Last week, when I was mulling over which old review should be plopped into this space, I came very close to selecting I’m Not There, as if something was nudging me to do so. Maybe the scraggly bard of Hibbing, Minnesota was working some inadvertent seventy-fifth birthday magic. Bob Dylan hit that milestone this past week. Starting next weekend, he’s back on tour. It’s downright amazing.
Part of the slippery brilliance of I’m Not There is that even the film’s shortcomings bolster the thesis of writer-director Todd Haynes: Bob Dylan is elusive and inscrutable, a chameleon that changes his inner workings along with his skin. The fact that the film sometimes lacks cohesion or zips off into unwieldy diversions is, in fact, it’s very point. Haynes has made a film that is a reflection of its subject rather than a depiction. It is a big, grand, willfully confusing, galloping parade–a pubic life restructured as an epic poem written by an absurdist. Haynes, I suspect, doesn’t care a whit if the audience emerges from the theater with a greater understanding of Dylan the artist. Not when trying to capture the improbably impactful feel of Dylan’s wily art is a far more ambitious and worthy goal.
The film famously casts six different actors to represent Dylan at different stages of his tectonic career. Equally notable is the fact that no one actually plays “Bob Dylan.” Instead, they are Dylanesque dopplegangers, sometimes given names that reflect an influence on the master songwriter, such as “Woody Guthrie” and “Arthur Rimabaud.” Just as Haynes acknowledges the shaping of Dylan by namechecking these predecessors, so to does the director himself layer the film with direct allusions to prior films and filmmakers. For example, the sequence featuring Cate Blanchett as burgeoning icon Jude Quinn references Don’t Look Back and 8 1/2 with a dollop of A Hard Day’s Night thrown in for good measure. There’s certainly a Fellini vibe to scenes set in a backwoods community that’s an unsettling mix of Deadwood and Halloween Town. And I suspect there are many more that I didn’t catch given that, despite any appearance of rambunctiously haphazard construction, I’ve no doubt that every bit of imagery, every sidelong detail, every frame of celluloid holds some thematic weight. Haynes is too precise of a filmmaker to believe otherwise.
This dense film is often proudly impenetrable. It would take a seasoned Dylanologist to sort through every bit of relevant flotsam collected and shaped into the sculpture of this work. But that’s exactly what works the best, when the shifting shapes of his life and worldview are presented as back page mysteries that force you to fill in the shady areas and make meaning of it all. It is the moments when Haynes strays furthest from the approach that the film is shakiest. Adopting a faux documentary method of dispensing exposition may cue the informed to the general structure of Dylan’s early career or the reality of his unlikely foray into the ranks of the born-again, but it stops the film cold. Clarity is hardly the watchword elsewhere in the film, with its soft pliable identity and careening shifts between plotlines, so why strive for it here? When the film gets more conventional–the sadly intense movie star Robbie Clark, played by Heath Ledger, pining after the family he has pushed away–it gets less compelling. Haynes is at his best when he follows his wildest instincts, tossing out complicated ideas fearlessly. He’s like David Lynch with a firmer grasp on reality, a bit of soul to enriched the screwy imagery. When he approaches his material the same way that any number of other directors would, it’s comparatively lifeless.
With so many actors taking a ride on the Dylan-go-round, comparing the performers is as irresistible as conceding that Cate Blanchett is the class of the bunch is inevitable. It’s not just the gender-bending trick of her casting. It’s the way she radically immerses herself in the role, most clearly adopting Dylan’s mannerisms and, more importantly, capturing his spirit, the rollicking intelligence, the curmudgeonly way he revolts against anyone who dares to define him. More than anyone else in the film, she vanishes into the role. She’s not there. Instead, it’s Bob Dylan, as clear and vivid as he’s ever been.