Todd Haynes’s camp con­ceit of Bob Dylan rubs oddly against the artist who in­spired his film, writes Imre Salusin­szky

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.