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I’m Not There: Tackling Pop Culture’s Greatest Enigma 

One of us must know

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of ?my head/But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play.

—Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”

Literally speaking, Bob Dylan isn’t “there” in Todd Haynes’ staggering mixtape biopic I’m Not There. Or rather, he’s everywhere and nowhere — a Heisenbergian particle whose locus shifts with our every attempt to pin him down. Of course, his words are there, in the nearly three dozen Dylan songs that fill out the movie’s soundtrack. As is his voice, belting out “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” over the panoramic opening credits. And his image, from the blue jeans and work shirts of the Freewheelin’ days to the outré Jew-fro and polka dots he sported circa Blonde on Blonde. But not once in all of I’m Not There do the words “Bob Dylan” pass anyone’s lips, and the various Dylan surrogates who parade before Haynes’ camera range from the eerily look-alike “Jude Quinn” (played with jaw-dropping mimicry by Cate Blanchett) to a pint-size, pre-teen African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself “Woody Guthrie.”

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The concept is as simple to describe as it is audacious to behold: a portrait of an artistic giant not as an A-to-Z chronology of his life, but rather as the sum of his influence and influences, and of the many fragmentary identities he has donned. Just how many Bob Dylans have there been? Fans will argue that point into oblivion, but Haynes and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman set the number at six (or seven, depending on how you interpret the double-sided Dylan avatar played by Christian Bale) and make a compelling case for each of them.

In addition to Woody and Jude, there’s “Jack Rollins” (Bale), a stand-in for the folksy, acoustic Dylan of the early ’60s, reconstituted later in the film as “Pastor John” (also Bale), who represents the critically derided, born-again Dylan of the early 1980s. The waiflike British actor Ben Whishaw appears fleetingly as “Arthur Rimbaud,” an amalgam of Dylan’s poetic influences seen spouting coy, discursive testimony (“I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word; I’m a trapeze artist”) before a vaguely Kafkaesque tribunal. For Dylan at the time of his divorce from his wife Sara (here a composite character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), we get Heath Ledger as “Robbie Clark,” an actor who once played Jack Rollins in a Hollywood movie. Finally, there’s Richard Gere as an autumnal “Billy the Kid,” having survived his final confrontation with Pat Garrett and retired to a landscape somewhere between the Old West and the lush hillsides of Woodstock, New York, where Dylan (who co-starred in and composed the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) himself laid low following his purportedly near-fatal 1966 motorcycle accident. I’m Not There begins and ends with that crash and resurrects Dylan a half dozen times in between, hopscotching the decades with Proustian grace.

Having said all that, I’ve still barely scratched I’m Not There’s dynamic, polymorphous surface. Within each of the individual strands there are more, densely packed layers of references and meaning — regarding Dylan, of course, but also the cultural epochs he’s traversed and helped to inform. In one of his more audacious strokes, Haynes (in collaboration with the cinematographer Ed Lachman) styles each section of his movie after the movies of the corresponding time period — not just any ones, but the ones Dylan (who has dabbled in filmmaking over the years, and who has written songs for and about movies) may have been inspired by or seen something of himself in. For the public persecution Jude feels in the wake of “going electric,” I’m Not There adopts the form of the paranoid fantasias from Fellini’s , while the muddied palate and moody malaise of the 1970s’ acid Westerns give shape to the Billy the Kid sections.

It sounds like a recipe for the most pretentious movie ever made — or at least since the ’70s — with mainstream stars and a decent budget, by a director whose best work (Safe, Far From Heaven) has never fully belied the academic touch of his Brown semiotics education. But I’m Not There turns out to be a triumph of intellect and cinematic imagination that feels light rather than heavy, and such a novel approach to film biography as to leave every Ray and Walk the Line looking especially clueless. Haynes pulls off the seemingly impossible — he takes one of the most discussed, written-about, imitated, lusted-after public figures of the 20th century and shows us not something new, but something deeper. Indeed, the Bob Dylan whose “music and many lives” are the credited inspiration for Haynes’ film isn’t the mere mortal who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, found his way to New York at the dawn of the ’60s folk boom, and whose songs formed the soundtrack to the last great hurrah of American counterculture. He’s another kind of being — a pop star-child hurtling through the cosmos beneath our immortalizing gaze.

If Blanchett’s Jude is the most recognizable Dylan — and the performance that even those who hate the film won’t be able to stop talking about — then Gere’s Billy the Kid is the most enigmatic, the one who seems at once the ghost of the musician’s roots-music past and the spirit of his eternal present, the living phantom embarked on his self-proclaimed “never-ending tour.” “You’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room/There’s no telling what can happen,” he muses late in the film, at once paraphrasing Dylan (from a 1978 interview about his songwriting style) and succinctly summarizing the Moebius-strip structure of Haynes’ film. And so the most indelible image of I’m Not There may well be its last, in which the Kid picks up Woody Guthrie’s guitar and hops yet another boxcar, as a train pulls down the line and a soulful harmonica blows its ageless tune.

I’M NOT THERE | Directed by TODD HAYNES | Written by HAYNES and OREN MOVERMAN | Produced by CHRISTINE VACHON, JAMES STERN, JEFF ROSEN and JOHN GOLDWYN | Released by the Weinstein Company | The Landmark, ArcLight Hollywood, Monica 4-Plex, ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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