In I’m Not There, Todd Haynes has devised a Bob Dylan biopic that not even Dylan, for all his self-mythologizing, would have had the audacity to conceive. Directly answering the charge—made by devastated idolaters when the singer-songwriter abandoned folky protest songs for rock in the mid-sixties—that Dylan is an opportunist, a Judas, a hollow man, a fabulist who believes in nothing and picks up and discards one fake persona after another, Haynes makes a passionate case that this protean quality is, in fact, the source of Dylan’s greatness. He segments his protagonist into seven different characters (played by six actors), each of whom embodies one of Dylan’s “lives,” then tells the artist’s story in more or less chronological order but with plenty of syntactical stuttering—echoes, fantasies, flashbacks, skip-aheads. For all the busyness, though, there’s a feeling of loss, a hint that Dylan is a kind of Christ figure—that he has sacrificed some core of earthly stability and happiness to be able to embody and evoke the restless spirit of America.
It’s a woo-woo conceit, but not without precedent. The idea of a protean Dylan is at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home, although Scorsese’s tone is more impudent: He did, after all, have to put up with Dylan’s un-Christlike demands while shooting The Last Waltz. Certainly something has to account for the way Dylan’s songs, at nearly every phase of his life, transcend his pettiness and posturing and tap into what Haynes and others (me, too) consider a kind of cultural oversoul. I’d swallow this line more avidly if I’m Not There weren’t so arch and overcontrolled—if the director didn’t seem to be deconstructing Dylan in lieu of getting into his head. Too often, it’s the movie that isn’t there. What’s meant to be archetypal comes across as superficial.
It’s not that Haynes is overly reverent. You’re not supposed to take seriously Dylan as a young African-American kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) who hops aboard a freight train with a guitar case that reads THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS and identifies himself to hobos as “Woody Guthrie.” But his blackness is supposed to signal the open, trusting soul under the faker—and when a middle-aged African-American woman places her hand on him and says, “Sing about your own time, child,” it’s a signal from on high. (It’s God—and she’s black.) Our protagonist then transforms into Christian Bale as a “troubadour of conscience” arriving in Greenwich Village in 1961 and moving into the protest arena as the Vietnam War escalates. In faux interviews, actors playing Dylan’s exes put the era in perspective—but Julianne Moore as the Joan Baez stand-in is so much less foulmouthed and fun than the real thing (in Scorsese’s documentary), and Bale is a stiff. Where is the unhygienic little schnorrer who slept on people’s couches and forgot about most of them when he made it big? Either Haynes doesn’t know where the drama is or he doesn’t want to know. That would mean settling down and giving the film a present tense.
Heath Ledger as the James Dean–like matinee idol and ladies’ man Dylan isn’t much more compelling, but Ledger at least gets to play his scenes opposite the soulful, jolie laide Charlotte Gainsbourg as his sad-eyed lady of the lowlands. For a time, her character’s consciousness moves to the center of the film—a sign that Haynes is as bored by Ledger’s persona as we are. Does Haynes want his actors to be this bad—to depersonalize them? It’s more likely he’s a victim of his own gimmick. He can’t give Ledger more facets because the character would become too complete a human being.
Haynes works from the outside in, and at his most inspired (parts of Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, and his little-seen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), he meets himself coming from the inside out—a magical fusion of mimicry and heart that’s not unlike Dylan’s. That doesn’t happen here. Black-and-white scenes featuring Ben Whishaw as Dylan the Rimbaud disciple (“Me, I’m a trapeze artist”) are ludicrous, and even Richard Gere’s soft brown eyes can’t save the sequence in which Dylan, as an aged Billy the Kid, confronts his old nemesis, Pat Garrett. The only part of I’m Not There that soars features Cate Blanchett as the Dylan of D. A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document: the gnomic, drug-addled anti-prophet with the curly hair and sunglasses and the wide streak of cruelty. Blanchett works from the outside in, too, and Dylan’s actual utterances were amazing.
I’m Not There is the antithesis of Velvet Goldmine, in which Haynes clearly identifies with kids whose hearts are broken by the film’s central figure—a David Bowie–like rock star who betrays the bisexual spirit of glam and even allies himself with an Orwellian Fascist government. Here, Dylan’s abandonment of folk is a mark of a pure and ungovernable spirit—and the proof is in the soundtrack, much of it Dylan originals, along with a few harmless covers. Haynes doesn’t invoke Keats, but the movie is a monument to “negative capability,” to the artist’s ability to lose himself in higher mysteries.
It’s telling that Haynes doesn’t show you the early Dylan, i.e., Robert Zimmerman, which would require him to probe a little more deeply than Dylan’s teenage James Dean obsession and brief passion for Rimbaud. Last week, NPR’s “Fresh Air” re-aired a 1991 interview with Norman Mailer, in which Terry Gross asked why he’d never written about his Jewishness. “It hasn’t been a major theme, but it has informed every sentence I’ve written,” said Mailer. He then paraphrased Norman Podhoretz to the effect that there are two kinds of Jew, the traditionally observant, for whom the Jewish identity is paramount, and a Jew like Mailer, who “became the mirror of the time and aped the manners of all the people who are not Jewish—didn’t copy them literally but became so sensitive to the manners of those who were not Jewish that he might end up knowing more about them than they did.”
That’s the piece that’s missing from I’m Not There—and I say that not out of ethnic pride but out of a sense that this transfixing, bewildering, exhausting movie leaves you feeling hungry for something that is there. Haynes’s anti-psychological view of Dylan isn’t so far from Peter Shaffer’s vapid, braying Mozart, whose music has nothing to do with him—it’s piped in from God. It’s a view that both overexalts Dylan and belittles him without coming close to illuminating his mystery.
Pardon my actor-speak, but Frank Langella has grown into his apparatus. When he was a young leading man, his deep voice could seem too plangent, his movements too deliberate; his gravity could suggest, rightly or wrongly, self-worship. (Those things made him an excellent Dracula, however.) But in the last decade, as William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck and Nixon (onstage in Frost/Nixon), he was better than good; he was perfect. As Leonard Schiller, a forgotten literary novelist in Starting Out in the Evening, he is better than that. This is what great screen acting is about. It’s not a flamboyant performance. Langella is never more expressive than when he’s immobile, unsmiling, staring out from a body that has become too lumbering a vessel for his churning brain. The movie is about Schiller’s relationship with two women: his protective daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), who shares her anxieties about growing old without having a child, and Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a vivid and vivaciously pretty graduate student who says his first novel changed her life and wants to write a master’s thesis that will spur his rediscovery. She seems to want something else, too, but Schiller knows he’s a decade too old for the game she wants to play.
Upper West Side intellectuals, people who talk like writers, a May-December romance: The movie has the trappings of something insufferable. It isn’t, though. It’s marvelous. It’s unapologetically literary, minus the contempt of Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. These are people who use books to live fuller lives. Andrew Wagner (who co-wrote the script with Fred Parnes) made a lovely family road documentary called The Talent Given Us and brings the same wry but affectionate eye to the characters here. Every time the movie threatens to evolve into melodrama, Wagner pulls back—but the actors show, in their eyes, the passion that could lead to melodrama. Taylor—a superb actress in a comeback role—is wary without being a drag; Ambrose is neither totally ingenuous nor totally calculating but an irreducible mixture of both. Above all is Langella, achingly vulnerable under layers of flesh. In one scene, alone, he eats peanut butter intensely, thoughtfully, and nothing he could do as Hamlet would seem deeper or more poetic.
I’m still recovering from Frank Darabont’s The Mist, a Stephen King adaptation with CGI beasties, derivative setups, and patches of clunky dialogue that somehow transcends the horror genre and becomes a cry of despair, both primal and of this moment. I’ll write about it next week. Be very afraid.
The real Bob Dylan doesn’t appear in I’m Not There, but he does have a filmography. Dylan played the small role of “Alias” in the 1973 Western film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Then, in 1975, he wrote and directed the panned surrealist film Renaldo and Clara (Sam Shepard and Allen Ginsberg also pitched in), in which he appeared as Renaldo, while ex-lover Joan Baez played the “Woman in White.” He was an artist in Dennis Hopper’s Catchfire, and a chauffeur in 1999’s film noir Paradise Cove. And in 2003, he co-wrote and starred in (as a legendary singer) Masked and Anonymous—which the Times called an “unholy, incoherent mess.”