The central thesis of Todd Haynes' extraordinary new film, I'm Not There, is that there is no such thing as "Bob Dylan"—or at least no singular entity corresponding to that construct. In an era marked for its public dissection of celebrities, Dylan has always managed to avoid being pinned down. He's alternately an incoherent mumbler and an Eliot-inspired poet, a motorcycle-crashing pillhead and a Jews for Jesus affiliate, a socially conscious folkie who wrote "Masters of War" and a sneering rocker who hurled insult after insult in "Like a Rolling Stone"; the dichotomies go on and on.
This is compounded by Dylan's unwitting role as his era's spokesperson (a job he spent his whole life trying to avoid), and myriad projections and declarations made by fans and detractors from either side of the generation gap. And finally, in ever-misinterpreted attempts to shift attention away from singer and back onto the songs, he's elusive at best when it comes to journalists and fans who clamor for a piece of "Bob Dylan." Even his long-awaited memoir, Chronicles, was laughably squirrelly and danced around 99 percent of what fans really wanted to know. (This is all in addition, of course, to the well-known story of young Robert Zimmerman taking America up on its promise of reinvention by adopting an entirely new name, persona, and history before starting out in New York.)
These observations about Dylan's decades-long play with the amorphous qualities of his public persona are anything but new or original—but what is revelatory is what Portland director Haynes does with this bundle of paradoxes in I'm Not There, a uncommonly innovative and beautiful film whose expectation-shattering scope stretches far beyond his use of multiple, diverse actors to play fictional versions of the Bob Dylan concept.
Six different films in at least as many styles weave through I'm Not There, and after the opening credits announce that the movie was "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan," we never hear the singer's name again (although his music is used to maximum effect throughout). Each of the film's fictionalized-Dylan characters, including those played by Cate Blanchett and the 14-year-old African American actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, come with their own names (including "Woody Guthrie" and "Billy the Kid"), and represent a unique strand of Dylan's creative path, career, or persona.
So, while Julianne Moore plays a pseudo-Joan Baez character in the present day, sitting for an on-camera interview about her early relationship with "Jack Rollins" (Christian Bale) in Greenwich Village's early folk scene, the other not-Dylans forge their way through creative struggles, identity crises, and public persecutions. These variations include Richard Gere's aged, reclusive Billy the Kid character, who walks among dwarves, giraffes, and hangmen; Blanchett's "Jude Quinn," who cavorted with proto-hipsters like Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) and went electric at Newport (represented here by Dylan & Co. mowing down the audience with Tommy guns); and Heath Ledger's spiritually dead, Malibu-dwelling philanderer of the Blood on the Tracks era.
These twisting storylines are supported by an exciting cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kim Gordon, Dennis St. John, and Michelle Williams, and seamlessly incorporate magical realism with naturalistic filmmaking. This allows for moments of breathtaking beauty, including one sequence that takes place early in the film, during the young, black runaway "Woody" storyline that quickly subverts any expectations viewers might have for I'm Not There.
Bob Dylan fans are thrown treats and in-jokes throughout the film, with tweaked re-creations of famous Dylan moments that persist both in the popular imagination and in taped interviews and documentaries like 1967's Don't Look Back. Haynes plays with the notorious Newport Folk Festival incident subtly: At the squelch of Dylan's Stratocaster, Pete Seeger (who famously tried to chop through the singer's power cords with an axe) looks around enraged, only to see a shiny hatchet conveniently hanging nearby. (After all, what's a folk fest without axes strewn everywhere?) Dylan's drunken hotel room hissy fit about a shattered glass, captured in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, is re-imagined here as a hostile standoff with a crazed bellboy (giving Cate Blanchett the opportunity to deliver one of the great movie lines of all time: "Either be groovy or leave, man!").
But it doesn't take a Dylan aficionado to appreciate I'm Not There. My date was a fan in only the most casual sense (i.e., she doesn't hate his music), and she loved Haynes' film, as it essentially uses the Dylan mythology as a jumping-off point for explorations of identity, creativity, truth, and celebrity. Be warned, however: Viewers who want to learn about the "Blowin' in the Wind" songwriter will be thwarted and frustrated by I'm Not There, to put it mildly. (Which is to miss the entire point of the film, and probably a main reason Dylan gave Haynes his stamp of approval.) Similarly, audiences who like their narratives tidy and their films linear should steer clear. I'm Not There is suggestive, not instructive; poetic, rather than prosaic.
It is also, I strongly feel after only one viewing, one of the smartest, most innovative, and beautiful films of this era. It's as if Haynes has taken full ownership of the varied approaches to filmmaking that he's cultivated since Superstar, and orchestrated them into a densely hypnotic tapestry, where styles and signatures melt into a continuous spectrum.
I'm Not There synthesizes cues from Italian neorealism and surrealism, Richard Lester's Beatles films, cinéma vérité, Wong Kar Wai's early sensual experiments with celluloid manipulation and debasement, Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, Douglas Sirk's tearjerkers, contemporary "talking head" documentaries, and other innovations that feel entirely new. Haynes' cinematic deconstructions of Dylan songs, like the "Ballad of a Thin Man" interlude, constitute unforgettable and mesmerizing short films unto themselves. Somehow, this all coheres into a fantastic, complex vision that's unlike anything I've ever seen, although it shares a creative kinship with the best films of Gus Van Sant, Peter Greenaway, and Chantal Akerman.
Most impressively, while Haynes wows and delights with I'm Not There's stylistic pyrotechnics, he manages to quietly tap into the unique loneliness of a man who is indeed never altogether "there." A deeply human emotional core keeps I'm Not There from floating into self-referential, experimental ether. Aside from the film's incredible music, the six-actor conceit, the celeb-spotted supporting cast, the Dylan in-jokes, and the stylistic innovations, Haynes' masterpiece truly succeeds for this precise reason: One comes away from the film not only dazzled, but moved.