Bob Dylan turns 70 years old today. To commemorate, this post concerns Todd Haynes’ wild Dylan biopic I’m Not There, a film that has been an object of fascination for me since its release in 2007. Not a straightforward retelling of the musician’s career in the generic mold of other recent biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, Haynes instead concocts a fantasia where six different actors (of various ages, races and genders) portray a different aspect of the life and/or music of the ever-mercurial Dylan. Although I would rate it somewhat less highly now than when I first saw it, it still irks me that film critics and Dylan fans alike have derided the film as willfully perverse or, worse, something designed to “make no sense.” If anything, I’m Not There is a film that makes too much sense; every aesthetic decision seems rationalized on an intellectual level – usually by tracing it back to a song, album or another movie – which lends the film an academic flavor that is occasionally off-putting. Nonetheless, few American films of recent years have been as formally audacious as Haynes’ movie, and its more off-the-wall experimental aspects are arguably perfectly suited to chronicling an artist whose work has been as revolutionary as Dylan’s has been.
What follows is a rewritten version of a post I originally made on a Dylan message board in 2007 (on the indispensable website Expecting Rain). Rather than integrate these notes into a formal essay, I’m keeping them fragmentary in nature, which I hope is fitting given the kaleidoscopic nature of the film:
I’m Not There has a unique mirrored structure. It seems to me that large chunks of the beginning of the film are consciously mirrored by large chunks of the ending. I would even go so far as to say that the Jude Quinn segment (in which Cate Blanchett notoriously plays the “Dylan” of 1965/1966) is the literal center of the movie, with the narrative strands that come before and after it falling on opposite sides of the “mirror”:
- The movie begins and ends with a motorcycle crash.
- It also begins with Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor playing “Dylan” as a Woody Guthrie wannabe) hopping a train and ends with Billy (Richard Gere as “Dylan”-as-Billy-the-Kid) hopping a train.
- Near the beginning, a faux documentary segment of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale as “Dylan” the protest singer) is clearly mirrored by the faux documentary segment towards the end of Pastor John (Bale as the same character but now a born again Christian 25 years later). Haynes’ masterstroke is having Bale appear in both segments since those two seemingly disparate eras in Dylan’s career are actually unified in several interesting ways – most notably in the impression Dylan gave in interviews during those times that he actually did, for once, “have the answers” and in the way his sense of humor, usually one of his strong suits, appears to have deserted him.
- The depiction in the first half of the movie of the relationship between Robbie and Claire (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Mr. and Mrs. “Dylan”) focuses primarily on when they first met and things were good and mirrors their estrangement and divorce in the film’s second half. There are also two sex scenes between these characters, one in each half of the film (à la A History of Violence).
- My favorite symmetry might be Gorgeous George, the famous wrestler, telling Woody “Secrets are for keeping” in the beginning, which echoes Billy’s line to Homer at the end: “God save the secrets.”
Although there is obviously a lot of intercutting between the various stories, I think Haynes structured the movie somewhat like this:
2. Jack Rollins
3. Robbie Clark’s marriage
4. Jude Quinn
5. Robbie Clark’s divorce
6. Pastor John
For me, the real power of the film lies in its depictions of the characters of Woody and Billy and the implied transition from one to the other. Woody is a “fake,” trying to convince everyone who he is and what he’s done, and Billy is completely “authentic”, inhabiting a mystical folk music world of his own design. I think this speaks volumes about the irony of how people have responded to Dylan’s career over the decades; the young Dylan was a charming and talented bullshit artist while the Dylan of today is one of the last living links to authentic folk and blues music. It reminds me of something I read in a newspaper review of a Dylan concert in Nashville a few years ago. The writer said that the long-haired Dylan of 1966 was almost run out-of-town when he showed up to record Blonde on Blonde but locals embrace the Dylan of today when he returns for embodying the true spirit of country music (“he used to hang out with Johnny Cash, don’t you know?”).
A few more things I noticed:
- The hobos that Woody meets when we first see him hopping a freight train (listed as “Hobo Joe” and “Hobo Moe” in the credits) are the same hobos he says good-bye to before going to the hospital to visit the real Woody Guthrie. This slyly implies that what happens to young Woody on the road – his playing the blues with Old Man Arvin, being menaced by the scary hobos, being swallowed by the whale, charming the rich white southern family – are just more tall tales that Woody is telling Moe and Joe.
- Woody tells Mrs. Arvin that he is from Stockton, California. At the end of the movie we learn this is where the Gateway Church is also located.
- Billy the Kid wakes at three different points in the movie: once at the beginning, once towards the end when his dog is barking and his story begins proper and finally at the end when he wakes up on the train and finds the guitar.
I’m Not There features almost as many references to movies from the late ’50′s through the early ’70′s as it does to Dylan’s music.
Here is a list of notable references:
- Woody’s punning dialogue with the hobos about “composite” and “compost heap” is from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. When Woody says “It’s lonesome roads we shall walk,” he’s probably referring to the protagonist of that movie (Andy Griffith’s “Lonesome Rhodes”) as well as Dylan’s song “Paths of Victory.”
- In terms of composition and editing, the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg scenes are heavily influenced by Godard’s films of the mid-’60′s: the scene where they buy a motorcycle is reminiscent of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. The overhead shots of her cooking and cleaning are reminiscent of La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. More specifically, the shot where a camera circles around the face of a statue during the “Visions of Johanna” sequence is identical to several shots in Le Mepris. Later, Ledger’s voice over narration about Gainsbourg’s disappointment in his movie Grain of Sand is an almost exact quote from Masculin Feminin.
- In terms of style, the Richard Gere sequences are very similar to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. This is particularly true of the color scheme (earth tones) and use of the zoom lens.
- One of the movie’s best throwaway jokes is a nod to The Graduate. We see a montage of different characters addressing Richard Gere under different pseudonyms. The last one, a bellhop, calls him “Mr. Gladstone.” This is the name Dustin Hoffman used when checking into a hotel to rendezvous with Ann Bancroft.
- The Beatles being chased by a screaming mob is an obvious allusion to the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night. More obscure is a reference made to Petulia, another film by the same director Richard Lester; both movies contain shots of elderly party-goers in neck braces and wheelchairs.
- The Jude Quinn sequences are highly reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Specific visual quotations include the shot of Blanchett as a human balloon and the entire garden party sequence.
- Woody dresses up as Charlie Chaplin in the town of “Riddle.” Woody’s quoting of the song “Lo and Behold” (“This is chicken town!”) might also be a specific reference to the scene in The Gold Rush where Chaplin’s starving friend sees him as a giant chicken.
- Also in “Riddle,” the scene where a family is loading a jalopy with furniture is straight out of John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath (a favorite of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan).
- An overhead shot of people holding umbrellas on a sidewalk is a visual quote from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
I still don’t know why Billy has a female dog named Henry though.