Film : Six views of Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There"
As one of the Vineyard's premier music venues, Outerland makes an appropriate setting for Todd Haynes's award-winning film about Bob Dylan and his music. "I'm Not There" is built around landmark Dylan songs that have impacted the sound of folk, rock, and other popular music forms.
Also the director of "Velvet Goldmine" and "Far From Heaven," Mr. Haynes turns the Hollywood biopic genre upside-down in "I'm Not There," and creates something unique. Six different actors play Dylan, one of the most influential and popular musicians of the last 50 years.
Cinematically, Mr. Haynes's approach is risky, and the casual viewer may find Dylan's multiple personas more than a bit challenging to follow. Think of Picasso's famous 1909 cubist sculpture, "Fernande Olivier," where the artist has fractured his mistress's face into a complex of three-dimensional planes to make a more authentic portrait, and you get the idea behind Haynes's revolutionary project.
Fracturing Dylan's public image makes a lot of sense for such a chameleon-like performer. His genius as a musician and songwriter is based in his ability to reinvent himself almost continually.
The first, freight-car-hopping Dylan persona the viewer spends time with is played by young Marcus Carl Franklin. As far-fetched as it might seem to turn Dylan into a 13-year-old African-American urchin who calls himself Woody Guthrie, those familiar with the singer's history can appreciate the connections. Both African-American and folk traditions play important roles in Dylan's music.
Dylan aficionados can also appreciate the Guthrie persona allusion through the way Dylan, whose real name is Zimmerman, mythologized his Minnesota upbringing, which was middle class. Almost from the beginning, Dylan was turning himself into someone else.
Ben Whishaw appears as another Dylan character, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who influenced many of the singer's lyrics. Actor Christian Bale performs two separate Dylan incarnations: Jack Rollins as the character in one musical phase and Dylan as a minister during his Born-Again phase. The late Heath Ledger fills out aspects of Dylan's personal and romantic history by playing Robbie Clark, married to Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
By far the most riveting transformation is Cate Blanchett's. She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for her impersonation of Dylan as Jude Quinn. As Dylan, she cavorts with the Beatles in England, battles with his interviewers and even confronts one crazed hotel staff member trying to stab him.
In interviews, the director has said he wanted to cast a woman from the start for the version of Dylan performing during the musician's electric period, believing that a woman would actually reveal something about the singer that a man couldn't. Haynes points to Blanchett's fearlessness and chutzpah as an actor, as well as her physicality as the reasons he chose her for the part. Blanchett's Dylan rendition alone makes the movie worth watching.
Richard Gere plays a version of Dylan based on Billy the Kid. During the scenes in which Gere appears, the movie drops back into a surreal reworking of the old West influenced by the photography of Ralph Meatyard. These scenes may be the hardest to digest, although Haynes explains them as aspects of a Dylan that exists only in the mind, while other personas live in the real world.
The director uses numerous devices to unify this complexly layered movie. Much of it is shot with black and white stock in a documentary-like format. Kris Kristofferson recurs as a narrative voice, Eric Newsome as a 60s narrator, Jane Wheeler as a TV host and Julianne Moore as Alice Fabian, a pseudo Joan Baez who is interviewed about Dylan. The film proceeds in a roughly chronological fashion, which helps the viewer make sense of the kaleidoscope of Dylan characters.
The title for "I'm Not There" comes from one of Dylan's songs, and the movie is filled with cinematic as well as musical allusions, including Godard, Bergman Fellini and D. A. Pennebaker, who made the 1967 documentary on Dylan, "Don't Look Back." Haynes has packed "I'm Not There" with cinematic techniques and devices that enliven the film, ranging from tableau pans to magazine covers that come alive.
The director may have best explained his approach to capturing Dylan by saying Dylan "lives and dies in the performance. He is the ultimate performer." But even for moviegoers who are not particular fans of Dylan, "I'm Not There" resonates powerfully as a film that investigates the nature of celebrity in contemporary society.
It doesn't matter that the real Bob Dylan, whoever that may be, is not "there." What matters is that he has escaped the harsh light and destructive forces of celebrity. He has remained free to make and perform his legendary music.
The Martha's Vineyard Film Society sponsors the special dinner-and-movie event at Outerland, Saturday, May 17. Dinner will be available starting at 6 pm, with a screening of "I'm Not There," following at 8 pm. Moviegoers need not have dinner to attend the movie.
"I'm Not There", Outerland, Martha's Vineyard Airport. Dinner served 6-8 pm; movie at 8 pm. Movie tickets $8 ($6 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society members). Call 508-693-1137 ext. 13 for dinner reservations.
Brooks Robards, is a frequent contributor to The Times.