Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"I'm Not There" -- * * * 1/2

"When I'm there, she's all right
But she's not when I'm gone
Heaven knows that the answer she don't call in no one
She's a wave, a thing, beautiful she's mine for the one
And I'm also hesitating by temptation lest it runs
Which it don't follow me
But I'm not there, I'm gone"

Todd Haynes has always been an experimental filmmaker, but some of his experiments have proved to be more accessible ("Velvet Goldmine") or successful ("Far From Heaven") than others ("Safe"). Despite a subject who is one of the most popular American cultural icons ever (Bob Dylan), "I'm Not There" is probably Haynes' least accessible film so far, as well as his most challenging, uncompromising, dense with content, and interesting to dissect. Easily one of the most ambitious films of the year (only occasionally falling short of those ambitions), the self-reflexive film will likely only appeal to an extremely small sect of the moviegoing populace, but it's always arresting and artfully blends together what sounded like chaos on paper into a very cohesive, carefully constructed amalgam of ideas.

Basically using Dylan as a case study for a larger theme, what "I'm Not There" is really about (I think) is how unnecessary and/or impossible it is to boil down or decode an artist's life/persona/raison d'atre, since what really matters is the artist's creations. Some will certainly complain that for all the Dylans on display here, we really don't gain any insight into the man, and that's entirely the point. At the end of the day, it's Dylan's music that will outlast him (and us) and define who he is/was, and us attempting to gain insight into a creator is fairly pointless and arbitrary. In the end, it's also saying that analyzing the whys and whats of an artist are just as futile as criticizing the merits of a work of art. As such, the film is enough of a daring and conversation-inspiring work that writing a review of it is almost beside the point. Nevertheless, here I am.

If you've heard anything about "I'm Not There," it's probably that Haynes has employed six different actors to each portray Bob Dylan, or rather, a different segment/aspect of his ever-evolving career, between 1959 and 1967. First up, a jarring introduction announcing at the forefront that this will not be your father's biopic, Dylan is portrayed as Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old black boy. At first seeming gimmicky, Woody's scenes are some of the most effective in the film, establishing the tone(s) and metaphorical themes of the film from the outset. Woody's meant to represent young Dylan, who emulated Woody Guthrie, as a young artist attempting to be someone he's not as a way of beginning his musical career. Toting a guitar case with "This Machine Kills Fascists" written on it, Woody travels the rails and is eventually told to "live your own time," leading into our next Dylan, Jack (Christian Bale). At this point, the film breaks out of the segmented style and cuts between our different stories/Dylans.

Jack, seen mostly through "archival" footage and unhelpfully elaborated on by a Joan Baez figure (Julianne Moore), represents Dylan's folk era of protest sings, at one point singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'." One of only two actors in the film encouraged to actually semi-impersonate Dylan, Bale's depiction is probably the closest anyone in the film comes to encompassing and impersonating Dylan as the majority of the public knows him. Meant to evoke Dylan's "romantic" side, his love songs, and doings during the Vietnam war, is Robbie (Heath Ledger), who-- bear with me now-- is an actor portraying Jack in a movie about his life. Robbie is Dylan at his most human and vulnerable, and most of his material pertains to his troubled marriage to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

The segment during which the film most springs to exciting life, and that has gotten the most media attention, is that of Jude, where the electric Dylan documented by "Don't Look Back" is portrayed by Cate Blanchett. This segment is the most overtly "fun," taking on the style of Fellini's "8 1/2," and follows the period of Dylan going electric, and his folk-loving fans turning against him. Taking up the most screentime by far (about 35 minutes total), this segment also features Dylan's dealings with poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), a fashion debutante clearly meant to be Edie Sedgewick (Michelle Williams) and a critical member of the press (Bruce Greenwood). The two most attention-grabbing moments in said segment, lending a feel of "let's try anything" experimentation, are (1) when Dylan's initial going electric at the Newport Folk Festival is depicted as Jude and his band literally machine-gunning the audience, and (2) a "Hard Day's Night"-evoking sped-up sequence of Dylan frolicking with the Beatles.

Lastly, and most lugubriously, is Dylan depicted as Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), living in a Halloween-loving circus-esque town, as he hides out from the public eye but finds himself face-to-face again with his old dogged pursuer, Pat Garrett (symbolically, also played by Bruce Greenwood). There's certainly interesting stuff in this segment, knowingly referencing Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid," in which Dylan had a role, but it's the most likely to bore audiences (as it did me) as Gere looks wistfully at the sky and his dog and meanders around. It's not as harshly dull as some have dismissed it as, but it does draw the movie to a noticeable standstill. Given the least screen time and peppered throughout the various segments is Dylan as Arthur ("Perfume"'s Ben Whishaw), a 19th-century-attire-clad poet who directly addresses the camera with quotes from Dylan's 1965 interviews.

As I said, the engagement level from segment-to-segment is going to vary, and not every actor gets as much meaty material as others, but no one is less than good. I think it's safe to say that no actor involved thought this was going to be a particularly mainstream or money-making affair, nor Oscar bait, so they were likely attracted strictly to the material, and their enthusiasm shows on screen. Everyone here gives their all and lends their performance something special. The performers who stuck out most to me were Bale and, as much as I hate to jump on the bandwagon, Blanchett.

Bale is the only actor of the six to play kinda-sorta two roles, Jack and his 20-years-later embodiment of Dylan's born-again Christianity, Pastor John, and he does an impeccable job. Given that we only see glimpses of Jack, during particularly public moments, he gets a lot across with his eyes and physical gestures, and his Dylan-esque matter of speaking is dead-on. Blanchett's performance, showy as it might be, is really astounding from any standpoint, but especially if you've seen footage of Dylan from this era. While more impersonation than emotion-based, Blanchett completely embodies Dylan (at one point requesting of a crucified Jesus statue, "Why don't you do your early stuff?"), nailing down his mannerisms while also imbuing Jude with a palpable sense of malaise, whimsy and guarded defensiveness. This is more than just mimicry, it's an embodiment significantly more impressive than what Jamie Foxx (in "Ray"), Jon Voight (in "Ali," "Glory Road," "Pearl Harbor," the list goes on) or Blanchett herself (in "The Aviator") accomplished.

Once you get past the conceptual oddity, "I'm Not There" is still a fairly challenging work, not least of which is that it's a 2 hour and 15 minute film that embraces a non-narrative structure. In that respect, while the film is perpetually interesting, it's not always actually compelling. While you may be enjoying yourself at any given moment, there's never really the promise of evolution or resolution, and no real (even thematic) climax. My interest never waned, but it also hit me at a certain point that the film was never going to really build to some grand idea or occurrence, and that's going to be frustrating to some.

But at the time time, it'll also put a certain segment of the audience in cinematic heaven, allowing them to groove on the film's ideas, sequences and various strands. Some have evoked the comparison between the film and a great Bob Dylan song, and well, the parallel's there if you want to see it. What was particularly exciting about "I'm Not There" to me was how jam-packed with minutae and detail it was in every frame, and how Haynes utilizes numerous cinematic styles and reference points to demonstrate the unique aspects of Dylan. It's a shame I was only able to see the film once prior to writing this review, since it's practically made for multiple viewings.

Is it possible to really appreciate "I'm Not There" if you know little-to-nothing about Dylan? Well, no. With a vague understanding of the shape of his career, you'll get the general point of things and perhaps admire the film conceptually and appreciate the craft of the filmmaking, but you won't grasp/recognize much of the content (which certainly isn't to say an expansive and specific knowledge of Dylan's work/career will ensure the film won't infuriate or distance you). But unequivocally, the more Dylan minutae you're familiar with, the more you'll be "with" the proceedings and on the same page, whether you like it or not. In the days preceding my screening, I curled up with Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home," the new fantastic 3-CD collection "Dylan" and a DVD of Dylan's performances at the Newport Folk Festival. I'm still not sure I caught everything, but it certainly helped.

"I'm Not There" isn't the masterwork Haynes' "Far From Heaven" or "Safe" were (at least not in my eyes), but it's, without a doubt, essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a supporter of true art in film and/or music. While I would advise some research (though damned enjoyable research) prior to heading out to the theater, it's truly one of the most ambitious and thematically exciting films of the year, and only further establishes Haynes as one of the true visionary directors making films today. In what's been a terribly invigorating year for adventurous cinema, "I'm Not There" is really a must-see.

"I'm Not There" opens today in 125 theaters across the country; while nowhere near a nationwide release ("Enchanted," for example, is opening on nearly 4,000 screens), this is far wider than the single-digit screen roll-out initially announced and affords John Q. Moviegoer a much better chance of seeing it than originally thought.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Original Screenplay (Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman)


Anonymous Chadwick said...

I think I'm going to see this mostly for Cate Blanchet's role.

4:51 PM  

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