Take me disappearing ...
There have always been many Bob Dylans, recurrent varying aspects of his complex personality, as well as specific manifestations or personae that relate to those aspects. For instance, Preacher Bob, who was arguably a part of Folky Bob in the early 1960s, reappeared in the late 1970s as Christian Bob.
Folky Bob made a radical transformation into Rocky Bob, otherwise known as Amphetamine Bob, in the mid-1960s. This is his most famous self-reinvention as an artist and the subject of Martin Scorsese’s excellent Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, as well as a key part of Todd Haynes’s new imaginative take on aspects of Dylan, I’m Not There. But there are, of course, many other Bobs, some of whom Haynes accounts for in his film.
The idea of I’m Not There is to body forth six avatars of Dylanhood and tell their stories or let them present themselves. None are actually named Bob Dylan and one’s first question is “Only six?” We don’t get Vegas Bob, Jewish Bob, or his most recent incarnation, Ancient Cowboy-Rabbi Bob (related to Troubadour Bob), but we do get partial aspects of the sum total of Bobness.
We have young Folky Bob presented as a runaway black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) strumming his guitar as he steals a ride on trains, and calling himself Woody Guthrie. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a folk and protest singer who becomes a holy roller and singing Pentecostal minister. In sequences that take off directly from DA Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan film, Don’t Look Back, Cate Blanchett plays an androgynous singer, Jude Quinn, at the point of going electric and freaking out on those amphetamines. (Does the name mingle “Judas”, the cry thrown at Dylan then, and his Quinn the Eskimo?)
Those personae all make sense in terms of Dylan’s biographical history. The other three are more oblique representations of Dylanhood, the kind of thing he evokes in his own song when he talks about being “ready for to fade into my own parade”. They might be categorised as the poet, the actor and the quasi-mythic Old West figure. Ben Whishaw plays a character called Arthur Rimbaud and answers questions about himself and his poetry under some kind of interrogation.
Rimbaud as poète maudit, deranging his senses to explode consciousness, was of course a major inspiration for Dylan, a prime generator of his wild, mind-bending mid-1960s lyric style (and perhaps his leap into psychedelic rock’n'roll). Heath Ledger plays an actor playing a singer and represents Dylan the chameleonic performer—as well as some of his dark side. Finally, there’s Richard Gere as a version of Billy the Kid, living in a phantasmagoric countryside soundtracked by The Basement Tapes and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
In a style that in part combines the methods of Haynes’s own previous films, Poison and Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There moves back and forth between these parallel personae and their storylines. I have a high tolerance for this kind of thing, but I see that others will find it irksome. Some confusion arises in the latter stages of the film: I’m still not clear on what exactly happens in the Billy narrative, for one.
There is much to fascinate and stimulate here, especially for those who have a (fragmented) Dylan songbook in their heads, as I do. And much musical delight, sung by the author and others, though it feels like some Dylan songs are just too much for a movie to deal with.
There’s not a lot of the obviousness of Across the Universe, which turned Beatles songs into a story about people called Lucy and Jude. There are naturally characters in I’m Not There called Johanna and Louise, but given the cavalcade of weird figures who tramp through Dylan songs, such as Desolation Row or Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, such appropriation is minimal.
Inevitably, the question about a film like I’m Not There—a film of parts—is whether the parts add up. I’m not sure they do, and that does leave one feeling a little unsatisfied. But it sends one back to Bob, and perhaps that’s just the nature of the project, which rejects a totalising view. Anyway, how on earth to sum up such a complex figure, not just biographically (which would be hard enough), but imaginatively, through his creative personae? Maybe, as the title hints, there is no sum, or the sum’s beyond our reckoning and we must be content with a prismatic take on a mystery tramp, happy to be endlessly intrigued by the startling patterns of a human kaleidoscope.