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Dylan Amok: I’m Not There
Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam
TODD HAYNES seems to be in a constant quest to not be pinned down to a particular style. He can move from the icily brilliant Safe, to the overheated Sirkian melodrama (the masterpiece Far From Heaven) with absolute ease. However, I’m Not There is quite something, the ultimate post-modern exercise chock-full of pastiche, myths, parodies. The film is a parade of chameleon identities, of musical and visual samples, a freewheelin’ farrago through time and space. The film works because of the sheer chutzpah of Haynes’ vision, even if it’s a vision that will infuriate many Dylan fans and non-fans alike.
Probably the best tribute this film could get is that it’s composed like a Dylan song – a ‘Desolation Row’-esque parade of characters, allusions and metaphors. The central conceit that’s got the most attention is to have Dylan played by a number of actors – from Cate Blanchett to Richard Gere. (Of course Todd Solondz used a similar technique in Palindromes). Each character plays a ‘side’ of Dylan. Haynes is exploring the idea that one person doesn’t simply have one identity, that people construct (or have constructed for them) various identities in different situations and different moments. In other words, identity can never be fixed at one point.
Of course, he picks an easy target to explore this thesis, Dylan is notorious for constantly re-inventing himself – one moment a Rimbaud quoting romantic, another a reactionary misogynist. Yet he is also someone that a lot of people think they know – maybe it was because his music has entered the lexicon, and had so much effect for a lot of people – there is a sense of ownership that his fans have. Haynes helps destroy this notion. This barely qualifies as a biopic, yet subverts the very conservatism and falsity of that ‘genre’.
The performances are fascinating too, each with different mannerisms and styles. These are complemented by the different ways of filming the stories too (different film stock, exposure, speed, and he plays around with black & white and colour). Cate Blanchett is the one getting all the plaudits – playing Jude (the film doesn’t give Dylan down one name either, probably quite right seeing as Bob Dylan didn’t do it either) during the infamous Judas tour of England. Casting a female as Dylan when he was most hated proved a memorable choice. Of course, Blanchett did have the benefit of being able to do a Dylan impersonation with Don’t Look Back no doubt acting as a template for her performance. But she’s magnetic throughout, and the film’s centrepiece. Heath Ledger is excellent too, snarling, and a downright prick. Richard Gere’s storyline may seem the strangest episode in the film – but he’s the Fellini-esque director from 8 ½, he’s the outlaw running from the trappings of fame.
And as you’d expect (if you’re a Dylan fan), the music is brilliant. Most of the music used is the original recordings (though there’s a Monkees’ track which appears in a party scene), though there is a brilliant rendition of ‘Tombstone Blues’ (featuring Richie Havens) connecting Dylan’s music to the blues traditions that inspired him. Perhaps the only misfire was ‘A Ballad of a Thin Man’, an almost too-literal visual rendition in a film which eschewed the obvious. Even if the narrative doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, this is film as poetry. This is a film where you can let your mind go, and let the visuals and the sounds wash over you. I’m Not There is almost the uncertainty principle in action when it comes to identity, a glorious mess that is at once playful and deeply serious in its implications. It’s essential, brave cinema.
» Todd Haynes | USA | 2007 | 135 min | Featuring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, David Cross. In Theatres Now @ flicks.co.nz.