Friday, November 30, 2007

Like a Complete Unknown

I'm glad I took a day or two to process I'm Not There, Todd Haynes new film inspired by the life and words of Bob Dylan. Its a wonderful film, innovative and intriguing but at the same time extraordinarily dense. I certainly can't universally recommend it, most people's appreciation of the film will go hand-in-hand with their appreciation of Dylan. If you're at all inclined towards Dylan I would strongly encourage seeing this film. Being able to put the films' scenes, character and history in context will certainly help and to that end I would endorse renting Scorsese's excellent Dylan documentary No Direction Home and reading this or this. If even the mere thought of doing a bit of leg work before seeing a film is anathema to you maybe I'm Not There is not for you.

This caveat out of the way, lets get to some particulars. Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Safe) has taken the standard Hollywood biopic, planted about twenty ons of TNT at its base and exploded it like Wile E. Coyote. Using the conceit of having six different actors play analogues of Dylan at different periods in his life, Haynes begins to capture a portrait of a notoriously difficult personage to know. The characters themselves are all struggling with identity in their own way in some small part. People like to label certain artists as constantly re-inventing themselves, but after watching this film one would be hard pressed to label an artist who has more successfully metamorphisized time and again than Dylan. He's been the folk-protest figurehead, the cowboy, the man out of time, the family man, the minister and perhaps most notably the rebel who balks at scrutiny of his art, life and work. Haynes shows off these figures at random, flashing back and forth their stories running parallel to each other occasionally inersecting in subtle ways.

Having seen Todd Solondz Palindromes, I was a bit concerned as to how this multiple actors playing one character would work out. In the Solondz film it seemed distasteful and gimmicky (just one of a litany of problems I have with the film). Haynes, however, makes it work in such a way as to really illustrate how complex his subject is and how silly the typical Hollywood biopic is. People are never just one distinct personality their entire lives. We inevitably change and evolve; the person we are at ten is not the person we are at twenty, thirty and so on. Even though the age and style of the actors so radically shift the basic characteristics of the Dylan persona exist through the throughline of each different character.

With six actors playing Dylan in addition to the myriad of supporting players there's a lt of acting to consider here. The clear stand-out is Cate Blanchett who in addition to perfectly aping Dylan at the time he was most contrary to the press as he transitioned from folk-message songs into electric guitar based rock, never once gives away her gender. She also has the most fun sparring partner, Bruce Greenwood the closest thing this film has to a villain, and co-star (David Cross as Allen Ginsberg-genius). Still, all the other analogues make an impression. Christian Bale works as the protester turned preacher is appropriately somber, Ledger as the actor and family man whose marriage is falling apart (opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg), an unusually gritty Richard Gere as a rebel cowboy, Marcus Carl Franklin as a boy trying to be a part of world long gone and Ben Whishaw as a confrontational artist each get a chance to shine.

In addition to the various actors, Haynes changes his style numerous times. He apes the work of a Fellini dream sequence, a Peckinpah Western, a Lester Beatles musical, a domestic drama and others, he even consciously copies whole scenes from Dylan documentaries; Don't Look Back and the aforementioned No Direction Home. Contrasting these styles evokes a variety of feelings and creates an odd synthesis that gives the viewer a keen idea of the type of man Dylan was and the man he became. There's so much material here (references to Dylan lyrics, album cover art and famous quotes are scattered throughout, but its never as overstated as in Across the Universe) that it could days to pour over it all. I look forward to revisitng the film and sussing through it (might I reccomend a pop-up fact feature on the DVD for references).

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