“I’m Not There,” “La Roue”

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05132008_imnotthere.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

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.

05132008_laroue.jpgMonster 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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.