T.S. Eliot once wrote that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood; whenever Bob Dylan spouts poetry in I’m Not There, it’s like the opposite (you understand he’s talking bullshit the moment you hear it). For those not there back when Dylan was Dylan, this new movie confirms your every doubt about the wheedling, wheezy 60s-era Woody Guthrie. The movie is like a badly told lie; it wants to convince you of some guys’ mystique, but all it succeeds in is sophistry. It’s like divining meaning from fashion magazine covers. Even as I try to write about it I get Dylan-y (adj. to speak in gnomic utterances; to put the sound of words before sense).
Unfolding as a sort of snatch-and-grab through Dylan’s life, the movie begins several times; first with the story of a young Dylan hitch-hiking; second with an older Dylan getting recognition as a folk singer in Greenwich Village; third as an actor; fourth as a poet; fifth as an jaded icon; sixth as Billy the Kid. Different actors portray Dylan in each incarnation and the idea is to get a picture (or pictures) of the man the way the world saw him: as schizoid. There is no attempt made at realism. The movie is more about haiku-truth; the essence of Dylan (here I go again…) It seems like he was an asshole, to me.
The best take on Dylan is when he’s played by a black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin). Carrying a guitar-case that’s bigger than he is (inscribed: Kill Fascists), the kid gives the least mannered performance of anyone in the movie. He doesn’t make the slightest attempt to sound like Bob Dylan (there’s nothing of the half-drunk impression Christian Bale gives), but he does get the look of someone with Big Things on their mind. If we’d followed this kid for two hours, the journey would be worth it. As it is…Christian Bale looks like he’s stepped on something sharp; Ben Whishaw is all tics; Richard Gere looks like he’s wandered away from a costume party and…
Two of the other five are pretty good. Heath Ledger seems to be playing Heath Ledger when he does Dylan. There’s a weird parallel between their lives (failed marriage, dark side, spats with the press) that Ledger draws on. So sometimes his accent slips but what he says feels awkwardly real. There’s a great scene where he asks Charlotte Gainsbourg to write down the worst thing she can think of. And he’s trying to end his marriage to her and we know she’s tired of stopping him… Ledger is like a man with a knife in his chest, torturing friends with the sight of the handle.
Cate Blanchett got all the press for her role, and casting as woman as a man – let alone as Dylan – was always going to be a canny publicity move. She’s the most iconic of the Dylan’s. She gets the shades and the crisp black-and-white photography (Whishaw’s bits are in black-and-white too, but his are grainy). She gets into a fight with a smarmy (but astute) British journalist, who sees her for what she is (a bullshit artist) and calls her bluff, even as she prats about with The Beatles. Blanchett is sly, vulnerable and ratty as a Dylan who’ll say anything, excluding explanations.
The movie is, ultimately, less interesting than it seems to be. It catches your eye like a record cover, but it doesn’t go anywhere. You start watching with the idea that Dylan is an enigma, and you end-up bored. It’s all standard fair for director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Velvet Goldmine), he: always with the good ideas and the movies that feel like listening to your friends’ poems. For the first twenty minutes you think he’s re-invented movies; then another twenty minutes goes by… You just can’t invest in a character this self-conscious. I’m Not There is like watching Bob Dylan as he is now (in that scuzzy cowboy outfit); too many allusions, not enough heart.