Infinite Algorithms and Schizophrenic Blues in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007) March 3, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Biopic, Hollywood.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere
Like the atom, Dylan is indivisible. The initial strap of thought. Whereas scientists continue to lineate their theories contrary to Democritus’ assumptions, writers and filmmakers are also frying their brains in trying to deconstruct the enormity of the Dylan mystique. Not that the efforts are commensurate, but whichever viewpoint you take — the scientists or the artists — both tasks are equally colossal. That is why when Todd Haynes announced that his upcoming film will be portraying Dylan in six phases of his life with six different actors, almost everyone thought he is out of his mind. And he really is. Because the only way to get to the heart of the artist, whose nucleus is a tremendous mass of influence, whose isotopes possess peculiar properties, and whose subatomic particles are forces of ecclesiastical politics, is to stay out of sanity. And the result is an offbeat pseudo-biopic, a film structured like the most convoluted Dylan composition but certainly not losing its radical gravitational pull. I’m Not There is as worthy as Blowin’ In the Wind, a protesting, iconic work whose details are disorienting enough to persuade anyone to walk out of the theatre, and in reward to those who stay — a jolt of flowing lava working its way up to the crater — a silent volcanic outburst — a pure cinematic orgasm.
Haynes dissects Dylan into six turning points of his life, indirectly telling that his entire life is a huge turning point in everyone else’s life, an amorphous life pie sketched hastily, smudged and smeared, carefully donning a portrait of a jagged man. Everything works miraculously, for Haynes never mentions Dylan but he is everywhere, he is in every frame, in every millisecond, in every word spoken by Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud, Jack Rollins, Robbie Clark, Jude Quinn, and Billy the Kid. I’m Not There has the isolating feel of an outtake, the one left out, edited out, excluded in the final output of an album — its rawness alienating and disorientating, its surrealism pressing and endemic; and others who are looking forward to learn more about Dylan by seeing this film will only find it immensely disappointing because this is not Ron Howard — this is the man who made Far From Heaven, this is Todd Haynes, and this is him at his subterranean glory.
Yet everyone shares its greatness. Marcus Carl Franklin’s know-it-all slang of a fugitive heralds the troublesome life of a nomad — his antics receiving admiration from his fellow refugees, his fleeting foster families, and every speck of dust he meets while hitching a ride. Conversely, the most difficult segment of all is Richard Gere’s outlaw saviour, shot beautifully in Fellini’s Old West, which closes the narrative in a stunning, epochal allegory. Haynes also figures that some tricky plot delineation could help, inserting a TV documentary about the Troubadour of Conscience, from his increasing popularity and influence in the early 60s to his conversion to a low-profile pastor in a small church in his later years, played perfectly by Christian Bale, linking to the actor (Heath Ledger) who portrayed him in his biographical film. Ledger puts himself in the role the way James Dean does, not to mention that the rebel himself is an inspiration, and flies away with a striking remark — I love women. Really I do. I think everyone should have one. — raising Dylan’s borderline sexism. Understatingly critical, his role mirrors Dylan’s disorderly personal life as it reflects the tumultuous political events embracing America, as remarkably exploited in the film’s use of television screens — symbolisms overstatingly used by Haynes (with more emphasis in Quinn’s psychedelic segment, with the walls cradling the moving images) which turn out to be very effective. But the peak of Haynes’ hallucinations reaches its optimum when he introduces Jude Quinn, perhaps Dylan in his state of unprecedented notoriety, overwhelmingly embodied by Cate Blanchett. Quinn is the Dylan that almost everyone of us remembers — the mountainous hair, the quirky responses, the ubiquitous shades, the helping of cigarette — probably everything that characterises the sex, drugs, and rock and roll fashion of the 60s — and certainly this is the one that hits the mark. It is able to duplicate its inspiration, only with such jest that Haynes successfully turns Mastroianni, the auteur hounded by critics, into a modern figure of interest. Even the allusion to Godard, in a fantastic recreation of sexual philosophising, is strangely compelling enough to incite reverence. Two sequences to note: first, Quinn and his band open their guitar cases and fire their machine guns at the crowd, and second, the frenzy with the Beatles — clearly, both paroxysms exemplify a gift for classic surrealism and efficiently overtake the film to another direction. Quinn’s persona, fueled intensely by Blanchett’s inimitable methodology, beats me — as she quietly resembles the ghost in an early quote from Rimbaud, that even the ghost was more than one person. Which brings me to Arthur, which for me, hands down, is the closest to Dylan that I can imagine, the closest to the idea of Dylan himself, the closest to his mystique, the closest to his idiosyncrasies, the closest to his politics, and the closest to his heart. Rimbaud expresses the workings of his soul — because merely getting close to Dylan’s soul is impossible — and bridges the other five personae into his control, counting down his seven simple rules for life in hiding. Rimbaud’s rabid statements partially represent the core of genius which Dylan himself is made of and Ben Whishaw is just the perfect man to lay everything out. Indeed some of the film’s greatest lines are spoken by him (apparently, everything he’s doing is plainly speaking) and nothing can win me over than this one: The only natural things are dreams, which nature cannot touch with decay, with Quinn kited in the horizon of his shaky reputation.
Perhaps Haynes has indulged so much to the point that he almost crosses the border of self-importance. But the way I see it, if Dylan has not lived his own time, should Haynes sacrifice the intrinsic value of his work for our sake? And if Dylan has lived his time, should he still be the Dylan that we all know? How many times have we felt like shouting the lines of his songs, like a kid standing at the window watching the rain? How many times have we felt close to his sorrows, his happiness, his ambiguity, his cynicism? How many times have we felt like we are Bob Dylan? The poet, the prophet, the outlaw, the fake, the rebel, the star of electricity? How many times? Should Haynes choose to be understood than appreciated by a few? I believe his experiment not only brings to light the complexity of an artist; it also measures the extent of influence that a towering figure like Dylan does — and in the process of collating fragments of his life, he realises that human existence is as mystifying as the atom itself, only the difference is, we are outnumbered. * * * * *