Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. is the antibiopic. Who is Bob Dylan? We get six answers, one for each phase in the artist’s life, each “Dylan” played by a different person with a different name, all metaphysically connected. What is Dylan’s life story? It’s America, a freewheelin’ carnival loosely pasted together, impasto textures only roughly adhering to the papier-mâché component. So why is Dylan important? Who said he was? I’m Not There. isn’t about Bob Dylan.
It’s all there in the first scene, a fluid pan through grainy black-and-white: We the audience/camera/Dylan are ushered onstage beneath an American flag to perform for a screaming audience. Cut to title sequence, the semiotic hand of our creator overlapping words like he’s learning to speak: he describes himself, it gets more complicated, and finally he’s at the only truth he can safely say: I – I he – I’m he – I’m her – not her – not here. – I’m not there. That period, repeated in the cast credits (which also overlap: “cate bale.”), is the mark of a gavel, sentencing the sentence to a lie detector; “I’m not there.” is useless as information but accurate as truth.
Haynes literally autopsies Dylan in the post-title sequence to signify deconstruction, previewing his metaphorical storytelling and suggesting a postmodern sensibility that runs deeper than just fracturing a person into six. You can state truth in sentences, since language is artificial, but if you really want to interpret the world, you have to accept that truth is evasive, names are imperfect, and your questions are irrelevant anyway. “Who is Bob Dylan?” has as many answers and contradictions as the question “What is I’m Not There. about?” The giveaway is our playful introduction to Heath Ledger’s Robbie Clark, an actor who rose to prominence playing beloved folk protest singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale’s character; both are “really” playing Dylan), who struggles, as artists do, against commercial cooption: on the set within the set, Clark points to a billboard with the name “Jack Rollins” and the face of Heath Ledger done up as Bob Dylan/Robbie Clark. He declares, “It’s not about me, any more, it’s all about him,” gesturing to his own image, but it’s really Bale, but it’s really Rollins, but it’s really Dylan, but it’s really Ledger. I’m not there / I contain multitudes.
Here Dylan literally does, born out of a sophisticated melting pot of 20th century American culture. Not just his six analogues and the identities they assume (which include Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud, and Billy the Kid) but the people he’s described as: James Dean, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, not to mention, notably, us the audience. Which forces us to confront the subject of the title. Over a montage Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing a version of Dylan’s first wife) reads some of Rimbaud’s poetry, charmingly translating as she reads: “It is wrong to say, ‘I think.’ One should say, ‘I am thought.’ ‘I’ is someone else.” I is us. We am America.
We am also an audience of art consumers, so naturally Haynes delivers a film dripping with art, primarily that which flees the literal: Dylan, Rimbaud, Guthrie, Joan Baez (and Dylan’s other pseudonymous love interests, Sara Lownds and Edie Sedgwick), the Beatles, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, beatnik jazz, stream of consciousness, abstract expressionism, costume. Haynes borrows from Bergman and/or Desplechin and memorably quotes Pennebaker’s Dylan doc Dont Look Back and Fellini’s 8 ½. The Cate Blanchett sequences owe royalties to Richard Lester, and the Richard Gere portion lives in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Greaser’s Palace, just offscreen. It’s a restless film, abandoning one sequence to try out documentary, or launch an extended music video, or repeat that snippet of the film-within-the-film: first it’s just a normal scene, then we realize it’s an act, and finally we see it on television.
Television’s a recurring harbinger of alarm in the film, because it delivers images of America’s unpleasant realities directly to the living room, thereby fomenting a national reckoning. Midcentury America had to face the fact that it wasn’t America. It still isn’t America; “I’m not there.” But the story of America is one of increasingly fulfilling its promises of equality and freedom. As the title suggests, I’m Not There. is perhaps ultimately about liberation, hence our national mythology of individualism and reinvention. One notable moment of liberation in the film occurs while the TV blares Nixon’s “peace with honor” speech, because why should our words be beholden to reality? Order, whether by labels or expectation or prison or history or status quo or marriage or knowledge, is overthrown at every turn, every atom in the picture constantly seeking entropy, with one notable, ironic exception that finds its own freedom in submission, while representing The Establishment of Establishments.
I’ve told you nothing about what happens (at one point a whale swallows a child) or what it’s like (a puzzle with none of the right pieces) or what it’s about (evolution) or how it’s about it (colorfully, with self-conscious irony), and even less about Bob Dylan, whose themes and techniques pervade the picture. Well, it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe, if’n you don’t know by now. The usual suspects—the performances, the relationship of the film to Dylan’s life or mythology—are irrelevant, tools in service of the many meanings ambitiously woven through this singular pastiche. But fear not, Dylanttantes: if I can say one thing with certainty, it’s this: I’m Not There. is not about Bob Dylan.