My post on Bob Dylan’s late trilogy necessarily implied that there are stages of Dylan’s career which can be roughly assigned to a given persona. This of course is a commonplace in terms of Dylan study – Dylan himself has referred to it (“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”) – and the phases have slowly coalesced into what are often, at the level of detail, spurious stages: the protest singer, the rock rebel, the country singer, the divorcee, the Christian … and on and on, into every archetype of the modern age. It’s useful critical shorthand, but what can it tell us about an artist who tells irreverent jokes on his Christian albums, or references Verlaine and Rimbaud when he’s at his most amphetamined? Dylan evokes archetypes, but never fully inhabits them.
This is the trap Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There (which I’ve just belatedly seen) is at constant risk of walking into. Six actors play six different characters, each of whom the viewer is aware of as resembling something of Dylan. (Not only does the film admit up front its inspiration; some actors, such as Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett, essentially perform Dylan impersonations – in Bale’s case dully, in Blanchett’s blisteringly.) So we have an actor who has played a version of Dylan trapped in a difficult marriage and arguing over custody; we have a wise old outlaw living in backwoods America and speaking up for the downtrodden; and there’s a young boy (played with preternatural maturity by the then 14 year-old Marcus Carl Franklin) who hops railroads, lies about his past, and gives his name as Woody Guthrie.
All Dylan life is here, then, and we are indeed almost constantly, and sometimes rather oddly, treated to quotes visual and verbal. It’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t already knowledgeable about Dylan wanting to see this film, such is its reliance on prior knowledge, and yet even its most obscure references are surely not too hard to catch for those in the know. At times, it feels like Haynes watched No Direction Home and read Chronicles Volume I, then wrote a script: Blanchett’s character, the drugged-up rocker Jude Quinn, is on a British tour when asked the same questions anyone can see for themselves in Eat The Document or Don’t Look Back; likewise, Kris Kristofferon’s admittedly wonderfully delivered narration borrows cadence and character from Dylan’s own prose writings, and a Pete Seeger figure picks up an axe. Haynes’s film cannot claim, then, to be anything but a biopic. The film is uncommon and unconventional, but Dylan isn’t its ‘inspiration’; he is its subject.
There are some effective pop surrealist passages – most notably Blanchett floating in the air, tied to the ground only by a thin trail of string attacked to her ankle, and the scene where ‘Woody Guthrie’ is eaten by a whale – but by and large the intercuts and vaguely avant garde imagery of I’m Not There hides what is a fairly straight forward thrust for a biopic: genius creative is misunderstood, genius creative is persecuted, genius creative triumphs. Haynes’s twist is that, in every case, his subject’s triumph at first seems anything but, seeming instead to represent a death, a defeat or a mere fading. But, whilst Quinn is dead from the moment the film begins, and Heath Ledger’s dysfunctional husband, Robbie Clark, is constitutionally incapable of a healthy relationship, it is clear that Haynes’s purpose is to show, primarily through his outlaw character, how the actions of someone in tune with his tradition will always exist within it. Despite the potentially schematical nature of his chosen ‘facets’, Haynes does not in the end oversimplify. “Everyone knows I’m not a folk singer,” shrugs Quinn, implying the ‘just’.
Inevitably given all this, the film doesn’t quite cohere. It wants to show how all its pieces are humming at the same frequency, but ultimately they are not. Robbie Clarke, caustic and chauvinistic, lacks the visionary playfulness of Jude Quinn, and Bale’s Jack Rollins is dour and dutiful where Gere’s Billy The Kid is wry and regal. Naturally, this has led to some considerable criticism, as Michael Gray recorded way back when. In the film’s defense, however, it is acutely aware of contradiction and chaos, weaving it into the very fabric of what it has to say about Dylan. Haynes sees the will to cohesion as deadening and fascistic, depicting, most obviously through his twin casting of Bruce Greenwood as the elitist culture journalist Keenan Jones and the heartless corporatist Pat Garrett, the drive of cultural and political elites to flatten, homogenise and define the perplexing variety of experience which is possible in freer circles. Nevertheless, this brave stand results in narrative hiccups, and I never quite felt that I was watched a completed film. The point, perhaps, is that nothing worthwhile can ever be completed.
If the film is as a consequence guilty of straying into the gnomic, it is rescued by its sense of conviction. Ben Whishaw in particular, playing a poet who gives his name as Arthur Rimbaud, delivers faintly preposterous dialogue with such verve that he is forgiven. Notably, he counsels those seeking to hide never to create anything, since anything they do fashion will hang around them like a conspicuous dead weight. How this exhortation to creatives to stand up rather than hide fits with Billy the Kid’s clear notion that simply to endure in the unnoticed margins will ensure your spirit lives on in the tradition is hard to fathom: again, the film butts up against its internal contradictions, and though they are all expertly handled the ways in which they criss-cross inevitably leads some lines to sound portentous rather than potent. The facets are all chattering over one another, creating, perhaps, a rich lattice of meaning, but not one which is suited to glossing by a two hour movie.
One day someone will produce a Dylan concordance, in which all his work will be brought together, the ‘Wiggle Wiggles’ side by side with the ‘Desolation Rows’, and every part of the written him will be there to study, to pick over and to fit together in a thousand ways. At the risk of over-hyping Mr Zimmerman, only Shakespeare immediately comes to my mind as an artist who has packed so much of life into the confines of his chosen art; and there is much to admire about the attempt made in I’m Not There to discuss it, since the film is a complex, beautifully shot, well acted and right-headed piece of art. It has ‘got’ Bob Dylan, and more importantly (to Dylan at least) his conception of song. It is inevitably more a part of the chaos than it is a way through the fog, but that is just a reason to watch it more than once. And with a cameo from My Morning Jacket and Calexico, in which they perform a song from The Basement Tapes, why wouldn’t you want to?