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‘I’m Not There’: What’s Missing From the Reviews

  • 11/27/07 at 5:43 PM

Less Dylan than Chuck Barris?Photo: Courtesy of Weinstein Co.

It has been fascinating to read the polarized reviews of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, from A.O. Scott’s swooning but richly evocative celebration to Armond White’s frothing evisceration (of both the film and everything Haynes stands for). As someone in (about) the middle (here’s my review), I feel like a Man Without a Country. I even got a curt e-mail from producer Christine Vachon — with whom I wrote a book called Shooting to Kill — expressing her disappointment with me for not recognizing Haynes’s ambition. I’m so off her Christmas list.

Folks, I saw I’m Not There twice and I tried. I tried I tried I tried. I listened to the great albums again. I read Dylan’s Chronicles and Howard Sounes’s bio. I read Greil Marcus’s marvelous — incisive and freewheeling — Like a Rolling Stone. Unlike, say, Armond, I don’t think those critics and viewers who did make the leap into Haynes’s universe are pseuds. Both Scott and Stephanie Zacharek make me proud to be in their profession.

But it was a New Republic essay by Jacob Rubin that got me thinking about the movie anew. Now, I don’t agree with Rubin’s thesis, which is that the film doesn’t show you the human cost of Dylan’s shape-shifting. I see that cost in the eyes of Richard Gere (as Dylan’s Billy the Kid), whose vision of a mountain crucifix is not just a gloss on Casper David Friedrich’s famous painting. There is a suggestion — not overt but implicit — that Dylan has taken himself out of the world in the name of his art, sacrificing his happiness and his essential self in the process.

But Rubin helped me pinpoint what I miss: the will behind Dylan’s transformations. In other words, what interests me isn’t so much the archetypes that Dylan embraces and that Haynes creates using six different actors. It’s the transition from one archetype to the next. Haynes cuts crisply among the different Dylans, but only in the most superficial way imaginable does he dramatize those instants in which one persona can no longer contain him. And each time those transitions are a mark of artistic restlessness rather than an emotional escape hatch. He means the songs, in their glory, to make those transitions more evident and the movie as a whole more fluid. I found it a bit of a fudge, and the film a Cinema Studies experiment that doesn’t transcend its parts. Having recently rewatched the Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back, I don’t even think Cate Blanchett’s esteemed turn as the gnomic, drug-addled star suggests the vulnerable human being we glimpse at every turn. She’s less Dylan than Chuck Barris.

But for Gawd’s sake, see I’m Not There and see how you respond. It’s a great excuse to listen to the music and go out and get wasted with friends and talk about Dylan all night. It will remind you, vividly, how momentous a figure he is in the evolution of popular culture.

Odds and Bodkins
I’ve taken a predictable amount of heat in the wingnut blogosphere for suggesting that Brian De Palma’s Redacted is both (a) a deeply imperfect film, and (b) a laudable response to an unpopular war — the kind of film that artists and filmmakers on both sides should be producing. In my reviews, I acknowledged that these movies — In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs — have been commercial (and critical) disasters and are unlikely to inspire a further wave of social action in Hollywood. I tried to sort out what it means to write about them when you think they’re flawed rush jobs — and have no intention of glossing over their ineptitude — but still admire the impulse behind them. But you can add nuance upon nuance and these people will still misrepresent you: anti-Americanism, slander of the troops, liberal media at odds with the public (which last I heard still opposed the war by a vast majority), ha-ha Malibu’s burning, etc. The enemies of democracy — and I define democracy, in the spirit of Walter Lipmann, as the product of informed and open-minded voters — are the Distortionists.

I meant to write at some length about my experience three weeks ago at the Virginia Film Festival, where John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes played to a huge (sell-out) and hugely enthusiastic crowd — and to bemoan the fact that so many movies we see are on our TV screens (however large). A film like Turturro’s, with its over-the-top emotions and live-wire showmanship, is meant to be savored with a crowd, not in the privacy of one’s living room. In the future, I’ll write about critic Godfrey Cheshire’s expansive, inspiring documentary Moving Midway, which centers on his family’s southern plantation and its role in both this country’s history and its popular culture — a first-rate piece of filmmaking and criticism (and the twain do meet).

But this is the busy season for critics, when we have to watch three or four movies a day and gear up for our year-end ten-best lists and the inevitable (awful) meetings to vote on awards. I know, we should all have such problems … But every movie is its own universe, and jumping from one to the next requires more energy than I can muster and still contribute to this blog. Hence the pathetic absence of postings. Come January, I won’t shut up.