Is defining I'm Not There the same thing as defending it? Todd Haynes's kaleidoscopic antibiography of, to quote the tagline, "the music and many lives of Bob Dylan" has inspired all sorts of platitudes since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, so many that it's hard not to feel late for the party only a few months after. Still, the fact remains: from listening to Biograph cassettes in the backseat of my mom's car to reading Greil Marcus's visionary accounts of The Basement Tapes and "Like a Rolling Stone," I've had Dylan on my mind, always prepared to apprehend another side of him.
It's hard not to feel privileged watching I'm Not There as both a Dylan enthusiast and a cinephile. You can read it between the lines of an erudite review like J. Hoberman's didja catch the references to Suze Rotolo and Masculine Feminine? So then, a solipsistic designation for a solipsistic movie: I'm Not There is a catalog and a critique, a hall of mirrors, multivalent and prismatic, like Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) turned inside out. It is epigrammatic rather than evocative, and made to be written about.
It is also a twisted kind of biopic, something worth noting with everyone from Ray Charles to Scott Walker getting the treatment. The fad for music biopics and documentaries isn't unrelated to the tendency toward remakes and tie-ins now apparent everywhere in the entertainment business. Only a couple of years after Walk the Line and Ray, some biopic conventions are already brittle enough to encourage both a throwaway parody like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and a hardcore dissertation like I'm Not There (the films have more in common than you might think). Haynes takes the biopic's tendency toward flashback-reliant storytelling, for instance, and transforms it into a looping, fractured portrait. Name-dropping is the biopic's natural territory, but Haynes's esoteric (Moondog in the opening credits) and cryptic (it's alright, Ma, it's only Ritchie Havens) references only add to his film's foggy rendition.
This is as it should be with Dylan, the singer who at the tender age of 22 began a protest song with the lyric "Oh my name it is nothing, my age it means less." The feedback loops produced by the film's strategy of quotation and fragmentation work to elucidate Dylan's critical velocity, the way his different eras seem both terminal (the electric Dylan played by Cate Blanchett is shown in a morgue, and there are intimations that other versions of him are dead too) and porous. Where other music biopics seek to ground a singer's aura in terms of biography and motif, Haynes runs in the opposite direction, prioritizing an abstract organizing principle like that of D.W. Griffith's innovative 1916 foray into multiplanar cinematic storytelling, Intolerance.
It should be noted that Weinstein's ad campaign pointedly undercuts Haynes's game. Dylan only materializes twice in text during the opening credits and in person for the movie's final, mesmerizing close-up but the I'm Not There poster lists the main cast with the misleading line "All are Bob Dylan."
Blatant Oscar pandering? Perhaps. But what does it say that some of my favorite sequences in I'm Not There are the most conventional? Haynes accesses the "romantic" Dylan of Blonde on BlondeNew MorningBlood on the Tracks with an interesting Russian-doll trick Heath Ledger's Robbie Clark is introduced as an actor portraying Jack Rollins (The Times They Are A-Changin' Dylan, played by Christian Bale) in a biopic within the biopic titled Grain of Sand.
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