â€œThe only truly natural things are dreams…â€
The night before I saw Iâ€™m Not There, I dreamt that I met Bob Dylan outside of a concert venue. He was standing against a wall by himself, sporting his little mustache and familiar scowl. I approached him immediately, wanting so badly just to shake his hand and show my appreciation and respect. As soon as he saw that I was heading towards him, he started to shy away, but I spoke up and held my hand in front of him, â€œSir, my name is Dylan Peterson, my father named me after you.â€ He looked at me, didnâ€™t shake my hand, but asked for my dadâ€™s email address.
One of the most interesting American figures of all time is revealed through multiple names, faces, and personalities in Iâ€™m Not There, the latest film from Todd Haynes. The name â€œBob Dylanâ€ never shows up in the movie, and though the songs heard in the movie are tried and true Dylanâ€™s, theyâ€™re never titled as Bob Dylan songs. (Record album covers are altered to read something like â€œTravellinâ€™ Onâ€ instead of â€œFreewheelin.â€™â€) Thereâ€™s some truth in the film, some fiction, and a lot of blur. In a way, the blur is the only thing that keeps the movie going. When character development begins to deepen, the story takes another hairpin turn into another time or place, never allowing the audience to really become comfortable with the perplexing filmmaking theyâ€™ve decided to put themselves through.
About 15 minutes into this movie, I thought, â€œIâ€™m enjoying this, but would this movie do anything at all for someone who isnâ€™t a Dylan fan?â€ The haze is just so thick. Catching the visual poetry of a Tarantula being projected across a room is fun for one familiar with Dylanâ€™s history, but what is this movie otherwise?
When I found out that a movie about Bob Dylan was in production, I was excited, but I wondered if it was a good idea. For one thing, I heard that a female actress was playing Dylan (a risky move altogether), and I couldnâ€™t get away from the simple fact that Dylan was still alive. Usually a biopic doesnâ€™t really work until the star is gone, and the movie becomes a memorial to the artist (e.g., Ray Charles and Johnny Cash). But this type of thinking is not aligned with the typical Bob Dylan mindset. Bob Dylan has never been anything but unpredictable, and the more I gave up to this truth, the more excited I became about this experimental movie. And after seeing it, I clearly see how ridiculous it was for me to assume that a proper biopic couldnâ€™t be made until the star was deceased. This is because while Dylan represented something in the 60s, he actually represents the same thing today. Bob Dylan represents the present.
â€œSing about your own timeâ€
Paradox, puzzle, and chaos seem to be the only clear themes in Iâ€™m Not There, and they make for a perfectly post-modern movie. If looking at each Dylan-life separately, the characters in Iâ€™m Not There will not have the proper effect, because they are separate and whole at the same time. They are male and female, everyone and no one. The stories are true, and exaggerated beyond belief. The facts are skewed, but the fiction holds just as much ground as the non-fiction. We ask ourselves â€œwho is Bob Dylan?â€ and while we never find out, we always know the answer.
Iâ€™m Not There is visually stunning. Black and white Cate Blanchett blows minds as the Dylan of â€™65, capturing his mannerisms while maintaining her own personal interpretation of the overdosed rock star. Richard Gereâ€™s colorful world in Riddle delights viewers to the richest of colors in a Fellini-esque environment. Ostriches and giraffes roam Billy the Kidâ€™s Halloween town, where adults love to wear makeup and kids wear Mr. Peanut costumes. Christian Baleâ€™s born again version of Dylan momentarily summons the saved Zimmerman (much like the Joaquin Phoenix became Johnny Cash in Walk the Line), demanding double takes.
All of the other visual Dylans are just as great, but things really get interesting when the music comes on. The Iâ€™m Not There soundtrack features 33 Dylan covers, performed by some of the most ambitious music-makers today. Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Stephen Malkmus, Calexico, Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Jim James, and so many more bring their personal touch to Dylanâ€™s already over-covered songs. And while only a few of the double-discâ€™s tracks make their way into the actual movie, the soundtrack accomplishes with sound what the film does with visuals.
Dylanâ€™s songs have not only withstood time, but Iâ€™m Not Thereâ€™s soundtrack proves that they have moved along with time, becoming anthems for freedom despite the era theyâ€™re played in. The capabilities the songs have to be performed in so many different ways testify to their genius. Iron and Wine and Calexico donâ€™t really sound like Bob Dylan, but â€œDark Eyesâ€ sounds truly sincere as theyâ€™ve rendered it. Cat Power delivers one of her finest moments by taking on a Dylan impression in her rendition of â€œStuck Inside of Mobileâ€¦â€ Sufjan sounds impeccably â€œSufjanâ€ without subtracting from the uniqueness that Bob Dylan created lyrically on â€œRing Them Bells.â€
A man living in his present age wrote the songs, and they spoke to his generation with great clarity. When performed by contemporary artists today, they lose none of the fervor that they had in the days when they were first heard.
Bob Dylanâ€™s music, and this movie, should be experienced repeatedly. Theyâ€™re not merely singular works of art, but constantly transforming and growing into new things, perpetual experiences, always different from what they began as. See Iâ€™m Not There as an existentialist, not as a historian.
Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) reminds us towards the end of the film that only our dreams are susceptible to natureâ€™s decay. Iâ€™m Not There is one of the most dream-like movie going experiences imaginable. Itâ€™s a practice in visual present tense. Itâ€™s a film to think about, but for the most part, itâ€™s a film to make you feel. Itâ€™s a film for the present moment, a vivid dream in the night.