I think you’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow in the same room. There’s no telling what can happen.
– Billy the Kid (Richard Gere in I’m Not There.)
Haynes is not what one would call a natural filmmaker. His ideas are too evident, his schemata overly present. He is, however, a sort of natural Brechtian.
– J. Hoberman (1)
All I was really focussed on was trying to find a narrative and cinematic parallel to what Dylan did to popular music in his era … I knew from the outset that I would fail.
– Todd Haynes (2)
There is something that is curiously dry, academic, self-consciously conceptual about Todd Haynes’ prismatic and somewhat less than “freewheelin’” phantasmagoria tracing various threads, connections, points of intersection, biographical details and critical interpretations of “Bob Dylan”. When presented to Dylan’s management as a one-page outline of Haynes intended approach, I’m Not There. also trailed a subtitle that nailed the thesis like aims of the film: “Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan”. The film as it stands also proceeds from the encompassing and “multitudinous” disclaimer that it is “inspired by the music and many lives” of Dylan.
On various levels, I’m Not There. is an ambitious film, an attempt to move to the side of the form of more conventional biopics that attempt to nail down, interpret and smoothly narrativise their subject’s career (and often, most pointedly, their early life). Haynes’ film is undoubtedly a stranger, more mysterious and wilful object than this: the casting of a woman, a young black kid, and four men of various ages and levels of stardom to play “Dylan” is a fairly upfront illustration. Nevertheless, for those of us who are well-versed in Dylan’s “shape-shifting” (3) persona, Haynes’ approach is both bold and pretty familiar. Such an inability to pin Dylan down to one mode, one category, or a clearly laid out trajectory is by now the common way in which his career and its numerous resurgences have been encapsulated and accounted for. As Adrian Martin argued even before I’m Not There., “By now, it is official: Bob Dylan is a multiple self. Long gone are the days when fans and commentators worried and argued about the splits between electric and folk Dylan, political and religious Dylan […].” (4) Dylan himself has almost always supported and fuelled such an approach, and part of the fascination of such works as D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967) or Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) is the spectacle of watching Dylan characteristically evade both straightforward questions and answers (while making everything seem both simple and endlessly complicated). Even various films that associate partly or fully with Dylan’s image have reinforced or played upon this masked, quixotic and shifting persona; from such low-key performances as the aptly named Alias in Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 opus Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (where Dylan squints, reads the labels off cans and finds other things to do in a role plainly not developed beyond the behavioural, or his mere presence) to the gestalt fragmentations and affectations of Dylan’s own projects like 1978’s Renaldo and Clara (like parts of I’m Not There., literally featuring characters wearing masks) and 2003’s aptly titled Masked and Anonymous (directed by Larry Charles but starring and pseudonymously co-written by Dylan). Dylan has himself been integral to the creation of this shifting cinematic image; for example, he wilfully fragmented his image, the tour itinerary and the vérité intentions of his co-conspirator Pennebaker in the follow up to Dont Look Back, Eat the Document (1972), which ‘covers’ Dylan and The Hawks’ 1966 European tour.
In a more general sense, Dylan has worked to both discourage and reinforce critical interpretations of his own work (and life); and critical interpretation – both Dylan’s and that of numerous other writers and filmmakers – informs I’m Not There. at every level. Haynes’ film seems so embedded in the critical work produced on and around Dylan that analysis of the film itself is not just inevitable but necessary (it just flows). The initial flush of writing on the film, of which this is just one humble contribution, is, I both hope and fear, just the start of this critical work. I think it may be illustrative to give a few details about the genealogy of this article at this point. I agreed to write this review prior to seeing the film. After first seeing it and expressing something of my guarded dissatisfaction to my Editor, he concluded that I would obviously no longer wish to write the piece. He was wrong. In reality I don’t really think that whether one likes this film or not really matters – this is the kind of work that people tend to have an opinion about even if they haven’t seen it (and someone else presented a ten-minute tirade against the film – partly railing against the patent mimicry of Cate Blanchett’s performance and the postmodern affectations of Haynes’ style – before informing me they hadn’t actually seen it). In many ways, Haynes’ film is inconceivable without this critical discussion (though, in its defence, I’m not sure how it could exist outside of this framework). Although at times surprisingly emotionally engaging, it is like most of Haynes’ other films – such as Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Far from Heaven (2002) – a cerebral, meticulously designed and incipiently postmodern revisiting of relatively recent, though in many ways inaccessible, distant and foreign, cultural history. As will become evident, I actually think it is beside the point to divide Haynes’ film from the criticism that surrounds it – if anything, and not unlike much of Jean-Luc Godard’s work, the film represents another way of “doing” criticism (though not just of the film variety).
Nevertheless, this is a somewhat curious – though perhaps still refreshing – attempt to deal with and partly document “Dylan” (playfully this word or name is never once mentioned in the film – other than all over the credits). It is also a work that seems partly out of alignment with the times. Dylan and his management (particularly Jeff Rosen) have worked hard in the past decade or so not to so much reinvent his persona as realign it, carve out a space within the critical discourse that surrounds Dylan (and thus shape its direction). In such recent largely self-generated representations as the autobiographical but not all that personal narrator of Chronicles (5), the controlled interview subject of No Direction Home and the friendly DJ behind Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan seems positively chatty, a clearly urbane figure surprisingly comfortable in his own skin.
So what does I’m Not There. contribute to our understanding of Dylan? Does it actually present anything new? Not surprisingly, the answer to this second question is both “yes” and “no”. In many respects, I’m Not There. is a synthetic film that draws together and upon existing conceptualisations and theorisations of Dylan’s career and persona – or parts of it. It unsurprisingly draws heavily on the periods and works most argued and pored over in what is sometimes called “Dylanology”, curiously if understandably drawing to a kind of close in the late 1970s. Like No Direction Home, its main points of focus and key fascinations are Dylan’s early life leading up to his arrival in New York and the cataclysmic years of 1965 and 1966.
The film also spends much time investigating the domestic life of an actor, Robbie (Heath Ledger), who once played “Jack Rollins” (Christian Bale’s incarnation of the folkie Dylan) in a mid-’60s film. Although this concept/device acts to further distance this character – and all the others – from the real Dylan, it also suggests a number of other intriguing interpretations: that Dylan’s own retreat into domesticity after his 1966 motorbike accident – a mysteriously talismanic event in this and Scorsese’s film – was itself a performance, a movement into a markedly separate mode of existence; as an illustration of the radical shift necessary after the rising hysteria that met Dylan’s dynamic but emotionally fraught tours of 1965 and 1966 (he literally changed personas); and as a fairly naked narrativisation of the film’s title (many of the scenes in this “section” focus upon Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire rather than Robbie, his domestic presence often limited to a voice in a long-distance phone conversation). As is common in I’m Not There., such neat distinctions between personas and eras are nevertheless blurred – Robbie also blurs into the early ’60s “folk” Dylan of Greenwich Village and his relationship with Suze Rotolo is collapsed into that with his subsequent wife, Sara.
In many respects, this is the most conventional thread of the film, following the birth and ultimate dissolution of a relationship, soundtracked by what appear to be some of Dylan’s most nakedly personal songs. Nevertheless, one always needs to be careful when relating Dylan to his lyrics, which themselves are often imagistic, impressionistic, largely non-narrative, angular rather than straightforwardly expressive. But much of this section of the film seems to be “inspired” – a key idea for Haynes – by Dylan’s seemingly confessional and more direct mid-’70s masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. This is reinforced by the extended use of “Idiot Wind” – that album’s most bitter, epic and unforgiving song – to emphasise the characters’ separation. Haynes’ use of The Bootleg Series version of this song underlines a few important qualities of the film: first, it is actually a less vitriolic and more self-blaming version than the initial official release (and this is reinforced by the film’s more rounded representation of this relationship); second, this choice demonstrates the generally outstanding taste that the filmmakers have brought to the musical selections on the soundtrack. Although the film does contain a number of popular and probably all-too-familiar Dylan tracks, it is more remarkable for its facility in mining his back catalogue and employing interesting and sympathetic musicians to re-record particular songs. On hearing the original soundtrack album, one would imagine this film’s actual soundtrack would reinforce its main dramatic premise: showing us many aspects and interpretations of Dylan while insisting on his marked absence (so combining the implied presence of “I’m” with the absence of “Not There”). But in fact the film is loaded with Dylan originals, with most of the re-recorded versions confined only to the double-CD soundtrack or those moments when characters/actors are required to lip-sync to particular songs.
Surprisingly, few commentators have discussed the film’s title, actually taken from an unfinished track from the “Basement Tapes” sessions, or its use towards the end of the film. It is worthwhile briefly pondering some of the reasons for Haynes’ choice of title. First, as many commentators have said it is an apt title for this film about Dylan (or more broadly for Dylan himself as a phenomenon). It relates directly to one of the film’s two least successful sections – Dylan’s incarnation as “Arthur Rimbaud” (Ben Whishaw) – and his meditations on existence and selfhood (most famously the statement that “I is another”). Second, it helps pinpoint the critical derivations of Haynes’ approach to Dylan. Probably the most famous discussion of this unfinished song is found in Greil Marcus’ spidery, genealogical and prismatic Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Marcus argues that this song is like no other in Dylan’s discography, and yet he also seems to highlight its talismanic qualities, its implications and uses for a broader understanding of Dylan’s career and mythology. It is not a song that makes easy sense, that can be clearly categorised or understood, and that remained unfinished partly because it is so timeless, “bottomless” (6), and without clear moorings. It is also useful because on a purely ontological level it is difficult to make out, mysterious in both its content and ethereally muddy form. I think that Haynes’ choice of I’m Not There. as his title is inconceivable without Marcus’ analysis. Haynes’ approach to the period of Dylan’s career from which this song emanates, and which mixes together references to various songs from these sessions, Dylan’s performance in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and The Band’s own appropriation of 19th century imagery and attire (just after working with Dylan), has been widely criticised. Haynes himself has suggested that this material was not direct enough, but in some ways, and in the light of specific critical knowledge and understanding, it is the most conceptually cogent aspect of the film – other important points of reference include such epic and kaleidoscopic Dylan songs as “Desolation Row” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, as well as the cover of The Basement Tapes. Like the curious but more self-consciously surreal incarnation of Dylan as a young black kid called Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), this section highlights the idea of Dylan as a palimpsest, less out of time than across time.
Towards the end of the film, where this strand somewhat dominates, Haynes introduces some of the most mysterious, churning and protean of Dylan’s tracks, such as “I’m Not There.” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, and combines these songs with the final moments of several of the characters – most touchingly (and the film does have moments of quite rich emotion) for Gere’s Billy the Kid and Blanchett’s Jude Quinn. In Blanchett’s/Jude’s final moments we hear, as we have many times throughout the film, words gathered from one of the numerous interviews Dylan was subjected to in the mid-’60s – in this case, Nat Hentoff’s for Playboy (7). She/he speaks of the difference between folk and traditional music, political protest and stranger, more timeless forms, further questioning the easy categorisation of Dylan himself:
Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All those songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese that turn into angels – they’re not going to die.
Blanchett’s final moments conclude with a kind of half-smile that both encourages and forestalls interpretation. Although these words help explain “Dylan’s” continual fascination with this music, their placement here also suggests a continuity between the project of such traditional music and an understanding of Dylan’s mercurial, shiftless, timeless persona – both of his time, in the moment, and expressly outside of it.
It is illuminating to look a little more closely at several of the epochal scenes and events that inevitably make their way into the film. The representation of such key moments as Dylan going “electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival or the infamous “Judas” catcall at the 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall concert (amongst the most discussed musical events of the rock ’n’ roll era), can tell us much about both the limitations and critical intentions of Haynes’s approach. In some ways, Haynes’ film shares a spirit of critical hagiography with a film like Tim Burton’s curiously sweet-natured Ed Wood (1994). Although the sometimes melancholic but often misanthropic tone of I’m Not There. is a million miles away from Ed Wood, both films are primarily concerned with the moment of their own making, and are less accurate and truly investigative renditions of their subject’s lives than attempts to come to terms with the history of critical interpretation that has both informed and lead to their own existence. Both films are inconceivable without a critical heritage or lineage that creates a form or logic for their own approach. Thus, for example, the wildly successful premiere of the jerry-built Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) in Los Angeles that concludes Ed Wood is factually inaccurate and completely inconceivable, except that the much later creation of Burton’s painstaking multi-million dollar homage, and the widespread critical canonisation of Wood as the “world’s worst filmmaker”, make it seem poetically apt (even possible). It is also a gift from Burton to Wood. It would nevertheless be inaccurate to call Haynes’ film a gift to Dylan. As various commentators have suggested, I’m Not There. is a little too bitter and critical for that (it certainly doesn’t make you like Dylan all that much). As Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested, although I’m Not There. is “[w]idely described as a tribute, it frequently comes across as a series of insults” (8). Nevertheless, the film does partly underline Dylan’s own account of his career.
To return to the two epochal scenes mentioned above. Unlike Burton, Haynes has to work within a highly documented and “turned over” field. It would be churlish to bluntly criticise or even damn Haynes’ film for its inaccurate representation of particular events and personalities. After all, his film takes the bold and intermittently successful approach of having Dylan played by a range of actors belonging to various genders, races and generations (though curiously leaving Dylan’s Jewishness to himself). Nevertheless, both the “going electric” and “Judas” moments are curious for how they rely more clearly on legend than existing and widely circulated documentation. For example, Dylan’s penultimate electric performance at Newport occurs during the day (it was actually at night) and is totally unambiguous in terms of the hostility towards Dylan expressed by the audience (this is also one of those moments where the small budget of Haynes’ film leads to a less-than-overwhelming representation) and the clear contrast between the musicians on stage and all those who are watching them. The film even pauses to show us “Pete Seeger” attempting to cut the electrical cables with an axe (this is a highly contested and almost definitely apocryphal action – its poetic force has sustained its legendary status). Other recent representations of this episode – including the footage of the concert contained in the documentary described below – present a much more ambiguous, conflicted and less clear-cut set of events and actions. Similarly, the “Judas” moment from the Manchester concert is rendered by Haynes as a moment of conflict and incipient violence, the verbal exchange forcing the musicians to close the stage curtain and flee the stage in fear (Dylan and The Hawks actually remained on stage and performed a blistering version of “Like a Rolling Stone”). The film even presents a less extended and markedly less effective exchange between Dylan/Jude and the audience. Both of these examples favour the apocryphal and legendary versions of events over messier realities. Haynes is plainly not trying for documentary fidelity here – he even has the musicians fire machine-guns into the Newport crowd – but his approach simplifies what is actually a more complex relationship between Dylan and his varied audiences – who were no more singular than he was.
Murray Lerner’s recently compiled The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (2007) provides an interesting correlative (perhaps even corrective) to I’m Not There.. Although Lerner’s film is much more conventional and unvarnished than Haynes’, it actually provides an equal illustration – though straightforwardly chronological – of the restlessness of Dylan’s spirit and persona across three Newport Folk Festivals. It is remarkable to watch the shift from acoustic to electric Dylan, as well as from respectful, almost captive folk singer to a more visionary persona. Lerner’s film benefits massively from its simplicity. The footage he has gathered, and had largely squirreled away until gaining permission to release it by Dylan’s management long after he first approached them, pretty much speaks for itself, highlighting the extraordinary shifts and continuities in Dylan’s persona, performance style and manner over a period of only two years. Like No Direction Home, it configures Dylan as both a barometer of the shifting times and his own man, unwilling to be neatly categorised as a symbol of anything.
One of the most remarkable aspects of I’m Not There. is its treatment of time. This foregrounding of time is most evident in the prismatic editing style of the film, which interlaces the various versions of Dylan that we see into an overlapping and circular chronology. But thematically, and in terms of interpreting Dylan, time has a much more crucial function. Despite the crossovers in time between many of the early and mid-’60s “Dylans” presented her, the closest connections are forged between the two strangest and seemingly most disparate incarnations: Gere’s Billy the Kid and Marcus Carl Franklin’s Woody. It is in these sections that we get the clearest view of Dylan as a figure who is both outside of time and who functions as a palimpsest of traditions and influences. Dylan’s own view of the difference between traditional and folk music, essayed late on by Cate Blanchett’s Jude as outlined above, largely centres on the continuing relevance and presentness of traditional music. For Dylan it isn’t dead; in fact, it isn’t even past. When Woody is kindly if brusquely told to “live your own time” by a black woman who takes him in, I think he can both see the point of her advice and not really comprehend what the concept of his “own time” might be. Thus the carnivalesque aspects of the sequences featuring Woody and Billy have their roots in particular parts of Dylan’s career (such as his earlier absorption in traditional and country music, and the “timeless” recordings which came to be known as the “Basement Tapes”) – and the fabulations he created about his own past – also suggesting a series of connections, lineages and resonances that shift across race, musical form and time. This is literalised towards the end of the film when Billy exits the town of Riddle, through which we have seen him wander, on a train and picks up the battered guitar case left their earlier/later by Woody. In some ways, it is in such moments, and definitely in these two sections, that the film has the most to say about Dylan’s relationship to what Marcus called the “old, weird America”. These connections also go some way to help us understand the seemingly subterranean shifts and turns in Dylan’s career. They are conceits that join with Blanchett’s turn as Jude to render strange what might otherwise have seemed typically Haynes-like pastiche.
Ultimately, I’m not totally sure who this film is made for. As a film academic who has a fairly strong interest in Dylan and popular music, I would seem to be the ideal audience for I’m Not There. (and this “academic” audience is not as small as you might think). But I can’t get over a feeling of dissatisfaction with elements of the film, and a sense of over-familiarity with the approach it takes. The version of Dylan it presents is certainly novel in cinematic terms, but it is in some ways an “adaptation” of much of the critical literature that exists on Dylan. Spectators who know very little of Dylan’s work, or the discourse which surrounds him, will undoubtedly find this a very perplexing film. They will hear many excellent Dylan songs on the soundtrack and may be intrigued to find out more about him, but much of the film won’t resonate. Those who know plenty about Dylan will be both rewarded by numerous points of recognition and reference – including to various other films like A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964), 8½ (Federico Fellini, 1963) and If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) – and somewhat frustrated by the familiarity of some “interpretations” and the lacklustre renditions of some events (and even whole personas). The film is full of fetishistic art direction that mimics existing images but is more wilful when dramatising the narrative arc of historical events. This is sometimes a curious decision, as although he obviously felt the need to interpret particular events, the existing documentary record is often much more powerful, resonant and complex than Haynes’ rendition. The account of Dylan’s 1965 Newport performance in No Direction Home is positively Rashomon-esque in comparison to its rudimentary appearance here. And yet, particularly in the light of Haynes’ other work, this lack of fidelity is perhaps part of the point.
Undoubtedly I’m Not There.’s weakest sections are those featuring “Arthur Rimbaud” and the terrible mockumentary that incorporates the two incarnations played by Christian Bale. Bale’s performance as the early Dylan is too mannered, but the main faults of this section are its generally snide tone and its all-too-easy mock tabloid documentary style. Those who have seen this as a critique of Scorsese’s more conventional documentary need to look more closely at both. It is also in this section that Haynes presents his most tiresome variation upon the contrast between the hip, uncategorisable Dylan and the earnest, risible folkies who tried to control and pin him down (has their ever been an easier target?). Julianne Moore’s attempt at what one assumes is Joan Baez is perhaps the film’s nadir. Nevertheless, this section also characteristically includes one of the most surprising and galvanising musical moments in the film. Bale reappears as the Christian era “Dylan” performing for only a handful of often-inattentive worshippers. But his performance of “Pressing On”, from the often-derided 1980 album Saved and actually sung by John Doe, is surprisingly rousing, earnest and felt. It is in such moments, and luckily there are quite a few of them to mitigate the often clumsy staging and dramatics of other moments, where the desperately postmodern surface of Haynes’ “world” falls away to allow for a richer, more direct emotional experience and engagement. This moment is all the stronger for allowing this to occur within such a patently religious framework.
In its concluding moments, I’m Not There. finally shows us documentary footage of the “real” Dylan performing “Mr. Tambourine Man”. This approach, of dramatising and fictionalising an historical era before finally returning to documentary footage of the initial inspiration, has become a conventional poetic device that is also found in such other recent films as Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) and The Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDonald, 2006). The function of this device is partly to qualify everything that has come before as merely one, or indeed in this case, multiple, interpretation(s) of historical figures and events. It hones in on the inability of narrative cinema to adequately or accurately represent history, while also suggesting the medium’s unique temporal qualities as historical record. Thus, the image of the actual figure both grounds what has come before and suggests the possibility of escape, the image and essence that can never be pinned-down. Nevertheless, these images in I’m Not There. also configure the actual Dylan as one of a series of representations, a mysterious, shifting if privileged incarnation. This appearance, and the expert matching of sound and image from different sources, also suggests a couple of other things. It must be remembered that despite the often critical and interpretative nature of Haynes’ film, Dylan and his management in fact sanctioned it. This allowed Haynes unprecedented access to Dylan’s recorded output and image. Thus, I’m Not There. should actually be seen as a close cousin of other recent attempts by “Dylan” to control his historical image. Although both No Direction Home and Chronicles present a surprisingly cogent and literate Dylan to the public, the version of Dylan they present – constantly suggesting his quixotic nature and supreme discomfort with being categorised or pinned-down – is fairly close to that ultimately suggested by I’m Not There.. This ending also highlights the possibility of a more straightforward approach to Dylan (though Scorsese’s documentary has already carved out this terrain). For all the discussion of the fearlessness and iconoclasm of Haynes’ portrayal, I’m not sure whether it presents a brave rethinking of the biopic form or a cop-out. Presenting us with six different actors playing seven incarnations of Dylan is both an interesting dramatisation of the common reading of Dylan as a series of almost separate personas and a sign of a lack of commitment to a particular perspective or view.
“He would pull these songs out of nowhere”, Robbie Robertson said. “We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn’t tell.” (9)
- J. Hoberman, “Like a Complete Unknown: I’m Not There and the Changing Face of Bob Dylan on Film”, The Village Voice 20 November 2007.
- Haynes interviewed by Greil Marcus, “Dylan Times Six”, Rolling Stone Australia, No. 674, February 2008, p. 54.
- Liam Clancy discusses this aspect of Dylan’s persona at the end of the first half of No Direction Home.
- Adrian Martin, “Another Kind of River”, Studies in Documentary Film, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2007, p. 57.
- The first volume of Dylan’s memoir provides a surprisingly detailed, nuanced and critical account of various experiences and periods of his past. The structure of the book has some parallels to I’m Not There., as it moves back and forth in time to cover specific threads of this past. The book’s approach and chosen subjects also echo Nat Hentoff’s description of three books Dylan was supposedly writing in 1963, outlined in his liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. See Chronicles (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
- Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (London: Picador, 1998), p. 155.
- Nat Hentoff’s February 1966 Playboy interview with Dylan can be found online at http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/66-jan.htm.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “A Funny Kind of Tribute”, Chicago Reader, 22 November 2007.
- Robbie Robertson discussing working with Dylan in Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, p. xviii.