Like a complete unknown
Might as well make it clear right up front that not everybody’s going to like I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’ phantasmagoric movie “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.” But those who manage to snag a handhold on it somewhere, anywhere, and get yanked along for the ride—who don’t just stand befuddled and frustrated by the side of the road, helplessly watching it barrel past—are going to like it a lot. And I’m one of them—might as well tell you that right up front, too.
Honestly, I don’t know if my take on the movie is the right one—I don’t even know if there is a “right” take—but it was enough to let me relish much of Haynes’ long movie, and to bear with its dry spots. And it reminded me what a puzzling figure Dylan was when he first came amblin’ down the road, scrunched up and stringy and looking in need of a square meal and a comb. I’d forgotten what that first glimpse was like.
I’m Not There takes its title from one of Dylan’s songs, but the movie’s real model is another of them—“Desolation Row,” that great teeming feast of chaos from Highway 61 Revisited. A typical passage: “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood. / With his memories in a trunk. / Passed this way an hour ago. / With his friend, a jealous monk.” If you try to make “sense” of that, you’ll go nuts, but the images are so evocative in a free-association way that once you’ve heard them you can’t get them out of your head. So it is with all of “Desolation Row”: try to “figure it out” and you’re doomed, but let it just wash over you and you float on a thick sea of inchoate thoughts and feelings that pique and prickle and tease. And so it is with I’m Not There.
Between the opening “inspired by” credit and the final crawl’s list of songs, the name of Bob Dylan never appears. Instead, a succession of actors play characters reflecting different facets of the persona that Dylan projected throughout the 1960s, his time of greatest public prominence. In approximate order of appearance, they are: Arthur (Ben Whishaw), a pop artist giving enigmatic answers to an interviewer’s questions; Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an itinerant black youth hopping freights and bunking with strangers, singing songs with his battered guitar; Jack (Christian Bale), an austere folk singer out to help change the world; Robbie (Heath Ledger), a James Dean-like actor who plays Jack in a movie and molds his life on him; Jude (Cate Blanchett), a country singer squirming under his limousine lifestyle and image as a prophet; and Billy (Richard Gere), a mysterious drifter settling for a time in an equally mysterious, surrealistic rural town.
Part of the fun of I’m Not There is spotting the analogs, like characters in a roman à clef—Julianne Moore as Alice (read Joan Baez) talking about knowing Jack; an Edie Sedgwick-ish Coco (Michelle Williams) teasing and taunting Jude; four antic English boys in a wry reference to A Hard Day’s Night. But that’s mainly for the ’60s buffs, you say; what if you weren’t there and don’t care?
Well, gee, in that case, you probably won’t be seeing I’m Not There at all, or if you do, you’ll scratch your head wondering what the hell’s going on. But if living in the ’60s was, as someone once memorably said, like seeing the circus come to town, then Todd Haynes has captured the feel of it like few movies have (he even trots out giraffes and elephants to underline the point). In that sense, I’m Not There is a companion piece to Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe—less slick and showy, more abstruse, deeper under the skin.
Not all of the movie works. Richard Gere’s scenes (evoking Dylan’s appearance in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) seem from a different movie, and no matter how loose your approach, it’s hard to fit them to the rest. And for all Haynes and co-writer Owen Moverman’s poking and jabbing around the edges, there’s something in Dylan’s essence that eludes them; the movie’s title is both an acknowledgment and a warning. But Haynes pulls off something almost as hard: he gives us a sense of how Bob Dylan bestrode (and bemused) his time. We see all the ripples spreading in the water, even if we can’t quite make out the rolling stone that made them.