There are certain moments in the cinema that leave a total sensory impression on the viewer, allowing moments to linger in the mind with an unprecedented totality. I have written about some of these moments before, the most powerful example being my first screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life… (or how I got into an argument) at a small theater in Washington, D.C. in 1996. As I’ve written before, I have a complete physical memory of that screening; the smells, sounds, images (both on screen and off), the texture of the seat against my back. This is, for me anyway, a deeply intimate feeling, one I can only ascribe to the moment when a movie breaks through the artificial barriers of the projection and sound system and somehow comes to inhabit me, a possession, when the entirety of my perceptive ability is so finely focused that the world is condensed and intertwined into a singular experience of observation. I have often wondered if this wasn’t the gift of great artists, those who discipline themselves to inhabit the world in such a deeply-felt way that they are later able to manufacture their experiences within their art, to create the conditions for a new way of experiencing the senses. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to live within the realm of observation and memory. For me, these moments in the cinema exist like lightening bolts, striking me without warning; in an instant, I recognize my own awareness of being completely open to a film, and the context of my spectatorship somehow becomes an integral part of the experience of feeling, of understanding.
One of those moments arrived from nowhere in the late summer of 1995 when I attended a screening of Todd Haynes’ Safe at the Hirshhorn Museum of Art in (again) Washington D.C. It was my first experience with Haynes’ films and it left me blistered; the frigid air-conditioned breeze punishing against the humid night, each gust (on again, off again) seeming perilous, as if Carol White (Julianne Moore) was slowly being made ill by the theater itself. For me, a twenty-something who came of age during the Regan years, Safe was a profoundly disturbing experience, a horror film about identity in the age of conspicuous consumption, indifference and social isolation that eviscerated both the desire to remove oneself from our collective responsibility of human suffering and the hokey, do-nothing mysticism that we grasp in order to cope with the toxic world we’ve manufactured. To this day, Peter Friedman’s portrayal of Peter Dunning, the touchy-feely P.T. Barnum of New Age nonsense in the film, is the epitome of everything that I can’t abide when dealing with suffering of others; Can we love ourselves? Yes, we all want an answer, a cure, comfort for our suffering, but in the end, we are alone with what we’ve made of our lives. Which is, interestingly enough, the connection, the thread, that kept running through my mind when I saw Haynes’ latest film, I’m Not There.
The swirl of mystery that Bob Dylan has created around himself seems to have sprung organically from that strain of American celebrity that allows for the act of self-invention to somehow, almost magically, be taken seriously. Dylan’s privileged self-invention seems to arise from his status as the “voice of his generation,” a man whose public personas and choices anticipated the changes in America with frightening accuracy, almost always by looking backward. Don’t Look Back my ass; Dylan ripped off the electric blues and re-invented folk music, stripping away the liberal self-satisfaction of the middle class white kids who created the scene. He dug into his Jewish heritage and eventually became an evangelical Christian (before coming back to earth years later), forecasting the mystical turn that took place in this country between President Kennedy (and his assertion that his own Catholcism did not supercede the need for the separation of church and state) and President Bush (who holds imaginary conversations with his god.) Dylan always showed us where we were headed, like it or not; If anything, he was an immaculate thief, the man who heard answers blowing in the wind and changed course accordingly. Maybe you don’t need a weatherman, but that didn’t stop Dylan from leading by example.
I’m Not There is a portrait of Dylan unlike any other, a fractured story of parallels; Haynes tells the story of Dylan’s life and genius by separating him into six pieces, each overlapping the others like spheres in a Venn diagram. Much like Todd Solodnz’s multiple Avivas in his unfairly maligned Palindromes, Haynes’ six Dylans paint a singular portrait; there is Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), the young romantic who imagines himself as the heir to Woody Guthrie, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), the reclusive populist folk singer who finds Jesus a suburban California, Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), the unfaithful movie star whose marriage collapses in parallel with the VietNam War, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), the poet whose ideas are under literal interrogation, Billy The Kid (Richard Gere), the outlaw in hiding whose past catches up to him in a small town and Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), the drugged out rock star who must pay the price for change after plugging in the guitar and revolutionizing music. Haynes brings these disparate Dylans together with visual and narrative couplings, using images and ideas to tie the characters into a fragile chain; Billy and Woody ride the rails, Robbie’s wife reads Rimbaud’s work aloud, Jude and Robbie are failures at love, Jack and Woody bring the music to the people, Jude and Jack alienate separate audiences, Billy and Jude are exposed by their harshest critic, and on and on.
Ramblin’: Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) Sings In Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There
At heart, each story (and therefore the composite Dylan) hinges on the conflict between responsibility and desire; the need to sing about modern circumstances against a love of the past, the demands of personal relationships, the needs of a community in crisis versus the desire to remain isolated and anonymous and, most importantly, the competing responsibilities of an artist to both please an audience and the need to please the creator inside. Responsibility haunts the Dylans throughout I’m Not There like a specter, whether it be the withering criticism of fans outraged when Jude plugs in, the music critic who demands that Jude’s reasons for creation be equal to the creations themselves, the wife who waits at home while the road is littered with sexual temptation, and all the while, the meaning of the work itself hangs in the air. “Never create anything,” Rimbaud says. The implication being that any piece of art is a burden the artist must carry forward forever. Better to run and hide, to leave it all behind. And there, like Carol White in the mirror in the final shot of Safe, Dylan as Billy remains alone to examine what he has made of his own life.
Much has been made of Haynes’ decision to embody the multifaceted Dylan by separating and highlighting each of Dylan’s ‘characters’ with a different actor, but what is discussed in less detail (and is equally important) is Haynes’ decision to emulate Dylan’s propensity to steal, his retrospective genius, by drawing cinematic parallels between his Dylans and the history of movies. A few filmmakers in particular are clearly referenced, most importantly Jean-Luc Godard, whose Masculin Féminine provides the intellectual framework for both Jude’s assault on stardom and Robbie’s marriage (with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire a wonderful French pop pun on Chantal Goya’s Madeleine); even the wrapping paper Robbie brings home evokes A Woman Is A Woman. There is also the wonderful way in which Haynes combines Fellini’s withering 8 ½ and D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back/Eat The Document to evoke both the literal Dylan and the fantasy of superstardom. This amalgamation is brilliant and provides, along with Blanchett’s stunning performance, the most engaging of the Dylan stories, if only because it is the one section of the film where Haynes’ visual pyrotechnics match the depth of his ideas.
But I’m Not There would not be sustainable as an entertainment if each of the Dylan narratives were pure pop brilliance, and this is why, in my opinion, the much-maligned Billy The Kid section of the film, which evokes Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller and other psychedelic westerns of the early 1970’s, works. As a portrait of an exile, Billy’s story is crucial to bringing meaning to Jude Quinn and Dylan as a whole; when Jude “dies” in a motorcycle accident (twice, in the first shot of the film and again near the end), Billy picks up the tale, only to be haunted by the ghosts of Dylan’s past. Another common misunderstanding is that somehow, Billy’s story exists in the deep past. Not so; After putting on a mask and speaking for the people, Billy is exposed and cast out from the town in a car before hitching a ride on a modern freight train, reconnecting Jude to Woody, Dylan to his past, and completing the character and the film.
Hey Man: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) Makes The Scene In Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There
I’m Not There is an ode to the complexity of Bob Dylan, but it is also a love song to the art-house; This is a film of ideas, both visual and intellectual, historical and narrative. Haynes has made a tremendous movie, a rare combination of art and pop that attempts more in a single sequence than most movies would dare in their entirety. A final thought; It was not so long ago when a film like I’m Not There would be an event, essential viewing for film lovers and Todd Haynes, probably the most interesting and exciting independent American filmmaker of his generation, would be venerated as a major auteur. Today the film is finding an audience, but there is something missing in the culture; A sense of exhaustion seems palpable. Is this how movies die? Changing? The times have changed. It is the responsibility of film fans everywhere to be a part of this process, to get to the theater and give this movie the life it so richly deserves.