Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Contemplation Row

Emerging from I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s kaleidoscopic portrait of Bob Dylan in all his mutability of image, one emphatic gentleman proclaimed it “a totally unnecessary movie.” More than a brusque dismissal, this observation doubtless typifies the majority response to the work. Haynes’s film audaciously renders a chameleonic character, making no attempt to reconcile his disparate facades, and further clouding the point by dividing the Dylan role among six actors with no clear commonalities.

For a middle-of-the-road moviegoer, this approach breeds chaos and confusion. What good is biography that sheds no light on its subject? That uses technique to augment his obscurity—to pronounce him unknowable without aiming for a semblance of understanding?

As Louis Armstrong said of jazz, if you have to ask you’ll never know. All Dylanites, and I count myself as one, admit that their hero defies definition. True disciples know it would indeed take a half dozen performers including a black boy and a woman to capture his myriad personae.

As with Man on the Moon, the like-minded but less flamboyant Andy Kaufman head-scratcher, I’m Not There presumes the futility of seeking closure. Dylan is enigma incarnate, a figure who concurrently shaped and reflected a cultural moment; to ask for precision and unity is a fool's errand. Haynes is more concerned with ambiance than cohesion, so escapists are advised to look elsewhere.

Among the six incarnations of the artist, not one bears the name Bob Dylan. That’s fitting, as the stage name is no more authentic to Robert Zimmerman than any of the monikers assumed by his surrogates in the film, most of which harbor nonetheless some connection to the man as well as the myth. We get Woody Guthrie and Arthur Rimbaud, named for creative influences. We meet Jude Quinn, perhaps an homage to “Quinn the Eskimo”—a folk rock piece composed by Dylan during the interval that character bridges. At last we encounter Cowboy Billy, whose presence calls to mind the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, for which Dylan composed his quixotic ballad “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) is presented as a twelve-year-old African American, riding the rails and plucking populist tunes on his guitar like his namesake, despite the fact that Guthrie’s time had long since passed. The episode dates to 1959, and in a scene of great power and significance, Woody is rebuked for glamorizing the Depression-era plight of the hobo while civil rights crusades hover on the horizon. “Live your own time,” he is told, as if to quell the anachronism of the early Dylan recordings.

Having reinvented himself—in the first of many such instances—as a mouthpiece of the folk movement, Woody is replaced by Arthur (Ben Whishaw), a pastiche of anterior talents. The look of the picture changes accordingly. From the richly saturated hues of the wunderkind’s westward travels (echoing the palette employed by cinematographer Haskell Wexler in the 1976 Guthrie bio Bound for Glory), Haynes shifts to a gritty black and white
then back to less stylized color with the introduction of Jack (Christian Bale), a romantic Greenwich Village prodigy, and tinted green for our sojourn with Robbie (Heath Ledger), a Hollywood actor playing Jack in a meta-biopic.

The differentiation of texture between each sequence accomplishes a good deal more than helping us keep the stories straight. It evokes an array of memories (or impressions, for those of us too young to remember) of the media we associate with Dylan—the means of disseminating the man into the culture. This is most chillingly manifest in scenes depicting the embodiment called Jude (Cate Blanchett), culled directly from the touchstone of popular Dylan perception, D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back.

It’s within these scenes that lightning strikes. The remarkable Blanchett propels us through the legendary tour of England, the combative press junkets, and the infamous Newport Folk Festival where Dylan unleashed his new electric sound to the inestimable horror of his fan base. Here we see him at his most insufferable—cocky, dismissive, occasionally cruel, and reliant on chemicals to fulfill promises his body was ill-equipped to keep.

The miracle of Blanchett’s portrayal is her ability to capture both sides of the coin. We bristle as we recognize the narcissistic man-child who greets fans and biographers with abstract contempt. This is the Dylan recorded by Pennebaker four decades ago, from whom many fans remain alienated to this day. But we also glimpse the beleaguered, inexperienced songwriter from Minnesota who resented being dubbed the voice of his generation at an age when most people are assumed to know none of the answers. This more sympathetic Dylan was proffered by Martin Scorsese in his recent documentary No Direction Home.

Rounding out the collage—though in fact blurring its focus—is Billy (Richard Gere), hermitlike inhabitant of a folkloric town self-consciously named Riddle. As Billy rides his horse to the town square, all the villagers he passes are cloaked in Halloween attire and seem to be fortifying themselves for disaster. The elements of paranoia, camouflage and individualism suggest Dylan’s period of withdrawal after his mysterious motorcycle accident, followed by the release of his western-themed album John Wesley Harding. But the connection is shaky at best.

Ultimately these scenes are the film’s least successful. Shapeless and baffling, they supply unfortunate ammunition to critics of Haynes’s intrepid stylings. The word “pretentious,” while broadly applied to any feature aiming to sell ideas instead of popcorn, serves in its primary usage to critique works which “pretend” to function in ways they do not, or pretend to know what they’re doing when the opposite is plainly true. Whatever the Billy episode sought to achieve, it falls short, and must be classified as a pretentious supplement to a piece otherwise marked by assurance, not indulgence.

True, I’m Not There strikes the occasional false note. Verbal asides inspired by (or meant to inspire) Dylan lyrics, like Jude’s off-the-cuff utterance “That’s just like a woman,” land with the thud of Forrest Gumpist contrivance. Insertions of pop cultural icons range in their effectiveness—Julianne Moore channels Joan Baez note-perfectly in her few scenes, but Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and others not bothering with pseudonyms feel shoehorned in.

Nevertheless, Haynes leaves us with a fascinating proposition: that an identity as fluid as Dylan’s couldn’t possibly be pinned down by a single actor or mise-en-scene. And in thrusting us headlong through clashing compositions, feeding us prodigal imagery to make our heads spin, he tenders perhaps the only viable agency for grasping the man and his time—as a raging, roving, psychedelic whirlwind.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Two Old Fashioneds. For two old-fashioned people."

What if I asked you which swath of the populace is most grievously neglected on film? Think it over. Consider quality of depiction as well as frequency. There’s no right answer, of course, but I’ll bet my answer differs from yours. And if that’s the case, I’ll wager it’s not because you think my party gets a fair shake, but because conditions are so inequitable it was never on the table to begin with.

I'm thinking of the elderly.

Meaning no offense, I believe that of all the “-isms” that fracture our society, ageism meets with the most unperturbed indifference. Nowhere on earth is this truer than in Hollywood, which (breaking news, I’m well aware) places such premiums on youth, frenetic life and glamorous death that people failing to evince those qualities are regarded as dead weight.

Maybe you’re thinking: Wait, I can name lots of actors in their seventies and they’re still going strong! Have you forgotten Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? No, but I wish I could forget The Bucket List. Only the latest submission to an endless cycle of pernicious fairy tales (let’s call them Cocooners, after Ron Howard’s execrable prototype), the film purports that loneliness can be cured and vitality regained by jumping out of airplanes with newfound friends. Oh, but the two leads have terminal cancer. Do you imagine people with that prognosis are more apt to spend their last days: a) knocking around the Pyramids with formulaically mismatched sidekicks, or b) trying to stabilize their anesthesia so they’re lucid enough to enjoy the company of loved ones for as long as their escalating pain will permit?

Who wants to watch a film about torturous decline, you might ask—surely not old people! Well, who wants to watch a film about teenage prostitution, gang warfare or meth addiction? Lots of people! The key difference is that those movies end with deceptive catharses, whereas life in twilight can only end in death—and as heartfelt as that may be, it’s also messy, humiliating and sad. Sadder still in many cases are the preceding years, marked by solitude and degradation (not confined to the physical strain). Should you ever question your capacity to empathize with fellow human beings, watch the first twenty minutes of Bryan Forbes’s The Whisperers; they will serve as your litmus test. An Englishwoman of about eighty trudges to the welfare office to claim her subsistence check, then to church where she’s compelled to sing hymns for nourishment, then to the public library to warm her feet on the pipes. That act of indignity gets her expelled from the premises. In his initial review, Roger Ebert posed a question that society is too content to read as rhetorical: “What is it about the Puritan culture, in England and in this country, that makes it necessary for the old and the hungry to shame themselves in order to get the necessities of life?”

To further his inquiry, what is it about the commercial culture, in this country above all, that makes it necessary for the old and the weak to occupy positions of marginality? Death is everywhere in movies and we’re fine with it, just as long as it’s unplanned and unnatural. “Because we’ve come to see death as a failure to keep living, normal death is stripped of meaning, which renders it terrifying,” observes Pomona Prof. Lauri Mullens. But why should something as universal and inescapable as human mortality be terrifying?

Australia-based filmmaker Paul Cox understands that it needn’t be. His exquisite productions, Innocence and A Woman’s Tale, explore the jubilation of life and the weary, wistful sorrow of its passing. The greatest of all films on seniority—and among the greatest of all films—is Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a trenchant reflection on the unwillingness of young people hurriedly leading their lives to make room for old people still (inconveniently) living theirs. Depressing in its allegations but exhilarating in its candor, Ozu’s masterpiece is brave enough to conclude with a casual expression of life’s disappointments, arriving in a manner both startling and overdue.

The U.S. Census Board reports that 13% of our population is 65 or above. What can that demographic expect from Hollywood? As I see it they’re dropped into three basic pigeonholes. First and foremost, the Cocooners—insidious works that mine the aged for pith and vinegar, shuffling them off-screen when it's time for the youngsters to Be Affected. We note a minor uptick of integrity in the second group, films that respect the elderly but can only envision them in conventional frameworks. These include whimsical human interest yarns like The Straight Story, geriatric buddy pictures (shall we say “crony pictures”) such as Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, and episodic character sketches like the undeniably charming Harry and Tonto.

As expected, the third array concerns treatment of corporeal/neurological failure. Unsentimental works of this type are rare enough, but they’re a dime a dozen compared to the paltry contingent of honest meditations on the emotional cost of longevity. Surviving your life partner or feeling ill at ease with technology and estranged from the younger generations tap into deep-seated cultural anxieties. If we fear one thing more than death, it’s obsolescence. Theres vicious irony in the volume of movies devoted to quarter-life turmoil. Restlessness we embrace, uselessness we scorn.

At last we reach the eternal argument for visibility at all costs. Yes, I prefer twinkly, garbage-mouthed Alan Arkin to no Arkin at all, but there should be a third avenue—one that confronts the winter of life with compassion, fidelity and truth. Is life disappointing? Undeniably. Can the plight be acknowledged? Why else do movies exist?