Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Her Sweet Love or the Way That She Could Sing": I'm Not There by Todd Haynes

You might expect that the prospects of seeing the first dramatic film on Bob Dylan might lead to nothing less than 99% anticipation. And so it was, when the lights went down at the screening of I'm Not There by Todd Haynes , the audience excitement and anticipation was palpable. But the film itself is not Ray or The Cole Porter Story or Walk the Line. As much as fans would hope for something that would help unravel, or at least prepare a Unified Field Theory of Bob Dylan, one must remember that even his own two films, the 7os release, Renaldo & Clara, and Masked & Anonymous which he co-wrote with its director, Larry Charles, (who also directed Borat), merited "Turkey", "Bomb" or zero stars in the leading film review texts.

But taken on its own terms, I'm Not There is part appreciation, part riff, and all Bob, inasmuch as it is difficult, elusive and mysterious, just the way the artist himself appears to be. It takes awhile to get into the groove of this film. But persistence, patience and openness will pay off handsomely. Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody, the Young Romantic, Dylan from the late 50s and early 60s, and Christian Bale as the Prophet of the early 60s folk and protest scene set the stage for Cate Blanchett in a remarkable turn as Jude Quinn, the Innovator of 1966, who blew the lid off of the folk scene, injecting a different kind of roots music, the blues, with electricity and volume. It is Jude, who turns away from the expectations of the folk scene, and dares to emerge as a different kind of artist, on his own terms, as he challenges his audience to keep up with him. However, by the time his fans do catch up, he is on to Something Completely Different. There are a number of good performances in the film, Franklin and Bale, plus Heath Ledger as an actor-playing a Dylanesque character within the film, Richard Gere as Billy, the Lone Gun, who meshes Basement Era - Bob with the ever elusive Bob of the Endless Tour, and Ben Whishaw as Bob as Arthur Rimbaud, the Enigma, speaking to an unseen interrogator.

But Cate Blanchett pulls out all the stops here, in her tour-de-force performance as Jude, the Most Obscure, when Dylan escaped all bounds and scenes and expectations, and seemed to achieve escape velocity, until gravity, and perhaps freedom, betrayed him, and he fell to Earth, reinventing himself yet again.

For the first few minutes, Blanchett as Bob is a real challenge to one's assumptions. I remember thinking how Blanchett played Katherine Hepburn in the Aviator and pulled off that role remarkably well. But here we are talking about a gender bending role as one of the most recognized artists of the 20th century at the height of his celebrity and early performance powers. But damn, if she doesn't pull it off again. Todd Haynes, who directed the Velvet Goldmine, on the glam rock era of Bowie et al, seems to understand androgyny pretty well and manages to reach down deep, showing us that we really probably don't know much about the Real Man, and so we will never understand who Dylan is, what makes him the artist he is, what prompts the ongoing metamorphosis of his persona, and why is he so elusive a figure. It is Cate Blanchett, who reportedly stuck a pair of socks down her trousers to help with her swagger, who mines Bob circa '66 for all he/she/it is worth, and brings it all back home, especially in her dialogues with the British Journalist played by Bruce Greenwood, in another excellent performance. Blanchett's Jude struggles to remain free as the microscope and tweezers of celebrity and the media bear down on him.

The film is also filled with a number of fine musical cover performances from the Dylan catalog, most notably Jim James of My Morning Coat, singing "Goin' to Acapulco," as well as some songs performed by Dylan himself.

In a discussion after the film, Director Todd Haynes said that in contacting Dylan to get the OK to use his music, he was given many instructions by Dylan's son, Jesse, and his long time manager , Jeff Rosen on what not to say "Don't use the words 'genius' or 'prophet', don't refer to him as 'voice of his generation', and on and on..it sounds like Dylan has heard it all before and he doesn't like what he has heard...

"Who are you, Bob Dylan?" the French asked in '66. To paraphrase the song Bessie Smith by Dylan with the Band, 'is it who he is (or seems to be) or the way that he could sing ?' that makes him such a towering figure ?

I think that this film will not find the audience that it already seems to have found in Italy and France. David Schwartz, a curator at the Museum of Moving Image who moderated the discussion, noted that the film received a 20 minute ovation at Cannes. Here in NYC, there was sincere, but not sustained applause. The film answers no questions, connects no dots, nor does it close any circles. But it is a fascinating evocation of the life and work of a one of the most phenomenal musico-literary talents of the past half century. Bob Dylan remains elusive, but it is clear we will never really understand the mystery of who he is primarily because he has not wanted to be understood, and is skilled at obscuring the facts and truth of his life, and muddying his tracks as much as possible. But just why that mystery continues to remain so compelling is largely a fact of the continuing relevance of his work. But even more interesting is why the desire to uncover that persona, to pin down the man, still seems to remain something to be pursued, like finding Bigfoot, even as Bob Dylan approaches nearly five decades in the public eye. That alone seems to say something about Dylan, but more so something about us...

The official I'm Not There trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beHt8YaVtGs

The unofficial teaser, Dylan performing his unreleased "I'm Not There": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxO6m_yz8cE

Bob Dylan wikipedia post: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Dylan


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