NYT Critics' Pick
This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.
Jonathan Wenk/Weinstein Company
Christian Bale as an incarnation of Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There."
Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Another, and Another ...
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
Published: November 21, 2007
From Andy Warhol to Lonelygirl15, modern media culture thrives on the traffic in counterfeit selves. In this world the greatest artist will also be, almost axiomatically, the biggest fraud. And looking back over the past 50 years or so, it is hard to find anyone with a greater ability to synthesize authenticity — to give his serial hoaxes and impersonations the ring of revealed and esoteric truth — than Bob Dylan.
It’s not just that Robert Zimmerman, a Jewish teenager growing up in Eisenhower-era Minnesota, borrowed a name from a Welsh poet and the singing style of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl troubadour and bluffed his way into the New York folk scene. That was chutzpah. What followed was genius — the elaboration of an enigmatic, mercurial personality that seemed entirely of its moment and at the same time connected to a lost agrarian past. From the start, Mr. Dylan has been singularly adept at channeling and recombining various strands of the American musical and literary vernacular, but he has often seemed less like an interpreter of those traditions than like their incarnation.
His persona has been as inclusive as Walt Whitman’s and as unsettlingly splintered as that of Herman Melville’s Confidence Man. Vulnerable as Mr. Dylan is to misunderstanding (“I couldn’t believe after all these years/You didn’t know me better than that” in “Idiot Wind”), he also actively solicits it (“Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” in “Ballad of a Thin Man”). So it is only fitting that Todd Haynes, in “I’m Not There,” his incandescent rebus of a movie inspired by Mr. Dylan’s life and music, has chosen to multiply puzzles and paradoxes rather than solve them. Not for nothing does one of Mr. Haynes’s stories take place in a town called Riddle.
Cate Blanchett in the Felliniesque sequence.
Among its many achievements, Mr. Haynes’s film hurls a Molotov cocktail through the facade of the Hollywood biopic factory, exploding the literal-minded, anti-intellectual assumptions that guide even the most admiring cinematic explorations of artists’ lives. Rather than turn out yet another dutiful, linear chronicle of childhood trauma and grown-up substance abuse, Mr. Haynes has produced a dizzying palimpsest of images and styles, in which his subject appears in the form of six different people.
Not one is named Bob Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman), though all of them evoke actual and invented points in the Dylan cosmos: Billy the Kid, Woody Guthrie, the Mighty Quinn. They’re not all musicians: One is a poet named Arthur Rimbaud; another is a movie star.
These divergent visions of Dylan are played by two different Australians (Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett); a young British actor (Ben Whishaw); a prepubescent African-American named Marcus Carl Franklin; Richard Gere; and the most recent Batman. Their stories collide and entwine, adding up to an experience that is as fascinating and inexhaustible as listening to “Blood on the Tracks” or “The Basement Tapes.”
It is unusual to see a masterwork emerge from one artist’s absorption with the work of another, though Mr. Haynes came close with “Far From Heaven,” his 2002 homage to the director Douglas Sirk. And while “I’m Not There” is immersed in Dylanology, it is more than a document of scholarly preoccupation or fan obsession.
A scene from the “Woody”-era Dylan.
Devotees of Dylan lore will find their heads swimming with footnotes, as they track Mr. Haynes’s allusions not only to Mr. Dylan’s own music but also to the extensive secondary literature it has inspired, from books by David Hajdu and Greil Marcus to films, including D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary, “Don’t Look Back,” some of which Mr. Haynes remakes shot for shot.
But the film is anything but dry, and like Mr. Dylan’s best songs, it is at once teasingly arcane and bracingly plain-spoken. Mr. Haynes, switching styles, colors, film stocks and editing rhythms with unnerving ease (and with the crucial help of Jay Rabinowitz and Edward Lachman, the editor and the director of photography), has held his cerebral and his visceral impulses in perfect balance. “I’m Not There” respects the essential question Mr. Dylan’s passionate followers have always found themselves asking — What does it mean? — without forgetting that the counter-question Mr. Dylan has posed is more challenging and, for a movie, more important: How does it feel?
As you watch the mid-’60s renegade folk singer Jude Quinn — embodied in Ms. Blanchett’s hunched, skinny frame and photographed in silvery Nouvelle Vague black and white — pinball through swinging London, subsisting on amphetamines, Camel straights and gnomic talk, it feels like a pop earthquake. The ’60s, man! As Mr. Ledger’s character and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) meet, marry and fall apart, it feels like the heartbreaking aftermath of a moment of high promise and possibility. (That would be the ’70s.)
A scene from the Richard Gere Dylan section.
Riding the rails in 1959 with a pint-size, wisecracking hobo who calls himself Woody Guthrie (Mr. Franklin) and saddling up with Mr. Gere’s Billy the Kid in Riddle, Mo., in the 19th century, you feel a piercing nostalgia for a pastoral America that probably existed only in legend. With Christian Bale, playing a star of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene who resurfaces as a Pentecostal minister in Los Angeles years later, you experience a prickle of confusion and morbid curiosity. As it all unfolds, there may be other feelings too, including awe at the quality of the performances and occasional exasperation at Mr. Haynes’s sprawling, hectic virtuosity.
Still, I would not subtract a minute of this movie, or wish it any different. Nor do I anticipate being finished with “I’m Not There” anytime soon, since, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” it invites endless interpretation, criticism and elaboration. Instead of proposing a definitive account of Bob Dylan’s career, Mr. Haynes has used that career as fuel for a wide-ranging (and, if you’ll permit me, freewheeling) historical inquiry into his own life and times. In spite of its title, “I’m Not There” is a profoundly, movingly personal film, passionate in its engagement with the mysteries of the recent past.
“Live in your own time.” That’s the advice young “Woody Guthrie” hears from a motherly woman who offers him a hot meal and a place to sleep. It’s sensible advice — he’s daydreaming of the Depression in the middle of the space age — but also useless. It’s not as if anyone has a choice. To slog through the present requires no particular wit, vision or art. But a certain kind of artist will comb through the old stuff that’s lying around — the tall tales and questionable memories, the yellowing photographs and scratched records — looking for glimpses of a possible future. Though there’s a lot of Bob Dylan’s music in “I’m Not There,” Mr. Haynes is not simply compiling golden oldies. You hear familiar songs, but what you see is the imagination unleashed — the chimes of freedom flashing.
Marcus Carl Franklin, as “Woody.”
“I’m Not There” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sex, swearing, brief violence and drug use.
I’M NOT THERE
Opens today nationwide.
Directed by Todd Haynes; written by Mr. Haynes and Oren Moverman, based on a story by Mr. Haynes; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by James D. Stern, John Sloss, John Goldwyn and Christine Vachon; released by the Weinstein Company. In Manhattan at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
WITH: Christian Bale (Jack/Pastor John), Cate Blanchett (Jude Quinn), Marcus Carl Franklin (Woody Guthrie), Richard Gere (Billy), Heath Ledger (Robbie), Ben Whishaw (Arthur Rimbaud), Kris Kristofferson (Narrator), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), David Cross (Allen Ginsberg), Bruce Greenwood (Keenan Jones/Pat Garrett), Julianne Moore (Alice Fabian), Michelle Williams (Coco Rivington), Richie Havens (Old Man Arvin), Peter Friedman (Morris Bernstein), Alison Folland (Grace), Yolonda Ross (Angela Reeves), Kim Gordon (Carla Hendricks), Mark Camacho (Norman), Joe Cobden (Sonny) and Kristen Hager (Mona).