Wednesday, November 21, 2007

'I'm Not There;' neither is the movie

Summary: In “I’m Not There,” director Todd Haynes takes on the multi-faceted mythology that surrounds Bob Dylan, an artist whose career has been through enough incarnations to fuel six biopics. Maybe that's why six actors play Dylan-like characters in this adventurous but flawed endeavor.

I expected more dizzying, fractured spirit from a movie that tells six different stories with six different actors, all by way of demonstrating (I think) that attempting to capture Dylan amounts to an exercise in futility.

The movie begins by introducing us to a black youth (Marcus Carl Franklin) who tells us he’s Woody Guthrie. This spunky version of Guthrie leads the movie's parade of personae, each presumably representing aspects of Dylan’s personality and art. In service to this concept, Haynes employs Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere. No, I'm not kidding, Richard Gere.

Blanchett, who does a nifty Dylan impersonation, portrays the singer during the disillusioning years in which he approached rock stardom. Blanchett's spot-on interpretation makes for the film’s best and most enjoyable segments. I can’t say I thought much of the other "Dylans," although Gere’s performance scores lowest. He's doing a Billy the Kid riff, which apparently has something to do with Dylan's appearance in Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." Other "Dylans" include a poet, a movie star and a character who seems to embody the traits of the early Dylan.

Despite what you might think, the various stories intersect and overlap in ways that aren't all that difficult to follow, and Haynes makes strong points about the ways in which a phenomenally successful artist must wrestle with fame. He also shows that the constant demands of fans -- who expect perpetual profundity from their idol -- can be more than a little debilitating. At other points, we see the religious Dylan, the folk-hero Dylan or the Dylan who's busy trying not to live up (or down) to anyone's expectations.

In the end, "I'm Not There" comes off as a stylish, ambitious and uninvolving in the distanced way that a fractured narrative can be. A friend who knows far more about Dylan than I tells me that he admires the movie. Maybe you need to be steeped in Dylan fact and lore to arrive at such higher levels of appreciation. For me, "I'm Not There" seemed a movie composed mainly of side trips, some diverting, some illuminating, some beyond repair.

I've liked Haynes' work in the past -- from "Velvet Goldmine" to "Far From Heaven" -- but I couldn't help wondering what a director such as Julian Schnabel, who understands the artist as outsider and who can be stylistically looser than Haynes, might have done with Dylan as a subject. Oh well, we've had two Capote movies; maybe it's time someone took another run at Dylan.

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