Saturday, December 8, 2007

I'm Not There (***)

Directed by Todd Haynes


Bob Dylan is one of the most mysteriously mesmerizing figures in twentieth century culture. His music, filled with jamming instruments and thought-provoking lyrics, has spoken for countless generations of listeners. There are so many people who find solace in his droll voice and screeching harmonica, it's almost impossible to diminish his sound into a particular genre or time. Dylan, himself, is so mysterious and unspecific that it's impossible to show his story with one solid plot line.

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There expounds upon that idea, by recruiting six different actors to recreate different moments in the songwriter's life. What Haynes ends up with is an exotically bizarre film, that stretches the very definition of film making, and creates a story as sorted and majestic as it's cornerstone.

One of the six Dylans is an 11-year-old black boy who hops trains, sings folk songs, and calls himself Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin, in a performance that shows skill far beyond his age). He's a representation of the young drifter Dylan was before he found comfort of his idol folk singer Guthrie. Then there is Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a young, disillusioned man who has dedicated his time to writing protest songs that capture the social unrest of society. With the help of obvious Joan Baez-remake Alice Fabian (Julianne Moore), he's able to find an audience for his "fingerpoint songs".

Then there is Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), a Brando-esque movie star, who's fame started when he played a role based on Jack Rollins. His indulgences in celebrity and rocky relationship with his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), showcase the time of Dylan's troubled marriage and consequent divorce with his first wife, Sara. There's Arthur (Ben Whishaw) a Dylan-esque poet who is reciting a nonsensical interview regarding his career.

We see Jude (Cate Blanchett--who probably looks and sounds the most like Dylan) an amphetamine-fueled, hydrogenous rock star who's facing a mountain of backlash from those fans who feel he abandoned his folk roots and "went electric"; an obvious reference to Dylan's exile from folk. We go back to Jack Rollins who has transformed himself into a born-again Christian named John (Bale), disclosing Dylan's own spiritual awakening in the 80's. Then in the film's most puzzling sequence, we see Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), a nineteenth-century cowboy outlaw who's arrested for being an agitator. Possibly a reflection on Dylan's secluded times in the late 60's and early 70's.

With the movie, we see another example of the boldness of Todd Haynes. Haynes, known for his 2002 film Far From Heaven and the 1998 cult film The Velvet Goldmine, embellishes his reputation as a filmmaker who has chosen to expand on the ideas on what film is supposed to be. This is a much safer way to portray Dylan on film, I feel. Perhaps Hayens realized that using one actor to showcase all of Dylan's life might end up being the portrait of a shape-shifting schizophrenic.

It's hard to imagine anyone who is not a fan of Dylan's music being a fan of this film. It takes a lot of chances that are hard to appreciate unless you can either understand the scope of Dylan's music. Even fans of Dylan might be thrown off by the film's non-linear chaos, but at least they can sit back and enjoy the music, which is either sung by Dylan himself, or synced by the actors. Even I, as much as I enjoyed myself, saw that there are many times during the course of this experience where it becomes too convoluted and outlandish for it's own good.

That said, it is exciting to see a filmmaker and his actors take such big risks. Each story has it's own style and grace. The Jack Rollins/Pastor John section is told like a documentary. Robbie's tale of decadence is shot like a modern American drama. Billy the Kid's wild west is shot like a, you guessed it, American western film. Then there is the story of Jude, which is created with such Fellini-esque surrealism, it's almost hard to pin point where reality is and when Jude is in drug-induced fantasy.

There are moments recreated. Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"-influenced hook-up with bombshell Edie Sedgwick is shown through Jude's turbulent battle with a former lover named Coco. The legendary electric "Judas" performance is shown in such manic filmmaking, even those who are not familiar with the moment will be scorched.

The performances are earnest enough. Bale's protest singer and subsequent preacher is sincere, if not vague by the documentary style (which probably was the point). Ledger as a womanizing superstar is probably one of the more effective performances, showing a very sad document of a crumbling love. Whishaw, whose clips just seem to pop up sporadically between the other stories, is formidable, showing Dylan's quiet, strange defiance. Franklin's performance as the hitch-hiking lost boy looking to be a rock star is both startling and impressive. Gere, stuck in a entire segment that seems from another film, does well in the role, even if I'm still not sure why he was there to begin with.

As has been much proclaimed in the media, the film's core comes from Blanchett's complete transformation as Jude. Her performance catches lightning in a bottle. It's bold, strong and dominates the picture despite less than 40 minutes of screen time in a 2 hour plus film. It's not that Blanchett becomes Dylan that's impressive, not even that she becomes a man, but that she becomes a myth, an idea that the entire film is based on. The role is just as vague as the film supposes Dylan is, but she is able to completely embrace it.

This is one of those movies that you enjoy because of it's unrelenting bravery, not because it totally works as a film. It spirals too much for my liking, but there is never a point where I felt lost or bored. What we have is a document of a man who completely transformed his identity on more than one occasion, and was able to transform rock & roll music in the process as well.

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