Monday, November 26, 2007

Cheaper by the dozen

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There

Vite! est-il d'autres vies?

- Arthur Rimbaud

Becoming an artist, we're told, is about finding your voice. But what if you have not one voice, but many? What if you grope about in the darkness of the creative psyche and come up with not one persona but half a dozen? This, Todd Haynes would have us believe, is the secret of the enigma that is Dylan, and his new movie I'm Not There attempts to unmask this persona by placing not one but six mirrors around the great man, in the hope that at least one of them will catch his true face. So we get a guitar-toting, blues-singing African-American boy on the run from a correction home who calls himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin); a folk singer turned preacher named Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), complete with a mock documentary of his life, hilarious mock covers of Dylan albums and Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez stand-in; a philandering actor called Robbie (Heath Ledger); a folk-musician turned rocker named Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) in England for a concert at the Albert Hall (yup, that one); the interrogation of a poet named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw); and, well, Richard Gere.

Bewildered yet?

It's an intriguing and courageous idea, but the end result of all this triangulation is not so much a composite portrait of the artist, as a trip through a series of distorted and grotesque images, a carnival house of mirrors that leaves you entertained and weirded out, but no nearer a sense of what you're supposed to be seeing than when you first went in.

What Haynes does get right is the impossibility of pinning Dylan down. Because it's not just, as the BBC reporter played by Bruce Greenwood says in a mock telecast in the movie, that Dylan's sneering, trademark sound conveys a certain sincerity, a certain attitude to life. The truth is that Dylan's songs are a kind of peripheral poetry - profound and meaningful when seen from the corner of the eye, but rarely able to survive being looked at straight on. You can stare at a Dylan song as hard as you like, and (unless you're seriously stoned) you'll find yourself wondering what the hell you ever saw in it, but you won't be able to shake the feeling that something very beautiful just went down here; and you won't be wrong. It's this will-of-the-wisp-ness, this sense of (forgive me) blowin' in the wind, that makes Dylan, well, necessary, if only because life is like that too. The fleeting poetry of Dylan's best songs evokes the rhythms of travel and heartbeat, a nostalgia for the ephemeral, a heightened sense of the self that connects us to the imagination of a generation, makes the everyday seem somehow timeless. That's why we love the man's music.

It's a free-wheeling quality that Haynes film shares. There are moments in this film where you think you detect a hint of Godard [1], but then it vanishes; moments when you think you get what Haynes is trying to say, only then you don't. I'm Not There says very little, but what it almost but doesn't say is a lot.

Which is not to say it's a good movie. Oh, there's a wealth of Dylan trivia in there, dozens of clever little in-jokes, reams of dialog that quotes Dylan lyrics, and dream-like sequences inspired by (among others) Visions of Johannah and Desolation Row. Plus there's that unforgettable moment when the voice from the audience shouts "Judas!" and Dylan (here Quinn) responds "I don't believe you / You're a liar". And of course there's the music, and plenty of it.

But all of that isn't really enough to evoke Dylan. As Haynes switches back and forth between his six stories, what you sense is not vision, but desperation. The Heath Ledger story seems to come straight out of a standard-issue Hollywood romantic drama, the Richard Gere 'western' number, meant to be a homage to Dylan's Billy the Kid phase, comes across as a B-grade period western that has about the same amount of relevance to the rest of the movie as that scene with the naked Japanese girl had to Babel, both the 'Woody' and 'Arthur' sequences seem arbitrarily tacked on, despite a lovely performance by Marcus Carl Franklin, and a guest appearance by Richie Havens. The Jack Rollins spoof is fun for a bit, and Christian Bale certainly looks the part, but then Haynes goes and makes him a preacher, in what must be the worst decision in the whole film. Overall, the problem with much of the film is precisely that Dylan's Not There - there isn't a glimpse of him to be seen, and you sit there wondering why you're being put through this.

What saves this movie, what makes it worth the watch (and yes, it IS worth watching [2]) is Cate Blanchett. Her performance as Jude Quinn, and the Quinn sequences in general, are the dynamo that power this film, give it all its true momentum. It's 1966, legendary folk singer Jude Quinn has shocked all his fans by suddenly going electric, he's in London for a concert and has an extended, part-hallucinogenic face-off with a BBC correspondent about the 'meaning' of his work. What we see, in hypnotic black and white, is a soul in torment, a tortured genius wrestling with the twin demons of self-definition and public perception, an artist spent, exhausted, insecure, mindblown on drugs and cigarettes, trying desperately to break free of the definitions society is imposing on him and find his creative way forward. It's exquisite to watch, particularly because it's also my favorite phase of Dylan's career. This part of the film has the snappiest dialog, the clearest insight and the most cleverly conceived sequences, and Cate Blanchett does an incredible job of bringing it all to life. It's as though Haynes knew that in her he had his most talented, most hard working actor, and he deliberately gives her all the real meat of the film. It's movie making at its finest, and if only Haynes had had the courage to cut out everything else, this would have been one hell of a biopic.

I suppose it makes sense that a movie about a public figure as impossible to define or label as Dylan should be prove to be unsatisfactory. Haynes could certainly have made this a better film, but no matter what he did it's unlikely that he would have been able to capture the essence of Dylan on film. In the end, perhaps the best comment on I'm Not There comes in the film itself, in what is, for me, the high point of the movie, a surreal rendition of Ballad of a Thin Man where Blanchett (playing Quinn / Dylan) looks straight into the camera and says "You know something is happening here, but you don't what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?". Dylan, as always, has the last word.

[1] I'm convinced that at least one scene - the bit where Quinn follows Coco along a wooded path is inspired by a scene in JLG's Sympathy for the Devil.

[2] See, see, I can do random switches back and forth too.


Anonymous said...

"an artist spent, exhausted, insecure, mindblown on drugs and cigarettes, trying desperately to break free of the definitions society is imposing on him and find his creative way forward"

Have you seen Scorsese's No Direction Home or Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and watched Dylan shredding apart journalists who saw in him anything more than a singer-songwriter? No flame bait. Just asking.

Also, a general comment (and this not a flame bait either). Is Cate Blanchett really that great an actress? She is a very good impressionist but somehow everyone seems to be conflate that with great acting. There's very little surprise or revelation in any of her roles after about 10 minutes.

Falstaff said...

anon: Have seen the Scorsese though not the Pennebaker. And the movie shows the Quinn character doing something similar - the non-singer-songwriter definitions, along with the folk singer tag, being precisely what Quinn is trying to break free of.

On Blanchett - I don't know. I can't say I've ever been particularly impressed by her work before, but then I've never really seen much of her. Actually, other than Elizabeth, I don't think I've actually seen any movies she's starred in (I'm not counting her appearances in LOTR / Babel).

You may be right about her being a very good impressionist, but that's what her role needs - she doesn't need to create an original character, she needs to be Dylan, a larger than life figure we already have our own version of, and I think she does that admirably.

??! said...

I don't think I've actually seen any movies she's starred in
You haven't seen Charlotte Gray, The Talented Mr Ripley, Bandits, Veronica Guerin, or Notes on a Scandal? Seriously??!

km said...

Completely OT, but Falstaff, you should watch "Don't Look Back". A more cringe-inducing (and yet captivating) portrait of a rock musician has not been painted yet.