Once in a while, you come across a film so ambitious, so ambigious, so brave that it threatens to take apart the conventions of film that you tend to watch. ‘I’m Not There’, the biographical look at the life of Bob Dylan by Todd Haynes, is one such film. Much like the man himself, it is a cross-cultural, cross-genre, even cross-gender portrayal of the pop icon that is Robert Allen Zimmermann. Fact is, the man led more of a life than most of us could ever hope to achieve that a more ‘normal’ (linear, with only one actor filling the role) would probably not do it justice.
It is unfortunate, then, that I was nearly lost in the maze of the film to the point of nearly falling asleep. It should be noted that I didn’t fall asleep, and that the fault probably lay with me, but the truth shall come out regardless. I nearly did.
Falling asleep during a movie is a rare occasion for me. I tend not to do so (or walk out of a cinema like some people might), no matter how boring or banal a film may be. The way I look at it, it’s my money spent, well or otherwise. Thus, I might as well stick it out and see what happens. The last time that happened (nearly falling asleep, that is) was Harry Potter’s last film, for some reason. The loud special effects surely kept me awake then.
It’s unfortunate that ‘I’m Not There’ is not laden with such effects, but it is laden with an array of superstars that you wouldn’t generally find in other films. For example, a year before Christian Bale and Heath Ledger would do battle in ‘The Dark Knight’, they both headlined this film to great effect (with his sunglasses on, Ledger looks worryingly like Hyde from ‘That 70s Show’ 🙂 ). Perhaps headline is not quite the right word (Cate Blanchett pretty much swept up all the publicity about the film, garnering an Oscar nomination in the process), but nevertheless, there you have it: Batman and the Joker, together at first, playing the same character, though never on the same screen at the same time.
Therein lies the biggest potential confusion of it all. The film contains different actors portraying different ‘interpretations’ of Bob Dylan at different points of his life. Marcus Carl Franklin, for example, plays an 11-year old Dylan who escapes from a juvenile correction centre. He hitches a ride on a train, and calls himself Woody Guthrie. Batman, on the other hand, is Jack Rollins, a young folk singer who represents Bob Dylan during the early stage of his career, when he is about the rocket into superstardom. Later on, Rollins would become a pastor, mirroring Dylan’s own move in his life. Ledger portrays Robbie Clark, a Hollywood actor who portrayed Jack Rollins in an adaptation of the Rollins’s (Dylan’s) life. Here, Dylan’s marital aspects are played out, as Todd Haynes explores the issues he faced in his personal life. Ben Whishaw’s character name is not really known to me, but he calls himself Arthur Rimbaud, after the poet. He is being questioned by the authorities with regards to his own political stance. Cate Blanchett, as Jude Quinn, looks at how Dylan deals with the fame and success that came his way. The final name on the poster, Richard Gere, portrays Dylan during the autumn of his life. As what? As “an aging Billy the Kid in a surreal Wild West town, who defeats the more elderly Pat Garrett.”
Are you still with me so far? I congratulate you if you are, for I certainly almost wasn’t with myself when I write that. It is certainly a maze that is tricky to negotiate, made even more so by my lack of familiarity with Bob Dylan himself. Though I recognise him as someone whose influence is vast and timeless, I had never previously taken much time to read up on him (if the movie’s intention is to create a bigger interest in Dylan, it certainly succeeded with me. Incidentally, Billy the Kid also had an interesting life). It’s fair to say that those who are more familiar with him and everything about him will get far more out of it than I did.
What did, though, I get out of it? Ideas. As I said previously, this is a brave film, and not only for the story. Several different segments, for example, are shot in different formats, thus achieving a different feel for each (which probably adds to the confusion, but sparks some ideas within me at the same time). For example, the segments with Jack Rollins takes the approach of a documentary, with interviews from various people from his life, as well as a voiceover narrative. Ben Whishaw’s scenes, on the other, consists of him mainly answering the questions asked of him by looking directly at the camera. It has a disconcerting effect, one that is more of the policeman in ‘Psycho’ than Awie in ‘Zombi Kampung Pisang’. 🙂 The other segments appear to be more ‘normal’, though I do say that with more than a touch of salt.
The main draw, though, remains with the actors themselves. All here performed admirably, with the young Marcus Carl Franklin proving to be a pleasant surprise with his confidence. Though Dylan obviously wasn’t black, his casting (and the arc of his story as the young Dylan) hints furthermore at the cross-racial issues Dylan touches upon in his songs, and his affinity with the working class. It is easy to say that Cate Blanchett herself is the star of the show, given the unusual casting. It is easy, because it’s largely true: she really is fantastic in this role. The small, nonchalant flicks of her head, as she dismisses someone with disdain, is not an easy trick to do (I tried). Nevertheless, that is what she does, and truth be told, she looks like a man in this film. I don’t know whether she’ll take that as a compliment, but I certainly mean it as one. The rest of the cast are good, but few are actually on the same level, I think, with these two.
Peppered with plenty of Dylan songs, it should then be a heavenly treat for those who like him, who miss him, and who would enjoy a seemingly-overdue adaptation of the life of a world-renown musician. It is clear that his is a life worth living, and certainly a story worth telling on the screen, for it is a complex one, a maze that encompasses many different journeys. Todd Hayne’s attempt, then, is as brave as they come (I kept thinking that such a film couldn’t and probably wouldn’t be made outside of North America and France, traditional art-house appreciators).
Unfortunately, though others may be able to, I couldn’t find my way out of the maze. Certainly not long enough to keep me fully alert.
Fikri supposes that you could say that it is an a-maze-ing movie. Ho hum 🙂