May 22, 2008


I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007). Not many people have been talking about Todd Haynes’ earlier film Velvet Goldmine in relation to his new one, I’m Not There. That’s a bizarre oversight, like reviewing Jurassic Park without pointing out that Steven Spielberg also made one about a shark that eats people. In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes’ second showbiz movie – in his first, Superstar, the tragic story of Karen Carpenter was retold with Barbie dolls; his more “conventional” films have included Safe and Far From Heaven – the tracking of a rock star’s career was an investigation into a disappearance. That time, the fan-upsetting shape-shifter was David Bowie. This time, it’s Bob Dylan.
In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes retold glam rock history from the perspective of a queer intellectual: Oscar Wilde was glam’s presiding genius and, in that version of history, Bowie and Iggy Pop – now known as Brian Slade and Curt Wild - didn’t just make records together. Its investigation was set out as a series of encounters with those who knew, or thought they knew, Brian, the man who fell to Earth – so the structure owed everything to Citizen Kane, that great story about the most American of past-times, re-invention. A re-invention story to the power of six, I’m Not There is a tougher movie, more anarchic, less linear, less clearly organised (something is happening and you don’t know what it is?). We see a range of Dylans simultaneously and none are called Dylan – it’s a film that takes Dylan’s abundant self-mythology at its word, or at least assumes that it’s all widely understood by the audience.
What kind of mythology? It probably helps to have seen Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, the superbly detailed account of Robert Zimmerman’s invention and impersonation of this “Bob Dylan” guy. The young folksinger who stormed Greenwich Village was a polished and precocious imitator of a whole body of music, an ambitious upstart who tutored himself in the tradition, a perfect copy – to get at just how brilliant and fake this Dylan character was, Haynes casts an 11-year-old black kid as Dylan, or “Woody Guthrie”. This unlikely prodigy is riding the boxcars, travelling with hobos – all a museum-ready anachronism in 1959 – and bound for glory.
Thus, the young Dylan’s first and finest act was the impersonation of sincerity. Haynes’ casting gimmicks here show just what an act it was, as No Direction Home also did (and which is itself referred to in scenes where Julianne Moore plays a version of Joan Baez, being interviewed for a doco much like Scorsese’s – although these moments, in which Christian Bale is now Dylan, also threaten to spill over into the folk-scene parody of A Mighty Wind or Bob Roberts). No Direction Home suggested that, at the height of his protest-movement meaningfulness, Dylan wanted to stop meaning so much to everyone, wanted to give them nonsense instead, but all that hard-won seriousness was impossible to take back. In fact, that old seriousness still has an afterlife: did Chris Trotter really break into Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” at the end of a recent Auckland Writers Festival panel? And if so, what did anti-utopian sceptic John Gray, sitting on the same panel, make of it?
And what does No Direction Home mean as a title anyway? You can’t go back once you’ve covered your tracks? You can’t return to that person you were, whoever it was? Hence also Dont Look Back. The most-talked about parts of I’m Not There are those in which Cate Blanchett imitates the fast, crackling, speed-gobbling Dylan of that DA Pennebaker movie (and so the poster image of I’m Not There is a side-on view of the most famous Dont Look Back poster). There’s too many of these Blanchett scenes in the movie but Haynes really does nail the feeling that Pennebaker’s film also gave you: that Dylan in 1965 and ‘66 was at the centre of everything, and smarter than everyone. Even Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles are bit players at the edges of his hallucinations. But he’s bored, arrogant, vicious – and more so in Haynes’ version than Pennebaker’s, actually. It’s a film made by a Dylan fan but it’s no hagiography. The dominant mood is of tension and complaint – everyone notices that he, whoever he is, keeps on disappearing. No wonder Haynes’ Dylan also gets called Rimbaud, another famous disappearer.
Criticising I'm Not There might make you feel like the Bruce Greenwood character, a haughty cultural correspondent for the BBC who acts like judge, jury, critic and executioner, but here’s the problem: are the other Dylan films (Dont Look Back, No Direction Home, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) ultimately footnotes to I’m Not There or is this new film a footnote to those? It’s surely the latter. It’s a clever but slightly clinical reformatting of so much we already knew – Dylan as opportunist, Dylan as pastiche artist – which means that it doesn’t have the novelty, the imaginative bravery, of Velvet Goldmine. And nor does it have the instinctual tenderness of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a not so dissimilar reworking of pop mythology: there, Kurt Cobain became Blake, the dead man, who really did have no direction home.