Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'm Not There

"I know more about you than you'll ever know about me."

Roughly in the middle of I'm Not There, Cate Blanchett, in the guise of one of the many variations on the theme of Bob Dylan - this one named Jude - delivers that line to a snooty British interviewer. It neatly summarizes the movie and the man, since it's pretty difficult to actually know anything about Bob Dylan, and even with Todd Haynes' fascinating attempt at exploring the man, he still presents something of a mystery, perhaps by design.

I'm a latecomer to the Dylan party, and I certainly would never consider myself a massive fan. Still, I've been growing ever fonder of the music, and I notice that what I like most is that he stubbornly does whatever he feels like, damn what his shallow fans might prefer. Going electric when all of your fans are shallow, folk loving proto-hipsters? Fantastic. Finding, then losing, religion? Why the hell not? Recording Wiggle Wiggle? That's the thing to do right now. Making a Christmas album? Sure, let's do it. Every time a hipster cries that their favorite "living legend" is doing something that doesn't fit their narrow perception of what they're allowed to do, a kitten is born. Dylan keeps us awash in kittens.

That stubborn following of his own muse, the swirl of legends crafted by the hipsters who care not a whit about the man but are obsessed with the symbol and a deliberate crafting of a shifty, mysterious persona creates a character that is, in essence, near impossible person to make a film about in a traditional manner. As is quite well known, this is far from traditional. No less than six people play different parts of the Dylan persona, all fictionalized and renamed. Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Heath Ledger all play a part of something Dylan, and all are filmed in a different manner in a neat little mirror of the shifts in genre Dylan himself liked to make.

Yeah, it's far, far, far from a traditional - or accurate - biopic, but it's pretty much the only way to make a film of Dylan. He's an interesting personality, but he's not a film-friendly one. There's no arc to his story, though there are arcs to small parts, and there's no real beginning and end. Plus, there's the sticky matter of everything being obscured by legends, both gleefully fabricated by Dylan himself and by his ridiculous fans. It's a valiant attempt to find consistency in a person who seems to delight in being inconsistent. It's not a complete success, but it gets as close as anyone could in film form.

I like the attempt, though I think I'd like a full length film about the Cate Blanchett part of the character might be more interesting. From the surprise of a woman in the role trying to replicate the surprise of Dylan going electric, to the way she captures the fidgety weirdo behind the music, she's got the most interesting part to play. I could probably do without the Richard Gere part as well, which doesn't have a good connection to the overall character until very late in the film. Still, overall, I like how it's done, since it makes an effort to be so interesting.

Do I understand more about Dylan as a result of this movie? Not really. Do I like the music more? Maybe a bit, since it's used quite well, but he's still not my favorite musician. Was it worthwhile? You know what, it is. Successful or not, it's interesting to watch, never dull, and I genuinely liked it. Imperfection is fine if you're doing your best to be interesting.

As a side note, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays the wife in the Heath Ledger section, is behind 5:55, an album I quite like. It even mentions Saskatchewan! Yay!

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