I’m Not There (***)

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When I first heard about Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic, I wondered how it could possibly work: several different actors portraying the same character? It seemed like an artsy-fartsy stunt that just couldn’t work. It wasn’t until I actually saw the film that I realized the error of my ways. Bob Dylan’s own time line is so schizophrenic, is full of so many different lifestyles and choices and musical genres and religious beliefs, that he had to be played by more than one actor. In fact, it took six actors, playing at least seven different characters (maybe it’s eight or nine, depending on how you look at it) to accurately portray Mr. Dylan in this film.Each character is a different aspect to Dylan’s personality, I guess. Cate Blanchett, for instance, plays Dylan right when he went “electric,” and the controversy that he caused by daring to play something other than folk music is depicted in this film. Blanchett’s performance is startling not because it’s a woman playing a man, but because I didn’t even notice the gimmick. I mean, I have no idea how Haynes’ knew that Blanchett would make the perfect Dylan, but man, he was right. It is an eerie, terrific performance. (There are a few shots where Blanchett looks identical to Dylan.)Marcus Carl Franklin plays Dylan as a young black runaway in the late 1950s who is greatly inspired by Woody Guthrie’s folk music, and in fact is going under that name. This plot strand seems to address Dylan fans’ frustration in the sixties when Bob refused to be a spokesman for his generation. I say “seems” because this film, like Dylan himself, is kind of hard to figure out. In one scene, the Guthrie/Dylan character is confronted by his obsession with Depression era music, and is told “write about your own time.” The struggle to maintain your vision while the whole world is telling you you’re wrong seems to be a theme that recurs throughout the different Dylan stories in this film.Christian Bale plays two Dylan-esque characters: Jack Rollins, who represents Dylan as folk hero, and Pastor Jack who mirrors Dylan’s “born-again” period. Bale is a phenomenal actor, and it’s hard to think of another actor who has played such an eclectic range in characters over the last few years (co-star Cate Blanchett would probably be in the running, though.) I mean, Bob Dylan and Batman, c’mon, that’s range. Ben Whishaw’s scenes as Dylan attempt to explain the man to an unknown group of interrogators, though it seems as he might just be confusing them more.Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid as Dylan, in a series of scenes that play as homage to Sam Peckinpah’s classic western Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (which Dylan scored and co-starred in), but also help underline Dylan’s role as a mythic kind of hero (or maybe they don’t.) Heath Ledger plays an actor who is portraying the Jack Rollins character in a half-hearted biopic of the folk singer’s life. Charlotte Gainsburg plays his wife in these scenes, and their painful separation and divorce mirrors Dylan’s first marriage. The film’s multi-layered narrative, which ping-pongs back and forth between years, stories, film styles and themes, helps underline just how hard it is to define or explain Dylan.It also helps that Todd Haynes directs the material with such manic intensity. Keep in mind that although the film has many different stories and film styles, it has only one director. Haynes’ vision is playful, satirical, angry, cruel, heartbreakingly sad and fiercely political, sometimes all at once. Make no mistake, this is the director’s baby all the way.I’m Not There is a difficult film to explain, but in a way, not really. After I watched the film, I became convinced that this film does, in fact, help explain Dylan. At least, as much as one film could ever explain a person’s life. This movie is a puzzle, a joy for film buffs and Dylan fans, but I’m not sure how it will play if you come into the movie cold. It’s challenging and not for everybody, but for those who can tap into it’s wavelength, it’s a fascinating, entertaining journey.

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