Dec 13, 2007

I'm Not There, Either

I finally saw I'm Not There, the Todd Haynes Dylan Extravaganza. I can only report that it failed to touch my dear, old, jaded heart in every single possible respect, except for Cate Blanchett's wonder of a performance. The only thing that kept me rooted to my seat was the music. (And Ed Lachman's rich photography).
As I was sitting through this movie, I was thinking that perhaps all of us are entitled to one Bob Dylan movie in our head. If I had my way, mine would be just the songs, no visuals. Somehow, I think that Dylan's music defies visualization. It has the power of verbal narrative, like rich, complex novels that resist screen adaptations; not to mention the power of its chords, that seem to come from the depths of American experience, with the dark, disturbing undertow that most people in this country insist in ignoring. It has a sting that hurts. You would have to be an expert in haunting, spine-tingling enigma, and sharpness and irony to get it right. Maybe the Coen Brothers would nail it somehow. They come from the same place. Minnesota, that is.
The only moment where I found authenticity in this movie, was the one bit of actual footage of Dylan playing the harmonica in concert. I know this is very literal of me, but there he was himself, in all his elfin and stubbornly enigmatic power, and he is more convincing in a few seconds of that than 5 different people trying to inhabit his persona, to mostly cheesy effect.
I tend to worship Christian Bale, but he seemed ridiculous in this one. Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg playing a soured couple to the accompaniment of the Vietnam War seemed like an American telenovela to me, utterly banal. The very talented black kid was very distracting. The guy who plays Dylan giving interviews was trying his darnedest to be a prick, which is what Dylan used to do with great success. But only Cate Blanchett was given the opportunity to react to something. She was the only one with a personal conflict. Namely, Dylan in England answering questions about his honesty and dealing, badly, for the most part, with his fame. At times I forgot she was Cate Blanchett, she was so good. So her storyline provided the only instance where there was drama, instead of a procession of tableaux vivants.
The movie is a pastiche. A pastiche of film references, a pastiche of sentimentality, which is the last thing you'd expect in a movie about Bob Dylan, I would think. My heart sank as Richard Gere rode into a town of full of carnies. My wise friend Don told me that this is a reference to Dylan's own movie disaster Renaldo and Clara, which helped mitigate the circumstances, but only slightly.
The moment I see carnies and circuses on screen, in my mind, I run away.
It is totally fine to come up with a different way to do a biopic. It is totally fine to write a filmed love letter to your hero, it is even admirable to try to be original and think we are all Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan is all of us, or that the peripatetic life of Bob Dylan can be taken to represent something ineffable about American culture. I just didn't quite get what it was from this film. And it is not that I need a conventional plot or a sustained narrative, or a three-act screenplay. It's that either you do the biopic or you don't, but you can't have it both ways. If you want to take actual parts of his life and make them into stories that have little to do with him, there needs to be a huge resonance of meaning, not just dressed up snippets of gossip.
I was baffled by the inconsistencies: such an eloquent songwriter and such an inarticulate rock star. Christian Bale, who is a large, beautiful man, is described time and again as elfin and tiny, (by Julianne Moore, playing Joan Baez) and you can see the actor trying to shrink himself as much as possible. It simply doesn't work. Dylan was famously evasive on purpose, of course, but in the footage I've seen of his interviews, he seems to make sense: ornery, dripping with sarcasm, almost oracular. I gather that Dylan's autobiography is extremely well written, so I understand even less why the filmmakers insist in making him unintelligible, on all counts.
But this is the movie that Todd Haynes had in his head, and this is the movie he did. At least it's not a Broadway show, like The Times They Are A Changing. Or a Victoria's Secret runway show to the tune of Knocking on Heaven's Door. Sheesh.
Dylan is no sacred cow, but each one of us reveres him in our own way. Mine is not with carnies.

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