rewatching todd haynes’s i’m not there, the filmology is as interesting as the dylanology.
Six actors, six films rolled into one.
“Mr. Haynes, switching styles, colors, film stocks and editing rhythms with unnerving ease…” — A.O. Scott
Todd Haynes’s 2007 film about the many masks of Bob Dylan not only featured six different actors in the lead role, but was also a clever attempt to roll six different cinematic styles into one.
The first film, featuring Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody Guthrie,” is a bildungroman about a talented boy out of time. As his name suggests, this Dylan links himself to Great Depression hoboes and rail lines of 1930s yore in the postwar tail fin of 1950s America, much as Dylan himself did. It’s Haynes’s brilliant move to cast an African-American in the part, which raises the issue of authenticity up only to toss it aside in a joyous acoustic guitar strum and ersatz-twang. Imitation is the kindest flattery.
To me, this film-within-the-film has the feel of a Charlie Chaplin vehicle, with an edge of after-school special. Franklin plays a smart but misunderstood boy navigating a world of kind and sinister adults with Little Tramp bemusement. He’s determined to make his way, and you just know he will.
Cut to the second film, starring Christian Bale as Dylan as “Jack Rollins/Pastor John.” It’s a kind of sendup of the typical folk-music PBS television documentary, which leads to inevitable comparisons to the best parody of that genre, the Christopher Guest film A Mighty Wind. In fact, I think it’s the least successful of the segments of I’m Not There, because it skirts the closest to outright sneering satire.
The third film is a sort of stark, Stanley Kubrick affair, or perhaps some lost scene from The Manchurian Candidate, with Ben Wishaw as Dylan as “Arthur Rimbaud.” He’s under stark white lights, on trial at some sort of press conference-cum-politboro meeting, spinning out hallucinatory responses to inquisitors never glimpsed.
The fourth segment stole the show when I’m Not There was released because Haynes cast Cate Blanchett as Dylan as “Jude Quinn.” She playfully portrayed Dylan at the height of his powers, a hyper-brilliant polka-dot dandy going the speed of light in a frenzied outpouring of insight.
We glimpse Blanchett as Dylan as Jude Quinn as if in an Antonioni film or some Godardian outtake: Blonde on Blonde as Blow-Up, as mirrored in the famous cinéma réalité documentary films of Dylan himself by D.A. Pennebaker. It’s all mod sounds and paranoia and flashing shocks of scathing cold icy white electricity among the fusty concert halls and black limousines and brown shoes.
To the sixth film now, because there is more to say about the fifth one in a moment. The sixth film features Richard Gere as Dylan as “Billy the Kid.” It is wonderful homage to the Dylan of the Basement Tapes. But it is also, to my eye, an homage to Robert Altman’s trilogies from the mid-1970s, most of all McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
This segment of I’m Not There becomes a meditation on Altman’s historical meditations on the state of America circa the bicentennial of 1976. It follows Altman to the nostalgized, pastoral countryside—that “old, weird America,” as Greil Marcus called it, borrowing from Kenneth Rexroth’s formulation of an “old, free America”—to get a perspective on the searing, bloody, confusing present.
Finally the fifth film-within-a-film features Heath Ledger as Dylan as “Robbie Clark” as well as Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, daughter of Serge) as a version of Sara Lownds Dylan, whom Dylan was married to from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. This segment of I’m Not There, which connects their marriage on a kind of loose, atmospheric level to the American military intervention in Vietnam, is the most important part of the film.
This isn’t because it gets personal, or is somehow more “real,” but rather, I would argue, because it is the least public part of Dylan’s many-layered story; hence this makes it the most apt for the cinematic imagination. It can be fictionalized and dramatically interpreted with a freedom that the other segments, clever and striking as they are, cannot. This segment feels like it could have been an entire feature-length film in of itself.
The other parts of the film, while wonderful, often have a Dylanology-quiz-question quality. A viewer sprints along to match up the plot and details to actual songs, quotes, and mythologized references. But with Ledger and Gainsbourg’s tender, grown-up acting, the most mysterious and private part of Dylan’s life comes to life on the screen as a powerful love (and falling-out-of-love) story. You stop worrying about who the real Dylan is and get lost in the story, which borrows from many styles, including Haynes’s continued fascination with the work of Douglas Sirk. It seems to me to be the least referential segment of the film’s component parts, which wrap around each other through brilliant integration by Haynes.
The lack of referentiality makes the Ledger/Gainsbourg section the heart of the film—and paradoxically, for a film inspired by a real figure, the most there part of I’m Not There.