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Film - I'm Not There

It's been said that I'm Not There is not a movie about Bob Dylan. That might be so, but it is most certainly a movie of Bob Dylan-so much so that it's hard to imagine anyone other than a hardcore Dylan fan fully enjoying it. Even if that's the case, director Todd Haynes' opus is a fantastic piece of experimental cinema.

Let's pretend it's a real movie and begin with a plot summary: Bob Dylan navigates a world that's mostly biographical, stretching from Dylan's Woody Guthrie-obssessed teens to his fundamentalist Christian days in the late 1970s. To make it all that much weirder, Dylan is played by Christian Bale, an outstanding and convincing Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin. Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Wishaw-each of whom is a clearly distinct character with his own name.

But that summary doesn't really suffice. The film is really about the many Dylans working through the creation of his mystique and his musical transitions, all accompanied by Dylan's songs, sung by him and by a star-studded array of others. Some of the movie is shot like a standard feature, other parts are A Mighty Wind-like mockumentary; some are in grainy black and white, others in crisp color.

Overlaid on this are two major fictional plot strains: one, concerning the dissolving marriage of Robbie (Ledger, as an actor who plays one of the Dylans in a fictional movie) to French painter Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and a second, focusing on Billy the Kid (Gere)-another Dylan, but a more abstract one. Not making sense? That's OK; neither does the movie.

Haynes, like the viewers, like Dylan's real-life and on-screen entourages and probably like Bob himself, seems to be struggling to keep his head above water to avoid being washed away by the self-created and other-created Dylan mythologies.

The movie is full of little details that seem meaningful but are too opaque for the average viewer to crack. Why does fire recur as a symbol so often? Why, after pulling up beside Dylan in a car, does Allen Ginsberg peel off into a graveyard? Listen back to some Dylan songs: like their lyrics, maybe all this has an elaborate inner logic, or maybe it's just some beautiful, exquisite nonsense. And just like the lyrics, it doesn't really matter.

Haynes' own fanaticism is manifest throughout the movie. Names in songs are subtly assigned to characters. Other puns are larger; the Billy the Kid thread-which Harvey Weinstein apparently tried to kill-is an elaborate play on Dylan's own (very bad) movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

And how does Dylan come across through all this? He's sympathetic, then an a-hole; gristled, then vulnerable; righteous and smart-alecky-running the whole gamut of the real Dylan. Maybe I'm Not There makes sense after all.

-David Graham


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