Wednesday, January 02, 2008

'I Accept Chaos, I'm Just Not Sure That It Accepts Me...'

...So says Ben Whishaw as the poet Arthur Rimbaud, one of seven facets of the iconic singer-songwriter Bob Dylan (portrayed by six different actors) in 'I'm Not There', an appropriately slippery and enigmatic anti-biopic from Todd Haynes, a director so brimming with confidence he appears to be able to do whatever he wants. Indeed, it would be very tempting, as many critics have done, drawn in by the perceptiveness and appeal of Dylan's own words, to view 'I'm Not There' simply as a film about chaos and confusion in personal identity - a film without plot, structure or narrative. Haynes is indeed a master of uncovering 'what's not there' - be it the sexual or racial tensions simmering within the world of Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas in his masterpiece 'Far From Heaven', or the philosophical questions that lie not just at the heart of Bob Dylan's many personas, but also of his art.

The film may be at least partially non-chronological (and therefore closely resembles Dylan's own autobiography 'Chronicles' in its approach), but each segment of the film seems to represent the songwriter at a key stage in his evolution, but always attempting to escape the pigeonholing of others. The outstanding Marcus Carl Franklin plays a young boy called Woody Guthrie. The real Woody Guthrie was of course a prime influence on Dylan - but here we see the precociously talented youngster being told to approach songs from the point of view of his own time. Christian Bale plays the young rebellious, 'folk-singing' Dylan, offending the establishment and rampaging against injustice, uncannily capturing his mannerisms and quirks of performance. Cate Blanchett provides a similarly accurate imitation as Jude Quinn, with considerable style and even affection for the callow, nonchalant, nihilistic Dylan rejecting the 'folk' and 'protest' labels in the mid-60s. Perhaps the strangest segment features Richard Gere as an ageing version of Billy the Kid (neatly referencing Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which Dylan 'acted'), an ageing loner representing Dylan's rural retreat after his motorcycle accident (a pivotal event cleverly left until the film's conclusion). Most uncomfortable his Heath Ledger's macho movie star (ironically playing the same folk singer represented by Bale), representing Dylan at his least likeable. Bale re-appears to signify Dylan's conversion to Christianity and Whishaw delivers his whole performance as an interview to camera, perhaps representing Dylan's initial shift from the political to the personal (although any Dylan admirer would recognise that the latter had always been a significant aspect even of his earliest work). The various 'characters' seem to be grappling with ideas of identity and categorisation, trying to escape the lives in which they find themselves.

The film has its flaws. I completely disagree with some critics, including The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who have suggested that Blanchett's impression is so outstanding as to overshadow the rest of the piece. I found her section the most problematic, mainly because it so closely followed the template of D.A. Pennebaker's legendary documentary 'Don't Look Back' - a film that has already been very successfully made using expert footage of Dylan himself (although whether that was in fact 'the real' Dylan or a temporary persona is of course anyone's guess) - that it seemed somewhat pointless. Similarly, I found myself questioning the wisdom of portraying Bale's section as a documentary, complete with voiceover and interviews with folksinger Alice Fabian (essentially Julianne Moore as Joan Baez). Both these sections seemed to slightly lack drama, although the Blanchett scenes crackle with energy, much of it thanks to Dylan's own tremendous music of the period.

Whilst Blanchett's turn is perhaps the most thought-provoking (and perhaps also the least subtle in raising questions about identity and persona), the focus on it has missed the sheer exuberance of young Marcus Carl Franklin's performance as Woody (the film is worth the entrance fee alone for his performance of 'Tombstone Blues' with a quite brilliant Richie Havens, himself one of the great Dylan interpreters) and the barely suppressed rage and resentment captured by the simmering Heath Ledger. Charlotte Gainsbourg luckily gives a correspondingly sympathetic and engaging performance as the actor Robbie's wife, clearly representing Dylan's wife Sara. I also felt the more elusive and mysterious section involving Richard Gere was on to something too - although I was not entirely sure quite what - and I certainly found myself touched and moved by My Morning Jacket's Jim James delivering a solemn and funereal rendition of 'Goin' To Acapulco'.

The musical selections are sublime throughout - indeed, the film's title is taken from a rarely heard Dylan song officially released for the first time on the soundtrack. Whilst the film takes in some of the cornerstones of Dylan's career (a rampaging 'Maggie's Farm' at Newport, with Pete Seeger cutting the cables, 'Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' etc) it also goes for some curveball and affecting choices - 'Man In The Long Black Coat', 'Simple Twist of Fate' over 'Tangled Up In Blue' and 'Pressing On' from the Christian period stick in the mind particularly. Best of all is when Haynes deliberately plays music from the wrong period - having 1997's apocalyptic 'Cold Irons Bound' over a scene supposedly located in the mid-60s emphasises the continuity as much as the contradictions in Dylan's multiple personas.

The film is edited in a way that initially seems free and loose, chopping between time periods and personas, but eventually comes to reveal its own internal logic. Themes are stated and then developed through the different performances. This is a crucial point - some critics have suggested the film will hold little interest for those not ardent Dylan admirers. This point may have an element of validity given the strong emphasis on Dylan's own words and music in the film - but these critics have lacked the independence of mind to unpick the film's central theme.

Essentially, 'I'm Not There' struck me as a highly philosophical and, on the whole, largely successful meditation on the nature of personal freedom. In the Woody sequence, the young Guthrie is told 'boy, I think you've found your freedom before you've found your technique' - a simple and direct statement neatly summarising the untutored but convincing style of the young Dylan. Elsewhere, Coco Rivington suggests to Blanchett's Jude Quinn in a dreamlike sequence that he/she may not even know what freedom is, and nor indeed may anyone. Indeed, the film suggests that Blanchett's confrontational and agitational responses to accusations of insincerity and hypocrisy as much represent the singer's desire to be free from conventional categorisation as they do elements of a volatile personality. Gere represents the singer in isolated rural retreat, seeking freedom from outside pressures and worldly concerns, although perhaps failing to find it.

Even in its more sedate moments, the film has a vitality and intellectual vigour, although its supposedly unconventional style actually reminded me of another very specific, individualistic work - Francois Girard's remarkable and superior '32 Short Films About Glenn Gould'.

No comments: