Todd Haynes's camp conceit of Bob Dylan rubs oddly against the artist
who inspired his film, writes Imre Salusinszky | December 22, 2007
THERE is an earlier film that haunts the edges of I'm Not There, Todd
Haynes's new film "inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan". It
isn't No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's sprawling 2005 documentary
about Dylan's earlier career, though that will tell youconsiderably
more about Dylan's folk and blues influences.
Neither is it Renaldo and Clara, Dylan's own attempt, 30 years ago,
at a movie "inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan", whose
forgettable allegorical meanderings are punctuated by some of the
most memorable concert footage ever filmed.
It's not even Don't Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker's chronicle of Dylan's
1965 British tour. And that's despite the fact that, in a postmodern
touch, the central episode in Haynes's film re-imagines Pennebaker's classic.
Unfortunately, the movie that lurks behind this movie is A Mighty
Wind, Christopher Guest's 2003 mockumentary about the 1960s Greenwich
Village folk scene. As with his 2002 film, the Douglas Sirk-inspired
Far from Heaven, Haynes no doubt intends the new work as tribute, not
parody. But at certain moments -- including staged interviews in
which a Joan Baez-like Julianne Moore looks back on her touring days
alongside a Dylan-like Christian Bale -- I'm Not There exudes an
unmistakable aroma of camp, whether intentional or not.
But while the campiness of Far from Heaven was balanced by the
startling directness of one central performance -- Dennis Quaid, as a
gay '50s advertising executive trapped in a straight life -- there is
no similar, saving authenticity at the heart of I'm Not There. And
since Dylan does not have a camp or postmodern atom in his body -- he
is, indeed, all about authenticity -- the texture of Haynes's vision
rubs oddly against that of the artist who has inspired it.
In some ways, there is nothing wrong with that. One of Dylan's key
messages, after all, is that you should pioneer your own creative
path rather than slavishly follow somebody else's. "I must invent my
own system, or be enslaved by another man's," wrote William Blake,
which Dylan paraphrases as: "Don't follow leaders/Watch the parking meters".
But a key problem with I'm Not There is that Haynes's vision is built
on one of the tiredest critical commonplaces about Dylan, an artist
whom criticism has served poorly: that Dylan is mercurial, elusive, a
series of masks behind which lies no recognisable face.
What this cliche overlooks is that every significant artist functions
by assuming masks, otherwise known as genres. The fact Dylan can be
folkie, rocker, mellow country crooner or bluesman at will is
extraordinary, but only as a demonstration of blazing artistic
talent. It is no more a puzzle than that Shakespeare could be
comedian and tragedian, or that Blake could write delicate lyrics at
the same time as churning out sprawling epics.
As the world now knows, Haynes's gimmick for capturing Dylan's
supposedly protean nature is to use six different actors to portray
him, including, in the most audacious piece of casting since Russell
Crowe played a Nobel laureate in mathematics, Cate Blanchett as "Jude
Quinn", the speed-ravaged, mid-'60s Dylan of Don't Look Back.
In addition to Blanchett, laying waste to Swinging London in a fright
wig and a polka dot shirt, say hello to: Marcus Carl Franklin as
"Woody Guthrie", an 11-year-old hobo who travels to New York and
sings for the real Woody Guthrie, just as Dylan did in 1961;
Christian Bale as Jack, a '60s folk sensation who drops off the scene
and later reinvents himself as an evangelist; Heath Ledger as Robbie,
a Hollywood actor who plays Jack in a movie and whose marriage later
unravels under some of the same pressures that came between Dylan and
his first wife, Sara; Ben Whishaw as "Arthur Rimbaud", a lugubrious
poet who utters nuggets of Dylanesque wisdom ("a poem is a naked
person") direct to camera; and, finally, Richard Gere, as an
over-the-hill Billy the Kid who embodies the cowboy-rebel-outsider
motif in Dylan.
The fact that Haynes skilfully intercuts versions of all these Dylans
without hinting at continuities between them is a particularly
powerful account of the view that Dylan is, in the title of the
Canadian poet Stephen Scobie's study of him, A Man Named Alias. But
are continuities not precisely what we should be looking for in a
One gets the feeling a conventional biopic -- starring Adam Sandler,
who resembles Dylan much more closely than any of Haynes's crew --
could have told us more about the overarching themes in Dylan's life
and work. And such a biopic could give due weight to one
manifestation of Dylan that Haynes, oddly, avoids: Robert Allen
Zimmerman, the lower-middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota,
who, even as Bob Dylan, never sheds a distinctly midwestern outlook
on US and international affairs.
But I suggest the weakest plank in the man-of-masks argument is that
it goes directly against every Dylan fan's sense that, more than with
any other living artist, there is a centre, a continuity, an absolute
consistency across five decades to Dylan's artistic stance. Surely
the telling point about Dylan for the millions who love his work is
that he is there.
With all of that said, however, you could do a lot worse this festive
season than spend 135 minutes watching Haynes's film. (The ultimate
saving grace of I'm Not There is that it features 39 classic Dylan
numbers on the soundtrack, about half of them cover versions.)
Even if Haynes resists an overarching explanation of the Dylan
gestalt, his interlinked stories manage to raise many of the
interesting questions about Dylan.
Unfortunately, several of these questions are raised in the form of
yet more Dylan cliches. These include the idea he was universally
reviled at the Newport folk festival when he went electric there in
1965. This is what befalls Jude Quinn, but it is not what happened to
Dylan. Likewise, in the evangelistic manifestation of Jack, Dylan's
religiosity -- the aspect of his work that serious criticism has been
weakest at dealing with -- is reduced to some kind of holy-rolling
Haynes has some sharp observations to make about Dylan's place in
popular culture, especially in the scenes in which Jude Quinn
confronts a BBC arts host, "Mr Jones", played by Bruce Greenwood. But
once again, the fact vapid interviewers have come to grief demanding
the real Dylan come out from behind his masks is no reason to throw
up one's hands at the project of defining Dylan's poetic stance and style.
* * *
SO while I'm Not There is legitimately marketed as a film inspired by
Dylan, it says relatively little about Dylan's ouvre: the deep
influence of existentialism and the Beats; Dylan's roots in the
American blues, folk and hillbilly music of the '20s and '30s; his
eminent place in the American artistic and philosophical tradition
that begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman; and the
spiritual dimension that is central to everything he has done.
But I'm Not There is released contemporaneously with an avalanche of
materials that can help us better understand all these things. For
starters, there is the new CD compilation, Dylan, which takes us from
the 1962 Song to Woody -- as prescient and powerful a statement of
poetic arrival as John Milton's Nativity Ode -- to selections from
Dylan's three late masterpieces, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and
The 48 songs on Dylan can give only a taste of Dylan's achievement.
(There are lyrics to nearly 500 songs on the official website.) But
by placing songs from Dylan's musically underrated evangelical period
in the late '70s alongside his other work, the compilation undercuts
the implication in I'm Not There and elsewhere that the religious
phase is an aberration. From first to last, Dylan has been a
religious artist, not a political one. His spiritual and artistic
quest places him in the mainstream of American transcendentalism, in
which the search for God is an isolating journey that separates the
seeker from family, friends and community.
In a strange way, the Billy the Kid sequence in Haynes, which has
least directly to do with Dylan, is the most revealing. As circus
animals, performers and grotesques invade the town of Riddle, joining
the cowboys and villains, Haynes conveys something of Dylan's mythic
method: the fact that his songs are not about real people and events,
but about the archetypes of people and events that have been
distilled through the Western imaginative tradition.
But any student who really wants to explore this element would do
better to read and re-read Dylan's impressionistic memoir,
Chronicles, which is replete with hints and suggestions about his
artistic method. Here he is on the real attraction of folk music:
Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded
all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could
disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this
mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes,
vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each
rugged soul filled with natural wisdom and inner knowing ... I could
believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real,
so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified.
Then there is Theme Time Radio Hour, the weekly program of popular
music stretching back to early blues that Dylan has been hosting for
a year. In his bizarre and detailed excursions into every subject
under the sun, Dylan reminds us how much information there is in his
songs: they are filled, not with airy romantic generalities, but with
descriptions of Mozambique and Durango and detailed biographies of
boxers and gangsters. More effectively than the Woody Guthrie
sequence in Haynes, TTRH plugs us into Dylan as the living
incarnation of 100 years of American popular music. His commentaries,
which never hint at his status as a songwriter and performer, are
brilliant and revealing. Here he is on rockabilly legend Hardrock
Gunter's Gonna Dance All Night:
You know why that record sounds so good? Because it was a
performance. The whole band was playing together in the studio. It
wasn't a thing assembled from parts, put together in little bits and
pieces, until you had a complete take.
Everyone started at the same time and finished pretty much at the
same time, and all the time in between you just hung on for dear
life. You can feel that energy in the record. And you can hear also
in there how the line is blurry. It's a hillbilly record, but if I
told you Louis Jordan recorded that song you wouldn't blink aneye.
And finally, released almost simultaneously with I'm Not There, comes
a far superior Dylan film, The Other Side of the Mirror, which
captures Dylan's performances at the three Newport festivals
culminating with the electric performance of Like a Rolling Stone in 1965.
There is no distracting commentary or interview material in Murray
Lerner's documentary, just a young artist prepared to follow the
logic of his own inspiration. The film reveals the caricature of the
Jude Quinn sequence in Haynes. There is some consternation in the
1965 audience, but there is also rapt attention.
The performances are a vivid reminder of what is perhaps the greatest
continuity in Dylan: his belief in self-reliance and individual
responsibility. In Pawn in Their Game, he mercilessly deconstructs
one of the chestnuts of the radical movement that tried to strangle
him in its embrace: that our social circumstances determine our
beliefs and actions. Who Killed Davey Moore? is a coruscating survey
of the same theme. And at the end of it all, Dylan returns to the
stage in 1965 with his acoustic guitar and advises the crowd: "Leave
your stepping stones behind, something calls for you./Forget the dead
you've left, they will not follow you."
No popular artist has more consistently demanded his audience
clarify, in their own minds, what they expect of him. Even with the
intermittent distraction of Joan Baez yodelling in Dylan's immediate
vicinity, The Other Side of the Mirror is an incredible testament to
the artistic mind on fire. And it will do something that Haynes's
strangely affectless film does not even attempt. It will bring tears
to your eyes.
I'm Not There, directed by Todd Haynes, will be released in Australia
on Boxing Day. Dylan was released by Sony Music in October and is
available in one-disc and three-disc versions.
The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk
Festival, 1963-1965 was broadcast by the BBC in October and
subsequently released on DVD by Sony.
Theme Time Radio Hour is broadcast weekly on XM Satellite Radio, a
subscription-based satellite radio service in the US. It is widely
available for download via the internet.
Chronicles (2005), Simon & Schuster.