What About Bob?
Todd Haynes' Rubric Movie Forgets to Cast its Heady Eye on the Central Figure
Were we mean cynics, we'd suggest that Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan study, I'm Not There, gambles on the hope that self-serving obscurity will be mistaken for edgy brilliance. But based on the evidence of heartfelt work like Safe and Far From Heaven, we're willing to see this as merely a huge failure to speak a language more than a few viewers will grok.
Formed around the accepted Dylan biographic mythos, I'm Not There is a semiotic soufflé of event re-creations, discursive digressions, riffs on and allusions to Dylan lyrics, quotes, and other arcana. The result is a movie you don't watch so much as decode-and preferably 10 minutes after watching Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home twice, or a lifetime of mulling over Dylan minutia.
Which begs the question: If you're going to make a movie that can only be understood at all by decoding it, shouldn't there be more on offer than the act of decoding? But after 10 minutes-or the point where dwarves and face-painted mimes enter the picture, always a bad sign-the question becomes moot and the movie experience akin to stumbling into a Dylan chat room peopled by Slavoj Zizek fans.
The media story sound-bite attraction here is the Palindromes-like use of five actors to play Dylan in as many stages of his life, along with Heath Ledger as a fantasy Dylan as James Dean-like rebel film star. But unlike Todd Solondz's pointed use of multiple performers to create archetypes of the female soul in extremis, all Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman (Jesus' Son) seem up to is indulging themselves in a series of exclusive intellectual parlor games.
And so we get young Dylan as a black boy named Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), which one guesses is meant to identify Dylan as spiritual descendant of Guthrie and to express the notion that he emerged from the womb a fully formed genius. The black part-no idea what that's about.
After hanging with hobos and a stereotypically chirpy 1950s family, Woody becomes the visionary Dylan of Greenwich Village fame and is played by Christian Bale, who later cameos as the Born Again Bob of the '70s.
Cate Blanchett, in a performance that mistakes twitchy mannerisms for meaning, plays electric Bob, while the artist in post-motorcycle accident decline is essayed by Richard Gere as a recluse living in Riddle, Mo.-feel free to groan-a town peopled by the aforementioned dwarves and other Old Weird America eccentrics, a reference to Dylan's turn in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And Ben Whishaw occasionally appears as Basement Tapes-era Dylan being grilled by a governmental committee and responding in enigmatic one-liners that mainly seem to prove the redundancy that Dylan was, like, incredibly cool.
Over in deepest academia-the place Haynes might be better served writing convoluted art-theory
papers-the movie's absolute refusal to see Dylan in psychological or humanist light may curry favor. The same with Blanchett's drag-king Bob, what with its use of drag as meta way to address Dylan's-or rather, the director's interest in-disposable identities. Meanwhile, we worry that this is sounding like a Ken Russell-eque biopic romp à la Lisztomania. But Russell was always also about the fun; for Haynes, most everything is very, very serious.
Considering how effective
Haynes' co-opting of Douglas Sirk Technicolor high agita for his closet-case tragedy Far From Heaven was, it's a bewildering drag how little his aping of multiple styles accomplishes. Sure, it looks cool seeing Blanchett-Dylan living in an extended homage to 8 1/2 and mid-'60s Jean-Luc Godard, Bale-Dylan as D.A. Pennebaker's icon study, and Gere-Dylan lost in what looks like McCabe and Mrs Miller by way of Satyricon, but what the plundered techniques say about anything appears to be a secret shared only by Haynes and his co-writer.
And however muddled, Haynes' Velvet Goldmine had in Bale's journalist an audience-identification character in understandable thrall to that movie's David Bowie and Iggy Pop surrogates. All we can hang on to here are simulations of Dylan's tics, and by the time Gere shows up acting like, well, Richard Gere, not even that.
Meanwhile, Haynes' view of Dylan's contemporary peers is either sketchy or culturally dismissive. So we get a James Baldwin in uncharacteristic awe of the Bobster, noted NAMBLA advocate/poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) desperately trying to glom onto the star, and a run-in with the Beatles done in the clowny style of Richard Lester, while the most prominent non-Bob '60s music is supplied by the Monkees-a cheap way of proving Dylan's supremacy.
Worse, the women in Dylan's life come off as ciphers circling a ghost. There's temporary muse Alice (Julianne Moore as the Joan Baez figure), nostalgically bitching in "documentary" footage, and Claire, the fretful annoyance played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose main function is to watch TV broadcasts of Nixon, race riots, Vietnam footage etc.-that is, to be a one-girl context machine for the events Haynes wants to make sure don't really effect his Dylan.
There are some terrific moments. One highlight is a formalistically nervy bit in which Blanchett-Dylan plugs in at the Newport Folk Festival and the movie's soundtrack cranks up like a tinny Fender Twin cranked to 11, and so echoes the way the square folk music crowd heard his conversion. Another comes when Blanchett-Dylan is confronted with a TV broadcast in which his past as an educated, middle-class, Minnesota Jew is outed, and he just sits there, his reaction poetically unreadable.
But the same enigmatic mode informs everything, as it's essential to Haynes' morphing thesis that Dylan's background, psychology, motivations, and goals not be addressed since they would ruin Bob's value as a blank canvas for the filmmakers to paint on. And so, I'm Not There's title is disingenuous, as Haynes is everywhere. But Dylan? Not so much.