Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Film Review: I'm Not There

If you see Todd Haynes’ film about Bob Dylan, you will think that it is the best thing or the worst thing to biopics; that it’s a masterful impressionistic film about the identities of a man who’s always shifted form, or it’s a pretentious, incomprehensible piece of muddled garbage; that it is one of the most ambitious projects in film in the last 5 years, or an abominable dud whose existence should be wiped clean of the earth. It is, simply, one of those movies that will have no middle-ground fans – they will praise or damn it in equal intensity.

I had the chance to see the premiere of this film at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival in October, and I personally think it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen not just this year, but in the last 5 years (at least). As is common knowledge by now, there are 6 different actors offering Haynes’ (and their own) takes on moments, images, and ideals in Dylan’s life. Marcus Carl Franklin is Bob/Woody, a child acting out the hitchiking, vagabond lifestyle Dylan himself would like to have lived (and claimed on occasion to have lived, even if he never did); Christian Bale is John/Jack, the honest folk hero of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and, later, the christian-era Dylan [extrapolated all the way to the point of Bale becoming an evangelical minister]; Cate Blanchett is Dylan when he was entering his electric phase in 1965-1966; Heath Ledger is Dylan the actor in the 60s and, as his marriage to Charlotte Gainsbourg falls apart, the Dylan of Blood on the Tracks; Richard Gere is the both the Dylan who retreated to Woodstock with The Band after his motorcycle accident, as well as the outlaw Billy the Kid; and Ben Whishaw is Dylan as French poet (and idol to Dylan) Arthur Rimbaud. There is no real narrative – each of the stories has their own sub-narrative (Blanchett’s dealing with pissed-off Limey folkies who felt betrayed is the most cohesive of these, followed by Ledger’s increasingly asshole-like behavior and separation from his wife). Not only is there no narrative – there is no linearity. We start with Franklin’s Bob/Woody (throughout the film, the name of Dylan is never mentioned directly), but soon we are jumping from Ledger to Blanchett to Bale to Whishaw to Gere back to Ledger back to Franklin back to Whishaw back to Ledger etc.

The importance of this approach cannot be overstated. Up to this point, as Erik has pointed out, over the last several years, the cleaned-up, point-A-to-B narrative focusing on a character’s “redemption” from some low (see Ray, Walk the Line, A Beautiful Mind, The Queen, Capote, etc.) has made the biopic as interesting and unpredictable as a Meg Ryan romantic comedy. [In one of my biggest beefs, actors in these movies don’t really seem to be acting to me anymore. They seem to be impersonating – they aren’t making somebody new in terms of character. The best example of this is Helen Mirren, who was no doubt excellent in The Queen, but whose performance in terms of sheer power and emotion pales in comparison to Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal.]

Haynes’ approach completely blows all of this out of the water. None of these actors and actresses are impersonating Dylan – they are giving flesh to aspects of Dylan’s life, be they aspects he actually lived, he wishes he had lived, as Haynes visions them, as they appear in Dylan’s songs, or as Dylan’s fans imagine. Blanchett as Dylan in the mid-1960s (much will be made of her portrayal, and it is truly inspired, but so is Ledger’s and Franklin’s, and I even enjoyed Gere, which isn’t always easy for me). There is no better word for this approach than “impressionistic” – Haynes is operating on people’s (his own, fans’, Dylan’s himself) impressions of “BOB DYLAN”. This approach offers a completely fresh new way for us to understand Dylan, not in terms of the actual life and history of Bob Dylan, but what Dylan means to us individually.

Haynes is incredible at keeping our interest in each of the “stories”, too. He switches filming styles and approaches throughout, so that Gere’s portions have a feel like part of a Fellini dream (and indeed, parts of the film recall Fellini or Goddard, but with Haynes’ own style), while the Blanchett sections, filmed in black-and-white (as are the Whishaw sections) are a great nod to films like Don’t Look Back. Whishaw’s sections are no more than poetic confessions looking straight at the camera, which come off a both a genius and as pretentious SOB at times (but that’s the point – anyone who says Dylan hasn’t been pretentious before is missing the point). And by telling the Ledger portion not so much from Ledger’s point of view as from the POV of Gainsbourg, we sympathize with her but, like her, grow increasingly alienated, unsympathetic, and angry at Ledger – it is clear that, even if Haynes’ film is an idolization of sorts, he at least is accepting Dylan with all of his warts (which is far more than Ray or Walk the Line had the courage to do).

This movie is not without its flaws, of course. While the Bale section was decent enough, I really didn’t think it was fleshed out enough. The stories with Franklin, Blanchett, and Ledger were so dominating that Bale’s section seemed a bit of a shadow. He himself did a fine job as an actor – it seems more like the script (and maybe the editing process) reduced the effectiveness of the part. And Gere’s part is interesting, but the least understandable upon viewing (only after about a week had I finally made sense of it all).

It is worth mentioning in passing that, throughout the film, Dylan's actual songs are used to great effect (especially "Twist of Fate" during the Ledger section), and I suppose it could mean something to some fans that Dylan thought enough of the movie to give rights to his songs to it. But that's not what is really important here. What is the true standout is the film itself. Regardless of which side of the divide you will fall on on I’m Not There, it is absolutely, unquestionably, a must-see film. Haynes has unquestionably given us a wonderful way to re-understand and re-think one of America’s greatest enigmas, told in an amazingly inventive, artistic, and beautiful (which is wonderful in and of itself). But he has also done far more by giving Dylan this treatment: he has (for the time being, at least) saved the biopic.