“What folk music is, is based on myths and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery, and you can see it in all the songs….All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels, and seven years of this and eight years of that, it’s all really something that nobody can touch…I think its meaninglessness is holy.”
It’s a remarkable scene in Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There”: in the backseat of a car moving through London streets, a Bob Dylan symbol (Cate Blanchett) holds forth in words very like the ones above (drawn from actual Dylan interviews from ‘66). He’s brought his new electric sound to the U.K., igniting a firestorm of rage from ex-fans and inquisitors on both sides of the Atlantic enraged that he’s “turned his back” on folk music. He goes on:
“Traditional music is too unreal to die. It doesn't need to be protected. Nobody's going to hurt it…‘Lord Edward,’ ‘Barbara Allen,’ they're full of myth.
Q: And contradictions?
A: Yeah, contradictions.
Q: And chaos?
A: And chaos. And watermelon, clocks, everything…Everybody knows that I'm not a folk singer.”
And then Blanchett looks directly into the camera and the traces of a grin play about her face. Brilliant. Haynes has made a poem about two of my abiding fascinations: Bob Dylan and 60s cinema, and I think somewhere in this scene is a key to enjoying it.
Dylan has knocked me out like nobody else ever since I first heard “Highway 61 Revisited” in ’86 or ‘87. Not long thereafter I began to discover many of the films paid homage in “I’m Not There”: the Blanchett section takes place in 60s-cinema-land, as she walks in Mastroianni’s shoes through the black-and-white world of Fellini’s “8½”. We know that tarantula on the screen: it’s crawled over from Bergman’s “Persona" and is also a reference to "Tarantula", the unfinished novel Dylan was working on at the time. There are nods to Godard, Richard Lester. I remember Dylan once said of this golden age for music and cinema that every day was like that line from T.S. Eliot: “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo”.
Not that any of the characters in “I’m Not There” is called "Bob Dylan", you understand: as you’ve surely heard by now, six actors incarnate Dylan personas (I’ll call them “Dylan-symbols”). There’s a young black kid called Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), hopping freight trains in 1959 (the year Dylan got rolling in his Guthrie-esque troubadour mode). One “Dylan-symbol” (Ben Wishaw) is called Arthur Rimbaud (the "Dylan" of his era?); one is an actor (Heath Ledger, in segments that feel like a Truffaut film, evoking the “Blood on the Tracks” era circa ’74-75, the years of the tumultuous breakdown of Dylan’s marriage to the love of his life, Sara Lowndes, a version of whom Charlotte Gainsbourg (sigh) plays). Christian Bale personifies two Dylan-symbols: the folksinger of the early 60s and the Christian Dylan of the late 70s-early 80s.
Richard Gere’s Dylan-symbol (called Billy the Kid) represents the post-motorcycle accident Dylan who retreated into the country seeking shelter from his fame and the terminal years of the 60s. By making music that embraced tradition and “the old, weird America” (in cultural critic Greil Marcus’s memorable phrase), he seemed to warn the youth counterculture against its tendency to trash all that came before. “Strap yourself to a tree with roots”, he sang at the time. (In the film the 60s keeps intruding on Gere’s idyll in short, bursting shots of war and upheaval, like a storm threatening on the horizon). Gere lives outside of a town called Riddle populated by characters from that “old, weird America” (I liked Jim James singing “Going to Acapulco” in whiteface a la Rolling Thunder-era Dylan).
And then there’s the woman. Blanchett really is genius in her turn as the iconic ’65-‘66 Dylan-symbol, the wild-haired surrealist, the electric dandy chasing that “thin wild mercury sound”, catching grief at every turn from journalists and fans who just don’t get what he’s up to. (Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles, who did get it, make brief, surreal appearances.) Blanchett captures not only the fierce intelligence and wild humor, the gestures and impish grin, but also the amphetamine-fueled nastiness. Incidentally, I remember theorizing in high school that “Bob Dylan” died in that famous accident of ’66. (I didn’t mean to say that I didn’t love records from all phases of his career, just that he was different people after the accident. But then, he’d already been two or three by that time, really). Haynes has made these metaphors literal: in the film the Blanchett Dylan-symbol dies in the accident, and the film starts with his autopsy.
Dylan (the real one this time) granted Haynes rights to his music and the director has used the catalogue in exhilarating, creative ways, mixing Dylan’s own recordings with cover versions. Best to see it at a theater with a good soundsystem and a nice big screen to see the green countryside rolling by from inside the boxcars. There’s a strangely moving scene of Gere’s missing dog running across the hillside, chasing the train Gere’s riding as it pulls out of town, Gere calling for him all the way.
On the other hand, while I’ve heard it said you don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy this movie, I’m a bit skeptical. Since almost every situation recreates well-known photos or footage of Dylan, or is based on characters or episodes from his songs, or on tall tales told by the young self-mythologizing Dylan, and/or is a cinematic homage, and whereas much of the dialogue is drawn from real interviews, I would’ve thought that those with no interest in Dylan won’t get these references and will probably just be annoyed. As for me, I’ll definitely be getting the DVD to analyze it further, but that’s probably missing the point. Remember what Dylan said about meaninglessness, all those years ago.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- Dec 16, 2007