Reading Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I longed desperately for its better, earlier version, Mrs. Dalloway. In much the same way, I wished I were watching D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back (1967) while sitting through Todd Haynes’s riff on the life and music of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. Haynes’s movie opens with a clear homage to the cinema verité style of Don’t Look Back: the camera, standing in for the singer, hustles through some doors and up some stairs onto a stage, to be greeted by cheering fans. This is followed by a montage of ’60s-era subway footage accompanying the credits, ending with the camera speeding onto Greenwich Village’s 4th Street, scored to the tune of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” (Why not “Positively 4th Street”?) It’s a decent music video, but a better one is “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which opens Don’t Look Back. An actor playing Allen Ginsberg makes a sort of cameo appearance in I’m Not There; Don’t Look Back has the real thing, heavily overcoated in the background, while Dylan drops placards, slightly off-rhythm.
The Dylan of Don’t Look Back was the real thing too, in the UK on his last acoustic tour, arguing with a magazine interviewer that magazines like Newsweek and Time have too much to lose if they print the truth (true), and that he’s as good a singer as Enrico Caruso (false). One of the continuing pleasures of the documentary is its almost unbearable reality, not just in its depiction of Dylan himself—who frequently comes off as an unbearable, bullying egoist—but also in its attentiveness to the surrounding power brokers and hangers-on: for example, the fan who plasters herself to the windshield of Dylan’s speeding car, and the hovering presence of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, attempting in one extended scene to raise the amount of money Dylan gets from a concert appearance. Pennebaker is perhaps too star-struck for his or Dylan’s good, but he remains clear-eyed (and Dylan remains irritating) enough to keep the film from becoming instant hagiography.
I’m Not There (in some reports, the film is subtitled “Suppositions on a Film Concerning Bob Dylan”) attempts to upend the conventional Hollywood biopic by having not one but six actors play versions of Bob Dylan, each of them with different names and histories cobbled together from the vast archives of Dylanology. In the section helmed by Cate Blanchett’s deft impersonation (named “Jude Quinn”), widely considered I’m Not There’s most successful, entertaining, and innovative, Haynes restages entire scenes from Don’t Look Back, as well as from Pennebaker’s unreleased follow-up Eat the Document, which chronicled Dylan’s 1966 “electric” tour, many scenes from which appeared in Martin Scorsese’s recent, somewhat fawning PBS documentary, No Direction Home (2005). For anyone vaguely familiar with any of these films, the sense of déjà vu in watching I’m Not There is ceaseless, unyielding, and finally overwhelming.
It helped Pennebaker’s documentaries that they were nearly contemporary with their subject, humanizing him against the tide that claimed him as a new Isaiah. But since then, Dylan’s music has gotten worse and worse, while his image in the nostalgic public mind—thanks to ceaseless marketing of Dylan product by record labels and their useful idiots in the media (like Scorsese)—has been perpetually burnished. Haynes does little more than bank on this store of accumulated goodwill. The recreated scenes of I’m Not There stem from Haynes’s guiding assumption that Dylan is transcendence itself, so manifestly a god that any attempt to pin him down (even with six Hollywood stars) will end in failure. The scenes are designed for those who already know them—those millions of supposed Dylan believers, who are meant to experience all the references as pleasurable recognition and as confirmation of their devout faith.
In one of the film’s better scenes, Allen Ginsberg (Arrested Development‘s David Cross) catches up with Dylan on the road, riding in something like an uncovered golf cart. Ginsberg’s driver says, “Allen, tell him what you said to that reporter. The one that asked you if you thought Jude had sold out.” Ginsberg says, “I said I didn’t know. Perhaps you’d sold out to God?” Quinn (Blanchett) smirks, and in a pitch-perfect Dylan voice says, “What does that even mean, man?” As Ginsberg drives away, another person in the car, who resembles Dylan’s constant companion Bob Neuwirth, says, “See you later, Allen Ginsberg.” Nearly every line of dialogue here is a reference. The line about selling out to God is something Ginsberg actually said. (In reality, he followed it with a typically mawkish statement: “His command was to spread his beauty as wide as possible.”) Even the offhand “See you later, Allen Ginsberg” can be “caught” by those in the know: it’s the name of a throwaway 1967 song from one of Dylan’s basement tapes (“After a while, smockawhile / See you later, Allen Ginsberg”). In the scene that precedes Ginsberg’s appearance, a journalist in the car, noting Dylan’s constant coughing, patronizingly observes, “You look and sound very tired, very ill. Is this your normal state?” In a contrived Scottish accent, the Neuwirth figure chimes in, “Do you suffer from sore eyes, groovy forehead, or curly hair? Take Zomdom!”—a line which in Eat the Document was actually spoken by John Lennon.
At least one critic has compared, without embarrassment, the film’s incessant referencing and cataloguing as analogous to Finnegan’s Wake. A more reasonable interpretation is that Haynes is drowning in his film school education, just as his audience is drowning in allusions, and not a single original idea floats by to rescue him or us. As with the dialogue, so with the cinematographic technique and camera-style, which in the Blanchett section has been taken unapologetically from Fellini’s 8 1/2. And it’s not just technique: whole scenes are imitations, or “impersonations,” of Fellini’s movie. There’s a slow tracking shot in which the camera floats past a row of traffic-jammed cars, as in the opening of 8 1/2; and a brief glimpse of Quinn/Dylan about to float away from a circus into the black-and-white sky, except for being lassoed at his feet, which repeats exactly the predicament of Fellini’s director Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2‘s opening dream sequence. In his hotel room, Quinn cuts out images from magazines, just as Guido did (and as Dylan himself did in Don’t Look Back). Like Guido, Quinn is constantly pursuing a potentially redemptive but perpetually elusive female figure, Coco Rivington (Michelle Williams), a clear stand-in for the actual tormentor Edie Sedgwick. 8 1/2‘s patronizing screenwriter (whose description of Guido’s movie—“the film is a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism”—holds for I’m Not There) reappears as the patronizing journalist, sitting in the same curved white chair in which the screenwriter first appears in 8 1/2. (As if to point out that he has seen other films too, Haynes makes Quinn roll around and giggle in the grass with Beatles lookalikes, a la A Hard Day’s Night.) Haynes has used Fellini for obvious reasons. One is to explore the deleterious effect of celebrity on an artist, on his or her ability to keep relationships, respond to the press, or even complete any work. But these are points Fellini already underscored in 8 1/2 (and which Woody Allen further plagiarized in 1980’s Stardust Memories).
Haynes’s slavish, LP-collector-like faithfulness to his sources has been in evidence before: His last film, Far From Heaven (2002) was a fastidious pastiche of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas, and critics loved it for being just that. Haynes’s archival zeal has worse consequences for I’m Not There, since, despite the film’s strident and flashy evasions of the fact, Haynes is dealing with a real, living figure. Just as the self-reflexivity of 8 1/2 had the effect of valorizing the figure of the “film director” more than any movie before or since (making it a beloved film among directors), I’m Not There canonizes Bob Dylan with more fervor than even a conventional biopic might have.
It was during a recreation of the London concert at which a betrayed folk fan screamed “Judas!” at Dylan that I realized the best analogy for I’m Not There is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Only Gibson’s film is equal in its commitment to surreal reverence and literalism. The truly unbearable aspect of the Passion was not its primeval anti-Semitism or pornographic bloodshed; it was its predictability. Despite being a story that so many know down to its barest details (in four separate versions), Gibson retold it with grinding exactitude. Even Gibson’s recourse to dead languages had no effect on the film’s sense of inevitability. The horror that dawned on me when I realized that I knew—and that everyone who had read the Gospel of Matthew (or Ginsberg’s “Howl”) knew—the Aramaic for “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (“Eli, eli, lamma sabacthani?”) was the same horror that gripped me when I realized I’m Not There couldn’t resist a recreation of the “Dylan-goes-electric” 1965 Newport folk festival, replete with the apocryphal story of Pete Seeger attempting to take an axe to the electric cords because he couldn’t hear Dylan explaining that he wasn’t going to work on Maggie’s farm anymore.
Todd Haynes was four years old when Highway 61 Revisited (1965) came out, and when the United States launched its full-scale invasion of Vietnam. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I’m Not There is besotted with the ’60s, and with the Dylan of that era. Most of the soundtrack can be traced to about three albums from that time. There’s an obvious reason for this: Dylan’s music was better then, and only a shameless apologist would argue that he didn’t undergo a creative decline after Blonde on Blonde (1966).
But there’s another reason for focusing on the 1960s: politics. Dylan had an initially salutary relation to political movements of his time, particularly civil rights, but eventually he abandoned politics and his political allies, as he abandoned folk music and his folk fans. Not that his music didn’t treat political subjects afterwards (cf. “They Shot George Jackson” or “Hurricane”), but he simply wasn’t as involved or openly interested. In No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese attempted to explain this away by sanctifying all of Dylan’s moves—because the verdict of History had spoken: it was Dylan’s calling to go his own way.
Haynes thinks so too. He, like Dylan, is enthusiastic about the feel of the political but is embarrassed by actual politics. To enter politics is to become interested, aligned, and subject to judgment—things that the greatest artists, the story goes, are hesitant to do. Haynes poses this banal issue in an early scene, in which an extremely young Dylan, irritatingly named Woodie Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), finds himself at the dinner table of a black family in the American south. Guthrie talks excitedly about the ancient topics of his folk songs, and a wise, heavy-set black matriarch—a stereotype straight out of Gone With the Wind—begins to interrogate him. Why sing about all this hand-me-down cultural junk, she wonders, when all around there are race riots and cities in flames? Realizing she’s overstepped her bounds, she cuts herself short, but Guthrie, staring ominously down at the table, insists that she go on: “No. Say it.” She leans down, and, with her voice reaching way down deep into the well of black wisdom, calmly intones: “Live your own time, son—sing your own time.”
But Dylan can never quite “live his own time” because, as Haynes believes, he is so much greater than that time. The consequences of this situation become most clear in Heath Ledger’s scenes, in which Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor himself who in one film has played Dylan from another section of the movie, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale). Robbie’s wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough) watches the news on TV, becoming increasingly engrossed in politics while Robbie grows disaffected and retreats into art.
This narrative proceeds according to the contemporary filmic rules of earnest melodrama (beautiful Robbie and Claire fight screamingly, and then collapse into sex). Meanwhile it never becomes clear what Claire finds so interesting about politics, or what kind of politics she’s interested in. Her TV spews only standard stock footage, from the Civil Rights long marches to the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace accords, which ended American involvement in Vietnam. (This latter event, generally regarded by historians as having taken the wind out of the political left, also spurs the breakup of Robbie and Claire’s marriage; chronologically, this coincides with Dylan’s divorce from Sara Lowndes.)
In a testy restaurant scene with another couple, Robbie decides to become needlessly contrarian and argue the essential superiority of men to women. This alienates a friend who’s “really into women’s lib.” (The gesture is typical of the film’s ethos: a political movement is name-checked, rather than depicted.) Robbie mutters in response, “I’ve said it before: there are no politics.” The friend cries, “Then what the fuck else is there?” Gnomically, after a series of Dylanesque hand gestures, Robbie says: “Sign language.” It’s a typically stupid, intentionally frustrating answer, of the sort that Dylan has produced by the boatload, but Haynes’s film does nothing but dumbly approve it. This is Bob Dylan; Bob Dylan is a genius. Meanwhile it’s hard to muster much support for the film’s more politically minded characters, because the film never admits that politics exist.
For Haynes, politics and television are one and the same. As Claire sits and watches her stock images—of the March on Washington and the Black Panthers and Richard Nixon—she experiences a kind of political awakening. It’s not the kind of awakening that leads to action, and indeed Claire’s chief interest could probably best be characterized as “The Sixties,” rather the redressing or any particular wrong or the promotion of any particular course of action, but still we’re supposed to be impressed by the power of these images to move her. In these scenes, Haynes recapitulates one of our silliest and most enduring ideas about the ’60s: that it was a time before our inurement and ironization, a golden age of televisual power when broadcast images were capable of shocking consciences and changing the course of events.
This idea endures despite the many testimonies to the contrary: e.g., the cold, unemotional response to violence reported in Andy Warhol and Joan Didion. Regarding the general reaction to the Manson murders, the latter wrote, “I remember that no one was surprised.” The best filmmakers at the time, particularly Jean-Luc Godard (the film alludes frequently to his work), knew that constant televisual imagery tended to produce innumerable falsehoods—narrative coherence, truth, immediacy—and also knew that filmmaking could potentially puncture this coherence, shocking viewers out of complacency. This attitude toward history now imposes itself like an obligation, a duty, and filmmakers like Haynes ritually evade it. Haynes steals techniques from Godard (e.g., slogans appear on the screen accompanied by gunshots), and this only helps remind us that Godard actually lived in the ’60s, while Haynes pathetically wishes that he did.
I’m Not There might have a stronger case to make for its images, and even something to say about Bob Dylan and politics, if its images weren’t so hackneyed, so Associated Press. Haynes intends to re-recreate the “feel” of a politically contentious era, but soundtrack-driven, newsreel-style montages of napalm attacks and the ’68 Chicago convention have become so common that Haynes really only produces the feel of earlier newsreels we have seen—which is to say, the very same images, over and over again. Watching films like this, we become accustomed to thinking that the political struggles of the 1960s led only to a lukewarm cinematic bath of general rebelliousness, indelible poses, and watchwords against which our own struggles will always appear hopelessly meager and uninspired. This attitude, finally, is the travesty of I’m Not There, confirmed in the final, closing image of Dylan himself—a ’60s image—inflating his cheeks as he plays on his harmonica. It is not the image of a real figure, but of a man just canonized, delivered beyond the messy claims of politics which he bestrode like a colossus. For the rest of us, who still have traditions to undermine and futures to plot, saints are useless.