“I’m Not There”: An Artist as Landscape

I’m Not There

I don’t really like talking about my films. Everything I want to say is in the film itself; for me to say anything more is, as the proverb goes, like “drawing legs on a picture of snake.” But from time to time and idea I thought I had conveyed in the film does not seem to have been generally understood. On those occasions I do feel an urge to talk about my work. Nevertheless, I try not to. If what I have said in my film is true, someone will understand.’ – Akira Kurosawa

None of the characters are called Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s bio of the eccentric artist I’m Not There, which is fine since we’re not dealing with absolutes. I’ve grown weary over the years of bios dealing with the same old things (since Chaplin for goodness sake): who they were sleeping with, what drugs they did, how it all influenced their … yawn! Haynes avoids many of these cliches, partly through non-linear storytelling much like the wonderful film La Vie en Rose did earlier this year, but also by creating the most complex and realistic interpretation of not only an artist but a human being I’ve seen in a long time. It plays almost as a hate letter in response to those who try to put artists and people in simple to understand boxes. That because they are good at something or stand up for something in the world, then that’s all that they are. There’s a devastating moment in the film in which a pompous British interviewer an unnamed character (so proclaims the blank space on imdb.com) played by Bruce Greenwood who in searching for his idea of what truth is uncovers Dylan’s origins and the room falls silent as the mystery behind this artist begins to crumble. Doesn’t the interviewer realize that a person is more than where they’ve come from or more than the style of music that has influenced them or that they’ve influenced. Don’t Dylan’s fans realize that in order to thrive as an artist, the artist has to change! They have to work against the pull of society and who they are as a person. Artists’ have to challenge themselves and what they believe.

In this film Dylan seems to be just as much in search of who he is as Haynes is searching out who Dylan is, but unlike the Brit Interviewer he gives us more than one truth.

I don’t know a lot about Dylan, but I’m certain there are many aspects of this film that have been fictionalized to represent periods of his life or sides of his personality. One would have to assume that when one of the persona is a young black boy, “the fake” the film calls him, that other symbolic tools are used. This fake is highly influenced by Woody Guthrie, and so Dylan creates a persona to connect with the people, and Dylan represents that through Woody a young black boy who hops trains and depends on the kindness of strangers. In essence by being the artist who he is he lies about who he is, but perhaps it’s more complicated than that. To fully appreciate the music we, the audience, may need the creation of a mythological musician, someone that stands outside the boundaries of commonplace, someone we can’t quite put a finger on, who stands above the rules and laws of society and isn’t afraid to speak their mind, an outlaw perhaps, as personified by Richard Gere. I think Dylan knew this. Unfortunately, the idea that could have been the most interesting turns out to be the least provocative. Gere as Dylan persona Billy (the Kid) who escaped Pat Garret’s bullet comes into contact with the aging Garret, symbolizing in Dylan’s life the British Interviewer. The inside joke being perhaps that Dylan appeared in a Sam Peckinpah film Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid (imdb.com lists his role as Alias.) On paper this seems like a brilliant idea, but by the time we get to it in the actual film, we’ve already gotten this point and it comes off as superfluous. Which is too bad, because the rest of the movie nears brilliance. Pauline Kael once said something to the effect that the greatest films are never perfect, and when it comes down to it, this will be one of the better movies this year.

Even though it becomes tiring at a point, it never becomes boring. While the film at times becomes oppressive with it’s theme and we nod and wish he would move on to the next sequence it never is uninteresting to watch. It’s almost like a dream world we can’t get out of. As if Haynes fell asleep and conjured up these personalities. We see a giraffe walk in behind Richard Gere, Cate Blanchette floating in the sky like a balloon and in one of the most surreal moments Christian Bale preaching to a small group of church going people. What’s real and what’s not? What’s there to make us feel who he was rather than see who he was? The better parts of the film are almost indescribable in their elusive texturing and techniques. Heath Ledger the superstar, begins strong, then starts to trail off becoming as close to biopic territory as the film comes. The fact that Dylan never was a movie star helps these parts of the movie keep it’s freshness. In a beautifully shot scene using mirror upon mirror until we don’t know if the people we’re looking at are the real actors or reflections of them, he meets his future wife. The interesting thing is that it’s not so much his unbridled infidelities that pushes her away, but his outspoken opinions. In an era in which opinions seemed to hold more weight than a bullet his words are catastrophic.

Even more so when Christian Bale turns on the African American community, who happen to be offering him an award, and says something on camera very politically incorrect. It reminded me of Mel Gibson’s outburst at the Jewish population. Though following the frame work of Haynes’s vision it continues to be about a man not wanting to be pigeon holed by a community, a man who doesn’t want to be told who he is.

So it only makes sense that a woman play him as well. Many people are toting Blanchette as the best thing in the film. They certainly aren’t wrong, but to single her out from Bale and Ben Winshaw is not seeing the entire picture. In this film more than any other each actor, while only two share screen time for a brief moment, can’t exist without the essence of the other actors, that’s how well co joined the ideas are through out the film. Blanchette is the difficult one, always on edge, always strung out, giving answers that aren’t what people want to hear – she’s the Dylan challenging the perception of who he is, elusive in her answers and decisions, and it’s brilliant of Haynes to cast her in this particular part.

They will talk about the film/Dylan as a poet/musician – focusing on his music and how Dylan felt about his music. I feel perhaps one comes to a greater understanding if they look at the film as a portrait of an artist, only because I felt it became more about not even Dylan, but also perhaps about Haynes, or any artist whose fear of being caged into what the audience thinks you are sends you down a career trajectory you may not want. Or whose anger at being trapped in a box of other’s truths keeps you from exploring as an artist. It takes a brave soul like Dylan and Haynes to not be afraid and find new soil to plant yourself in, regardless of what the critics, reporters and fans think.

In all of this the one thing that I do wonder is how much of this Todd Haynes relates to; to put someone, especially an artist into a box so that they are more easily digested. I wonder how much of this Haynes has encountered in his career thus far. I know many actors do, and writers. Whether the Interviewer is right or wrong about the “truth” of Dylan’s past he’s deflating the power of imagination that we all need to cling on to. Mythology makes the words or images of an artist that much stronger. It’s not theirs or our right to destroy that, because sometimes the “lies” of an artist are far more honest and meaningful than the”truth”. When the truth of the artist is already there, in his work. No questions need to be asked beyond that. I would say that after seeing this film Dylan would agree with the quote from Kurosawa above.

Haynes in an interview in Filmmaker Magazine spilled the beans on what each persona represents. It was a mistake to do so I think, regardless Haynes impressed me with this film, he’s broken out of that box I probably had him in as well. Many filmmakers use heavy handed techniques and stylizing in the first 30 minutes of their film but soon forget to keep the style there as the story continues. I always wonder why. Haynes doesn’t loose his footing and creates a world that, while may not tell me everything I need to know about Dylan’s life, it tells me enough about the man for me to leave satisfied and still be able to enjoy his music without wondering which girlfriend inspired him to write a certain – yawn! And let me ask if it’s “yawn” to cast David Cross as a famous poet? I think not.

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