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Infinite Algorithms and Schizophrenic Blues in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007) March 3, 2008

Posted 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. * * * * *

Becoming Bob, a four-minute audio slide show with Todd Haynes expressing his insights about Dylan in the pre-production of the film, courtesy of New York Times.



1. el pistolero - March 4, 2008

ang gwapo na lang ni Cate Blanchett dito. gwapo talaga. parang Tony Leung-GWAPO.

2. lilokpelikula - March 4, 2008

Sobra. Swak na swak si Cate, kung hindi mo lang alam na si Cate sya, hindi ka maba-bother. (baka para sa’kin lang) Not only physically of course. Only a few actors in the history of cinema can do what she did here. Haynes hits a brilliant fluke in choosing her — she literally stands out. By the way, how did you find the film?

3. el pistolero - March 5, 2008

i’m not really familiar with the life of bob dylan kaya medyo hindi ako makarelate. pinapakingan ko lang siya time to time. may times na medyo inantok ako. hehehe. pero cate blanchett really deserves her nomination for this film. aakalain mo talagang lalaki siya eh. if not for the nail polish. hahaha.

4. lilokpelikula - March 5, 2008

haha, i understand. i am not as familiar to him as any Dylan fan does but haynes has able to transcend Dylan’s life into something universal. true, there are moments that he indulges too much, overly experimenting techniques, and leaving them right behind but in the end, all i have for him is appreciation. the entire film is fantastic and alienating (as everyone’s life is). i love that final sequence with cate (quinn) when he looks at the camera — directly staring at us. like my friend says, it was magnetic.

5. Alexis - March 5, 2008

hey richard, your name was mentioned in a piece in the san francisco bay guardian: http://www.sfbg.com/entry.php?entry_id=5837&catid=110&volume_id=317&issue_id=342&volume_num=42&issue_num=23

just thought i’d pass word! :)

6. lilokpelikula - March 5, 2008

Wowowee, great honor to be mentioned with you, Alexis! Thanks for the link. It was a fantastic read. Been forcing the editor of Slingshot to give me a copy of the film but hell, he’s in Davao shooting his own film. Such energy we have now among local filmmakers!

7. dodo dayao - March 7, 2008

Congrats Chard,sikat ka na! Hehe.

Nice piece up there, too. At first, I thought the Rimbaud character was just a kind of membrane between the other five personas . . .the ghost even . . . but now that you mention it, yeah, he seems the most willfully manipulative and the closest Dylan comes to being “there”.


Napanood no ma yung Schnabel? May umaali-aligid na na malinaw sa ating mga suking tindahan. Hehe.

8. el pistolero - March 8, 2008

uy, congrats. :) that scene was indeed magnetic. at panalo.

9. Richard Bolisay - March 8, 2008

dodo: haha, salamat. only during the second viewing have i realised that in the rimbaud character. at first he just looms in comparison to the other dylans but his words really got into me after that. i think i’ll give a third try too, to see how it fares after every viewing.

the diving bell and the butterfly? not yet. i wish to see it. and read the book as well. though i didn’t like schnabel (and bardem too) in before night falls.

kirk: salamat tsong! :D

10. dodo dayao - March 9, 2008

Have to see Before Night Falls again but I’ve always been a fan of Schnabel as a painter. Check out his first movie, Basquiat, its terribly flawed but it has an energy and a glee that I’d take over any critic’s darling any day. And Bowie as Warhol is up there with Cate as Bob. Hehe.

11. Richard Bolisay - March 9, 2008

Basquiat is quite intriguing. Will definitely look for it. And Bowie, despite his eccentricity and over-the-top artistry (at times, but I still like him), is someone I also admire. First saw him in Labyrinth, and the kid in me (who got used to listening to his music) was surprised that he could act. Though mostly as villain. Haha. Schnabel is keen on doing life stories of artists, ne?

12. lunabertigo - March 11, 2008

chard. may kopya ka ng pelikulang ito? peram. nga pala. wala pang laman ang wordpress ko pero ipaplug ko na rin para i-link mo. tinapon ko ang multiply, friendster at lj ko.

13. Richard Bolisay - March 11, 2008

kay ayn ko hiniram. hehe. syurbol sa link — spread the word! :D

14. lunabertigo - March 11, 2008

ay mali ang ni-link ko. haha. anyway ako ay lunabertigo.wordpress.com.

15. dodo dayao - March 12, 2008

Timbrihan mo ko ,Chard ,pag nakakita ka ng Basquiat, matagal na rin akong naghahanap ng dibidi nito, sa laser ko pa siya napanood at laking sisi ko na hindi ko pinatulan yung kopyang binebenta ng Video take Out – – -150 lang. Minsan lumalabas ang pagka-makunat ko.

Re: Schnabel at artist biopics. Spot on. Damaged, lost artists at that. I like Schnabel. I like the idea of an artist who makes films. Pretentious, sure. Indulgent,yeah. But also roguish and irreverent in many ways. And fiendishly gleeful.

And Bowie’s one of my heroes. I could listen to Low and Aladdin Sane forever. :)

16. Richard Bolisay - March 13, 2008

Laser – – astig. Pangkoleksyon na yun a! Syur, sige, talento rin ang paghahanap ng mga kulimbat.

Schnabel is still quite foreign to me because I haven’t been exposed to most of his works yet. Don’t worry, I’ll get into that, maybe after this academic deluge. We’ll both be having our freedom after March, right? Let’s toast to that! :D

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