I'm Not There, the new film by Todd Haynes, is sure to be one of those divisive films that some people will love the instant they see it and others will openly loathe. Though I'm Not There is about Bob Dylan, it's not a musical biopic like we've become accustomed to in recent years. It's not even as straightforward as Velvet Goldmine, Haynes' fictionalized retelling of the David Bowie/Iggy Pop story. That movie was a nod to 1970s midnight films, the kind of wayward narratives that teenagers would flock to on the weekends, bombed out of their minds, listening to the music and trying to decipher the secret codes. Velvet Goldmine is straightforward and common in comparison to I'm Not There, which sees Todd Haynes joining the ranks of wild-child auteurs who take it upon themselves to flaunt convention and burst storytelling at its very seams.
I'm a supporter. I think I'm Not There is brilliant.
Six different actors play various stand-ins for Bob Dylan, portraying forms of the troubadour that correspond with different phases of his life and career, taking cues from the songs themselves to give the images shape. On one extreme, we have Marcus Carl Franklin (Lackawanna Blues) as Woody, an eleven-year-old African American boy on the run in 1959, hopping box cars and pretending he's Woody Guthrie on his way to unionize the working man; on the other extreme, Richard Gere is an aging Billy the Kid, who unlike the version Dylan hung with in the Sam Peckinpah movie, did not die on the business end of Pat Garrett's gun. Both of these Bobs are trying to preserve a time that is passing. The child is chasing a life he didn't live, while the old man is trying to maintain the freedom and solitude he created for himself. (Not to mention, the kid pretends to be old, and the old man is "the Kid.")
In between these two are various others who resemble more closely the Bob Dylan we all know. Christian Bale plays him as a young idealist who dropped out of showbiz to become a preacher, disgusted at having been made a commodity. He is the subject of a "Where Are They Now?" documentary, and he's tangentially connected to a stray recast of the singer played by Heath Ledger. Ledger is the actor that played Bale in a movie about the folk balladeer's life, who took the fame Bale rejected and now is paying the price.
The most talked about Bob is the most recognizable Bob, the one featured in the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, the wild-haired, fast-talking singer who plugged in his guitar and caused a riot in his fanbase. This version of Dylan, called Jude in Haynes' universe, is played by Cate Blanchett. It's possible that this version represents the greatest misconceptions that Haynes seeks to put to rest, as the film opens with her on a coroner's slab; then again, maybe it's the autopsy of this figure that leads to the excavation of the rest. Either way, it's the flashiest role, and Blanchett is imperceptible as the woman we normally see on screen. In much the same way she disappeared into the guise of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, in I'm Not There, she is so convincing as Bob Dylan, I thought for sure she was the one singing "Maggie's Farm" and "Ballad of a Thin Man." It's not, it's Steve Malkmus, the former leader of Pavement and currently fronting the Jicks. Blanchett sells it so well, however, you'd never know.
Connecting all of these threads is the character of Arthur Rimbaud, as played by Ben Whishaw (Perfume). The nineteen-year-old poet is being interrogated by a tribunal, and his insights serve as occasional transitions between the other portraits. His commentary is the closest we get to any kind of clarification, but even that is not entirely crystal, as Arthur isn't there for every switch-up. Haynes weaves all of his stories in intricate patterns. Some of the cuts are clean, some of the stories are jumbled. The Ledger and Bale sequences are the most tightly wound, but connections between Bale and Blanchett are intimated. Also, at one point, Billy the Kid runs into Woody. As far as I remember, it's the only time any of the Bobs meet. It's fitting that it should be the two bookends.
In my recent review of Julien Temple's Joe Strummer documentary, The Future is Unwritten, I theorized that Temple's assemblage of the disparate views people had of the Clash singer created a more complete picture of a complex man than any one point of view ever could. It seems to me that we can only be fully known as composites, since no one shows every side of himself to all the people in his life. This is very much what Haynes is getting at in his virtuoso approach to Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Dylan has been playing music for nearly fifty years, and he's never been any one thing for long. A straight line through his mercurial career would not be satisfying, the divergences would either seem arbitrary or contrived. Better to mix them all up, show that for as different as they all are, they all spring from a single source, becoming one unbreakable tale.
Haynes adopts a different style for all of the segments, creating a pastiche that resembles his debut feature Poison. Here, too, the assemblage is flawless despite how disparate the styles can be. Cate Blanchett cavorts in London in grainy black-and-white, part-D.A. Pennebaker and part-Richard Lester; the Richard Gere story is less colorful, more earthy, a la Peckinpah; whereas Heath Ledger's segments are clean and look like something a 1970s enfant terrible would have shot. In this sense, the lines stay clear in the viewer's vision even as Haynes blurs them thematically.
Within all the conflicting elements of I'm Not There, the filmmaker actually manages to divine a commonality, a driving narrative that compelled Bob Dylan to make so many changes in his artistic endeavors. Each of these figures is burdened by creativity. Success and fame brings further isolation, expectation is crushing. As a public figure, as a communicator, Dylan keeps changing to avoid being pigeonholed, to keep from being misunderstood by revealing too much. He doesn't want to be co-opted as a product any more than he wants to be co-opted as a political agent. He can't devote himself to any one woman (in Heath Ledger's case, his wife, portrayed by a luminous Charlotte Gainsbourg), just as he can't be beholden to an audience. He must follow his journey where it takes him. He embraces the chaos and contradictions of his own personality and uses that as his muse.
In the final scenes, when Richard Gere escapes his prison and hops on a train car out of town, he's not really fleeing as opposed to picking up the journey again. Just as we started with young Woody riding the rails in search of something, the elder Billy gets back on the train to resume the hunt. The town he had settled in was called Riddle, and it was easy for him to sit tight in the intrigue of that tangled question. Yet, as all of the Bobs shown discover at one point or another, constantly asking can only take you so far. Eventually, you have to try to nail the answer.
Arguably, all of Todd Haynes' questions about what made Bob Dylan so alluring lead him to his answer, as well. The exploration and experimentation of I'm Not There is its own reward. The Riddle he creates is his own continuous loop, both in time and out of it, and though getting to where one is going (presumably to the "there" where you are not) isn't always easy, if you have faith in the engineer, the train will get to where it's destined to be.
And when it does, it's marvelous. Like a ride at Disneyland, I immediately wanted to hop back on and go again.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.