"I'm Not There", Todd Haynes dissects the life of Bob Dylan

And if you judge me tonight
Judge me by the songs I write
That's who I am to you

- Dan Bern "Black Tornado"

 

With many artists, we're content to judge them by their work. Few become the kind of icon the likes of Bob Dylan. He rose up quickly through the ranks of the folk movement and became one of its' iconic figures. He toured with the freedom riders and gave them a anthem in the "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and the anti-war movement one in "With God on Our Side", to the tune of "The Patriot Game". Early in his career, the folk movement was looking to him to become their leader. What they didn't know was that Bob Dylan was a persona made up by Robert Zimmerman and that, while his songs may have been authentic, he was a fraud. All that ended at Newport in 1965, when Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax pulled the plug on his electric guitar.

Haynes covers this portion of Dylan's life using four characters, "Woody Guthrie", portrayed by Marcus Franklin, is brilliant as the young Dylan, singing hobo and union songs in the late '50's south. When confronted by the reality around him, he changes into "Jack Rollins", the protest singer. Ed Lachman films much of this portion of the film on 16mm stock. The rail sequences remind me of "Bound for Glory". Franklin carries this part of the film with his "in your face" folksy attitude. Lachman switches back and forth between lush Technicolor and flat 16 mm throughout the film.

The cameo of Richie Havens singing is incredible. Dylan's songs, whether sung by him or other greats, carries us through this film. The contrasts of music and drama keep bringing up the question of "who is this man and what do we really know about him?”. Haynes is more interested in who Bob Dylan wants to believe he is than in digging into his soul. Some of the critics want "the truth", but the truth is hard to come by. Haynes is clear about this. Bob Dylan only tells you what he wants you to know. Instead, Haynes divides Dylan into each persona and lets us decide for ourselves. In "Woody", Haynes shows us the beginning of the first fraud of Dylan's life. He becomes a facsimile of America's greatest folk artist. This will get his career off the ground.

Next, we have the trial of "Rimbaud", played by Ben Whishaw, which seeks to offer us Dylan's defense. Filmed in black and white, these sequences are interwoven into the film, using Dylan's own words to offer the viewers an explanation for his life. Haynes lets Dylan tell us that he's an uncompromising artist, only creating his various persona in order to move his art to the next level. Haynes give us those persona, starting in the folk clubs of the Village, using Julianne Moore as the Joan Baez character, "Alice Fabian", in a series of interviews about "Rollins", played by Christian Bales. He shows Dylan singing to the freedom marchers, rousing the clubs, and coming into the spectacle as the "new folk sensation". In documentary style, Haynes takes us into the Village at a time when the world was changing. So much of the burden of this sweeping change rest of Dylan's shoulders as he becomes the icon. It is at this point of the film that "Robbie Clark", played by Heath Ledger first weaves in.

"Clark", the actor Dylan, provides much of the drama for Haynes. Ledger holds the film together through the love story with "Claire", the stunning Charlotte Gainsbourg. In these portions we see the human Dylan, falling in love, sitting in coffee shops discussing life, and just living. The love sequence with Ledger and Gainsbourg, to the tune of "I Want You", is both erotic and moving. Ledger also plays the conflicts in Dylan's life, from the actor selling his vision to the father losing his children in divorce. Haynes best is a shot of "Claire's" Cong painting as Nixon announces the withdraw of troops from Viet Nam, to the tune of "Visions of Johanna". This is where "Claire" loses everything: "Robbie" and the relevance of her art.

Cate Blanchett's "Jude Quinn" character gives us a portrait of the Dylan we know. The "Jude" persona brings us through the electric years, the fallout with the folk scene, and Dylan's drug days. While Blanchett deserves a supporting actress nomination for the role in giving us the bio-pic Dylan, imitating each mannerism to a tee, Franklin and Ledger are just as deserving for acknowledgment. Lachman films the "Jude" sequences in a black and white that gives us the feel of a Shepperton Studio film. The Beatles bit is straight out of Lester. Haynes documents Dylan in transformation from folk singer to rock star. Blanchett takes us through these struggles, ending with the famous motorcycle crash. "Ballad of a Thin Man" played for the Panthers connects us with Dylan's influence on the Weather Underground and the radical left. Again, Dylan refuses to be political, even when he's called to get active. Moore says it best in her Beaz role, she believes in change, he doesn't.

"Billy the Kid", played by Richard Gere, fills out the cast. This is Dylan in Woodstock, the recluse escaping the demands being put on him. The Interstate going through the 19th Century village reminds us that Todd Haynes is a postmodernist. He meets his other selves here in "Riddle". Haynes mixes Dylan's music, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid", with Woodstock and the absurd. Bale returns as "Jack" for Dylan's "Saved" period inter sliced into this story. Filmed as a documentary, it gives us the born-again persona. "Pat Garrett" brings "Billy" to justice, that is, back to the public for his Nashville period. As far as the story, Haynes chooses to end it with the "Saved" Dylan. This is fitting as this is the last radical change in Dylan's music and life. Maybe Dylan got tired of constantly becoming someone else and began searching for his true self. Haynes gives us a hint in the "Billy" character by ending with him on the train.

Many of us consider Bob Dylan to be the ultimate traitor to the cause. Haynes defends Dylan the artist from this perspective. While social and political movements used Dylan's music for inspiration, Dylan quickly made it known that he didn't want to be personally engaged. Haynes makes this clear with the scene of Dylan and his band pulling machine guns from their cases and gunning down the Newport audience. But for many who, coming out of a decade of betrayal and repression, this was too much to bear from one that put so much energy into. As a child, I knew Dylan's folk songs through the folk singers that recorded them. It wasn't until adulthood that I discovered much of his electric music. I do remember his period with Johnny Cash, though. But that was because he was playing with Johnny Cash.

Many of Todd Haynes' work focuses on the music bio, from "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story", to "Velvet Goldmine", and now here. The common connection between all of them is the use of biography to tell us something else. From Carpenter's anorexia, to the free love days of the '70's, and their end in the '80's of "Velvet Goldmine", Haynes uses popular culture to find the meanings of their times. He does that here too. The images and struggles of the 1960's and early '70's blend throughout this film; Haynes reminds us of Bob Dylan's contribution to the period. Dylan doesn't want to join the effort, but his music keeps providing the marching beat for change.

As a postmodernist filmmaker, Haynes constantly changes styles, takes gimmicky ideas, and blends it all together into something new. Using many actors for the same part comes from Todd Solondz, much of the his style of reworking fictionalized facts comes from Greenaway, his framing is lifted from many of the greats, but he always comes up with new ways of looking. In some ways, I would have liked to see a more accessible film. This is not the kind of film to get into the cineplex. But, as an art film, it is a major work of depth. I also doubt that the style will attract many Dylan fanatics, that's a shame, since there is much there for the Dylan freak to find.