MAN OF CONSTANT VISION
Todd Haynes’s camp conceit of Bob Dylan rubs oddly against the artist who inspired his film, writes Imre Salusinszky
THERE is an earlier film that haunts the edges of I’m Not There , Todd Haynes’s new film ‘‘ inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan’’. It isn’t No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling 2005 documentary about Dylan’s earlier career, though that will tell you considerably more about Dylan’s folk and blues influences.
Neither is it Renaldo and Clara , Dylan’s own attempt, 30 years ago, at a movie ‘‘ inspired by the life and work of Bob Dylan’’, whose forgettable allegorical meanderings are punctuated by some of the most memorable concert footage ever filmed.
It’s not even Don’t Look Back , D. A. Pennebaker’s chronicle of Dylan’s 1965 British tour. And that’s despite the fact that, in a postmodern touch, the central episode in Haynes’s film re- imagines Pennebaker’s classic.
Unfortunately, the movie that lurks behind this movie is A Mighty Wind , Christopher Guest’s 2003 mockumentary about the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. As with his 2002 film, the Douglas Sirk- inspired Far from Heaven , Haynes no doubt intends the new work as tribute, not parody. But at certain moments — including staged interviews in which a Joan Baez- like Julianne Moore looks back on her touring days alongside a Dylan- like Christian Bale — I’m Not There exudes an unmistakable aroma of camp, whether intentional or not.
But while the campiness of Far from Heaven was balanced by the startling directness of one central performance — Dennis Quaid, as a gay 50s advertising executive trapped in a straight life — there is no similar, saving authenticity at the heart of I’m Not There . And since Dylan does not have a camp or postmodern atom in his body — he is, indeed, all about authenticity — the texture of Haynes’s vision rubs oddly against that of the artist who has inspired it.
In some ways, there is nothing wrong with that. One of Dylan’s key messages, after all, is that you should pioneer your own creative path rather than slavishly follow somebody else’s. ‘‘ I must invent my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s,’’ wrote William Blake, which Dylan paraphrases as: ‘‘ Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking meters’’.
But a key problem with I’m Not There is that Haynes’s vision is built on one of the tiredest critical commonplaces about Dylan, an artist whom criticism has served poorly: that Dylan is mercurial, elusive, a series of masks behind which lies no recognisable face.
What this cliche overlooks is that every significant artist functions by assuming masks, otherwise known as genres. The fact Dylan can be folkie, rocker, mellow country crooner or bluesman at will is extraordinary, but only as a demonstration of blazing artistic talent. It is no more a puzzle than that Shakespeare could be comedian and tragedian, or that Blake could write delicate lyrics at the same time as churning out sprawling epics.
As the world now knows, Haynes’s gimmick for capturing Dylan’s supposedly protean nature is to use six different actors to portray him, including, in the most audacious piece of casting since Russell Crowe played a Nobel laureate in mathematics, Cate Blanchett as ‘‘ Jude Quinn’’, the speed- ravaged, mid-’ 60s Dylan of Don’t Look Back .
In addition to Blanchett, laying waste to Swinging London in a fright wig and a polka dot shirt, say hello to: Marcus Carl Franklin as
Woody Guthrie’’, an 11- year- old hobo who travels to New York and sings for the real Woody Guthrie, just as Dylan did in 1961; Christian Bale as Jack, a ’ 60s folk sensation who drops off the scene and later reinvents himself as an evangelist; Heath Ledger as Robbie, a Hollywood actor who plays Jack in a movie and whose marriage later unravels under some of the same pressures that came between Dylan and his first wife, Sara; Ben Whishaw as ‘‘ Arthur Rimbaud’’, a lugubrious poet who utters nuggets of Dylanesque wisdom (‘‘ a poem is a naked person’’) direct to camera; and, finally, Richard Gere, as an overthe- hill Billy the Kid who embodies the cowboyrebel- outsider motif in Dylan.
The fact that Haynes skilfully intercuts versions of all these Dylans without hinting at continuities between them is a particularly powerful account of the view that Dylan is, in the title of the Canadian poet Stephen Scobie’s study of him, A Man Named Alias . But are continuities not precisely what we should be looking for in a significant artist?
One gets the feeling a conventional biopic — starring Adam Sandler, who resembles Dylan much more closely than any of Haynes’s crew — could have told us more about the overarching themes in Dylan’s life and work. And such a biopic could give due weight to one manifestation of Dylan that Haynes, oddly, avoids: Robert Allen Zimmerman, the lower- middle- class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who, even as Bob Dylan, never sheds a distinctly midwestern outlook on US and international affairs.
But I suggest the weakest plank in the man- ofmasks argument is that it goes directly against every Dylan fan’s sense that, more than with any other living artist, there is a centre, a continuity, an absolute consistency across five decades to Dylan’s artistic stance. Surely the telling point about Dylan for the millions who love his work is that he is there.
With all of that said, however, you could do a lot worse this festive season than spend 135 minutes watching Haynes’s film. ( The ultimate saving grace of I’m Not There is that it features 39 classic Dylan numbers on the soundtrack, about half of them cover versions.)
Even if Haynes resists an overarching explanation of the Dylan gestalt , his interlinked stories manage to raise many of the interesting questions about Dylan.
Unfortunately, several of these questions are raised in the form of yet more Dylan cliches. These include the idea he was universally reviled at the Newport folk festival when he went electric there in 1965. This is what befalls Jude Quinn, but it is not what happened to Dylan. Likewise, in the evangelistic manifestation of Jack, Dylan’s religiosity — the aspect of his work that serious criticism has been weakest at dealing with — is reduced to some kind of holyrolling fundamentalism.
Haynes has some sharp observations to make about Dylan’s place in popular culture, especially in the scenes in which Jude Quinn confronts a BBC arts host, ‘‘ Mr Jones’’, played by Bruce Greenwood. But once again, the fact vapid interviewers have come to grief demanding the real Dylan come out from behind his masks is no reason to throw up one’s hands at the project of defining Dylan’s poetic stance and style.
* * * SO while I’mNot There is legitimately marketed as a film inspired by Dylan, it says relatively little about Dylan’s ouvre: the deep influence of existentialism and the Beats; Dylan’s roots in the American blues, folk and hillbilly music of the ’ 20s and ’ 30s; his eminent place in the American artistic and philosophical tradition that begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman; and the spiritual dimension that is central to everything he has done.
But I’m Not There is released contemporaneously with an avalanche of materials that can help us better understand all these things. For starters, there is the new CD compilation, Dylan , which takes us from the 1962 Song to Woody — as prescient and powerful a statement of poetic arrival as John Milton’s Nativity Ode — to selections from Dylan’s three late masterpieces, Time Out of Mind , Love and Theft and Modern Times .
The 48 songs on Dylan can give only a taste of Dylan’s achievement. ( There are lyrics to nearly 500 songs on the official website.) But by placing songs from Dylan’s musically underrated evangelical period in the late ’ 70s alongside his other work, the compilation undercuts the implication in I’m Not There and elsewhere that the religious phase is an aberration. From first to
last, Dylan has been a religious artist, not a political one. His spiritual and artistic quest places him in the mainstream of American transcendentalism, in which the search for God is an isolating journey that separates the seeker from family, friends and community.
In a strange way, the Billy the Kid sequence in Haynes, which has least directly to do with Dylan, is the most revealing. As circus animals, performers and grotesques invade the town of Riddle, joining the cowboys and villains, Haynes conveys something of Dylan’s mythic method: the fact that his songs are not about real people and events, but about the archetypes of people and events that have been distilled through the Western imaginative tradition.
But any student who really wants to explore this element would do better to read and re- read Dylan’s impressionistic memoir, Chronicles , which is replete with hints and suggestions about his artistic method. Here he is on the real attraction of folk music:
Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural wisdom and inner knowing . . . I could believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. Then there is Theme Time Radio Hour , the weekly program of popular music stretching back to early blues that Dylan has been hosting for a year. In his bizarre and detailed excursions into every subject under the sun, Dylan reminds us how much information there is in his songs: they are filled, not with airy romantic generalities, but with descriptions of Mozambique and Durango and detailed biographies of boxers and gangsters. More effectively than the Woody Guthrie sequence in Haynes, TTRH plugs us into Dylan as the living incarnation of 100 years of American popular music. His commentaries, which never hint at his status as a songwriter and performer, are brilliant and revealing. Here he is on rockabilly legend Hardrock Gunter’s Gonna Dance All Night :
You know why that record sounds so good? Because it was a performance. The whole band was playing together in the studio. It wasn’t a thing assembled from parts, put together in little bits and pieces, until you had a complete take.
Everyone started at the same time and finished pretty much at the same time, and all the time in between you just hung on for dear life. You can feel that energy in the record. And you can hear also in there how the line is blurry. It’s a hillbilly record, but if I told you Louis Jordan recorded that song you wouldn’t blink an eye.
And finally, released almost simultaneously with I’m Not There , comes a far superior Dylan film, The Other Side of the Mirror , which captures Dylan’s performances at the three Newport festivals culminating with the electric performance of Like a Rolling Stone in 1965.
There is no distracting commentary or interview material in Murray Lerner’s documentary, just a young artist prepared to follow the logic of his own inspiration. The film reveals the caricature of the Jude Quinn sequence in Haynes. There is some consternation in the 1965 audience, but there is also rapt attention.
The performances are a vivid reminder of what is perhaps the greatest continuity in Dylan: his belief in self- reliance and individual responsibility. In Pawn in Their Game, he mercilessly deconstructs one of the chestnuts of the radical movement that tried to strangle him in its embrace: that our social circumstances determine our beliefs and actions. Who Killed Davey Moore? is a coruscating survey of the same theme. And at the end of it all, Dylan returns to the stage in 1965 with his acoustic guitar and advises the crowd: ‘‘ Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you. / Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.’’
No popular artist has more consistently demanded his audience clarify, in their own minds, what they expect of him. Even with the intermittent distraction of Joan Baez yodelling in Dylan’s immediate vicinity, The Other Side of the Mirror is an incredible testament to the artistic mind on fire. And it will do something that Haynes’s strangely affectless film does not even attempt. It will bring tears to your eyes. I’mNot There, directed by Todd Haynes, will be released in Australia on Boxing Day. Dylan was released by Sony Music in October and is available in one- disc and three- disc versions. The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963- 1965 was broadcast by the BBC in October and subsequently released on DVD by Sony. Theme Time Radio Hour is broadcast weekly on XM Satellite Radio, a subscription- based satellite radio service in the US. It is widely available for download via the internet. Chronicles ( 2005), Simon & Schuster. David Stratton review — Page 19
Another side of Bob Dylan:
From far left, opposite page, Ben Wishaw, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Richard Gere in I’mNot There