25 November 2007

Six Characters in Search of a Dylan

Thanksgiving tradition in my house usually involves turkey and a trip to the movies since it's one of the few businesses open to the public. It's usually a family movie that we all watch, but since the selection of movies this year was mostly unappealing to me - Bee Movie, Enchanted - I decided to see the new Todd Haynes film, I'm Not There, with my wife. I think everyone else went to see Enchanted.
The film is a mostly non-narrative meditation on the different personas, myths, and contradictions of Bob Dylan. Each of these different representations of his persona, that is, not him but what he presents to us to be him, are played by different actors (except Bale, who plays two): Marcus Carl Franklin as a 10-year-old African American boy who represents Dylan's young, romantic ambitions to be the next Woody Guthrie; Ben Whishaw as Dylan the prophet, who's screen time is strictly him looking into a black and white camera and giving whimsical one-liners while avoiding eye contact and smoking a cigarette - an emodiment of Dylan's Rimbaud persona; Cate Blanchette as Dylan in Don't Look Back when his image was most iconic in the mid-1960s; Heath Ledger as an actor playing Bob Dylan in a film within in the film whose life paradoxically comes the closest in the film to portraying actual events in Dylan's life with his marriage to Suze Rotolo (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg); Christian Bale as Dylan the young folkie protest singer, still wet behind the ears and not yet completely cynical, and as Dylan the Christian convert; and Richard Gere as Dylan's Billy the Kid persona.

The effect of all these different Dylans is something jarring, as narratives are mostly cut between each other and not presented chronologically, and can be confusing if your expectation is for a conventional narrative film. Also, this film is very reflexive of Don't Look Back and No Direction Home, the two wonderful documentaries made on Dylan by D.A. Pennebaker and Martin Scorsese, so having seen those two films or having knowledge of Dylan's life/myth is a great help in appreciating Haynes's film. In other words, this is not for the Dylan-uninitiated viewer. The film is also reflexive of '60s cinema and makes several nods to 8 1/2, Hard Day's Night, as well as to the films of Godard. In his article in Film Comment on the film, Larry Gross argues that I'm Not There is more closely tied to Godard's Masculin-Feminin than anything else in both of the films conveyence of the '60s youth culture as well as in the technical aspects of filmmaking. While I can't comment completely on this, since I have not seen Masculin-Feminin, I can certainly agree that Godard is present in I'm Not There in more ways than one. The reference of other filmmakers that is mostly inaccessible to the common viewer in itself is characteristic of Godard, who would often make pop culture references in his films that I usually need the help of audio commentary to figure out. Also, in terms of the way the film is edited, I strongly felt that Haynes was trying to not only represent Dylan and the '60s culture that comes with him, but the cinema of the '60s, specifically of Godard who brought in a whole new era of filmmaking with Breathless. Some characterstics of the editing that I am referencing is the use of jump cuts, of jumbled narrative, of mysterious, poetic voice-over narration, and of pastiche.

As far as 8 1/2 goes (I know this is boring to anyone who hasn't seen 8 1/2, but I was so excited when I saw it in the film that I just have to write about it) the entire Cate Blanchette narrative is saturated with elements of Fellini's film. There are two scenes in particular: the first one has an outdoor parlour/lounge in which everyone is having drinks and talking loudly, the second scene, which makes the reference of 8 1/2 explicit, has Blanchette floating in the sky held by a rope as if a balloon, which is the same as Guido in the opening scene of 8 1/2. The first scene I mentioned is almost exactly like the health spa scene in 8 1/2 in which Guido walks around in a type of daze and has people calling over to him, everyone talking loudly and drinking some kind of mineral water for their health. In this same outdoor parlor scene, we see Blanchette rolling in the grass with four mop-topped boys who are all giggling like Chipmunks. After Blanchette leaves them they walk arm in arm to the background where we see them chased by a mob of screaming girls as they run offscreen - Hard Day's Night anyone? The theatre laughed out loud for that one.

Cate Blanchette is a topic of discussion for a lot of people when mentioning this film in terms of her portrayal of Dylan. My wife loved it especially and said that she sometimes forgot she was watching an actress play Dylan instead of seeing the troubadour himself. I thought it was a good job, but unfair as a comparison between the other actors who had a much less literal embodiment of Dylan to play. Even so, she was incredibly convincing, even without an Adam's apple. My favorite, though, was probably Christian Bale as the young folkie Dylan. Something about the way he was able to play the innocent Dylan, singing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in front of a bunch of farm workers, to the fed-up Dylan realizing he was becoming more of an publicly-shaped image rather than himself (this was climaxed with a recreation of Dylan's speech at the NECLC award dinner, Haynes making Dylan's rambling an effect of his drunkenness) , and finally the completely isolated Dylan who discovers Christianity and sings a gospel in a small auditorium with a dozen people in it, his face pale and confused. His job was to show the transition between the cute kid on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to the cynical Blonde on Blonde Dylan played by Blanchette. I thought that was really great.

The least effective, I thought, was the use of the Billy the Kid persona played by Richard Gere. The time period, message, and situation were pretty foggy to me, though that could be due to my ignorance of the full story of Billy the Kidd or its connection to Dylan besides his admiration of him and his iconic resemblance. Haynes does open with a shot of Gere's eyes opening and then end it with him on a train, so the character is certainly important. All I could really take from it is that Billy the Kid, or Dylan, is an outcast, completely detached from the rest of the world in some small cabin in the middle of the woods, hiding from the world, yet somewhat above it. The Billy the Kid scene does feature a made-up Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) singing a beautiful cover of "Goin' to Acupulco," which brings me to the MUSIC.

A film about Dylan, no matter how impersonal or indirect, has to include his music since it is so closely connected to everything he is and presents us to be him. In the recreation of the Newport Folk Festival where Dylan first goes electric with "Maggie's Farm," Haynes plays a great cover done by Stephen Malkamus & the Million Dollar Bashers. This song and others featured in the film, such as the aforementioned Jim James cover, Mason Jenning's cover of "Hattie Carroll," as well as thirty others not featured in the film are compiled in a wonderful soundtrack, which I bought the day after. The music is fantastic! Unlike a lot of cover albums which can seem uninspired and hacked, this soundtrack has a texture and continuity that melts together the essence of Dylan as well as that of each of the performers. A lot of this has to do with the repeated presence of a lot of the same artists (Malkamus has three songs, Jennings has two, etc.) as well as a type of house band - the Million Dollar Bashers - which is comprised of members of Sonic Youth, Wilco, and original musical partners of Dylan's touring troupe, that is featured as back up to Tom Verlaine, Eddie Vedder, and Malkamus and whose members play in other songs as well. Another house band of sorts is Calexico, whose acoustic, folkie elements complement Dylan's sound. Another reason the soundtrack works is that they don't use tracks that you would find on a Greatest Hits collection, but a lot lesser known material and a lot of stuff I didn't even recognize. For example, there is no "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Rainy Day Woman" or "Forever Young." There is "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," but its covered in a way its meant to be covered by Antony of Antony and the Johnsons - SO creepy.

Specific highlights for me are: Cat Power's cover of "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" for the way Chan Marshall is able to mimic Dylan's intonation while maintaining the charm and sultriness of her own voice; Jim James and Calexico's cover of "Goin' to Acupulco" for his soaring voice (chills!) and the horn arrangements; Stephen Malkamus & the Million Dollar Bashers cover of "Maggie's Farm" for its sonic power and Malkamus's quirkiness, which is not unlike Dylan's; and, Jeff Tweedy's cover of "Simple Twist of Fate" for my biased love for Tweedy and Wilco.


nakaikoi said...

very thorough review. Thanks Kazbo.

Did you see Perfume? Creepy, but I think it was a great story.


the awkward epiphany said...

nice review, this is top on my list of new movies to see, preceding No Country for Old Men.

i've never read waiting for godot, should i?

i haven't organized a get together. i'm a bit scattered right now, just got back from boston. you said sunday's good for you?