The famously epigrammatic Jean-Luc Godard once asserted that the only real review of a movie would be to make another movie in reply. Todd Haynes, he of Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine and Safe, is no stranger to the European intellectual filmmaking tradition, nor to relentless citation and layering. Trying to write about Haynes’ new not-a-biopic of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, feels like trying to write footnotes to footnotes, a circular exercise that would wind even the fabulist likes of Jorge Luis Borges. Not only does I’m Not There (from a script co-written by Oren Moverman and shot by the great Ed Lachman) deal with the idea of celebrity since the middle of the 20th century, it also appropriates and repurposes big swaths of filmmaking history, from Fellini to Richard Lester to Sam Peckinpah to Robert Altman to D.A. Pennebaker to Contempt-era Godard. (And much more ….)
Plus there’s the interleaving of seven versions of who Dylan was taken to be in different eras of his career without naming the name that’s never spoken in the film. They range from a 12-year-old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin), to Heath Ledger as a movie star who’s upset after making a movie about a “Dylan” played by Christian Bale, and most extensively, a Don’t Look Back–era “Dylan” named Jude, played with great self-amusement by Cate Blanchett. The mighty Jude Quinn gets the hair and Wayfarers and gnomic mutterings and exclaiming right, as well as a splendid aphasia, haunted before the altar of meds and sleeplessness, like a prophet ready to drop in the desert.
Footnotes breed, allusions gather, but deeper meaning is a ghost sign or, in music journalist Greil Marcus’ construction amid the clusters of his decades of dogged Dylanology, an “invisible republic.” (In a 2006 Believer magazine interview, Marcus observed, Dylan “is so out there, and I don’t mean that in the vernacular sense. He is so out there in the territories,” referring to his incessant touring. Everywhere and nowhere.)
I’m Not There is a palimpsest (a manuscript of writing atop writing) – earlier language transformed by newer variation, a text of scribble-scrabble atop fever dream and solipsistic acting out, a kind of pop-cult graphomania, hyper-texting, evocative and pungent moments suggested by the lyrics and words of Dylan. Or shall we call Mr. Zimmerman “Dylan”? It’s a weave of Dylan–not Dylan, a conflagration of surrealist provocations, a blasted secular religiosity. The final image is furiously apt, suggesting a Dylan who needs not breathe to motor onward.
Earnest surrealism? Serial semiotics? While Haynes’ larger structure eschews the arcs of plot and pathos, within the smaller frames there’s enough emotion for a lifetime of soap operas. Sure, there’s collage, pastiche, psychologized-unauthorized autobiography, but also, as one character chants in a Western village, “an epic tale of blunder and despair,” incarnations of the American self, muttering at the bottom of their lungs. Even in the scenes not played by Blanchett, there’s femininity in the “Dylan” wiles; the movie is less a crisis of masculinity than of flurries in identity, as in, “Who am I this breath?”
The “Dylan” women, Haynes’ women, are to be loved – or as Blanchett’s Jude says, “I worship women. Everyone should have one.” The Blanchett-drogyny impresses, but Julianne Moore’s ur–Joan Baez is fierce, and willowy gamine-as-goddess Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose long face and lanky form suggest Patti Smith’s) as the Ledger-Dylan’s increasingly estranged wife is iconic; the unlikely but inspired kohl-eyed Michelle Williams is a sexy Edie Sedgwick simulacrum.
Each incarnation is a shadow grinning onto the white spaces in the margins of institutional history-making. Death is but a dream; immortality a cruel joke. Of course, this is inscribed against any viewer’s lifetime history of repeated hearing (if not listening). Each song, whether an original or covered by one of many, many artists, from Yo La Tengo to Thurston Moore to Antony & the Johnsons, is trigger, lever and trapdoor. A character purloins a passage from Godard’s Masculin féminin, as once spoken by actor Jean-Pierre Léaud: “We’d often go to the movies. We’d shiver as the screen lit up. More often we’d be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn’t the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make and, secretly, wanted to live.”
Live, breath, sing, obfuscate, exhale: I’m Not There is a kaleidoscopic blur, a puzzle confected from muzzle flash, a tale born on the prairie but with its eyes up on the road ahead.
(This review originally appeared in Newcity.)