deadening monotony of the life of a touring musician.
The indulgences of Eat the Document are easy to excuse because of the
pivotal creative period the film covers. Plus, it's relatively short.
Neither of those factors is in play, however, in Renaldo and Clara,
the grandly disastrous 1978 feature debut of Dylan as writer (with
playwright Sam Shepard), director and leading man. Running just under
four hours, this amalgam of concert movie and pseudo-autobiographical
art film (with Ronnie Hawkins playing "Bob Dylan," and Dylan and
then-wife Sara starring as the enigmatic title characters) is
terrible for obvious reasons: Dylan can't act; his musician co-stars
can't act; and the non-concert sequences are fraught with ponderously
"symbolic" imagery that would get their maker laughed out of a
freshman film class.
Still, once you accept what a laborious, pretentious mess it all is,
Renaldo and Clara wields a hypnotic appeal. Like David Lynch's lesser
films, it represents an artist's vigorous working-through of his
issues in dreamlike non sequiturs. Such purely instinctive impulses
have been the hallmark of Dylan's songwriting genius, but while
Renaldo and Clara has a few stunning wordless passages, too often the
film's ruminations on identitystink of bitter, insular ego. Suffering
through a dissolving marriage and a recent string of mostly
underwhelming records, Dylan looks besieged, but, tellingly, only
during Renaldo'simpassioned concert performances (filmed during the
Rolling Thunder Revue tour) does he turn that disillusionment into art.
If Dylan's cinematic trifecta were a typical Hollywood biopic,
Renaldo would be the story's low point, where our hero's early
promise has collapsed under the weight of self-destructive behavior.
His story then finds its feel-good resolution with Masked and
Anonymous. Debuting at Sundance in 2003, Masked was perhaps the
most-anticipated film of that year's festival. Not only did Dylan
star, but he also co-wrote the film (under the pseudonym Sergei
Petrov) with director Larry Charles, and the cast included John
Goodman, Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. Once it screened, the film
was quickly branded a vanity project. But Masked has aged rather
nicely, and much of its success has to do with the latest of Dylan's
many public transformations.
Coming after the 20 years that were Dylan's darkest period waffling
from dispirited arena warhorse to born-again Christian and spiteful
has-been railing at a society that didn't want to buy his new records
Masked celebrates his artistic rebirth. Heralded by his magisterial
'97 comeback disc, Time Out of Mind, the late-'90s Dylan suddenly
seemed older than time itself, his authoritative, grizzled voice
singing tunes haunted by the nation's musical history: spirituals,
murder ballads, lovelorn blues. The renaissance continued with 2001's
even better Love & Theft,which lightened Time's Old Testament
despondency with hilarious one-liners and Dylan's courtly savoir-faire.
That newfound gracefulness and sense of humor also shine through in
Masked, which is by no means a model of airtight three-act
construction, but is easily Dylan's most pleasurable film. Unlike his
previous screen incarnation as a bratty or entitledenfant
terrible,the Dylan who waltzes through Masked is a wiser man who's
witnessed the worst of humanity and treats it all like a cockeyed
cosmic joke. The plot about the staging of a benefit concert
featuring forgotten musician Jack Fate (Dylan) is merely a
clothesline on which the songwriter hangs his lyrical obsessions:
political corruption, the nobility of the common man, the search for
lasting values in a materialistic world. Almost every line of
dialogue is a pithy witticism that feels plucked from a Dylan song,
and the mostly superb cast deliver their lines with the right
combination of conviction and good-natured playfulness, as if they
(like Dylan) understand that life is inherently unhappy but that this
shouldn't ruin your day.
For once, Dylan seems fully comfortable up on the screen. Watching
him ride off into the sunset at Masked's conclusion or rather, in
perfect Dylan style, heading stoically off to prison for sticking to
his principles I was reminded of a line from Renaldo and Clara that
seemed to sum up what Dylan had finally achieved cinematically: "If
the world was like music, the world would be beautiful."
Bob Dylan's Most Mysterious Recording
Inside the elusive history of "I'm Not There"
By RANDALL ROBERTS
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
In a West Saugerties, New York, house dubbed by its tenants "Big
Pink," Bob Dylan and a band who later named themselves The Band
gathered daily for six months in 1967 to mess around with American
music, and recorded the results. Dylan was recuperating from a
motorcycle crash, and the Big Pink basement was his recovery room.
Among the many songs generated down there are some of Dylan's
deepest: "Tears of Rage," "This Wheel's on Fire," "You Ain't Goin'
Nowhere" and the title song of Todd Haynes' I'm Not There a track
that, until now, has never been officially released.
Perhaps the most mythical of all Dylan's unreleased gems, "I'm Not
There" is an absolute mystery. A long, extended meditation built
around a four-chord acoustic-guitar strum, it was recorded only once
by Dylan and never finished or revisited. Lyrics and lines float by,
some discernible, others elusive. Among Dylan fanatics, it's a kind
of Rosetta stone because it seems to capture the artist in the midst
of his creative process. The magic of "I'm Not There" is its lack of
definition. Critic Greil Marcus devotes five pages of The Old, Weird
America to the song, writing that "'I'm Not There' is barely written
at all. Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music
itself, a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over
words, to see just how little words can do."
True, but what's most engaging about the song is the revelation it
provides about Dylan's creative process. Unlike many outtakes and
bootlegged tracks, "I'm Not There" feels like someone channeling,
speaking in tongues, handling snakes, conjuring out of the mist the
blueprint of a song. In The Old, Weird America, Marcus quotes Band
guitarist Robbie Robertson's wonder at Dylan's method: "He would pull
these songs out of nowhere. We didn't know if he wrote them or if he
remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn't tell." No recording
better illustrates Robertson's point than "I'm Not There." There's
something going on inside the song, but you're not sure what it is.
The narrator might be dead, and contemplating his relationship with
an unnamed lover. He might have abandoned her. He seems sorry for
something. Or angry.
Bootleg copies of the song have long been available, but until the
arrival of the soundtrack to I'm Not There this month, it had
remained undergound. For that reason alone, Dylan fans have reason to
applaud Haynes and his music supervisors, Jim Dunbar and Randall
Poster. With the release, a better picture of the circuitous route
the song took from basement to film title is revealing itself. The
widely bootlegged version has been tainted by engineers attempting
and failing to liven the song. The true recording has been buried.
"So it's never been heard except by a rarefied few folks, obviously
in its pure form, as it was straight to tape," says Dunbar. "It's
like a field recording, almost."
Among those rarefied few who heard the original recording was Neil
Young, who, it turns out, possessed the most pristine and
unadulterated copy of the so-called Basement Tapes, which he received
from his longtime engineer Elliot Mazur. Mazur was assigned by
Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, to transfer the original tapes for
storage, and ended up dubbing a copy for himself. A few years later,
Mazur duplicated them again with the intention of giving Young a
copy, but accidentally gave him the original transfers, which sat in
Young's archives until they were unearthed a few years ago. With the
song's release on the fantastic I'm Not There soundtrack, those not
exposed to the bootleg can finally attempt to discern meaning for
themselves if they dare.
Randall Poster would rather not. "I don't approach it that literally,
really," he says. "To me it's about a kinetic feeling, a song that
brings me into the realm of 'Positively Fourth Street.' As a kid, the
first time I heard that song, it taught me that there's something
that goes on between men and women that I hadn't experienced yet, but
that I was so hungry to experience. I sort of get that same feeling
from 'I'm Not There.' In a sense, it speaks to a potential intimacy
between people it clearly exists in a sort of divine realm."
"The song subtly builds," adds Dunbar. "For me, it's very intense. It
starts off and you think, 'Aw, there's not much going on here.' But
by the end of it, it feels like an epic." Asked what he thinks the
song means, Dunbar pauses. "Uh, I don't know. It's, uh, definitely
someone with... uh... uh... great regret." Exactly.
More on Dylan and I'm Not There
I'm Not There: Tackling Pop Culture's Greatest Enigma by Scott Foundas