I'm Not There
The funniest line in "I'm Not There" comes when Bob Dylan and Alan Ginsburg are standing in front of a statue of Christ on the cross, and Dylan looks up and says, "Can we see some of your early work?"
Or I should say one of the many versions of Bob Dylan says it, because like Dylan himself this film is a refraction of an iconic man who has let us see only the contradictions, the mirrored versions, of his life and work. Like Jesus, you might say. And like Jesus, the competing versions run a little too long. For people who know the ins and outs of Dylan's life and work, this film will be a godsend, containing all the multiple images and events of the man's life and therefore an inexhaustible source of analysis and memory. For those who know little more than his music, it is likely to be tedious at times.
First of all, no one in the film is named Bob Dylan, nor even Robert Zimmerman. Every one of the six actors who plays a version of him has a different name, and every one represents Dylan at a different stage, or it would be better to say a fractured image, of a life that consists only of our imperfectly glimpsed moments. There's a prepubescent black child named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), who plays a kind of Dylan as an early train-hopping troubadour. There's Cate Blanchett, with a wig and giving a brilliant performance as Jude, the amphetamine god who becomes the iconic Dylan. There's even Julianne Moore in a great sendup of Joan Baez from the wonderful old documentary by D.A. Pennebaker, "Don't Look Back."
There's Heath Ledger, called "Robbie" here, who meets and marries Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire) in a marriage that goes from infatuation to a sad breakup. And Richard Gere as a kind of Billy the Kid, in a sequence that comes more or less out of the movie "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." There's the moment at the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan went from acoustic to electric, with a version of Pete Seeger rushing to cut off the power with an axe. In fact, everything we see in the film is a version, a glancing view of a moment or a year in the life, with little reference to any literal facts. Unlike Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home," which Scorsese has arranged more or less in a chronological order, writer-director Todd Haynes is not concerned with the literal. Like Dylan himself, he's given us a man who owes us nothing more than his music, which we're more than lucky to have in our lives. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott says, don't ask what it means; the important question, as Dylan himself says, is how does it feel? That's what Dylan has given us.
It's hard to imagine what possessed Haynes to create so many images of Dylan and to use so many people to convey those images; sometimes it works, as with Cate Blanchett - more I think because she has the incredible ability to give us a Dylan who with all his iconic genius as a poet has an unspoken but visible transgendered persona. It's no wonder that one of the versions of Dylan here is named Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), that poet of heated, flaming images that came out of a soul that was both man and woman. But ultimately I guess what I wished for in "I'm Not There" is a little more of Dylan's wit and less of his angst.