A whirlygust of synapses fire, intellectually, emotionally, and sensually in director Todd Haynes’ thematic invocation of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, which is a tone poem about Dylan as a concept, as an ache in the belly, as a mind for dissent, and as a troubadour that infects the minds of everyone willing to listen. It is not a picture about Dylan as a human being or a flesh-in-blood person, although it is defiant in its unabashed humanism, calling on a panoply of styles and personhoods to refract Dylan across numerous time spaces and identities to reveal not only his polyphonic self but the many valences of the nation he both represented and challenged. Dylan here is omnidirectional, paradoxically both a symbol for anything you want and a hungrier creature that swallows symbols whole and runs away in his (or her) own direction. Most biopics – a genre I’m Not There is only very tenuously related to – are a kind of pedestrian par excellance, as cinematically dead and intellectually bankrupt as any Michael Bay film, even though biopics wear their intellects less lightly and call on the spirit of the middlebrow rather than the lowbrow. They draw a decisive quotient of their beings from their belief that they can unravel and pin-down their subject-matter, that they are educators imparting true knowledge to the viewer. In contrast, I’m Not There cannot be pinned down, and it shows that its subject cannot either.
In the last year, a million and one think pieces have been written about the legitimacy or lack thereof of Dylan winning a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. I’m not here to settle that question, but I will say that Dylan adroitly kept alive the spirit of early American literature, about which Susan Howe declared every text was a “wilderness” rather than a known quantity. More importantly for our present subject than Dylan’s imaginative kinship with that wild and woolly American tradition of contradiction, self-inquiry, and new imagination is that Todd Haynes’ film is of this tradition. His I’m Not There is a thoroughly unresolved film.
Is it an intellectual exercise? It is and it isn’t, and even when it is, it remains wonderfully conditional. Haynes occasionally overexerts himself (one of the stories is set in a town known as Riddle. Cute, I know). But I’m Not There is not a puzzle, nor a thought experiment to be answered. It is an international collage, relatively indiscriminate to gender and race, of moments and moods, alternate tempos and rhythms that all add up to a Bible of modern American music and American interests. A prism for our hopes and dreams, yet I’m Not There perennially defers our romantic attachment to an icon it argues is much more elusive than we want him to be. Or, perhaps, he’s as elusive as we need, enough to remain America’s phantom spirit, always there but never completely present, always removed just enough to hide something new waiting in the wings for revelation.
If I’m Not There is a biopic, it is in a thoroughly Godardian key, filmically alive and emotionally unstable. It depicts characters – or ideas – who are openly constructed and manicured and yet crack into the heart of a society that favors composed, constructed people. Its characters are women and men aware of a fifty-year continuum (the 60s until the present) where cameras became increasingly prevalent in the world and society reacted by increasingly jeopardizing any sense of public-private dichotomies. I’m Not There gives us six of these public identities, six visions of self concocted by Dylan for us. But to Haynes, these various selves aren’t simply Dylan’s personal masks for himself, the selves he wants to present for the public so as to harden a shell around his soft, fleshy, wounded, vulnerable real self. These are Dylan, reminders that the external self we project or construct is innately part of who we are, how we negotiate our relationship to society. They become part of his private being. Much like with Haynes’ treatment of David Bowie, the barely-guised subject of Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, his image of Dylan refuses to cater to the assumption that external image is a fallacy, or that it is only skin-deep. Although I’m Not There is ice to Velvet Goldmine’s dementedly and perpetually inchoate fire, I’m Not There offers, in its own way, the same appeal: the thrill of hazarding guesses about an uninterpretable object, being proven wrong, and going back for more.
This is where I’m Not There separates itself from the biopic form, not primarily in its centrifuge of alternate styles but its innate refusal to reduce its subject to a secret psychological truth waiting to be shoveled out from under the layers of masquerade Dylan wore throughout his career. American biopics especially are always on the hunt for their subjects’ essential self, their neoliberal individual truth-quotient that reduces their characters to a solidified core psyche that governs their every action. This famous person had daddy issues. This famous person was uncomfortable around women. This famous person never recovered from that accident. They were just never the same. The appeal is obvious: it allows the film to welcome its own argumentative prowess, having “solved” the riddle of their subjects’ personhood for us, the ever-curious audience. Haynes offers us nothing in this tradition, and because of this, he offers us everything. Even the most recognizable Dylan, the one we can hunker down with and clasp most easily, is played by Cate Blanchett as an obviously androgynous performance that necessarily liquefies categories.
That version of Dylan is a move star named June. Another is a happy-trails outlaw in the 1800s played by Richard Gere. The other four are, at least, singers, but that is their only connective tissue. They are a young Brit (Ben Wishaw), a slightly older Aussie (Heath Ledger, joining the Austrailian Blanchett), a Welshman (Christian Bale), and an African-American child played by Marcus Carl Franklin, a reflection of early Dylan’s habit of youthfully appropriating African-American music because he was unsure of himself and had no voice of his own. Essayed in this film, Dylan never develops that complete voice, but he also has many personal vernaculars, all of which may be phases or affectations, but they remind us that affectations and fads are ways people work-through and create their personalities. At one point, a journalist remarks to Dylan, quizzically, “I think we all know the definition of people?” Dylan, and the film, answers “Yeah, do we?”
I’m Not There obviously understands that the wrong way for any biopic to construct itself is as a catalogue of events or truths, a compendium of images that derive from narrative and are merely capable of illustrating those events without commentary on them. It would be easy to retreat from the film’s mysteries by arguing that it is addicted to its own intelligence and its boldened, italicized, and underlined style systems. To argue, basically, that its images are never more than an illustration of Haynes’ fanboyish zeal. Not only zeal for Dylan, but for the filmmakers that are inextricably tied not only to Dylan but various epochs of international imagination. Richard Lester is probably the center-piece, but Fellini has a turn on the spinning top. One could accuse the film of being a hodgepodge of facsimiles, copycats, impersonations, and appropriations, a game of spot the reference (or a film that lives by its footnotes) for pretentious middlebrow types pleased that the film is speaking to their egos and intellects. All, basically, in service of a counterfeit work hiding its lack of nuance into Dylan’s true self.
I find it difficult to rebuke that idea, but the alternate and antithetical take is equally valid: that I’m Not There is a shimmering stylistic diamond that refracts a different light depending upon which corner of Dylan you shine it on. For me, I’m Not There is never truly a structural exercise; it’s a multi-ethnic slurry playing out America’s proverbial melting pot ideology and enacting it before our very eyes. Visually, with Ed Lachman’s visual interpretations of everything from drug-addled ‘60s verite to the ricocheting French New Wave to the faded, dusty, plain-spoken 70s romanticism of a Sam Peckinpah Western to a supreme high-contrast black-and-white that is an aesthetic all its own, the film calls on a hybridized America that is also the essence of Dylan’s spirit. He was and remains a kind of singular conduit for numerous diverse American traditions swirled into a musical creole that reflects a person, a nation, an imagination searching for stability and finding it in a core that is perpetually molten.
Which is to say, I’m Not There’s Dylan is necessarily fractured, but we are all splintered as well. I’m Not There doesn’t really depict six costumes Dylan donned so much as a vision of self, of everyone and not simply Dylan, that is not pure or self-contained but impure, threatened, in mortal combat with the fluxion of reality, a self always in motion and incomplete, always in the making. At times, it suggests a Dylan playing out his personal vision for who he wants to be. But if I’m Not There imaginatively participates in Dylan’s fantasies by dousing him in various styles which back him up, it also reminds us that we all play out narratives of the mind that are incommensurable with the world around us. But because the film always collapses and reforms itself in a new style, thereby invoking the compromised and ephemeral nature of any of these imaginative selves in the face of life itself, it ultimately cannot entirely endorse these imaginative narratives completely. It reminds us that we all exist in the world, and we are not simply who we think we are, or who we want to be, but that inventing new selves or striving to be a new self is not always a sign of hubris or fallaciousness but of a healthy mind alive to the tectonic motions of life itself.