Australian politics, society & culture

Let the Bird Sing, Let the Bird Fly

Todd Haynes’s ‘I’m Not There’

Luke Davies

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In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary about Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg speaks of that time in the early '60s when he first sat up and took notice of Dylan as a cultural and spiritual phenomenon. "What struck me," says Ginsberg, "was that he was at one with ... his breath, and that [he] had become a column of air, so to speak ... He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman, with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath." Dylan tends to leave people cold or elicit that kind of response. Shamanism aside, what Ginsberg was responding to was that indisputable quality in Dylan which made his voice stand out so clearly above the white noise that was the pop, and the culture, of the '60s - that golden era which was meant to change the world.

It didn't, really. Music was the sphere of love, but now we have American Idol and Britney Spears and a universe of too-smooth R&B. The bland rules the airwaves. But we still have Bob Dylan, now 66 years old. He has released around 40 albums; acted in one good film (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) and a number of bad ones (Hearts of Fire, anybody?); written a ‘novel' (the of-its-time Tarantula); inexplicably turned up, playing himself, in an episode of Dharma & Greg; famously been a recluse; never suffered fools, gladly or otherwise; and, most recently, worked as a DJ (The Bob Dylan Radio Hour, on Sirius Satellite Radio) and appeared in ads for Victoria's Secret lingerie and Cadillacs. He may not be a shaman, yet he is certainly a shape-shifter.

It's this elusive, slippery Dylan that Todd Haynes attempts to give form to in I'm Not There (released nationally on 26 December), a beautiful failure of a film that is, as we are informed at the outset, "inspired by the music and many lives" of the artist. Like a mad scientist, Haynes has created a monster that is almost, but not quite, right. The film has the ungainly lurch of Frankenstein's monster, flailing and scaring the villagers, yet it has that creature's enormous mixed-up heart, too. There's so much to love in it, but much also that is unintentionally comical and inadvertently pretentious - as opposed to free-wheelingly hip, which would seem to be the actual intention. Of course, it is exceedingly pleasant to be washed over by wave after wave of fine Dylan songs imaginatively transplanted to cinema. Like Velvet Goldmine (1998), an earlier noble Haynes failure, a Bowie-and-Pop-influenced attempt to dramatise the glam-rock era, I'm Not There is filled with moments of brilliance. Like Velvet Goldmine, it doesn't all hold together, but in a different sense. Velvet Goldmine is a dog's breakfast, dramatically incoherent but essentially an unsuccessful attempt at a linear narrative. I'm Not There doesn't even bother to play that game. It is a form of prefab imagism and so, in a certain way, it does hold together, for there is method in the madness, once you know the ground rules.

These are: Dylan, one of the great cultural and artistic figures of the times, changing or otherwise, is also one of the great chameleons. He's a man who defies attempts to chart his career in a logical forward movement. Why try to make such a person's life fit into a standard format? Clearly, the thinking goes, a Walk the Line approach won't work here. (As a Dylan tragic, though, part of me was yearning for exactly that.) So Haynes has cast six different actors to play what amounts to different aspects of Dylan through his life. How does it come off? Well, the brilliance outweighs the frustration, if you are prepared to let go and put up with some stupidity.

A 12-year-old black actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, plays a character who calls himself Woody, a version of the Dylan who first arrived in New York in 1961 acting out a depression-era hobo fantasy (that is, Woody Guthrie). In this seemingly wacky piece of casting, Haynes has made a successful choice, capturing both the character's self-belief and the audacity of his fibs. This is Dylan the fabulist, inventing, as the real Dylan did, those stories of having joined the circus in Gallup, New Mexico, or of having learned his songs from blind old blues men. There is something celebratory, in Haynes's version, about the improbability of these vagabond tales. In real life, for a while, a lot of people bought them. (Some of them, notably the musician Dave Van Ronk, talk about this self-deprecatingly in the Scorsese documentary, which is a stunning and compelling film in comparison to this one, as fiction seems to be no match for the real thing when it comes to Dylan.) Here, as in so many other places, the Haynes film is peppered with joyful moments, such as Franklin and Richie Havens on a porch singing ‘Tombstone Blues', or Franklin playing, in the living room of a middle-class white couple who seem to have adopted him, the sublime ‘When the Ship Comes In'.

In almost all of these Dylans, something pertinent and true is offered which advances the story. This is biopic as kaleidoscopic poem rather than historical interpretation. In the first section there is a moment when young Woody holds court at the Sunday lunch of a black Southern family, where everybody, spellbound kids included, seems entranced by his elaborate tales of hobo freedom - all except the mother, who sees right through him. "Live your own time, child," she gently chides him. "Sing about your own time." Here, so neatly dramatised, is that shift between the self-invented bygone-era Dylan of his great first album and the social-conscience Dylan of the next few albums: the shift from ‘Song to Woody' to ‘The Times They are a-Changin'' and finally ‘Like a Rolling Stone'.

The second and possibly least successful of the Dylans is Ben Whishaw as Arthur, as in the French poet Rimbaud, whose entire contribution seems to be snippets from a news conference, or rather an FBI-like interrogation which is framed like a news conference, throughout which he is systematically and cryptically mumbling - just as the real Dylan did during his Rimbaud phase.

Christian Bale, for his part, is Jack, a singer of protest songs, a serious young man bemused by the acclaim who turns his back on it all and becomes a recluse at the peak of his success. "All they want from me is finger-pointing songs," he says. "And I only got ten fingers." Bale does not take up much screen time, but is fine and concise in his scenes. Later, in a riff on Dylan's flirtation with Christianity, Jack has become a Pentecostal preacher, shyly mumbling in an interview: "All things are passed away. All things are near. It doesn't matter what I did before." In one of the film's magical scenes, Jack the preacher, with his slight paunch, sings ‘Pressing On', a gospel-style number, to a motley congregation: "I'm pressin' on, to the higher calling of my Lord." Bale, channelling Nick Cave, beautifully captures how Dylan, had he ever gone down this path, would have remained a consummate showman, even in a Baptist church with an audience of 20.

The fourth Dylan is Heath Ledger, looking the part but having to cope with a half-baked script. Just to confuse matters, Ledger plays not a singer but an actor, Robbie, who first made it big playing Jack, the Christian Bale character who turned his back on fame. The segment is Haynes's attempt to cover Dylan the recluse: hiding in upstate New York after the famous motorbike crash of '66, marriage to Sara, children, infidelity, divorce in the '70s. All this swathe of real life, which famously made its way into that fine album of bewilderment and pain, Blood On the Tracks - Ledger is the spitting image of the bearded Dylan on that album cover, too - is anaemically and unsatisfyingly compressed in I'm Not There.

Something is made of the Vietnam era ("the war that hung like a shadow over the same nine years as their marriage"), but the effect of Haynes's directorial incoherence here is to leave us deeply unengaged with the characters' inner lives. Fragments from a disintegrating marriage, with Nixon and napalm on TV in the background, don't add up to a satisfying story when there is no dramatic centre to the relationship in the first place. Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing Ledger's wife, appears not to have a clue what she is supposed to be doing. Ledger, though, captures something of Dylan's cynicism, his resistance to fame and to being pigeonholed as a "spokesperson". "There are no politics," he says, to which his friend replies, "Well, what the fuck is there?" "Sign language."

Haynes is in far better territory when he's investigating Dylan the prankster, that elfin and other-worldly figure seen in DA Pennebaker's 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, as well as in No Direction Home, who burst upon the scene having shed his folk earnestness, going electric at the '65 Newport Folk Festival and then heading off to Europe, where he was famously booed all over England. Cate Blanchett is marvellous as Jude Quinn, the Dylan of this period and that tour in particular. Haynes has said he wanted to cast a woman to give a sense of the utter strangeness of this androgynous enigma, with his pale skin and shock of wild black hair, who came under such intense media focus and who fascinated and repelled a world used to less-challenging entertainment. Blanchett plays Dylan as an amphetamine-driven (driven to distraction, in fact) Pierrot figure, mischievously embracing the chaos unfolding around him. "Sorry for everything I've done," Quinn says to a reporter at a British airport, "and I hope to remedy it soon." To another reporter he snaps, "Who said I was sincere?" Blanchett seems to be having a ball portraying Dylan's delight at his game-playing with press and fans alike. She becomes the strong centre of the film, and the best thing about it.

Blanchett brings dignity to roles both small and big. Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most challenging of the latter: an actor must decide how to create the flesh and bones of such a major historical figure without relying on pomp and cliché. Blanchett is good in Elizabeth (1998), a good costume drama, and good also in its recent sequel, The Golden Age, a surprisingly bad one. It's hard to fathom that these two films come from the same director. One is a taut historical drama; the other, all goodies and baddies, looks like an Elizabethan-themed fashion show designed by Donatella Versace, with all its flaws covered up by music. Yet there in the middle is Blanchett, making the most of a difficult situation. It is cheesy commercial fare, but she does things within it that are worth watching. She manages to take the line, "I have a hurricane inside me," and make us believe that yes, this character really does - and that so, no doubt, does Blanchett. For many actors, you know that the closest you'll come to a hurricane is the mighty wind of self-obsession and ambition; in Blanchett, you sense danger and power.

Similarly, in Ron Howard's surprisingly brutal The Missing (2003), she plays a frontier woman who undergoes a terrible ordeal in searching for her child, who has been kidnapped by slave-trading Navaho. It's an against-all-odds story, as well as a tale of a prodigal father, and in her character Blanchett seamlessly blends the desperate mother with the wounded, abandoned daughter. At the beginning, when Tommy Lee Jones appears, the expression on Blanchett's face is so intense - a shocked, cheek-burning recognition - that even though we don't yet have a clue what that recognition is about, we know instantly it will be a central energy sustaining the narrative. (Jones, we soon discover, is Blanchett's estranged father.) It is as if her character's back-story is, as in the Borges story, a map of the world that is the size of the world. Her anger for her long-departed father has become a kind of generalised rage; how that will be transmuted through the film is a story we want to follow.

In I'm Not There, her Dylan actually draws energy inwards, creating a split between the failed Haynes film and the successful Blanchett mini-film. She does likewise in Jim Jarmusch's stilted and ridiculous 2003 film, Coffee and Cigarettes (which is otherwise worth seeing only for the hilarious little piece with Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan). Blanchett plays both a successful actor, Cate, who is doing a press junket in a swish hotel, and her scrubber cousin Shelly, who has come to visit her famous relative in the lobby. Shelly's prickly jealousy and passive-aggressive compliments don't come across as Blanchett slumming it. A notch less self-esteem, a failure at the acting-school audition, a worse case of acne, a stint with foster parents, a shoplifting charge, a little too much drinking: any event could have snowballed, and Cate could have been Shelly. Good actors have cunning, but great actors have compassion. "I'm practically broke, but I'm completely free," says Shelly, and we feel for her because we don't believe it. "No one's stalking me, that's for fuckin' sure."

Blanchett brings that verve and intuition to her section of I'm Not There, capturing so well the first huge reinvention in Dylan's public life. "I think he's evil," says a disgruntled girl in a vox pop after the famous electric gig. "And we were his biggest fans," her friend adds bitterly. But a pimply boy chimes in: "I kind of like getting blasted out of my skin." There, in a single line, is the shape of things to come.

Elsewhere, Haynes's film becomes opaque: Richard Gere's Dylan, for instance, left me flummoxed. Better Dylanologists might know what's going on. He is perhaps a parallel Dylan, the grown-up version of Woody the fabulist from the beginning of the film, the wanderer from ‘Tangled Up in Blue' or ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' working in a surreal and vanishing Old West. (He is in the town of Riddle, apparently: the town that Woody mentioned at the start. It looks like Deadwood on acid.) An inscrutable minor character named Homer is wearing the costume that Dylan wore, from memory, as the inscrutable minor character Alias in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, just to make everything self-referential. Dylan tragics will also recognise occasional fragments from songs threaded into the actual dialogue, though this device comes across as a touch naff. The look here is Basement Tapes taken from record-cover art to motion picture. It is shot beautifully, wandering giraffes included, with a sense of apocalyptic melancholy. It includes my favourite moment in the film: Jim James and Calexico singing a spine-tingling version of ‘Goin' to Acapulco'.

Even when confusing, this film is audacious. It's the alternative-universes theory: you take a single step in one direction, through a single door, and immediately the infinite number of other doors close. (Think of Cate and Shelly in Coffee and Cigarettes.) For every step that follows, the same thing happens: an infinite number of scenarios is possible, and then the next moment they are gone and a new infinity opens up. The possible keeps narrowing down to the actual. The Dylan we have is the only one we've got. But what if he had died in that motorbike crash? What if he had stopped playing? What if he stayed a born-again Christian and become a preacher?

If you're not into Dylan you probably won't like this endeavour, or see the point of it; if you are into him, you still may not like it. And I'm Not There would be utterly incomprehensible if you knew nothing of the Dylan story, in the same way that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ would be incomprehensible if you knew nothing of the Jesus story. It's unlikely, in any case, that I'm Not There will make you a Dylan fan if you are not one already. On the other hand, the Scorsese documentary could be a conversion experience: there are those for whom Dylan has always been a foreign country and who finally, upon seeing No Direction Home, want to get a visa for that country.

It's hard to be too ungenerous with a film that gives so much delight. It continually loses its way, then comes back to interesting places. But it definitely disintegrates, and the early promise is not borne out as it descends into the ridiculous and begins to swing too often between the turgid and the brilliant. By two-thirds through it has lost the plot, literally and figuratively, and I grew restless. In the end, it seemed possessed by the indulgent spirit of the rarely seen Renaldo and Clara, the strange mess of a film that Dylan put together around the time of the famed Rolling Thunder tour of '75. These days, Dylan obsessives have uploaded Renaldo and Clara to YouTube, in five-minute clips, so if you've the stamina you can get a sense of that indulgence.

Like Renaldo and Clara, I'm Not There may ultimately be a curiosity, yet you cannot ignore its rollicking energy. It's an encyclopaedic poem of all that Bob Dylan passed through, in grand sweeps, over two decades. Its poetic licence is broad, but that is made up for in exuberance. Dylan is impossible to pin down, and Todd Haynes - with Blanchett as his anchor - has waded in fearlessly. "It's like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room," says the Richard Gere character, and that's a good way of looking at this film. "There's no telling what can happen."

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed and Totem, the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004.
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Published in The Monthly, December 2007 - January 2008, No. 30