Monday, December 17, 2007

I'm Not There

I'M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes, 2007)

How can someone truly know us as individuals? We are who we say we are. We are who others want and believe us to be. We are more and less than the sum of our dreams, failures, contradictions, consistencies, genetic predispositions, and environmental imprintings. We are our families, friends, and acquaintances. We are our work.

How can we truly know someone else, especially if the person is famous? That question is at the center of I'M NOT THERE. Todd Haynes' masterful portrait of Bob Dylan scrutinizes the musician-poet-actor-artist-husband-father-outlaw and leaves him at once as mysterious as ever and yet somehow knowable.

Jung wrote of archetypes within us all, universal parts of the personality that reside deep inside regardless of if they are visibly manifested. In presenting Dylan the character--none using his name, incidentally--Haynes makes the Jungian concept tangible. Dylan's film biography doesn't put him forward as just a Jewish singer-songwriter from Minnesota. Played by six actors to correspond to different periods of his career, he's also an African-American child, a woman, and Billy the Kid.

It isn't necessary to be steeped in Dylan lore to keep up with the shapeshifting I'M NOT THERE , but let's be honest, it helps to know at least a few things about the man's history. Haynes' challenging film sets out to see how the disparate pieces of Dylan's persona fit together, if they're even part of the same puzzle. Edited like a puzzle worker's trial-and-error method of searching for what goes where, I'M NOT THERE juxtaposes eras in a structure that suggests chronology but avoids hewing to it.

Haynes demands patience from the viewer. Through his bold directorial choices and the film's technical prowess--Edward Lachman's striking cinematography, most notably--it becomes easier to grant it to him. The complex and opaque nature of I'M NOT THERE is in keeping with its subject's body of work. While renowned as a top notch lyricist, Dylan's songs also have a reputation for being difficult to penetrate.

The actors smooth the path through the rough landscape of metaphor. Christian Bale impresses with his earnest and impassioned work as protest singer Jack Rollins turned born-again Pastor John. Heath Ledger lends destructive magnetism to brooding screen idol Robbie Clark. It's Cate Blanchett, though, who outshines everyone as DON'T LOOK BACK Dylan, Jude Quinn. Playing the wisecracking rebel to the hilt, Blanchett has a merry time staggering through the mid-'60s as though the world is his (hers?) for the taking. Like the infamous moment when Dylan went electric, I'M NOT THERE gets an unexpected charge from Blanchett's chameleon-like transformation.

After looking at the many faces of Dylan and failing to pin him down, I'M NOT THERE leaves us with his songs. Perhaps that's the driving factor behind his reinventions. In obscuring who the author or the singer is, the focus turns to the art he creates. Isn't that the point in the first place?

Grade: A-

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