Entertainment

'I'm Not There'

Dylan biopic sinks like a wobbly, misshapen rolling stone.

By Steve Burgess 30 Nov 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films every other Friday in The Tyee.

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Morphed: Blanchett into Dylan.

Long ago in the National Lampoon there was a comic strip called Dirty Duck. In one episode DD and his little pal (who was a weevil, I think) are camped by the railroad tracks when an eager young man shows up with a backpack. He explains he's been up all night listening to Dylan and now, inspired, he's hopping a freight to see the real world. But the young man mis-times his jump, falls beneath the wheels, and is bisected. "Well," says Dirty Duck, lighting a cigar, "we eat tonight!"

Perhaps if that fictional young man had survived he would be director Todd Haynes and he would have made a sort-of Dylan biopic with six different Dylans played by different actors, with none of the characters actually called Dylan and some of them apparently fictional and/or entirely symbolic. So the fact that this young man was from a cartoon strip would have worked, in this context.

I'm Not There is the name of the film. "I'm not here" is a little prayer you may find yourself muttering if you get dragged to the theatre by some misguided cinephile/Dylanphile. Oh, for a cameo by Dirty Duck or Britney Spears to puncture the pretension and provide a little levity to this solemn, muddled, mythmaking exercise. Instead we get Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere (!), and a kid named Marcus Carl Franklin, all playing Dylan-esque figures. Some of the faux Dylans are reality-based -- chiefly Blanchett, Ledger, Bale -- and the rest more of the symbolic nature. My head hurts just thinking about it.

Slap Wood

Young Franklin plays a lad named Woody who rides the rails with a guitar, charming the bums and ordinary folk he meets. You may wish to slap him. But he's fictional. Woody appears to represent the stories Dylan himself used to invent to mythologize his own past. I hesitate to explain, because I rapidly stopped caring. Bale plays the folk non-Dylan, one Jack Rollins. Julianne Moore plays the non-Joan Baez character.

Dylan (the real one) is like Ed Sullivan or Arnold Schwarzenegger in that he's vulnerable to caricature. I used to impersonate him myself, singing Dolly Parton songs. Bale does it rather badly, all tics and mumbles. Blanchett's Dylan impersonation is better. But Ledger plays him like a human being, making his Dylan scenes the most watchable (although I didn't catch the name of his Dylan figure). Richard Gere, playing the character with the most tenuous Dylan connection, takes advantage of that distance to give a sane and sensible performance in a sort of tale-within-the-tale that may be based on the music of The Basement Tapes. I love that record. One of its tracks, Yea Heavy and a Bottle of Bread, contains the line "Pack up the meat, Sweet, we're heading out." So, onscreen we see Richard Gere riding past a guy filling a suitcase full of meat. "Pack up the meat," the guy says.

Well, at least I understood that part. I'm Not There is a strange mixture of the prosaic and the nonsensical. The linking element is tedium. There are scenes that simply recreate famous moments any Dylan fan has seen before, such as the famous European press conference where he testily sparred with earnest reporters. There's a scene where he rolls on the grass with four guys who look like The Beatles. There's a scene where one of the Black Panthers tells another Black Panther, "You've gotta understand that this song is saying a lot about society." There's a part where he goes Christian, included here pretty much without comment, I guess because it happened. It's one of the Stations of Bob.

Bob's big guns

Dylan(s) frequently toss out lines from Dylan songs in conversation. "Just like a woman!" Dylan/Blanchett says, after a woman does something. The Newport Festival fiasco, when Dylan alienated folk fans by going electric, is touched upon here with the added fantasy detail of having Dylan and his band open fire on the audience with machine guns. Get it?

Some of the film consists of what I assume to be Haynes' own little lyrical meditations on the Dylan legend. I don't know. The whole thing reminded me of why I really wanted to hate Dylan when I was a teenager -- everybody was always rabbiting on about how epic and meaningful and legendary he was. It made you want to stage your own Dylan-esque revolt by despising him. Unfortunately I listened to the records and loved them, so I was hooped. Besides, listening to Dylan sparring with reporters you got the clear impression he hated the bullshit more than anybody. I hope he hates this movie too, but who knows? I never really understood most of his lyrics anyway.

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