“I’m Not There,” a film by Todd Haynes

“I accept chaos. Does chaos accept me?” 

I’m Not There, a film by Todd Haynes

Guest reviewer, our friend, John Haas 
Blame it, I suppose, on Orson Wells. 
“Citizen Kane” (1941) has burned an insatiable hunger for that “Rosebud moment” onto the mental retinas of subsequent reviewers and audiences.  All “biopics” of artists, musicians, or writers (fictional or real) must have it, and any film that doesn’t is a failure.  (There’s no escaping this demand, by the way–not wanting to be a biopic in the first place is no excuse for these viewers.  In such cases the movie gets dismissed as “incomprehensible.”) 
Art isn’t enough for these people.  They want to know where it came from, what makes the artist tick.  They want illumination, revelation, the secret sources of the great man’s inspiration laid out on the table, cut open, dissected, the organs labeled and the pathologies identified.  They want to know the secret, and, by definition, the secret must be tawdry, Freudian, some ancient Arthurian wound that drives the artist to heal himself by healing the world.  In the end, their admiration for the artist is more than equal parts jealousy:  “Why couldn’t I create that?” knocks around in the back of their skull for decades, and what they want is to be shown how lucky they are not to be so gifted.  The “Rosebud moment” reveals the great man to be, at best, nothing but a scared little boy, at worst, a Humbert Humbert.
Never has any film flaunted its refusal to play this sordid ghoulish game as much as Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There.”  The title, it seems safe to say, wasn’t chosen at random.  Obsession being what it is, however, reviewers breeze right by it, waving their search-warrants around and, finding nothing to satisfy them, go negative.  One complains, for example, that the movie isn’t “Walk the Line,” or “Ray.”  “I felt that by the end I didn’t even know what the movie was about, or even if it had anything to do with Bob Dylan at all,” he says.  “I feel that Haynes should have at least given some insight into why this particular man became a legend as opposed to say, a truck driver.”  Clearly, he wants his Rosebud, and hints that what’s ultimately wrong with Haynes’s film is that it was made by Haynes, and not himself:  “I am a musician and a huge Dylan fan . . . a Dylan evangelist . . . true Dylan fans do, in fact, understand Dylan . . . it’s only the people who would never and will never understand Dylan that this movie was made for.”
You get the idea.  This species of Dylan-fan has been around for ages.  They, and they alone, know and appreciate the man.  They, and they alone, see into his essence.  They, and they alone, have divined the true meaning of his songs.  Creepy and boring all at once, a hipster-nemesis that haunts a million parties in a million guises, seeking victims too polite to tell him to take his stupid rant and stuff it.  For myself, I don’t claim to understand Dylan, but I know one thing:  He would absolutely hate this guy.
weberman.jpgThe smarter reviewers have learned to hide their obsession.  “So what if nothing is revealed,” shrugs Peter Travers in Rolling Stone, as if he’s fooling anyone.  “But does the film help us get closer to Dylan?” Jean Bethke Elshtain demands, eyes widening and voice rising, in Books & Culture.  Realizing that her desire to “get closer,” besides being intellectually dubious, also borders on creepdom, she immediately back-pedals:  “Does it draw us closer to the sources of his inspiration?”  Oh, you just want to know the sources, you good dispassionate scholar you!  Someone please give the poor thing a copy of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”
Several reviewers have confessed to knowing nothing about Dylan but loving this movie anyway.  These people are, invariably, well-versed in film history, and given that Haynes is not only constructing a kaleidescopic meditation on the artist in question, but does so while simultaneously paying brilliant and witty respect to some of the 1960s’ most singular directors, that makes sense.  In other words, while the film is gorgeous at numerous levels, and can be enjoyed at several of them, you do need to know something–about Dylan, as well as the art and politics of the sixties–to really get it.
Do you need to “get it” to make it worth it?  I don’t know.  It is beautiful.  The look is so lush, your senses just dissolve and merge with the images of trees, roads, corn, vines, light (natural and artificial), pottery, the city, cars (in primary colors in one striking scene), fashion, art and so on.  Then there’s the music, of course.  Much of it is covers, most just fine (and John Doe’s surprisingly passionate version of the born-again classic, “Pressing On,” is amazing) but Haynes, like Dylan himself, seems to love “that thin, that wild, mercury sound” captured only once, on 1966’s “Blonde on Blonde,” and the most leisurely and arresting musical moments are when “Memphis Blues Again,” “I Want You,” “Temporary Like Achilles,” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” each shove the imagery aside and take your ears and mind hostage for a few minutes of aural ecstasy.
Visually, Haynes has done his homework brilliantly.  There are dozens, hundreds, of references major and minor to the iconography of the sixties (especially):  the Paris peace talks, the death of hippie (child of media), LBJ mouthing the lines “death to all those who would whimper and cry . . . the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken” (we knew it was him all along), a tarantula crawling around on the walls (reminding you of Andy Warhol’s Factory “happenings” with movies projected on the walls and the party-goers, and also of Dylan’s mid-sixties novel, Tarantula–the first novel to ever be bootlegged), and on and on, but he also recreates the fashion, faces, make-up, expressions, etc., of the numerous nobodies that populated the photography of LIFE and other venues.  It’s all very rich, surprising, and even overwhelming.  These references feel less like the “how-cool-am-I?” indulgences of the cognoscenti than merely, and honestly, affectionate. 
Still, these details are indeed very cool, in the best sense of the word.  Pastor Jack/Dylan has stepped right off the stage of Saturday Night Live in 1979, capturing perfectly the weird, shuffling, unshaven, eye-avoiding insecurity of the original down to the bizarre polyester K-Mart jacket.  Haynes even knows that it was the monster Memphis session man, Spooner Oldham, who was playing keyboards in that band, and he finds an actor who not only looks like him but apes that musician’s famously laconic neuroses, too.  I didn’t get the sense Haynes was trying to impress me, so much as entertain me.  Cynics will have a different view, I’ll bet.  But if you know your “Renaldo & Clara” you’ll note the angle of the horse’s head in the “Mr. B.” scene (as well as B.’s dog, which resembles one of Dylan’s); if you know “Eat the Document,” “Masked & Anonymous,” and the 1965 San Francisco Press Conference and the bootlegged out-takes of Dylan and John Lennon in a London limo, you’ll see all those and much more (the infamous vomit scene from the latter out-take gets merged with George H. W. Bush’s episode in Japan–if you know what I’m talking about, you can guess what happens).
The important women in Dylan’s life–Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick, Sara Lowndes–aren’t neglected.  The Joan Baez character (played knowingly by Julianne Moore) drops in straight out of No Direction Homecalling Dylan a “twerp” and a “toad” and you see and hear the amazement, resentment, and gratitude mixed up in her reaction to his song-writing skills.  Lines are lifted from classic and little-known interviews, from the early sixties to the (again, bootlegged) 2001 Rome interview.  Liner notes, too–“Eleven Outlined Epitaphs,” anyone?–get their due.  None of this came across as forced or artificial to me.  That it all flows, and reasonably coherently, is an impressive achievement in itself.  I sincerely doubt I got them all; I know I didn’t get all the film references.  The Fellini homage is obvious, appropriate, and very funny.  I think I got the French New Wave.  And then–one wants to say “of course!”–there’s a crucial invocation to that most “sixties” of sixties movies.  Amazingly, no one seems to have noticed it yet.
Roger Ebert has been trashing Dylan for decades.  He’s confessed his animus derives from a personal dislike for the top-of-the-world-24-year-old-millionaire-beatnik-idol-terrorist of Don’t Look Back.  (Dylan was such a famously difficult interview in those days that TIME Magazine sent a reporter whose credits included having interviewed Adolf Hitler.  Dylan was worse.)  Ebert confesses he had a “conversion” watching No Direction Home,which is nice, but his years in the wilderness have left him with debilitating lacunae.  He confesses, for example, to being “baffled by the Richard Gere cowboy sequence, which doesn’t seem to know its purpose.” 
Um, not exactly.  Had Ebert known, for example, that “I’m Not There” (the song) is among the obscurest of out-takes from the already uber-obscure un-released songs associated with the “Basement Tapes” . . .
. . . (the indescribable–Greil Marcus has tried and come as close as prose can, though it took him an entire book–recordings made by Dylan and the Band in Woodstock, NY, in 1967 as he recovered–from his motorcycle accident, from what he had become, from “the sixties” of Sedgwick, Warhol, Lennon, LBJ and all the rest) he might have picked up on the fact that this scene has “Basement Tapes” written all over it, and hence, might be, you know, kind of critical to our understanding of the whole film.
I first heard of “I’m Not There (1956)” long before I actually heard it, and that despite having been familiar with the unreleased music that would come to be known as “the basement tapes” long before they were so known.  (Warning:  We need to get down in the weeds for awhile here.)  These recordings were taped on a reel-to-reel by Dylan and his band largely for their own use.  They saw light in 1969 as the first ever rock n’ roll bootleg, “Great White Wonder,” which featured twelve (out of the original 120 or so) songs offered as demos intended for other artists to record (they did:  the Byrds and Manfred Mann had hits with several).  The record hit #1, despite its illegality, in several critics polls, and in 1975 Dylan allowed them to be paired with music made by the Band for its unreleased first record, all of it officially seeing the light of Colombia Records’ day in a double album, “The Basement Tapes.” 
The artwork showed Dylan and his mates looking like psychedelicized river-boat gamblers cavorting with a host of circus-show freaks and oddities, all very redolent of that certain moment in the sixties when art spelled freedom from war and death and the soul-sickness that was permeating America, seeming to promise an exit, a way out to . . . well, the precise destination was a problem, fair point, but everyone knew what they wanted to “get away from.”  Thousands of young malcontents began digging beneath the floorboards of American culture, discovering a whole menagerie of neglected insights and figures and philosophies.  Individuals and groups started mining these veins, hoping for a motherload (of what?  redemption?  transcendence?  love?  meaning?  yes, all of that, and more–that was the sixties, after all) and discovering each other along the way, conspiring, retreating, huddling, betraying–all the usual things humans do in community.  And yes, the cover-art of the “Basement Tapes” says all that.  Trust me.
If you look for “I’m Not There (1956)” on the officially released Basement Tapes–you should have guessed this by now–it’s not there.  Despite the official release, there was bootlegging yet to be done in those hills.  Over the years, several more collections of songs appeared, some, a return to traditional folk songs, Child ballads, country songs, doo wop, others new compositions by Dylan, many of which can only be described as supremely unhinged.  Some of these songs are intensely personal and touching, a few are lame or boring, many are experimental or crazy or just plain stoned out of their gourds (it was the sixties, after all). 
And one or two of them leaps into the great beyond.  You don’t talk about those:  you listen, you watch them soar, you gasp.  These only saw the light decades after they were recorded, and are still only available on bootleg.  One of them, “Sign on the Cross,” is essential for any nosy spelunker intent on exploring the depths of Dylan’s religious formation. 
The other gives its title to this movie.
Paraphrasing now from Brian Morton’s novel, The Dylanist:  She had come to the party and, as always, looked for an unattractive, over-weight guy to talk with, so she wouldn’t have to worry about any complications.  These men were always amazed at her attention to them, which made them excited and voluble.  This one was describing his research in new more efficient desalinization techniques when the song on the stereo caught her ear.  “Listen,” she said, touching his arm and stopping him mid-lecture.  “This is the most beautiful song ever recorded.” 
That’s the first time I heard of “I’m Not There (1956).”  You can hear it in the movie. 
Back to that cowboy scene Ebert’s baffled by.  It’s the center of the film, and though the Blanchett/Jude Quinn/1966/Warhol/Beatles scenes are more entertaining, this is more important.  Gere is “Mr. B.” (as in Bonney, William–as in Billie the Kid) and he’s taken a proprietary interest in the town of Riddle, where, not coincidentally, all the residents look like refugees from the cover of the “Basement Tapes” and signs proclaim Biblical texts and Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic is undoubtedly the town charter.  Of course, B. doesn’t live in Riddle.  (Why “of course”?  Another obscure reference explains it.  Dylan, in concert on June 14, 1999 in Eugene Oregon:  “Hello Eugene,  I’d like to say hi to some of the old hippies, I’ve never been one myself, but I’m kind of an honorary hippie.”) 
But B.’s old nemesis has it in for Riddle.  He’s putting a six lane highway right over it, and everyone has to clear out.  This nemesis is the hectoring, badgering, hollow-man persecuting reporter of 1966, now morphed into an aged, crippled Pat Garrett.  OK, we get it:  Media, business, criminality–posing as “the law,” crushing all that is romantic, child-like, authentic, human.  It’s all quite conspiratorial in a typically sixtiesh-going-on-seventies, “Three Days of the Condor,” sort of way.  In “Masked & Anonymous” the obnoxious reporter is killed with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar (and Jack Fate/Dylan is framed for the crime).  Here, more realistically, the reporter/Garrett/power-that-is/establishment wins.  Riddle is plowed under.  Somewhere in the distance, Ronald Reagan slouches toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the scalps of napalmed Vietnamese children dangling from his saddle.  (For the actual tale behind all this, see Robert Shelton’s report of Dylan’s discussions with Al Aronowitz in the early ’70s, their fear of Nixon, and Dylan’s intentions to spark a counter-cultural resistance with his “Rolling Thunder Review.”  It was on that tour that Dylan first wore white-face, which appears in the Riddle scene when a band sings “Going to Acapulco”–also from the “Basement Tapes.”  Gere and Garret, by the way, are made up to look like they stepped out of Dylan’s Civil War-“Gods and Generals” video, highlighting the seriousness of the contest between the two men, while the hippies around them remain flummoxed and naive.  Maybe.)
Haynes doesn’t play this morality tale straight, however.  The scene begins with Mr. B. being awakened by his barking dog.  He steps outside, the light is ominous and grey, the wind blows, leaves float, there’s something mysterious and ominous going on, something hostile (or is it just a child playing Indian?) is in the woods, but it slinks from view as soon as you see it, and you realize, I’ve been here before.  A garden, a crime, a murder plot.  No, not Eden (though yes!, that too). 
It’s Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” that most “sixties” of sixties movies (released in 1966, the year of the Jude Quinn segment and the screams of “Judas!”) that’s being paid homage to now.  If ever there was a movie that was itself a riddle, “Blow-Up” is it.  (And by referencing such an ambiguous story–is there a crime or is he just paranoid?–Haynes removes his story from simple Noam Chomsky-ism.)
You never knew, in “Blow-Up,” if there really was a crime or if it was all in the photographer’s head.  David Hemmings thinks he sees something in his picture, but as he enlarges it, what he thought he saw disappears into the grain of the photo.  The closer he looks, the more indistinct it becomes, until the crime, the image, the answer he’s looking for–even the original self that embarked on this quest–is no longer there. 
(Hemmings disappears–literally–in the final shot of the film; earlier, he walks past a poster in a club with a drawing of a tombstone that reads: “Here lies Bob Dylan Passed Away Royal Albert Hall 27 May 1966 R.I.P.”)
Hemmings’ mod/mad photographer (before he’s no longer there, that is) is a very different person for having embarked on his quest, even if he has no answers in the end.  So, Haynes seems to be saying, is Dylan, and so is anyone who’s been drawn into his art and found themselves in Riddle as a result–the larger Republic of Riddle, that is, not just its momentary reflection in the USA of the 1960s.  Did you really think you’d find the answers to any questions worth asking in a movie about Bob Dylan?  As if, somewhere in a basement in Hibbing someone was tossing a map showing the way to the New Jerusalem in a furnace?  Or, maybe you’re not that naive.  Maybe you just want to “get closer” to Bob Dylan.  If so, this movie has a question for you:  Why?
I haven’t mentioned much the actors, acting, plots (such as they are), etc., but suffice it to say, they all work fine, and Cate Blanchett is everything they say she is.  See this movie on the big screen, if at all possible.  It’s a triumph.


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2 responses to ““I’m Not There,” a film by Todd Haynes

  1. ari

    Holy crap! That’s, like, an essay. But on a blog. And it’s really, really good.

  2. Pingback: 1692 in America « The Edge of the American West

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