Miracle of miracles, Todd Haynes, whose previous films, from the poisonous Poison (1991) to the deplorable Safe (1995), I’ve found obstreperously detestable, has, with I’m Not There, made a euphoric, insightful, at times buoyantly despairing, surrealist pastiche on the different stages of and permutations within an artist’s career. Tossing away the shackles of a standard biopic, Haynes summons up moods and images from Fellini’s 8½ and The White Sheik to create a work that’s all the more astounding for being inspired by Bob Dylan, a musician for whom I’ve never had strong feelings one way or the other. If the movie isn’t quite a masterpiece, it rises so perilously, joyously close that I have no choice but to fall at its feet in bedazzlement.
It’s the filmmaking that matters foremost in I’m Not There, the cinematic sleight-of-hand with which Haynes, his co-scenarist Oren Moverman, cinematographer Edward Lachman, and editor Jay Rabinowitz shift and shape the fables and myths swirling around six personae modeled on Dylan. The movie’s centerpiece may be the midpoint performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at a New England folk festival. This Dylan, named Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett, in a wonderfully disfiguring black wig) marks the transition from the singer’s acoustic phase to the electric. A close-up montage of fingers snapping open locks on guitar cases cuts to a wide-angle shot of the Quinn band on-stage machine-gunning the gathered crowd — stunning visual shorthand for annihilating an audience’s expectations. Lachman photographs the Blanchett sequences in black and white, and I was even more impressed by the fluid camera movements, the tracking shots that suggest a conveyor belt of outraged fans, documenting across the length of the screen the sense of betrayal voiced by a row of festival-goers. Haynes positions them first in profile, then lines them up straight on, staring at (or slightly past) the camera almost accusingly. There’s near universal distaste for the new plugged-in “Dylan,” except for a lone vote of confidence from a supremely nerdy young man who blandly states, “I kind of like getting blasted out of my skin.” The scene becomes an ode not only to a performer willing to risk alienating his champions, but to the bemused contrarian who, in this case, surely must be a surrogate for Haynes. And then the way the director leaves them all standing there facing forward as a poppy, insouciant music cue for the next reel arrives ahead of itself — it’s mise-en-scène as playfully majestic as it is purely fun.
A bit later, in the mod London milieu of the mid-1960s, there’s an extended outdoor passage of Quinn (late for a BBC interview because he/she has been inhaling helium with the Beatles) dodging insanely persistent fans and an indefatigably controlling publicist with the same impassive disdain. What Lachman, Haynes, Blanchett, and the other actors achieve here is nothing less than to merge the aforementioned Fellini influence with images that recall Woody Allen’s great neglected film Stardust Memories — an homage to an homage, in other words. (The tip of the hat to Stardust Memories becomes that much more apparent when Blanchett yells at a sculpture of Christ on the Cross, “Why don’t you do your early stuff?”) In the writing, especially when a fantasy figure symbolizing Quinn’s lost love Coco Rivington (an unrecognizable Michelle Williams) pops up in the park’s forest to the tune of a music box harpsichord, there’s more than a suggestion of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland madness, as refracted through a filter or two of Juliet of the Spirits. Blanchett channels some of the masterful indifference to her surroundings that Judy Davis has often used. Nowhere is her underplaying stronger than in her strolling promenade along two wholly dissimilar admirers: a veiled, middle-aged woman of considerable girth, side-by-side with another of Haynes’s engagingly geeky anti-heroes, a vociferous young man who’s memorized every song lyric and arcane fact of his idol’s career, and who can argue authoritatively as to whether a former Quinn associate was indeed named Sonny or Sammy. (Emmanuel Schwartz is a standout in this small part.)
The film has five other Bob Dylans, among them a pleasingly funny Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, who represents the early, folkie troubadour; Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark, an actor who personifies Rollins in a movie-within-the-movie, Grain of Sand; and a black 11-year-old who insists on calling himself Woody Guthrie (winningly played in a natural, unforced turn by Marcus Carl Franklin).
Bale — when did he last have the chance to do light comedy? — nails Dylan’s halting, staccato speech rhythms. He’s particularly good in a scene referred to by Julianne Moore’s Alice Fabian (more about her anon) as “the fiasco at the Civil Liberties Union,” in which Rollins drunkenly prattles at a formal dinner, “It took me a long time to get young, and now I consider myself young.” One of Haynes’s bravura touches consists of leaping between Bale’s self-consciously ill-at-ease Rollins and Ledger’s twangy buck caricature of Rollins in the youth exploitation picture Grain of Sand. “How are you ever gonna change anything,” Ledger/Rollins asks, “if you only show what’s pretty?” a line that harks back to Malcolm McDowell’s choreographer in Altman’s The Company, berating his corps de ballet with, “Babies, you know how I hate pretty!” Haynes cuts Bale’s footage around the recollections of Moore’s ex-folkie Fabian (based on Joan Baez, a friend tells me). Moore, who has had few, if any, good roles since she last worked with Haynes in the well-acted, yet largely unsatisfying Far From Heaven, plays her entire part speaking to an unseen interviewer; be that as it may, she holds the screen with such authority it hardly matters she’s out there on her own. Furthermore, Haynes’s coincidental, almost subliminal folkie parodies are much funnier than anything in Christopher Guest’s leaden A Mighty Wind. These scenes succeed, I think, because Haynes, Moore, and Bale serve up spoof and sincerity in equal measures.
The movie’s heart belongs to Marcus Carl Franklin’s “Woody.” Like Bale’s Rollins, the boxcar-hopping runaway Woody pines nostalgically for 1930s Depression-era music. (Haynes includes a shot of Franklin cradling a Leadbelly LP.) The year of Woody’s tramping about America, however, is 1959, and everywhere he’s viewed as an anachronism. There’s a short, sweet take of Franklin singing “Tombstone Blues” with two older black men, one of them the white-bearded Richie Havens, on a front porch somewhere in the deep south — had the movie more footage like this, I’d call I’m Not There an ideal holiday musical. Briefly taken in by this family, Woody confounds his hosts with a bluesy suppertime spiel on unionization; there’s a poignant cutaway to how bored the other children at the table look (are they also cowed by their peer’s eloquence?) and the mother (a lovely Kim Roberts), more concerned with race riots than casting a burnished glow over the past, challenges her young guest: “Sing about your own time, child.” It’s in this sequence that Haynes’s conceit of having six different Dylans first makes perfect sense. Franklin’s prematurely wise Woody stands for the beginning artist who will soon outgrow (perhaps) his early influences and pretensions, the imitation of those he admires being a necessary step towards finding his own way. But how we will miss that earnest innocent.
The boxcars, their dingy interiors beautifully lit, show off Haynes’s love of texture. In the photograph of Franklin at the top of this page, you can see the gorgeousness of the decay — the scratched, corroded mosaic of gray-green. In one superbly framed shot, Haynes and Lachman give us three-fourths of the static boxcar walls, while on the end right quarter of the frame lush, sun-dappled green fields go by as the train is in motion. Haynes uses the boxcars to span the arc of his interlocking scenarios. At the beginning of the film, Franklin urgently runs across fields to hop aboard; near the end, the eldest of the Dylan surrogates, a long-lived Billy the Kid embodied by Richard Gere, stands from the perspective of the boxcar looking out at that green world too hurriedly tracking past. The parallel, need I add, is magnificent.
There isn’t a less than fully realized piece of acting anywhere in this large ensemble. Haynes’s direction has grown so assured that he even draws a good performance from the normally dreadful Charlotte Gainsbourg, whom I last despised in Emanuele Crialese’s moribund Golden Door. Gainsbourg has the good fortune to play most of her scenes opposite Ledger; he’s so damn good, he makes her good. He’s so sexy; he makes her sexy. The scenes between them are among the most sharply observed in the Haynes/Moverman screenplay — a map of a relationship from infatuated beginning to bitter end.
As a prelude to the couple’s trajectory, Haynes elides a sequence of one character disappearing inside a fantastically fake puppet whale into another’s altogether different kind of watery submergence. A woman’s bony hand extends upward, superimposed over depths of the sea, then the filmmaker cuts to an aerial shot of a compartmentalized kitchen sink, looking straight down into dishes washed and suds draining. It’s a great entrance that he gives Gainsbourg’s Claire, an abstract expressionist painter whose dense impasto canvases (in real life, the work of Odette Gavreau) have the stark, earthy power of hand-built clay. Claire appears in the doorway to her living room, surrounded by these dark tableaux, including one that prominently bears the word “CONG,” as the sound of Richard M. Nixon’s voice streaming from a television holds her in sway: he’s announcing the end of the Vietnam War.
The movie flashbacks to 1964, to Claire’s courtship with Robbie Clark, whom she spies on a movie set. From the giddy initial glances Ledger and Gainsbourg steal at each other, to their first date (lighting cigarettes in a café), to that first playful frolic in the hay (set to Dylan’s jangling ballad, “Honey, I Want You”), every detail of being a couple feels exactly right. From their big small talk about “the center of your universe” to the natural realism that defines an ordinary day at home (she daubs away at a new painting, he shirtlessly smokes Camels on the sofa in his reading glasses), Ledger and Gainsbourg make their acts of invention effortless. And Haynes is a little bit in love with their being in love: when they leave the café, his camera voyeuristically peers out at them from an upstairs window, looking at them through a long lens as Claire and Robbie hug on a sidewalk corner across the street, the crisp, pale city light expanding around their embrace.
I could go on singing about Haynes’s Dylan (likely to be of greater fascination than the real Dylan), yet I’ve taken enough choruses already. Suffice to say, there’s more to I’m Not There than I’ve alluded to here. There are some marvelously mixed-up time and space shifting perspectives between Gere and Gainsbourg where you can’t be quite sure who’s hallucinating, yet the adumbrative imagery has its own internal logic. Musically, two of the best performances surface near the very end: the red-haired Jim James, from the band My Morning Jacket, appears as a Civil War-era funeral singer, ethereally quavering “Goin’ To Acapulco” amidst an assembly of trumpet players. Equally inspired, the final credits crawl to a sparse arrangement of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” in which a guitar twangs at slow, wide intervals against the clear, countertenor range of Antony Hegarty. The suggestive mood cast by this song imbibes religion and seduction all at once, a not unfitting anthem for a sixties fantasy.
November 22-23, 2007