We’re barely literate in Bob Dylanese, so a fair amount of Todd Haynes‘ "I’m Not There" went over our head, or dodged past us when we weren’t looking, or bulldozed us and left us for dead. It’s a tricky beast, Haynes’ fractured biopic, which tries to present a glimpse of the elusive Dylan through the prisms of different personas but ends up being, as you might expect, more revealing about Haynes himself. Given that most of the storylines refer only obliquely to periods and themes in Dylan’s life, non-Dylan devotees may sometimes feel like they’re watching a French sitcom in a room full of chuckling Francophones with only a few years of high school Spanish with which to decipher what’s going on. Still, for the most part, "I’m Not There" is just fine, an uneven, ambitious, flawed attempt at circumventing all of the conventions of putting someone’s life onto the screen.
The Dylans are, in approximate order of importance: Jude (Cate Blanchett), "Dont Look Back"-era Dylan going electric at the "New England Jazz and Folk Festival" and dueling with reporters while on tour in England; Billy (Richard Gere), formerly "the Kid," whiling away his days in hiding in rural and presumably early 1900s Missouri; Robbie (Heath Ledger), an actor who finds fame from his role in a biopic of a vanished folk singer named Jack; Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an improbable musical prodigy living the life of a ’30s hobo despite it being the late ’50s; Jack himself (Christian Bale), seen through the lens of an investigative documentary style; and Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), a poet under interrogation. Blanchett’s gotten the most attention, and it’s all deserved â€” she’s riveting as Dylan at his most iconic, a chain-smoking, hopped-up, charismatic mess who’s sometimes a right bastard and other times tremblingly vulnerable, muttering "I’ve just got to clean up a little bit, and I’ll be fine." The film’s a billion times more alive in the Jude segments than it is elsewhere, maybe because it’s the storyline that directly engages in Haynes’ treasured topics of fame and the cultivated persona. Jude, fending off betrayed fans who stare down the camera in anguish, trailing after and then chasing away an Edie Sedgwick character (Michelle Williams), verbally disemboweling a friend at a party just because he can, always threatened to shake apart with the effort of remaining in the limelight, particularly when a certain BBC reporter (Bruce Greenwood) thinks he has Jude pinned. But there’s no solving a person (something we’re reminded when Greenwood turns up again as a failed, old Pat Garrett to Gere’s supposedly slain Billy), and "I’m Not There" also refuses to pin Dylan down, leaving the film with a strange central absence. The other Dylan figures are just ideas, the worst â€” Billy â€” an awkward, embarrassing, half-formed metaphor. Robbie is the only other one to stand out. His story is a straightforward if not clichÃ©d one of a marriage crumbling (the most inexplicable â€” a summation of Dylan’s treatment of the women in his life?), but flashbacks to scenes set in Greenwich Village in the ’60s are aglow with melancholy nostalgia. It’s clear what era, scene and section of his subject’s life Haynes is most attracted to, and just as clear that he felt the need to diffuse that energy into other concepts that just don’t work when put on screen, all for the sake of this "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Musical Icon" conceit. It’s a great conceit, but it’s better in theory than in practice, and better in "Velvet Goldmine" than here, alas.
"I’m Not There" screens October 4 at 8:30pm and October 6 at 10am at Frederick
P. Rose Hall. It opens November 16th in limited release from Magnolia.