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“I’m Not There”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There,” Weinstein Company, 2007]

A man stands on a stage and plays ferocious, grinding blues. At first glance, the man is Bob Dylan, defiantly pounding away on his electric guitar despite the protestations of an angry crowd at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. On second glance, the man isn’t Bob Dylan at all; the man, in fact, isn’t even a man. It’s Cate Blanchett as “Jude Quinn” in an incredibly lifelike simulacrum of the Manchester show in Todd Haynes’ Dylan deconstruction “I’m Not There.” There’s a lot of that in the movie, scenes of eerie familiarity, still photos or album covers brought to life. If you’re the type of moviegoer (and Dylanaholic) who enjoys scouring a frame for in-jokes and references, this movie is your dream come true.

Blanchett’s Jude isn’t the only Dylan on hand, though — there are five more, played by Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin, each representing a different period of Dylan’s career or side of his personality. Though we know these six characters are different faces of one die, these guys — and yes, Cate’s, playing a guy — look and act like totally different people. Some — like Whishaw’s Arthur — aren’t even musicians. One (Franklin’s Woody) isn’t even the same race as the rest; he’s sort of a straight-faced version of the old Steve Martin gag “I was born a poor black child.” The six Bobs rarely intermingle, and their stories don’t even approach something resembling individual narratives. Instead, “I’m Not There” is an accumulation of character sketches and performances by Dylans, both real and imagined, and an all-star roster of cover artists (including Stephen Malkmus, Antony & the Johnsons, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, and a particularly feisty Richie Havens).

The immediate reaction to all these different Dylans is that their attitudes and appearances are so disparate that they simply cannot be reconciled as facets of the same person. That, I think, is Haynes’ fundamental point. Haynes the artist is examining Dylan the artist, and marveling at his contradictions. Just when his audience thought they understood him as a protest song writing folk hero, Dylan rejected all of that for the image of a disinterested hard rocker (a clash of styles that led to the infamous Manchester show). At the press conference after his film’s screening at the New York Film Festival, Haynes explained that Dylan’s freedom to reinvent himself was always more important to him than the freedom to simply be himself. Whether or not Dylan himself actually believes this (the fact that he authorized this film and permitted Haynes to use his music suggests that at the very least he doesn’t reject the notion), the idea comes through loud and clear in the film.

Unfortunately, that’s about all the movie communicates. Despite Haynes’ obvious affection for his subject, as well as his ample cinematic gifts, “I’m Not There” is a bit impregnable. To be fair, Dylan himself is a bit impregnable; his whole mystique, especially in that “Jude Quinn” period, was built on keeping himself at a remove from his answer-craving audience. Representing that idea on screen cuts off the amount of insights into Dylan at the notion, repeated often, that there can be no insights into Dylan. However appropriate that is to the man himself, it’s unsatisfying to the viewer. I walked out of the film with a deeper appreciation of Dylan’s catalogue, but with little additional knowledge about his life or his ideas. And if Haynes is, as Quinn claims to be, “just a storyteller,” the stories he’s telling aren’t particularly dynamic, especially those starring Gere and Ledger, who do not even attempt to “play” Dylan (in the way that Blanchett and Bale, with their accents and looks, do) and whose storylines feel a bit pointless.

Even as it dances between visual styles and color palettes (the Blanchett portions are Felliniesque black and white, the Ledger chapters are filled with rich greens, the Gere segments sooty and brown), there remains something inexplicably cold about “I’m Not There.” I deeply respect its intentions, admire both its filmmaker and its subject, but have very little affection for the finished product.

That famous “Royal Albert Hall” concert in Manchester has one of the most remarkable moments in the history of 20th century music. In between songs during his electric set, one member of the audience calls Dylan Judas. While tuning his guitar for the next number, Dylan responds: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” then turns to the band and orders “Play fucking loud!” before launching into a blistering rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Curiously, in the Haynes version, Dylan does not get his revenge or the last laugh. It’s like a cover version without the original’s passion or fire, and it occurs to me that that despite all the different angles the film shows of Dylan, that one, maybe the most important, is the thing “I’m Not There” is missing.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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