Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007) is such a risky, ambitious, passionate conceptual big-brain freak of a movie that, whether you find yourself loving it or hating it or not knowing what in hell to make of it, you can sympathize and even agree with anyone who ends up with the opposite takeaway. Ambivalence is an appropriate response, and one Haynes probably intended, given his subject: Bob Dylan, or, rather, the elusive, chameleonic, deliberately free-associative nature of Dylan’s public personality, and the idealized and sometimes ridiculous ways we’ve conceived it for ourselves, and hence the absurdity of pop culture celebrity in general. A lot of abstracted meat and potatoes for one film to tackle, and Haynes, easily the most theoretical and analytical indie filmmaker at work today, goes for the gusto, crafting a weave-movie made of strands that only occasionally cross each other’s dreamscapes and more often launch out into the ether. He’s not telling us anything about Dylan per se; he’s building a kind of sculptural study of the very hectic shape of the icon’s mythified story.
Which sounds as if it might not be stampede viewing at times, and sometimes it isn’t. Haynes works with roughly six threads, each of which playact through or simply comment upon one aspect of Dylan’s arc: Christian Bale as a Dylan-esque folk god who goes evangelical; Cate Blanchett in drag as the ’60s acoustic-to-electric, interview-disaster Dylan; Marcus Carl Franklin as a self-legendizing black 12-year-old who hops trains, calls himself Woody Guthrie and visits the real dying Guthrie on his deathbed; Heath Ledger as the James Dean-ish movie actor who attained crass fame by playing Bale’s character in a biopic; Ben Whishaw as a talking-head “Arthur Rimbaud,” dispensing cryptic observations straight into a documentary camera; and Richard Gere as a kind of lost outlaw wandering through a surreal Old West full of circus dwarfs and giraffes. Haynes’ strategy for organizing this snake pit of narrative ideas is not to have one; the film bops from one to the other, again, much like Dylan always slipped like a blob of mercury from one high-flying story about himself to another.
The period details are ironically immaculate the autumn exteriors have the extra-golden glow otherwise found only on old folk album covers and though Haynes has his Fellini moments, mostly the stew of styles is balanced between the all-Americana of “Bound for Glory” (Hal Ashby’s 1976 biopic of Guthrie) and strictly faux-documentary. (The fake Pennebaker stuff is on the money, but how did Haynes resist the temptation of reconsidering the mid-’60s filming of “Dont Look Back”?) The performances are all edgy and fine, though it’s an injustice that Blanchett’s fidgety gag riff got Oscar-nominated and not Bale’s far more convincing and grounded turn. Obviously, “I’m Not There” works best for Dylan obsessives, who will know which song lyric or bogus interview tale or biographical hiccup is being alluded to, even as the red carpet of Dylan songs (performed by Dylan and others, though none by the cast) rolls out over them. (The DVD even indexes the movie by song as well as by chapter.) It’s safe to say, being less than obsessive, I missed a few ligaments, but the overall thrust of the movie, which clocks in a two and a quarter hours, is not one of revelation or, certainly, dramatic accumulation. Sometimes it dawdles and loafs and stumbles, much like the Dylan characters in their off-stage highs. Sometimes, pretension creeps in like mold. We can expect no less from such an eccentric gamble; Haynes is right in not making a safe or orthodox film about Dylan, even if it’s at a cost.
Monster epic pioneer Abel Gance was an even bigger gambler, and it’s stunning to consider that “La Roue” (1923), the official running time of which clocks in at over five hours, wasn’t his biggest cinematic project (that’d be, famously, “Napoleon,” four years later, although “La Roue”‘s initial length in France was said to have been over seven hours). Gance was also a restless, relentless re-inventor of cinema, and his best films can play like a mad scientist’s laboratory at full crank, filthy with inexplicable angles, double exposures, impossibly moving cameras, crazed speed montages (“La Roue”‘s came before Eisenstein), etc. “La Roue” is a massive, tragic melodrama, but it’s also a high-gear modernist landmark, and its restoration and DVD release is an event; probably due to its length, Gance’s movie was never released in the U.S., and it’s remained one of the most elusive and rarest of monumental silent classics. The current edition runs four and a half hours, which, since “La Roue” was butchered down to modest sizes wherever it went, is as long as it’s been seen anywhere since 1923.
The milieu, which Gance felt possessed a titanic symbolic vitality, is the railroad yards and workers’ habitats of early century France no other film, not even Keaton’s “The General,” has ever iconicized locomotives, and the labor they require, so intensely. The story seems simple: a trainwreck-orphaned girl is taken in by a gruff rail worker and grows into a luminous beauty, and nearly everyone falls in love with her including, tortuously, her stepfather and her violin-making stepbrother, whom she thinks are her birth family. But Gance packs in enough narrative and moral agony and mad poetry for three Greek plays, stretching the timeframe out to years and ending up, for real, on the snowy cliff-edges of Mont Blanc. For all of Gance’s heedless image-making and Herzogian risks (Gance never took the easy way out when he could instead place the camera where a train might obliterate it or a cast member might fall into an Alpine ravine), the physical-visual torrent of “La Roue” is almost overshadowed by the presence, as the rail worker, of Severin-Mars, a grandstanding legend in his day with an unforgettable face like a saddened, demon-eyed stallion. The scholarship-heavy DVD package comes with a rare short made during production by Gance’s assistant director, Blaise Cendrars.
[Photos: Christian Bale in “I’m Not There,” Weinstein Co, 2007; “La Roue,” 1923]
“I’m Not There” (Genius Products) and “La Roue” (Flicker Alley) are now available on DVD.