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.

No comments: