Franklin, Blanchett, Whishaw, Bale, Ledger, Gere: None of these characters is named "Bob" or "Dylan."
Nobody's life and work has been analyzed, interpreted, scrutinized for possible meanings and clues, quite like Bob Dylan's. One key tale in Dylan's history/mythology (though it's reportedly true) is that of the hustler/stalker character known as The Scavenger, who regularly sifted through Dylan's garbage looking for skeleton keys to What He Means, and eventually started interpreting himself into Dylan's songs. Todd Haynes' movie, "I'm Not There" (which played the New York Film Festival this week after premiering in Toronto, and opens wider in November) doesn't intend to be any kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering Dylan or his music. If anything, it applies further layers of imagery to the legend -- deconstructing, reinterpreting and elaborating upon it at the same time.
So, what do you really need to know about Dylan in order to appreciate Haynes' thrilling head-trip of a movie? As little as possible, probably -- or as much as possible, or somewhere in-between. I'm no Dylanologist, but I loved it at first sight and, weeks later, I'm still loving remembering and thinking about it. True, I have all but four or five of Dylan's albums from "Bob Dylan" (1962) to "Oh Mercy" (1989), and most of them again from "Time Out of Mind" (1997) through the Bootleg Series reissues and up to last year's "Modern Times." I worshipped "Blood on the Tracks" in college (still do), but I've never been as obsessive about him as many of his devotees (acolytes? disciples?).
Jim James of My Morning Jacket as a Rolling Thunder Revue-esque troubadour on Desolation Row in an old western town called Riddle in "I'm Not There."
No particular Dylan knowledge is required here, yet I think "I'm Not There" encourages annotation, elaboration, imagination -- not unlike like "Zodiac," another of the year's most fascinating movie. (See my random notes on that one here.) Still, it's the experience of the movie itself that matters most, and that is most enjoyable. As Robert Sullivan writes in a fascinating but sometimes misguided, poorly edited and factually questionable New York Times Magazine story ("This Is (Not) A Bob Dylan Movie"):
"Haynes didn't want to make a movie that was about anything. He wanted to make a movie that is something."
That's the best two-sentence description of "I'm Not There" I can imagine. But let me counter the article's impression (or, at least, the sub-heads') that this is a "weird" movie: "It Has to Be the Weirdest Movie of the Year." No, it doesn't. And it's not. It isn't even as odd or unfamiliar-feeling as Haynes' "Poison" or "Safe" or "Velvet Goldmine," and it doesn't mean to be -- although it's obviously less linear than "Far From Heaven," I'll give you that. Yes, it casts six actors as different versions of the same central figure. But lots of movies (even "Ray" and "Walk the Line") have done those kinds of things to show characters at various stages in their development. The only difference is that "I'm Not There" isn't strictly chronological. It plays with phases in Dylan's life, and public or private personae of his, but doesn't cast them according to age, gender or race. What's so terribly weird about that? (It's certainly less unsettling than Luis Buñuel's deliberately arbitrary and unpredictable casting of two actresses as one woman in "That Obscure Object of Desire.")
I've been listening to Dylan a lot since I saw the movie, re-watching D.A. Pennebaker's "Dont Look Back" and Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," reading liner notes and wading through the mixed-up confusion of Robert Shelton's repetitive, contradictory, over-written and under-organized semi-authorized 1986 biography, "No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan." I feel like watching Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (which is woven prominently into "I'm Not There"), one of my most-loved movies, but it always takes a heavy emotional toll on me, so I don't know if I'm up to it right now.
Meanwhile, here are a few more things I'd like to scribble in the margins of Haynes' movie for now, thoughts to tickle your fancy and to resonate in your mind while you're watching "I'm Not There" (which I fervently hope you will).
Think of it as kind of Viewer's Companion to the film:
At the most basic level, [Haynes] has tried to make a film with the power to carry you away, the power of a song, and what he is asking of the audience is to relinquish control, which is, of course, a huge gamble. "You have to give up a certain amount of control when you listen to music," Haynes told me. -- Sullivan, NYT Magazine (October 7, 2007)
"The particular magic that Dylan has over, say, twenty million people, is the paradox and the inaccessibility of him. In his music, people are struck by something and yet they don't really seem to know what it is. That's always been the case with the most acute and exalted poetry. There are lines of Shakespeare like this, in which you don't have to know who plays what to be struck by the magic of words. Then the insight of the listener is followed by intense perplexity. We hear something that we finally realize is saying something we think ourselves and then we want to know more about the writer who can tell us something about ourselves." -- Richard Fariña, quoted from an interview with Shelton in his book "No Direction Home" (1986; republished 1997, 2003; p. 327)
"The amazing thing about Todd Haynes's ceaselessly amazing 'I'm Not There' is how little nostalgia has to do with it. Just as Haynes used an obsolete style of melodrama to stir contemporary hearts with 'Far From Heaven,' he now deploys the life and legend of Bob Dylan to mediate a huge complex of ideas and feelings about the soul of the artist (or any feeling person) right now. Biography is only the vehicle; hagiography is the last thing on his mind. Haynes says more about the impact of Iraq on his psyche by reflecting it through Vietnam..." -- Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (September 25, 2007)
“I don’t know that it does make sense,” Cate Blanchett says of the film, “and I don’t know whether Dylan’s music makes sense. It hits you in kind of some other place. It might make sense when you’re half-awake, half-asleep, in the everyday lives in which we live. I don’t think the film even strives to make sense, in a way.” -- Sullivan, NYT Magazine, Op. cit.
Highway 8 1/2 Revisited.
"The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he's no longer where he was. He's like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you'll surely get burned. Dylan's life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down. And that's why his fan base is so obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes and the answers to him -- things that Dylan will never provide and will only frustrate.... Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity." -- Haynes, in preliminary Weinstein Company press notes for "I'm Not There"
“If a film were to exist in which the breadth and flux of a creative life could be experienced, a film that could open up as oppose to consolidating what we think we already know walking in, it could never be within the tidy arc of a master narrative. The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation. Imagine a film splintered between seven separate faces — old men, young men, women, children — each standing in for spaces in a single life.” -- Haynes' "I'm Not There" pitch to Dylan and his management, quoted in Sullivan, NYT Magazine, Op. cit.
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) -- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" (from "Leaves of Grass," 1855)
I'm sorry. Did I say I wasn't obsessed? Maybe I'm just obsessed with this movie.
"I just found this refusal to be fixed as a single self in a single voice as a key to [Dylan's] freedom," Haynes told me. "And he somehow escaped this process of being frozen into one fixed person." The standard kind of biopic bored Haynes. "A biopic is always weaving these overdetermined moments with these moments we don't know, " Haynes says. "Ray Charles at the piano. Ray Charles at home." Early on, Haynes ran across this line in the Anthony Scaduto biography of Dylan: "He created a new idenity every step of the way in order to create identity."-- Sullivan, NYT Magazine, Op. cit.
"By the time I made my second feature, 'Safe,' which challenged the [New Queer Cinema] question of content as it pertained to queer directors and their points of view, we had already broken the mold, and it made me think that maybe it's not all about content. Maybe we don't even need to define people as queer in order to have points of view to be queer. I don't know. The ease of categorization became harder. Sexuality and identity are so mysterious that nothing holds in a category." -- Haynes to Eric Kohn in The Reeler (September 30, 2007)
"Whether you know Dylan or not, you have to surrender to the movie to have a good time at all and get anything out of it. If you have a lot of Dylanisms in your head, it's kind of distracting, because you're sitting there with a whole second movie going on. You're annotating it as you go. It's kind of nice to sit back and let it take you. I think people get it: Even if you don't know which are the true facts and which are the fictional things, and when we're playing with fact and fiction, from the tone of it, you know that it's playing around with real life. In a way, that's what biopics always do. They just don't tell you that they're doing it, and they don't make it part of the fun. You have to follow the Johnny Cash story and just sort of think, "This is what really happened." Of course, you know it's being dramatized, but you're not in on the joke. You're not in on the game of that. In this movie, at least, you get tipped off to it." -- Haynes, The Reeler interview, Op. cit.
"America obsessed with authenticity / authenticity the perfect costume / America the land of masks, costumes, self-transformation, creativity is artificial, America's about false authenticity and creativity." -- from "governing concepts/themes" in one of Dylan's notebooks, quoted by Haynes in Sullivan, NYT Magazine, Op. cit.
"With artists as famous and canonized as Dylan or the Beatles, what you forget about is that something happened in their time that made it, at first, like a rupture. Usually, those things are met with some ambivalence, if not opposition. So the challenge with someone like Dylan is trying to reunite those events with their initial shock value -- their fresh sense of being alive. That was one of the reasons why I cast Cate [Blanchett]. I always wanted a woman for that role. The physical strangeness of Dylan from 1966 is something we're used to seeing from the images, but it was bizarre at the time. He was strangely androgynous in a way that nobody had seen in popular music before. It was dangerous and queer, but not in the gay way. I think that helps for young people. It makes it exciting and not just somebody already famous and in some record collection." -- Haynes, The Reeler interview, Op cit.
"Love and sex are things that really hang everybody up. When things aren't going right and you're really nobody, if you don't get laid in one way or another, you get mean, you know. You get cruel. Now, why in the world should sex force this is beyond me. I truthfully can tell you that male and female are not here to have sex, you know, that's not the purpose. I don't believe that that's God's will, that females have been created so that they can be a counterpart of man's urge. There are just too many things that people just won't let themselves be involved in. Sex and love have nothing to do with female and male. It is just whatever two souls happen to be. It might be female and female or it might be male and male. You can try to pretend that it doesn't happen, and you can make fun of it and be snide, but that's not really the rightful thing. I know, I know." -- Dylan, in "No Direction Home," Op. cit., pp 353-54
On the black-and-white "Dont Look Back" / "Blonde on Blonde"/ "Highway 61 Revisited" scenes with Cate Blanchett as "Jude Quinn": "That image of Dylan is so well-known and so woven into our cultural fabric now that I felt that the sheer shock of it that people must have experienced at the time is gone. I wanted to find a way to re-infuse it with true strangeness -- the eeriness and sexual uncertainty and diffusion. And that's why I wanted to have a woman play the part. And it took Cate Blanchett to transform that tall order into something more than a cinematic stunt...."
"I wasn't sure that 'Dont Look Back' was the right cinematic equivalent to the style and feel for this particular Dylan and his work. I started watching a lot of '60s films, and it didn't take long to discover Fellini's '8 1/2', the perfect cinematic parallel. It's a film about a director being besieged by his fans, followers and critics, and being asked continually: 'What do your films mean?' 'Why aren't you doing films like you used to do?' And although there are still scenes in backstage rooms which will invariably be compared to "Dont Look Back," the Jude story is in fact a very composed, baroque and churlishly overt tribute to '60s Fellini." -- Haynes, press notes for "I'm Not There," Op. cit.
On the Vietnam-era personal relationship thread, with Robbie the movie actor (Heath Ledger) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) -- the latter a version of Sara Lownds, to whom Dylan was married from 1965 to 1977: "I looked at the mid-'60s work of Jean-Luc Godard, and in his films there's a great romanticism towards womn, but with it, at times, a quiet condescension. The women in these films are treated with a poetic camera, but they are exempt from the political discourse that drives them. And this double-standard has been a point of discussion in some of Dylan's songs as well." -- Haynes, press notes for "I'm Not There," Op. cit. (The film explicitly evokes Godard's "Masculin-Feminin" and the long argument in the middle section of "Contempt")
"I feel like anytime I'll work on a film, it's like a giant dissertation, a gigantic undertaking, and this is probably the biggest one," Haynes told me. "Probably the Ph.D." -- Sullivan, NYT Magazine, Op. cit.
Which reminds me: I always thought "Like a Rolling Stone" was about nobody so much as Bob Dylan. How about you? Has anybody ever made becoming invisible, a complete unknown (or being completely unknown), or having no secrets to conceal sound so damning, so... terrifying? Couldn't it also be a (deeply American) fantasy of liberation?
Dylan (1965): "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal."
Kris Krisofferson, narrator of "I'm Not There," and Fred Foster ("Me and Bobby McGee," 1969): "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose, And nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free."
Oh, there I go again...
NOTE: I am working on a list of factual errors, omissions and false impressions that bugged me in the NY Times Magazine story to support my charge that it is misguided, poorly edited and factually questionable. The heads and subheads also do a terrible job of "selling" the piece, but those definitely editors' shortcomings. Still I think we should expect more from the NY Bloody Times Magazine. It's isn't a blog or a tabloid, it's a mass-circulation magazine with a huge budget and unparalleled resources behind it, including a team of editors and plenty of lead time in its publishing schedule. Although packed with interesting quotes and tidbits, the overall sloppiness of the piece really irritated me.