Monday, November 26, 2007

Images and Ideas: Todd Haynes's I'm Not There

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I think it's time for me to start trying to write semi-regularly about some of the newer films---heck, it's time for me to start writing more on this blog again, period! If I'm going to work my way up to writing about movies more regularly in the future...well, practice makes perfect! Or at least, if not perfect, at least engaging and readable.

Maybe in the near future I'll write an update about what's been going on in my life. In the are some random thoughts based on first impressions of one viewing of Todd Haynes's meditation of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, which I got to see on Saturday evening over at a small art-house (or, at least, the New Jersey version of art-house) theater right in the heart of Princeton.

Three words: intellectual stimulation overload! I was by turns fascinated and frustrated by this film---which, as some of you may have already heard, is nothing like a typical biopic of Dylan, but a postmodern discourse on the idea of a shapeshifting artist such as Dylan, drawing both directly and obliquely from his life and his music---but I now find myself feeling more excited about it the more I remember its stylistic bravura and reflect on its perhaps rather troubling implications, both for our time and universally speaking.

I'm probably going to wait for its eventual DVD release to get a chance to see this movie for a second time, and this is the kind of dense movie that pretty much demands more than one viewing (as well as, in this case, more Dylan research and a greater familiarity with films that it references). So allow me to throw out a few thoughts I have rattling in my head about this film, with the disclaimer that, of course, I don't necessarily have a coherent take on what the movie seems to be saying and doing, just a few ideas. (Maybe coherence in this special case is beside the point.)

For me, the most fascinating thread I latched onto in I'm Not There is the question the film raises, in its own kaleidoscopic way, of what kind of responsibility an artist---especially a popular artist with a devoted following like Bob Dylan---has to reflecting his particular time---the social issues of the time, the politics, the general mood, etc. Is an artist somehow obligated, because of his popularity, to be some kind of barometer for his time? Is that what makes an artist automatically interesting or important---sheer topical relevance?

People---and I am sometimes guilty of this myself---often instantly equate topicality and an engagement with some big issue or event of his time with seriousness. According to both I'm Not There and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), this perceived engagement with politics and society on Dylan's part is what attracted many people to Dylan's music-making in the first place. "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'"---these songs, among many others, sounded like deep social statements to many listeners, and the fact that his lyrics were clothed in the garb of this "music of the working classes," folk music, enhanced this sense of seriousness for many.

But then, when Dylan donned an electric guitar, enlisted a backing band behind him and started deliberately moving way from "protest songs" to more whimsical and surreal imagery in his songwriting, he was condemned by many as a sell-out, a betrayer. Thus came his ever-changing personas---folk-music hero, electric musician, country artist, born-again Christian, and beyond---and thus now you have I'm Not There, one artist's response to another's media images and representations.

Of course, Todd Haynes puts into his cinematic mosaic all of Dylan's own justifications for so willfully frustrating his fans---he refuses to be pigeonholed, to be typecast, to be locked into his audiences' expectations. All of this will be familiar to those who have seen both the Scorsese documentary and the 1965 classic D.A. Pennebaker doc Don't Look Back, the latter made just before Dylan "went electric." What Haynes is particularly interested in is broadening Scorsese's (arguably rather softball) inquiry into Dylan the man to try to raise pointed, ever-relevant questions about art and the artist's role in society---perhaps whether an artist actually has one or not, or if that artist should be like the outlaw Dylan played by Richard Gere in I'm Not There, who seeemingly escapes from the limelight (which, by the way, is portrayed so vividly in the Cate-Blanchett-as-Bob-Dylan-in-sub-8 1/2 segments) only to be awakened out of his self-imposed flight from harsh reality by news of a road-building project that got approved right under his nose.

On the other might argue, if Haynes was really interested in exploring issues about art, artists and the society they inhabit and reflect, why does Haynes load his film with a whole host of '60s film references and barely delve into the pressing social issues of the time except through media images? Is he actually serious himself, or is he simply playing games with us? (Quentin Tarantino, who has never made a movie like this one, is often second-guessed the same way, even by yours truly.)

This probably requires an auteurist perspective that I don't quite have, having admittedly not seen Haynes's '90s features (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine). From what I gather from having seen both his publicly unavailable Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (thank you Google video), and his 2002 feature Far From Heaven, Haynes, in classic postmodernist (isn't that kind of a contradiction in terms?) fashion, is primarily interested in both shocking us out of our typical movie comfort zones (thus the use of Barbie dolls to enact the haunting, horrifying saga of Karen Carpenter's losing battle with anorexia) and examining film images and movie history while appealing to our emotions in a familiar movie idiom (thus telling a basic melodramatic story in Far From Heaven even as he riffs on the '50s films of Douglas Sirk). So while his films may affect us on an emotional level, one would be hard pressed to consider them works that directly confront the real world. You're constantly aware of his film's movie-ness, to put in inelegant terms.

Those elements all come into play in I'm Not There. But are Haynes' shout-outs to 8 1/2, Masculine Feminine, A Hard Day's Night, Petulia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and others I'm probably not deeply familiar with, his own way of merely winking to the film buffs of his audience? Or do they signal something deeper and perhaps more disturbing?

On that point, I'm still trying to figure that out.

Maybe they are of a piece with Haynes' conception of Bob Dylan as an artist who may not really have cared as much about addressing social issues as his songs might indicate---in order to make such a conception vivid, Haynes is playing the same game, refracting his themes through film and music (mostly film) history. But even that theory seems a little superficial. If all Haynes wanted to do was wink at us and get us to say "Oh there's a speech from a Godard film," or "Those Beatles are running from screaming fans as in A Hard Day's Night," what explains the potent meaning of a sequence that baldly steals from 8 1/2---a dreamlike POV shot of adoring fans looking on from their cars at Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) as we hear his heart palpitating as he's trapped in his own vehicle? Just as those opening images of Fellini's film vividly expressed a famous film director's suffocation from his own fame and crushing expectations, so likewise a similar feeling is expressed with just about the same image in a different context. And perhaps the Richard Gere sequences owe their meaning not only to a Dylanologist's familiarity with both The Basement Tapes (recordings he made in 1967 with The Band while he was recuperating from his motorcycle accident) and the Rolling Thunder Revue (a tour in the mid-'70s in which he often performed wearing white face paint), but to one of the core ideas of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid---the idea of a man refusing to face up to his own time, as Billy the Kid seems unwilling to do in that film.

Such references, thus, are meaningful (rather than just being film-school postmodernist winking) but they are essentially borrowed and adapted meanings. Maybe, by taking such an approach, what Haynes is saying about Bob Dylan, and maybe even about our society today, is that we are so inundated with images to be appropriated for our own personal uses and gratifications, and more often than not, we do so. And that, Haynes may be suggesting, is exactly what Dylan did. Sincerity, or just a series of masks? (Fitting that, when Haynes's Billy the Kid confronts Bruce Greenwood's Pat Garrett, he initially does so with a mask on his face.) That Haynes leaves this question up in the air---Jude Quinn may rail against an interviewer for questioning his sincerity, but the fact that, even as a younger man, he was already bluffing his way into people's hearts, as evidenced in the Marcus Carl Franklin segments of the film (in which Franklin plays a young man who calls himself Woody Guthrie and goes around with a guitar case that reads "This machine kills fascists" even though he's actually an escapee from Minnesota)---is a sign to me of a seriousness that transcends insider-knowledge, hagiography, self-awareness and movie references, moving it to the level of a stimulating dialectic.

All of this sounds overly intellectual and pretentious, I imagine. Perhaps, at heart, it is. But the movie, miraculously, never degenerates into dull academic discourse. Haynes and his ace cinematographer Edward Lachman keep the visuals alive and popping; Lachman switches film stocks and shooting styles with stunning ease. And ultimately, I'm Not There is so filled with ideas and questions that it never bores for an instant. It might frustrate those unprepared for it, though; I know I sat through the first hour of this film admiring the creativity of Haynes's stunt but itching for this swirl of personas and images, both original and borrowed, to get somewhere concrete instead of just congratulating itself on its own Dylan/movie knowledge (one groaner is Jude Quinn's offhand "Just like a woman" after a female member of his crew in England knocks out an angry fan---a cutesy reference to a cut on his classic 1966 album Blonde on Blonde that merely seems irritatingly precious, at least to those who get the reference).

However, now that I know where this film goes---and now that I have elaborated on some of the film's more striking themes---well, as excited as I am by it, I'm still wondering about whether it has anything particularly new to add to the Dylan legend. Maybe media representations are all we really have of popular artists, and that Dylan knew this and used it to his advantage---and, if one is wont to be overly critical (why not, in a movie that actively encourages criticism?), maybe Haynes is doing the same thing here as well. Is Haynes himself being sincere? The movie may be a mess of contradictions, but it's a fascinating mess, and right now I'm having fun thinking about its implications, struggling with them. As for the experience of watching the movie itself: I think that, once you adjust yourself to the film's unpredictable, whirling style---and, I'll admit, it took me a while to get onto its wavelength---I'm Not There becomes truly gripping, engaging and, even at times, oddly, unaccountably moving.

Finally, of course, there is the music---and even Bob Dylan's most familiar tunes come alive again in this context. I, for one, didn't realize just how beautiful an expression of love "I Want You"---also from Blonde on Blonde---was until I saw them scored to Heath Ledger's courtship to Charlotte Gainsbourg in this film. That kind of revelation is more than most typical biopics accomplish except in the most numbingly predictable and prosaic terms (in other words, nothing quite as clunky as that silly attempt to explain the genesis of "Hit the Road Jack" in Ray with a wronged girlfriend singing the words angrily to Ray Charles, then cutting to Charles singing it in public). Like most Bob Dylan songs, you feeeeel it in your gut. I'm not sure I feel this movie in my gut---not yet---but I certainly feel it in my head. Sometimes, for me, that's enough.

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