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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

I’m Not There (review)

You Are There

He’s not there. Bob Dylan isn’t there. They tell us that right in the title: I’m Not There. Cuz you can’t pin him down — he’s an enigma, man. What we have instead are coulda-beens, mighta-beens, alternate universes, truths told in jest, a yellow-brick-road journey of you-were-theres, and you, and you, and the yous are all us. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven) steps aside to let us bring what we will to the many dimensions of a man who is all about what he is to us.
I don’t know much about Bob Dylan, honestly, beyond the odd song or two on the radio in the background, and the looming Bob Dylan-ness of his influence stretching over, you know, pretty much everything in modern pop culture, or at least in modern pop music. I’ve heard serious Dylan devotees say things like, “Well, if you love Dylan, you’ll get the movie, but no one else will.” But I can attest that that’s not true. Oh, I’m sure there are many references to Dylan’s life and music and wisdom and poetry and demigodliness that went right over my head, but I relished There’s challenging meditation on fame, creativity, on larger-than-life personality, and on whether pop culture can be ever be art, or art pop culture. It’s hard to imagine anyone who likes to think about the honest lies of movies or the strange illusions of celebrity who won’t find this an endlessly provocative experience.

There’s no “character” named Bob Dylan here. There are six different characters with different names who metaphorically represent aspects of Dylan’s career and work — the one who would be most recognizably Bob Dylan-ish to most people is, ironically, the Beatlemania-era rock star “Jude,” played by Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Notes on a Scandal) in another of her chameleon-like performances. But some of those metaphors are also what-ifs. What if Dylan really were the Dust Bowl-dusty traveling troubadour (played, in even more daring casting than Blanchett’s, by 11-year-old — and black — Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody”) he fancied himself? What if Dylan never moved on, musically, from the folky, angry young Greenwich Village artiste (Christian Bale [3:10 to Yuma, The Prestige] plays “Jack”) he started out as? (And where might he go, nonmusically, from there?) What if he’d been a movie star instead of a rock star during the cultural upheaval of the Sixties (Heath Ledger’s [Candy, Casanova] “Robbie”)? It’s as if we’re getting a peek into the deep and profound heart of fate: Dylan was always destined for greatness, of one kind or another, because what he had to say collided with the right moment in time when eager ears were ready to hear it. The universe, in all its many parallel expressions, loves Dylan.

Or maybe not. Another alterna-Dylan is “Arthur” (Ben Whishaw), a radical philosopher-poet defending himself before an unseen tribunal against unknown offenses. But he speaks directly to the camera — he speaks directly to us. We, all of us in the world who decide whom we’ll make famous and for what, are his judges, and there’s little he can do about that. “Never create anything,” Arthur tells us with a unruffled shrug, “it’ll be misinterpreted.” The judging isn’t always kind: the final and perhaps most allegorical Dylan is “Billy” (Richard Gere: The Hunting Party, Shall We Dance?), an outlaw in hiding from a world that won’t let him rest, but doesn’t look kindly on him when it finds him. Apparently, Dylan’s continuing experimentation with his own music on his current “Never Ending Tour” has left some fans less than pleased.

Dylan changes. He morphs. We all do, and the options for the directions we might take are many… but we don’t have the world watching with a critical eye. Robbie the actor shoots to fame in a biopic of Jack the folk musician: celebrities play themselves on the stage of the world. Jude the rock star (along with David Cross as poet Allen Ginsberg) chats with the crucified Jesus, pop star to pop star: each with their own burden of expectation to bear. “You never know how the past will turn out,” Jude quips, and that’s it, right there: the past is turning into something new right before our eyes, right here, as Todd Haynes, and the rest of us all, reexamine it and reshape it into something it may never have been.

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MPAA: rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • I saw this movie today and adored it. It’s basically a 2 hour long art film with great acting and high production values. Blanchett is the BEST, but I also liked Michelle Williams short bit as a model that “the icon” had a fling with.

    I’m a moderate Dylan fan, and liked the use of the music in the film. It was kind of ironic that everyone who covered Dylan in this movie sang better than Dylan does – his nasalness has always bugged me.

    I was most confused by the Billy the Kid stuff, but when I checked IMDB when I got home, I found Dylan had once scored a movie about Billy the Kid. I suspect I missed other things in the movie due to my lack of minute knowledge on Dylan.

    I did think Todd Haynes missed a bet by not showing the famous introduction of pot to the Beatles by Dylan. Instead, Haynes seemed to clip a short bit from Help, with The Beatles in dark gray suits somersaulting into frame briefly.

  • MaryAnn

    I was most confused by the Billy the Kid stuff, but when I checked IMDB when I got home, I found Dylan had once scored a movie about Billy the Kid.

    I was confused at first about the Billy the Kid stuff, but I didn’t learn about his Billy score until after I had decided that I like the Billy stuff: it was Dylan as an outlaw and outcast, someone whose talents didn’t mesh with respectable society.

  • A Guy

    “…after I had decided that I like the Billy stuff.”

    For me, that sums up why most people who claim to like the movie like the movie. They decided to. (For whatever reason, mostly to be cool, I suspect.)

    Yes, Kate Blanchett was great. Yes, the music was great. But that was a very, very boring movie. One could randomly reorder the scenes and not damage the narrative flow, because there was no narrative flow.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not like I hated the Billy stuff at first, I just didn’t get how it fit into the larger themes. But I didn’t get it in a way that was not unpleasant.

    I like it, sometimes, when I need to think about what a movie is saying before I decide if it works or not.

  • Oh, Maryann, just admit that A Guy nailed you with that one, and you’re only pretending to like this movie to be cool.

  • MBI

    “just admit that A Guy nailed you with that one”

    Bullshit he did.

  • MaryAnn

    Okay, okay: I only said I liked this movie so I would look cool. I actually hated it, and thought it was stupid.

    Also, Todd Haynes’ mother is a hamster, and his father smells of elderberries.

    Oh, and Kate Blanchett only uses that “C” in her name to look cool. But we’re not fooled.

  • Jurgan

    MBI: Do I really need to use sarcasm tags on this site, of all places?

  • Sabeen

    It’s ridiculous to suggest that MaryAnn would write a glowing review to “be cool”. She is obviously not faking her enjoyment of the film.

    That said, I am somewhat in agreement with A Guy’s suspicion that, given the nature of Dylan’s fame, much of what people liked about this film may have been brought to—rather than found on—the screen.

    I’m a Dylan fan, but not a Fan (though I am a Todd Haynes Fan). And I agree that all the elements of the film were extremely well executed. But it didn’t translate into a very engaging experience for me. I too found the film to ultimately be “very, very boring”. Count me among those who think it’s primarily for Dylan Fans.

  • MaryAnn

    given the nature of Dylan’s fame, much of what people liked about this film may have been brought to—rather than found on—the screen.

    But that’s true of any movie based on any previously existing material.

    That said, I’ll repeat: I’m not a Dylan fan. Not a hater, but not a fan. And I still found the movie fascinating.

  • MBI

    “I was confused at first about the Billy the Kid stuff, but I didn’t learn about his Billy score until after I had decided that I like the Billy stuff: it was Dylan as an outlaw and outcast, someone whose talents didn’t mesh with respectable society.”

    I think you hit on the real reason the Billy the Kid stuff is in the movie; the stuff about his score for the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” makes a more pat answer, but that alone wouldn’t justify it being in the movie.

    To be honest, I think the standard musical biopic is boring as fuck (count me in as one of the twelve people who didn’t like “Walk the Line”), and I appreciate both the efforts of “I’m Not There” and “Walk Hard” to take it down a peg.

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