I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)

June 15, 2009

One Dylan thing leads to another: he is a bit addictive, although perhaps only to my generation, despite having topped the ‘charts’ (such as they are) with his last album. I read Colin Irwin’s Highway 61 Revisited (Flame Tree) in one go the day before last – it’s an account of the making and meaning of Dylan’s album, and is a sort of expanded companion to Greil Marcus’ entire book on the opening track, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which I devoured with equal speed a couple of years ago. Irwin is not such an impressive writer as Marcus, and he tends to cram in the background to an absurd degree here and there – for instance, an analysis of the song ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ is garnished pointlessly with the life of Jane Seymour, just in case that was the reference point, which even Irwin thinks it wasn’t. However, this aside, he has an eye for great detail, and he is never dull. He tops Marcus in one respect, in his description of Dylan’s sheer, astonished glee at realising what he’d done with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and his description of Dylan playing the acetate over and over again. I was also surprised by the sales figures that Irwin includes – only four million of Highway 61 Revisited, which seems strangely low for such an iconic album.

On from the trivia of this, which I love, to the DVD of Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There, which is better than clever, and about the only way to make a film about Dylan (who is never mentioned in the film) – by presenting him as six different characters. (It was originally seven, but a Chaplin tramp-figure was cut: wisely.) The ‘cleverness’ will put some people off, but I’m shallow enough to love it. I could easily watch this film several times, and I could certainly listen to its amazing soundtrack double-CD again and again. Let me just mention the music first. The CDs contain 33 covers of Dylan songs, and one unreleased song (the title song) by Dylan himself, a rescued out-take from The Basement Tapes. Since there are many, many poor covers of Dylan songs – Uncut magazine released a whole host a few years ago, and, with a couple of honourable exceptions, like ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ by Thea Gilmore (see yesterday), the results were indifferent – I’d feared the worst. But during the film (during which only fractions of some of the covers appear), it became clear that a lot of musicians, many from 1990s indie bands, had really lifted their game. There is not a single poor track.

I'm Not There

The film is astonishing. It is possible to grumble that the ‘older hobo’ role played by Richard Gere is not mixed into the film very well, and that, apart from its contribution to the variety of the film, which uses, references and imitates a whole range of sixties films, the Ben-Whishaw-as-Arthur-Rimbaud interview sections are unnecessary. But after that, no complaints. The fundamental idea – that Dylan reinvents himself with such enigmatic speed that he is ungraspable – is just right. And two of the performances – Marcus Carl Franklin (black, eleven years old) and Cate Blanchett (a dead ringer for the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, in the style of which her sections are filmed) – are sensational. Dylan played by a black child? A woman? It’s a show-off idea, but Haynes makes the most of it. To say that Blanchett inhabits the part is an understatement. It’s an act of amazing impersonation.

All the lines and scenes in the film are stripped from Dylan interviews and songs, so that the whole comes out like a wonderful collage. There are spoof documentary excerpts, spoof LP covers, and hugely entertaining exercises in splicing. Julianne Moore makes a brief appearance as a Joan Baez figure (looking back), and the two other well-known loves of Dylan’s life, Suze Rotolo and wife Sara Lownds, are conflated into a character called ‘Claire’, and well-played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The director’s commentary track is also highly revealing. But it contains one surprise. At one point in the film, any Dylan fan is going to spot a reconstruction of the Freewheelin’ cover, in which Dylan and Rotolo are pictured arm in arm, walking towards the camera. Haynes, however, says that this was completely unintentional. It looks as if he may have got further under the skin of his subject than he realised.