I'm Not There [R]
The first thing you need to keep in mind about Todd Haynes’ enigmatic I’m Not There: he once made a biopic of the Carpenters using Barbie dolls instead of actors.
Very few have ever seen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Due to court action, you can be sued or maybe drawn and quartered or perhaps dropped down a bottomless pit for screening it. I'm not sure which. I do know one person who has seen it. Once you get past the fact you’re watching plastic figurines, he says, it becomes a tremendously moving story.
From that perspective, hiring six different flesh-and-blood actors to play Bob Dylan – including the certifiably female Cate Blanchett and an African-American youngster (Marcus Carl Franklin) – looks like a relative step into the mainstream. At least before you realize this is a Bob Dylan biopic that never even mentions the folk singer’s name. Each actor assumes a Dylan identity, each at a different career stage, with a unique name that isn't "Bob Dylan." The idea is so whacked out that you’re free to think Haynes has returned to his two great loves – pop music history and overthinking.
Haynes has a radical sense of film language, and he sees the division between the meaning of a film and the elements that deliver it. Hence Barbie dolls are fine, maybe preferable, as long as the idea gets through. If you think of the idea … the message … the theme as a seed at a film’s core, then most directors would produce an apple, an easily digestible standby and a crowd favorite. Haynes would make a mango, a delicacy of far more exotic and less familiar flesh.
While one day that may (or may not) become known as the mango theory of filmmaking, Haynes doesn’t leave the theory behind the camera. He finds analogies in the creation (and re-creation) of Bob Dylan’s personality as he moves through life. The fruit takes on different flavors, but the seed remains the same.
And what is Dylan's seed? Anti-conformist defiance. And what does that do? It gives Dylan the appearance of a fluid personality, bordering on nihilism, when in fact he’s only holding true to his own impish, contrarian nature.
At one point, a late-sixties Dylan makes a sexist wisecrack in front of a feminist during that movement's trendy heyday. How, his guests wonder, could such an emblem of "The Movement" make such a remark? Obviously, to them, Dylan has changed.
In fact, that’s one in a line of moments when people accuse Dylan of changing (or betraying). That’s the danger of music's communal nature; it invites people into a union with the person they think you are. At one point, Dylan bemoans to the camera that smart people should never create anything; it can only end with you being misunderstood.
In that way, Haynes identifies a split between Dylan’s private life and his public persona. As a result, the film makes a number of out-there references, pointing out entertainers’ weird relationships with their personas. Dylan played a role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. At one point, Dylan takes the name Billy the Kid, living in a surrealistic town on a Western set, governed by an authority figure named Pat Garrett. (How weird is that?) There’s also a funny reference to Beatles’ movies, the grandaddy of movies with musical stars playing their personas onscreen.
But remember, the process of creating identity isn't a one-way street. It isn't just seed to fruit. It needs a good sprinkle from the outside world. During our first encounter with Dylan, he is a black teen-ager going by the name Woody Guthrie. For instance, his persona is a nod to one inspiration, like the way the real Robert Zimmermann snatched his stage name from the poet Dylan Thomas. During Blanchett’s stoned-out visit to London, s/he evokes the fifth Beatle (his name - Jude Quinn might be taken from popular songs "Hey Jude" and "The Mighty Quinn." )
Throughout the film, Dylan is pestered by a journalist named Mr. Jones, a name taken from the unhip character in a famous Dylan song. Jones is mystified by Dylan’s personality, miffed that he doesn't define himself by consistency in his beliefs. The difference is stark. When Jones makes a point about everyone in the room agreeing on the definition of a man, Dylan retorts, "Do we?"
The issues brought up by I’m Not There are interesting because we live in the Golden Age of the Musical Biopic. As I said in my review of Control, Walk the Line is the film that defines the genre. One of that movie's hang-ups is that it settles with the public version of those performers, the ones we want rather than the ones they were. I think this film is a criticism of that style, and that's the ultimate meaning. If Dylan isn't there, the "there" is the place where other people expect him to be.