“I’m Not There” Puts Together Bob Dylan’s Pieces

andybeta | November 9, 2007 12:35 pm

Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he checks out Todd Haynes’ look at Bob Dylan’s multiple personalities, I’m Not There.

It must be tough being a baby boomer. On the one hand, you’ve got “The Ken Burns Effect” going on for the generation preceding you and hearing about how “great” their war was, while you lost your war. On the other side, you’ve got them young’uns with their Internets, their ringtones and their Britney Spearses. Who’s going to remember your generation and your music? Remember how great that music was? (Oh, wait, if you do remember how great the music was, then you couldn’t have been there; damned “Freedom Rock” conundrum.) But go onto iTunes, and they don’t even have The Beatles, who were the greatest band ever. If even they can be forgotten, who will remember you?

Thanks to the diligent efforts of directors like Julie Taymor and Martin Scorsese, in the 21st century we can now know about bands like The Beatles (Across the Universe) and The Rolling Stones (Shine a Light). And then there’s Todd Haynes, who has not only reminded us of the awesomeness of the Carpenters (Superstar), David Bowie (Velvet Goldmine), and Douglas Sirk (Far From Heaven), but now unearths this folksinger named Bob Dylan, who was once called “the spokesman for a generation.” But having found Jesus (or was it Judaism?), the now-forgotten Dylan DJs for Sirius Radio and pays his bills by shilling for lingerie.

OK, I’m being slightly facetious here, but I don’t see the point of an already-dominant mythology continually being recapitulated and crammed back down the throat anew. (Then again, the gospel passages read at church don’t really change either.) Haynes’s recent entry in the baby boomer self-thrown fete I’m Not There is better slightly shorter and less confusing than both of Dylan’s movies, 1978’s Reynaldo and Clara and 2003’s Masked and Anonymous, and easier than reading his book Tarantula. And it’s far more fun than trudging through the recent three-disc set Dylan (which Douglas Wolk aptly quipped was “a sarcophagus for an artist who deserves a bazaar instead”), but deconstruction or not, it’s still doctrine, even we do get the bazaar this time out.

Instead of a Behind the Music about Dylan, we get seven fractured fairytales of the man, played by the likes of an 11-year-old African-American kid, a linebacker-necked Heath Ledger, American Gigolo Richard Gere, and–most successful of all–Cate Blanchett, who has the strung-out, nerve-burnt, trembling act of ’65 Dylan down so cold that I’d love to see her do a one-woman show of Eat the Document. None of these characters are nominally “Dylan” and the facts of his life are readily rendered into fables and myth, stratagems the man himself deploys. “I’m not there, I’m gone,” he bays over the end credits, The Band behind him, the lone instance of his voice on the soundtrack and film.

Haynes follows a similar tact as Taymor did for Across the Universe, in that his subject too is transtheistic, absent from the world (save for a glimpse of the man in the waning seconds of the film) yet fully steeped in it. Which is a curious way of suggesting that these artists and their music were so profound as to alter the world they were in. Even if Dylan and the Beatles vanished tomorrow, their influence could never fully disappear.

And yet there are some whoppers in the film (and no, I’m not talking about Dr. Tobias Funke portraying Allen Ginsberg). It takes quite a humble fellow to equate his dissolving marriage with the war in Vietnam and in the sequence involving Gere, the dialogue is lamely cobbled from The Basement Tapes, replete with characters named Mrs. Henry and references to “Chickentown.” We get to see My Morning Jacket’s Jim James in full Reynaldo and Clara whiteface wailing in a gazebo here, but do you mean to tell me there was no way to work in a small scene wherein the fellow playing the snare drum gets hit with a pie that smells?

I’m Not There marks the first occasion that Dylan’s back pages are turned into soundtrack, and despite the tedium of sitting through its two-hour plus runtime there’s still a rush to be had hearing “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and the boot-shuffling “Nashville Skyline Rag” play over the early scenes. When the covers do start cropping up, they sound–if inconsequential and entirely too reverential–at the very least like they were a blast to record. Who wouldn’t want to belt out Dylan karaoke backed by the likes of Calexico (one hopes that this isn’t the lone song they laid down with Willie Nelson), Joe Henry, or the Million Dollar Bashers (comprised of noiseniks like John Medeski, Lee Ranaldo, and Tom Verlaine)? But who needs to hear Stephen Malkmus whine three freakin’ times?

As the baby boomers verily swear, their era was a fun, idyllic, stoned and crazy time (see “Freedom Rock” conundrum), and yet their reverent remembrance of things past is stifling. I’m Not There‘s Dylanfest goes on so long that by the time the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” comes on at full-crank, it’s refreshing and downright edgy. “Live your own time, child,” an elderly woman tells that young, gifted, and black Dylan at one point (who is nostalgic in the McCarthy era for the Depression), but neither in the film nor on the soundtrack is such advice ever heeded.