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Wednesday, May 28, 2008
  DVD Review: I'm Not There

Director Todd HaynesBob Dylan film is easily one of the most unique takes on the biopic in recent memory. As you probably know, the “gimmick” is that Haynes, in telling the stories – sometimes real, sometimes exaggerated and sometimes entirely fictional – of Bob Dylan’s life, cast six different actors all to play versions of the music legend. Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody, a young black kid passing through ‘50s America claiming to be Woody Guthrie and acting like he’s still in the Depression; Ben Whishaw is Arthur (as in Rimbaud), a poet being interrogated in some indeterminate historical period; Christian Bale is Jack Rollins, an early-‘60s folk singer known for his protest songs who The remarkable Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, a.k.a. Bob Dylanlater abandons his musical career at the peak of his fame to become a preacher; Heath Ledger is Robbie Clark, an actor (who, in a clever bit of stories intermingling, broke through as a star playing the Christian Bale character in a biopic) whose marriage falls apart as we watch; Cate Blanchett portrays Jude Quinn, the most obvious visual reflection of Dylan, as seen in mid-1960s London; and Richard Gere as Billy (as in the Kid), a former outlaw living in exile in turn of the century America.

Before I go any further, I should probably mention that I’m not a particular fan of Bob Dylan. I respect him immensely for all he’s accomplished, and I’ve never heard a song by him that I haven’t liked. It’s just that fully getting into Dylan always seemed so intimidating due to the sheer volume of material. But for now I’ll just smile to myself when ‘The Man In Me’ (from
The Big Lebowski) comes on my iPod and leave it at that. The reason I mention all of this is that your interest in I’m Not There, like mine, will likely live or die by your interest in and knowledge of Bob Dylan. Which is simultaneously the best and worst thing about the movie.

The reason I put gimmick in quotes earlier is, as much as the central conceit of I’m Not There seems like a stunt, it’s not. Dylan has always been famous partly for his refusal to be pinned down to one particular persona, so casting different actors to portray these different aspects of Dylan is actually quite brilliant, and the performances are great across the board (though I thought Blanchett, Whishaw and Bale in particular really tore it up).

When I said your interest in Dylan will determine your interest in the film, the best example I can think of are the sections where Dylan, in his various guises, interacts with women. Now, I know a bit about Dylan’s biography, most of the big touchstones (beginnings riffing on/ripping off Woody Guthrie, protest songs, going electric, “Judas!” at the
Royal Albert Hall concert, etc.), but really, just the Rock History 101 basics. But all the parts of the movie that involve Dylan and his relationships, which is the thrust of the Heath Ledger segments, left me cold, mostly because I could detect that his wife (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, so gorgeous that Haynes remarks on the extras that meeting her was the first time he’d ever wished he was straight) was somebody I was supposed to know, but I didn’t. As a result I could never shake the feeling in those scenes that I was missing something crucial. Instead, all I got was the sad story of the end of an actor’s marriage to his pretty French wife, paralleled by the end of the Vietnam War. I’m sure this references one of Dylan’s actual more well-known marriages, but the significance was lost on me and Haynes has no interest in filling me in.

The other side of this particular coin, however, is that Dylan fans will absolutely love this movie. It’s dripping with sly (and overt) references to his work, to works about him, and to the general myth of “Bob Dylan.” If you know what the
Newport Folk Festival is, I'm Not There is probably going to flip your shit.

I’m Not There is obviously a very ambitious film, and for the most part it’s successful, especially when considering it was shot on a tiny budget in Montreal (which stands in for Depression-era America, 1960s London, the Wild West,
Greenwich Village and more). And while Haynes does miss a few times – the references to Fellini’s in the Jude segment are either clever or pretentious, depending on your take – I’ve always said I’ll take an ambitious failure Christian Bale as folk singer Jack Rollins (who is really Bob Dylan)over a safe, aggressively mediocre “success” any day. And while I wouldn’t call I’m Not There a failure, it’s far from perfect, but compared to the Hollywood gloss of Walk The Line (which was so afraid of actually diving into the subject of Johnny Cash, probably the only figure to exceed Dylan in terms of both his cultural stature and complexity, that it just gave us a trite story of a guy who did some drugs and was redeemed by the love of his pretty wife), Haynes’ meditation on art and identity stands head and shoulders above it. It’s a movie for actual Bob Dylan fans, and to a lesser extent cinema buffs, but it has no real interest in trying to appeal to a broader, “mainstream” audience by dumbing anything down. Where Walk The Line can’t even be bothered to skirt the edges of the complicated role religion played in Johnny Cash’s life, I’m Not There dives headfirst into Dylan’s Christian period, via the Bale character.

Ever since first hearing about the project, I’m Not There sounded like the recipe for a colossal, indulgent mess of a movie. The good news is, it’s not a colossal mess, but the bad news is it is pretty indulgent, and not just because Haynes got to make a movie about one of his heroes; I'm Not There is largely about artists and their relationship to their art, and it's difficult not to read it as about Haynes more than Dylan.

Overall, as a guy who loves the medium of film, I’m Not There is a pretty amazing piece of work. Haynes bites off a lot – sometimes more than he can properly chew – but his love for Dylan just leaps from the screen and carried me through the more fanboyish aspects of the film that sailed over my head. But if you’re a Dylan fan, Haynes’ trippy journey through the lives of Bob Dylan is one you can’t afford to miss.



The first thing I noticed with the I’m Not There DVD was that, for a film about Bob Dylan, aside from a “Dylanography” (listing his entire recording catalogue as well as the many, many books about his life and his music, which is impressive in and of itself), there’s really almost nothing about Dylan himself in any of the extras on this two-disc set. But once I started to go through the bonus material, I found myself actually more interested in the making of the film than I was in Dylan as a musical/historical figure. And to be fair, there are two fairly well-known documentaries about Dylan already out there in
D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 film Don’t Look Back and Martin Scorcese’s 2005 doc No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. And Haynes says in one of the features that he’s still never actually met Dylan, so it does seem sort of appropriate. The film, after all, is about considerably more than just Bob Dylan, and the production (low budget and under insane amounts of time pressure, apparently) seemed quite interesting, if not necessarily a fun experience for those involved, so there’s lots of interesting material here.

Extras on disc 1 include text pieces introducing the film, often reviews of the film from its theatrical run, which seems a like nod to I’m Not There’s sometimes weird, consciously impenetrable nature. Maybe they felt they needed a preamble for such an "artsy" movie in order for “regular folks” to understand it? I don’t know, but they’re pretty well-written and interesting, and work as cool companion pieces to the film. (Many of the bonus features on the I’m Not There DVD are text pieces, which is a cool – though presumably unintentional – throwback to old DVDs, and a feature that's probably been cast off needlessly in favour of "sexier" multimedia features like games or just more
EPK fluff. There’s lots of fascinating magazine and newspaper articles about the film and Dylan in general here, so again, Dylan heads take note.

Other extras include two theatrical trailers, as well as a bunch of cool, unused trailers based around Dylan’s proto-music video for
‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ (you know, the one where he’s bored-looking in an alley holding cards with lines from the song), including two versions with the entire cast recreating the clip, as well as takes of each of the cast members doing it individually. (For the record, the best at keeping pace with the song was Richard Gere; the worst was probably Marcus Carl Franklin, though Heath Ledger gets bonus points for taking drags from a cigarette before each verse.) For a collection of trailers, it’s surprisingly fun.

There’s also a 20-minute feature on the making of the soundtrack, which will mostly just interest to music geeks, as well as more traditional extras like audition footage, a couple of deleted scenes and some extended takes of the musical performances in the film (which I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention are all fucking amazing).

There’s also a nice
‘Tribute to Heath Ledger,’ a brief montage of footage from the film itself and outtakes, Heath Ledger's Robbie Clark? Also Bob Dylanoverlaid with music. Ledger, who died between the theatrical release of the film and the DVD, does great work in the film and obviously bonded with Haynes, who gets choked up more than once on the commentary during Ledger’s scenes.

The real meat of the extras is ‘A Conversation with Todd Haynes,’ which runs about 40 minutes or so. It’s a combination of an interview done specifically for the DVD and clips of the writer-director talking about the film at various film festivals and junkets, and considering the piecemeal nature of it, it’s really interesting stuff. Haynes is articulate, smart and funny, and speaks passionately about all aspects of a film that was clearly a labour of love. Haynes also provides commentary for the film, one of the most engaging tracks I’ve heard in a while, and it actually made me like the film a lot more in retrospect than I did when I first saw it, which is something not a lot of commentary tracks manage to do.

Rounding out the extras is ‘The Red Carpet Premiere,’ a collection of interview snippets from, well, the red carpet premiere. There’s not much of value here that isn’t covered elsewhere on the DVD, but in it Ledger sums up I’m Not There better in one sentence than I could in this long, rambling review, so I’ll leave it to him: “You leave the movie with no more knowledge of Dylan than when you entered the film.” It’s absolutely true, and in the best way possible.

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