By Ray Pride
The famously epigrammatic Jean-Luc Godard once asserted that the only real review of a movie would be to make another movie in reply.
Todd Haynes, he of “Far From Heaven,” “Velvet Goldmine” and “[safe]” is no stranger to the European intellectual filmmaking tradition, nor to relentless citation and layering. Hoping to write about his new not-a-biopic of Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There” almost feels like trying to write footnotes to footnotes, a circular exercise that would wind even the fabulist likes of Jorge Luis Borges. Not only does “I’m Not” (from a script co-written by Owen Moverman, and shot by the great Ed Lachman) deal with the idea of celebrity since the middle of the twentieth century, it also appropriates and repurposes big swathes of filmmaking history, from Fellini to Richard Lester to Sam Peckinpah to Robert Altman to D. A. Pennebaker to “Contempt”-era Godard. (And much, much more…)
That, plus the interleaving of seven different performers as versions of who Dylan was taken to be in different eras of his career, never naming the name that’s never spoken, ranging from a 12-year-old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin), to Heath Ledger as a movie star who’s upset after making a movie about a “Dylan” played by Christian Bale, and most extensively, a “Don’t Look Back”-era “Dylan” named Jude, played with great self-amusement by Cate Blanchett. The mighty Jude Quinn gets the hair and Wayfarers and gnomic mutterings and exclaiming right, but also a splendid aphasia, haunted before the altar of meds and sleeplessness like a prophet ready to drop in the desert.
Footnotes breed, allusions gather. But deeper meaning is a ghost sign, or in Greil Marcus’ construction, amid the clusters of his decades of dogged Dylanology, an “invisible republic.” (In a 2006 Believer interview, Marcus observed, Dylan “is so out there, and I don’t mean that in the vernacular sense. He is so out there in the territories,” referring to his incessant touring. Everywhere and nowhere.)
“I’m Not There” is a palimpsest, or a manuscript of writing atop writing, earlier language transformed by newer variation, a text of scribble-scrabble atop fever dream and solipsistic acting out, a kind of pop-cult graphomanic, hyper-texting, evocative and pungent moments suggested by the lyrics and words of Dylan, or shall we call Mr. Zimmerman “Dylan”? It’s a weave of Dylan-not Dylan, a conflagration of surrealist provocations, a blasted secular religiosity. (The final image is furiously apt, suggesting a Dylan who needs not breathe to motor onward.)
Earnest surrealism? Serial semiotics? While Haynes’ larger structure eschews the arcs of plot and pathos, within the smaller frames, there’s enough emotion for a lifetime of soap operas. Collage, pastiche, psychologized unauthorized-autobiography, sure, but also, as one character chants in a Western village, “an epic tale of blunder and despair.” Incarnations of the American self, muttering at the bottom of their lungs. Even in the scenes not played by Blanchett, there’s femininity in the “Dylan” wiles, the movie less a crisis of masculinity, but on that flurries in identity, as in, “Who am I this breath?”
The “Dylan” women, Haynes’ women—are to be loved, or as Blanchett’s Jude says, “I worship women. Everyone should have one.” The Blanchett-drogyny impresses, but Julianne Moore’s ur-Joan Baez is fierce and willowy gamin-as goddess Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose long face and lanky form suggest Patti Smith’s) as the Ledger-Dylan’s increasingly estranged wife is iconic, and an unlikely but inspired kohl-eyed Michelle Williams is a sexy Edie Sedgwick simulacrum.
Each incarnation is a shadow grinning onto the white spaces in the margins of institutional history-making. Death is but a dream, but immortality a cruel joke. Of course, this is inscribed against any viewer’s lifetime history of repeated hearing (if not listening). Each song, whether an original or covered by the many, many artists, from Yo La Tengo to Thurston Moore to Antony, is trigger, lever and trap door. A character purloins a passage from Godard’s “Masculin-Féminin,” as once spoken by Jean-Pierre Leaud, “We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. More often we’d be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make and, secretly, wanted to live.”
Live, breath, sing, obfuscate, exhale: “I’m Not There” is a kaleidoscopic blur, a puzzle confected from muzzle flash, a tale born on the prairie but with its eyes up on the road ahead.
“I’m Not There” opens Wednesday, November 21.