Beware Mr. Jones... Todd Haynes' 2007 film I'm Not There is no ordinary biopic. Rather, it's a highly complicated cinematic deconstruction—a fan and filmmaker's celluloid homage to the phenomenon known as Bob Dylan and his many variations: the musician, the evolving songwriter, the elusive interviewee, the protest singer-turned-rock 'n' roller, the social critic, the pop culture icon, the tormented artist, the soul searcher.
The film opens with Cate Blanchett's version of Dylan (character name Jude Quinn), who is lying on a coroner's gurney, complete with those famous Ray Ban sunglasses from the 1965 era. With an overhead shot of Quinn on the slab, narrator Kris Kristofferson voices-over: “There he lies, God rest his soul... and his rudeness. A devouring public can now share the remains of his sickness. And his phone numbers.” On-screen, a scalpel slices across an abdomen (an obvious allusion to the coming filmic dissection of Dylan). Then with rapid cuts to portraits of each one of the six Dylan characters that the film will soon reveal, Kristofferson continues: “There he lay, poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity, nailed by a peeping Tom, who would soon discover...” Blanchett's (Dylan's [Quinn's])voice-over cuts in: “Home is like a naked person.”
With an overhead shot of Dylan now lying in a casket, suited up with hands folded across the sternum, Kristofferson says: “Even the ghost was more than one person.”
Greil Marcus wrote in his DVD special feature essay, the cast is “a cakewalk of lead actors, none playing a character who is precisely Bob Dylan—and, just as vitally, a film where no one on the screen is precisely not... But just as some of the performances are based on incidents in Dylan's career, and others are so other-worldly powerful you want the real-life character to conform to them, in I'm Not There the story of one character is not dependent on the story of another.”
Bob Dylan's Many Personae
Besides Cate Blanchett playing Jude, that “more than one person” includes five other Dylan characters: Richard Gere as “Billy,” the imaginary outlaw persona that Dylan becomes when the pop star life becomes overwhelming; Ben Whishaw as “Arthur Rimbaud,” the elusive Dylan facing a constant barrage of probing inner demons; Cristian Bale, first as “Jack Rollins” the '60s folk superstar Dylan, then 20 years later, Pastor John, the Dylan-turned-Evangelical-Preacher; and Heath Ledger as “Robbie Clark,” the cool actor who got famous playing Jack Rollins in a biopic; and finally, young Marcus Carl Franklin who plays “Woody Guthrie,” the black 11-year-old representing the baby-faced Dylan who embellished his background to everyone he met upon his arrival to Greenwich Village in 1961.
Other cast include: Julianne Moore, who plays “Alice Fabian” (Joan Baez), Michelle Williams as “Coco Rivington” (Edie Sedgwick);Yolanda Ross plays Mary Alice Artes, who introduced Dylan to Christ in 1978; David Cross plays Allen Ginsberg, while Charlotte Gainsbourg does “Claire” in the double role of Dylan's early girlfriend Suze Rotolo and his soon-to-be-wife, Sara Lowndes. Bruce Greenwood also does a double role, first of the journalist “Keenan Jones” (in real life, rock journalist Jeffrey Jones) and also “Pat Garrett,” who starts a range war, threatening to build a highway smack through the town of Riddle, Richard Gere's (Dylan's) pastoral retreat from the fame game.
Dylan Real and Unreal
From the 1965 electric conversion to the 1966 tour of Britain when a fan in Manchester called him Judas, to the late 1966 motorcycle accident and Dylan's drop-out from public life, Haynes hits all the well-publicized events in Dylan's career, dashing from character to character, scene to scene, in a cyclical rather than linear storyline. The entire film is basted with irony, such as a short mock-u-mentary of Jack Rollins' life, with Julianne Moore playing Joan Baez, who with eyes gleamy with respect calls Dylan a “ragamuffin” and “little toad” and “twirpy little kid” in a sit-down interview, which cuts to Rollins doing “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” in a black-and-white film, mimicking Dylan's famous Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee truck-bed performance in 1963 Mississippi.
Yet despite his certainty not to miss a trick, Haynes takes a snippet from an interview here, a clip from a live concert there, tossing events together with no context. It's almost as though the director took Robert Shelton's 1986 biography “No Direction Home,” threw all the manuscript pages in the air, reshuffled the pages in whatever order, and started shooting. For instance, in the film, Dylan meets Allen Ginsberg on the 1966 tour of England when Ginsberg whips up alongside the limo in a golf cart, explaining to Dylan that he'd just told a reporter, “Perhaps you sold out to God.” In real life, though, Dylan and Ginsberg met a few years earlier in Greenwich Village, and the God quote came from yet another event at the Berkeley Auditorium concert a couple of years later.
Dylan in Dreamtime
In Haynes' version of the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the scene opens with Dylan and the band opening their cases, but instead of electric instruments, they pull out Thompson submachine guns, lining up onstage and mowing down the audience. As Greil Marcus wrote, “The film is confusing only if one demands that a dream explain itself—and if one refuses the implacable logic on which dreams float.” Haynes is less concerned with chronological accuracy than the impact of the impression. Breaking down time-space constraints, the director approaches filmmaking in much the same manner as Dylan approaches songwriting.
In his film, Haynes takes a multi-layered, complex subject, boiling events between 1961-79 down to interpretations. Sometimes those interpretations are literal, at other times abstract, but they never stray far from the general consensus among biographers and Dylanologists. With such an ambitious project, there's always the risk of alienating the audience. But bottom line: this is for advanced Dylan fans who come equipped with a healthy smidgeon of background knowledge. As Anne Powers wrote in her L.A. Times review, the film is “also a game. The extraordinary detail of Haynes' re-creation and manipulation of Saint Bob's cosmology begs for Dylan fans to connect the dots.”
If you make it past the first 15 minutes, you'll likely be watching the film two or three times.