I’m Not There

As I have written before, I am pretty ambivalent about the whole Dylan mythology thing. Nonetheless, I found Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There very affecting, for the way it probes that mythology and makes it resonate. Haynes has six different actors playing six characters, all with different names and biographies, but all lightly fictionalized aspects of Dylan; and the movie as a whole tells their stories by blending together a motley assortment of film stocks (both color and black and white), genre markers, settings, and styles of editing and cinematography. In the abstract, this might sound like a dry intellectual conceit; but in practice it works fabulously, due both to the brilliance of all of the performers, and to the fluidity with which Haynes mixes and matches all those performances and styles. Everything is mediated and staged, and yet it all has a dreamlike suppleness and conviction. The move, for instance, from “Dylan” as an 11-year-old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails to “Dylan” as an older man (Richard Gere), identified as a version of Billy the Kid who escaped Pat Garrett’s bullets, and his jail, and is now riding the rails to an unknown future destination — this shift seems “natural” and almost seamless, in the way that dream transformations always do as long as you remain inside the dream.

[I’m not going to try to track down the film’s ten million allusions, but I do feel compelled to mention that, in the sections with Gere, Haynes is referencing — among other things — Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan had a small role and for which, of course, he wrote the soundtrack. I only point this out because I think that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the most beautiful Western ever made. Some of Peckinpah’s gorgeous melancholy passes over into Haynes’ re-creation of a belated Western/cowboy/outlaw “Dylan.” In some “postmodern” works, all the citations of other “texts” tend to work like a jigsaw puzzle; it’s really just a matter of being clever enough, or nerdily obsessive enough, to “get” them all. But in I’m Not There, the flotsam and jetsam of alluded-to culture generally manages — if you know the allusion, and even when you don’t — to drag its affective associations along with it, so that you actually feel the way that the movie, like its subject, is a heterogeneous patchwork of things pulling you in all directions at once. I say this in the awareness that, as I am not a professional Dylanologist, there are certainly loads of allusions that completely passed me by.]

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is this. Although the film is certainly a neo-Brechtian exercise in critical distanciation, for the way it makes us realize how all of Dylan’s personae are fictional constructions, drawing both on “archetypes” of Americana, and on the media, and their ubiquity in the “present moment” of Dylan’s greatest prominence as an artist (the film mostly deals with the “Dylans” of the 1960s and 1970s, though there are dramatizations of later moments — like his 80s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity — as well) — although the film is that, it is also much more than that. Which is a way of saying that I’m Not There is affective as well as intellectual, and that it feels “intimate” even though it is all clearly distanced — or, better (to risk a Blanchotian formulation) that it makes us feel the intimacy of that very distance. All six “Dylans” are self-consciously performative; each one individually — to say nothing of their cross-references and resonances — displays the “self” as something manufactured, as something that can only present itself “in quotation marks” (i.e., by performing and by self-consciously calling attention to the fact that it is “merely” performing). And yet these six performances are all utterly compelling, by the very fact that — although they are not “authentic,” and in fact trash the very notion of authenticity (much as Dylan himself did when he played an electronic set at the all-acoustic folkie festival — an event that Haynes reproduces, not as it actually happenend, but in its full-blown mythical shock and splendor) there evidently is nothing “behind” them, no face behind the mask(s).

Bob Dylan is fascinating, of course, precisely because he is “not there”; and Haynes’ accomplishment is to put us in immediate contact with this not-thereness, and with the frenetic performativeness that at once covers over this absence, and expresses it: expresses it in the sense that all six personae in the film (six characters in search of an author?) are not trying to project a seeming “selfness” to cover over the void, so much as they are projecting this void itself, in order precisely to tell other people to go away and just leave him the fuck alone. (“Him”? this itself is not any real essence of “Dylan,” but rather a facade that each of the six “Dylans” expresses in his own way).

This is most evident in Cate Blanchett’s bravura transvestite turn as “Jude Quinn”: the pop-star “Dylan” visiting and performing in London, utterly seductive because utterly cold, a perfect narcissist, eyes hidden behind shades, continually dosed or overdosed on uppers, mean and belligerent to everyone, and always heaping scorn on any idea of authenticity, sincerity,self-revelation, political or personal committment, belief, or having anything to say. (The Blanchett sequences are supposedly based on D. A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back, which I have never seen).

Dylan might seem as far removed from Andy Warhol as any two pop figures from the same decade could ever be; but I’m Not There explores, and refers back to Dylan himself, Warhol’s great question: “When a mirror looks at its reflection, what does it see?” Haynes’ six “Dylans” reflect everything and nothing. Their careers coincide with the upheavals of the 1960s, and with the consolidation of the consequences of those upheavals that was the 1970s. But they mirror these decades mostly by their refusal to express, to serve as a spokesman for anyone or anything: renouncing a “folkie” past, the various “Dylans” deny political intent (because songs don’t make anything happen, as several of them say), or even personal, self-expressive intent. (This may be why “Jack Rollins,” the “Dylan” played by Christian Bale, is the one who — after withdrawing from the scene in the early 1960s as a disillusioned folkie — re-emerges in the 1980s as a Jesus fundamentalist). (Though even this apoliticism is denied in an odd scene where Huey Newton tries to explain to Bobby Seale how “Ballad of a Thin Man” is really a radical song in support of the black liberation struggle — though this is an interpretation that Jude Quinn scornfully rejects).

Dylan’s songs are up for grabs, open for interpretation, precisely because they refuse to wear their meanings on their sleeves. But behind all the disjunctions and surreal metaphors,and even behind the invocations of a mythical “weird old America,” which are the one concrete (if bullshit) meaning that they still possess, they have an affective pull that can only be felt, in modes from hostile sarcasm to world-weary melancholy. And yet even these affects — which are the thing that really powers I’m Not There, filled as it is with Dylan’s music, performed both by Dylan himself and by many other artists — are finally expressions of a void, or of a desire that is too diffuse and disorganized and at second (or third, or fourth…) remove ever to speak its name, or of a mirror that is only able to mirror the act of mirroring itself.

Indeed, I think that this is the secret affinity between I’m Not There and Haynes’ previous film, Far From Heaven. Speaking of the 1950s melodramas by Douglas Sirk and others, that were his models for Far From Heaven, Haynes says:

“There’s something really direct about emotional themes in these films. They’re sort of pre-psychological. The characters in the Sirk films, their realizations are very much on the surface. They’re very much dealing with the quite apparent constraints of their society, and making quite apparent and overt decisions that usually mean depriving themselves of something that would make them very happy.”

— cited from here

Though Dylan is a figure of the “freewheeling” Sixties, rather than of the hyper-repressed Fifties, I think that his personae, as presented by Haynes, are in fact similarly “pre-psychological,” in the sense that their decisions and actions seem unmotivated, unconnected to any sort of “interiority.” We even get a glimpse of a Far From Heaven-like world, early in the film when the version of “Dylan” as an 11-year-old black kid who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” is invited to play in a well-to-do, white Southern liberal home (the year is 1959). It may be that, in terms of subjectivity, the (supposedly) unrepressed Sixties is not as far from the ultra-conformist and severely repressed Fifties as our standard mythologies would have it. This is a (seeming) paradox that Foucault might well have relished. It also has something to do, I think, with the fact that, for all that Haynes is celebrating continual transformation and self-reinvention (as opposed to the old mythology of a fixed, essential self) he nonetheless is doing this entirely mythologically — I mean with a mythology that (contrary to his practice in all his other films) he gives no hint of criticizing or deconstructing. Haynes’ Dylan is a hero of postmodernity, in much the same way that I made Dean Martin out to be such a hero, in a book that I published over a decade ago.

I didn’t blog a “top 10” list this past year, because I simply didn’t see enough films (or hear enough music) to be able to creditably put together such a list. I missed way too much. But of the American films released in 2007 that I did manage to see (and especially noting that Inland Empire doesn’t count here, because it was released in 2006, and that I still haven’t seenThere Will Be Blood), I’m Not There is right up there with Zodiac and Southland Tales. Nothing else I saw in the past year came close to any of these three.

I think, in a way, that I’m Not There and Southland Tales are complementary opposites. They both deal with the form of subjectivity (decentered, multiple, and not characterizable in terms of “authenticity” or its absence) that is correlated with, or that answers to, our age of media saturation and ubiquitous capital flows. And they both present this form of subjectivity without apologies, and without opposing it to (and also, without expressing nostalgia for) some sort of supposed lost, unified, and more authentic form of selfhood. But they do this in quite different ways, reflecting how Bob Dylan is different from, say, Justin Timberlake. Dylan is still a creature of myth, even though it is a sort of myth that could only exist in our contemporary mediascape. But “myth is gossip grown old,” as Stanislaw Lec is reputed to have said, and Timberlake is young enough, and lives in an age cynical enough, that his media presence still exists in the form of gossip, and resists congealing into myth. This is why Haynes’ film is retrospective, and deeply cinematic; it’s really about (both personal and cultural) memory. Whereas Richard Kelly’s film is prospective (forward-looking) and formally post-cinematic (it’s still a movie, not a tv show or video; but it’s a movie permeated with the effects of CNN and youtube): it’s about short attention spans and the continual effacement of long-term memory. I’m Not There is very much a film, in the cinephilic sense; Southland Tales is a real movie, but it isn’t in the least a film. Of course, it is not a question of choosing between these two movies, or these two modes. They offer vastly different perspectives on celebrity, on the mediascape, and on the strange detours of desire; but both of these perspectives are necessary ones. In 2006, Justin Timberlake offered the world a far better album than Bob Dylan did; but in 2007, they both, equally, embodied aspects of the media-drenched dreamworld from which we are unable to awaken, even if we wanted to (which, as I write this, in 2008, we evidently don’t).

8 thoughts on “I’m Not There”

  1. I agree with you. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is the most beautiful Western of them all. And I would go so far to say that Peckinpah is the greatest American filmmaker of the last 40 years. He is the heir of a tradition that dates back to Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman and continued on with Hemingway. The torch has not yet been passed from Peckinpah, although, no, wait, yes, I guess you could make the case that C. McCarthy is the heir to Peckinpah. Then who’s next in line? I can’t wait to find out. This particular strain of Americana – bloody, poetic, stoic – makes me happy.

  2. Haynes has 6 actors playing SEVEN characters, doesn’t he? Christian Bale plays two, the folk protest Dylan and the evangelical Dylan.

    I thought the sequence of the film that veered most dangerously close to traditional bio-pic territory was the Cate Blanchett “Jude Quinn” sequence, even if it is the most immediately engaging part of the film. I wrote my own reaction to the film here http://thesethingstoo.blogspot.com/search/label/I%27m%20Not%20There if anyone would like to take a look.

  3. Excellent observations, Steve. Though Don’t Look Back hovers over the film on an informational level, the “Jude Quinn” sequences actually “sample” Fellini’s 8 1/2.

  4. “Haynes has 6 actors playing SEVEN characters, doesn’t he? Christian Bale plays two, the folk protest Dylan and the evangelical Dylan.”

    I think it’s more true to say that Bale plays one character, who transitions offscreen from a 60s folk singer to an 80s evangelical preacher. It’s the same man at two different points in his life. I think Haynes intentionally linked these two aspects of Dylan’s history because he sees them as outgrowths of the same tendency, a tendency that in fact runs counter to the rest of Dylan’s career, and to the central idea of Haynes’ film. Both the folkie protest songs and the Christian songs are concerned with presenting a message, with teaching, and this is a tendency that the various other Dylans in the film mostly disparage and dismiss as simplistic. Jude Quinn states it most eloquently, at the press conference where s/he’s asked why s/he abandoned protest songs, by saying that protest songs flatter the audience by giving them a message they can agree with, and making them feel that they’re somehow above the problems being sung about. Post-protest Dylan developed a much more complicated worldview, open to interpretation and encouraging free thought rather than presenting readymade conclusions. This is, I think, what Haynes values in Dylan, and the two literalist Dylans played by Bale are therefore given somewhat short shrift in the film, mainly serving as a contrast to the far more open-ended Dylans as reflected in Quinn, Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud, and the “romantic” Dylan played by Heath Ledger.

    Anyway, this is a very interesting review, Steven, you do a great job of unpacking this very complex and rewarding film. I’ve taken my own stab at the film here for those who are interested.

  5. it is a fact that christian bale is a stud. He’s on top of his game, no doubt. the fact that he did a film about dylan shows he’s versatile as all get out.

  6. There has been a lot written on Dylan of late, and Haynes’ film in particular. But this analysis is GREAT!!

    Since it would seem you are a fan (or at least given the mytholgy some serious thought), I thought I might introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you are going to enjoy.

    It’s a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven’s door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture…

    Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they’re all characters in Bob’s songs.

    You can get a copy on Amazon.com or go “behind the tracks” at http://www.bloodonthetracksnovel.com to learn more about the book.

  7. A few brief additions:

    I also agree about the Pekinpah movie. But we seem to be in the minority when it comes to that judgment. I love that film.

    The Heath Ledger sequence, in which Ledger plays an actor who became famous for portraying the Christian Bale character (right?), to me seems to – fittingly – be the one that follows the conventions of the biopic most fully, and in which the characters do seem to be dealing with a very conventional sort of interiority.

    To me the Cate Blanchett sequence seemed interestingly to be the center of the film – emotionally, intellectually the rest of the movie seems to either portray a lead-up to or a denoument from this sequence, as is the case in Martin Scorcece’s documentary from last year.

    This is how biopics tend to go: the dark, drug struggle is the center of the films. But the epiphany in a conventional movie seems to be about how the subject survives a crisis. In this movie, Jude Quinn does not survive (or survives only as an “actor” playing Christian Bale… etc).

    Further, everything in this sequence is about artificiality and decadence (at some point Jude says he’s opposed to nature). The lines seem to be all quotes from either Dylan press conferences or the song “She’s Your Lover Now.”

    Interestingly it is also the part in which the acting is the most “realistic” and the most performative. In difference to the other parts, Blanchett performs Dylan perfectly – down to the smallest handgestures – but the result is that the character seems the least “real”, most stylized.

    This is a welcome antidote to the awful movie about Edie Sedgewick from earlier this year where Dylan is an icon of masculine American authenticity.

    Finally, I would also like to say that the structure of the film seems largely influenced by Dylan’s own films, in particular his fantastic “Renaldo and Clara” from 1978 – which features an even more disjunctive narrative and Dylan as “Renaldo” and Roger McGuinn and a host of other people as “Bob Dylan” – and his not-quite-fantastic movie that came out a few years ago, “Masked and Anonymous,” with its in-jokes and cover performances.


  8. Steve ~ what an excellent engagement with the film. I couldn’t agree with you more. I was transfixed when I saw it – really struck by its nuance, its affective complexity, its experimentation mixed-in with its generous sense of humour. I think it’s very difficult to make such a complex film so watchable, and so open to interpretation. I would class it as the best film I’ve seen in a long while. Thanks for taking the time to put into words what I felt for days after seeing it (I am actually listening to the soundtrack as I write!).

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