I’m Not There (2007) dir. Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger
Todd Haynes’ film about the many lives of Bob Dylan is cinematic masturbation of the highest order. The idea of having different actors play Bob Dylan in his various stages of his career including a woman and young black child is intriguing, but Todd Haynes over-intellectualizes the man so much the film becomes a sloppy esoteric mess.
I don’t even know where to start. Nothing at all made sense to me. A young male child is introduced first as Dylan when we see him board a train like a hobo in the 1930’s. Except it’s not the 30’s (or is it?) and his name isn’t Bob Dylan, its Woody Guthrie. Huh? We see the Ben Whishaw Dylan intercut with the other Dylans. He’s talking to camera, but I think it’s the point of view of a press conference. He expounds philosophically on something that went so far over my head I stopped paying attention. The Christian Bale Dylan is named Jack Rollins, and he represents the beginning of his folk career when he made a name for himself in the Greenwich Village scene in the early 60’s. Heath Ledger plays the egotistical Dylan, named Robbie Clark, who marries and starts a family with a Parisian bohemian named Claire. The Cate Blanchett character is named Jude Quinn and represents the enigmatic mid 60’s superstar Dylan. Lastly, the Richard Gere Dylan is from Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, but he’s actually Billy the Kid in the 1800’s. Or is he? Towards the end of the film we see Richard Gere driving away in a car? What the fuck?? Incidentally Dylan’s character in the actual film was not Billy but his friend Alias. Confused?
I was confused in the first five minutes. The only way any person could understand the film without making massive leaps of guesswork is if they had intimate knowledge of Dylan’s songs and the specific events in his career. I’m somewhat knowledgeable of his 60’s music, but the only event I recognized was the first time the Beatles smoked up with Dylan in London. Apparently the character who hangs around the Cate Blanchett Dylan for the whole film was Robbie Robertson. I had no idea. Why didn’t Haynes tell us? Nor did I know the town in which the Richard Gere’s character was wandering around was the name of a Dylan song and all the characters in those scenes were supposedly mentioned in the song.
The film is much like Haynes’ other rock and roll film, “Velvet Goldmine”, his ambitious and heavily-flawed film about glam rock in the 70’s. Like “Goldmine” few of the scenes flow with one another; there’s seems to be no structure, nor transitions don’t make any sense and the characters speak in confusing riddles. “Inland Empire” made more sense than this.
Oh yeah, Julianne Moore appears in a series of mockumentary sequences, there’s some Oliver Stone JFK-type sequences that use stock footage to make some sort of point about the Vietnam War and there's some recreations from "Fellini's 8 1/2" (that stuff I did get, but for people who haven't seen that film...watch out.)
What angers me is the contempt Haynes shows to his audience - contempt for someone, like me, who is familiar with his music, but not his personal life. How can he expect me to keep up with his impenetrable and cryptic ramblings? Do I need to read a Dylan biography before seeing the film? Apparently so.
Dylan’s music was meant to incite thought and action by the average working Joe. By cutting out 99% of his audience and elevating his story into the upper strata of high brow intellectualism he’s undermined everything Dylan’s music stood for. “I’m Not There” is one of the worst theatrical experiences I’ve had in a while. I now need to cleanse my soul by watching “Ghost Rider.” Thanks.