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Two Places At Once

I’m Not There, Dir. Todd Haynes, Now Playing
65 Revisited, Dir. D.A. Pennebaker, Now Playing

Dylan at typewriter: Photo © Ashes and Sand, Inc.
Dylan at typewriter: Photo © Ashes and Sand, Inc.

In the current climate of mainstream Oscar-winning musical biopics, how do you capture an icon without exploitation or cliché? Especially when the icon is as bizarre, reclusive and enigmatic as Bob Dylan. In direct stylistic contrast to one another, two directors present their efforts. There’s the eagerly awaited release of I’m Not There from Todd Haynes, an avid Dylan fan, and writer/director of Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine. Named after an obscure Dylan B-side, the movie presents motifs/events from Dylan’s life via six “fictional” characters, all based on/inspired by Dylan. Haynes’ film is a visual and musical brainstorm. D.A. Pennebaker’s 65 Revisited, by way of contrast, marks the 40th anniversary of his seminal 1967 documentary of Dylan on tour in England, Dont Look Back. 65 Revisited, assembled from 20 hours of outtake footage, follows a weary Dylan on his 1965 UK tour.

Haynes is no ordinary filmmaker, and I’m Not There is no ordinary biopic. Tricky, powerful, sometimes ridiculous, it eludes definition. Haynes cast both a black eleven-year-old boy and an Australian woman as Dylan. On, paper it sounds ridiculous, but on film, strangely, it works—sometimes. Like the Barbie dolls Haynes used in his first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, each of six individuals represents a different face, a different outfit, a different era. Some are specific portraits (Cate Blanchett’s spookily Dylanesque Jude Quinn re-enacts real events and dialogue), and others more loose interpretations. Haynes’ affection for Dylan, and desire to do justice to his subject, leads him to abandon traditional form in search of a “creative” interpretation through an experimental collage.

Documentary pioneer Pennebaker offers Dylan knowingly playing a more complex role: himself. Self-absorbed, fluctuating, difficult; Dylan makes an intriguing, frustrating subject. 65 Revisited features a lot of music and not much offstage life, so there’s less call for interpretation. Pennebaker explains, “I hadn’t been trying to make Dont Look Back a concert film; I wanted it to be about Dylan, so I cut the songs down. But now [going through the footage], what I heard was the music as he first sang it.” The Dylan mystique is in full effect; Dylan chats casually with gawky teenage fans in Liverpool; Dylan types with intense concentration as he ignores Joan Baez vying for attention: a truculent Dylan offers his prescription sunglasses to a reporter, saying, “Try these, man. It’ll blow your mind.”

Thus his skinny, androgynous, unconcerned figure in Ray-Bans and drainpipe jeans provides the undeniable model for Jude Quinn, Cate Blanchett’s character in I’m Not There, the most memorable of the six Dylans. On tour in England, the neurotic, super-edgy Quinn plays tag with a band resembling the Beatles, experiences hallucinatory psychedelic interludes, pops pills and smokes incessantly. The hair, the voice and the attitudes are all perfect: only Dylan’s yellow nicotine-stained teeth are missing. (Unlike her doppelganger, Blanchett also has the most beautiful, immaculate fingernails.) Haynes insisted this hyper-realistic, Pennebaker-based “Dylan” be played by a woman. “It was important that this character would resemble the real Dylan more than any other in the film,” he said at a recent screening. “It was really just about Dylan’s physical state in mid-65-66: that strange androgyny. Something completely un-masculine and unexpected at the same time.”

Haynes not only creates an eerily accurate (if deliberately caricatured) portrayal of Dylan in his electric, disillusioned phase; he successfully captures the singular thrill of his music. Cate Blanchett lip-synchs to Dylan songs sung by Steve Malkmus (leader of the seminal, lyrically obscure band Pavement), not Dylan. “We needed to have a voice that matched her frame,” said Haynes. “This way the illusion is more complete and it’s how we get to the core of Dylan.”

This is one of the problems with 65 Revisited. The majority of the film is Dylan singing, and while it’s magical in moments, it can also be lacklustre and boring. Presumably, the rigours of touring were starting to take their toll (unfortunately not on Baez—an irritating presence who continually drowns out Dylan with her warbling).

Haynes’ themes and images overlap between scenes, emphasizing a sense of dimensions and layers. Haynes constantly uses reflections to remind us that we are dealing with more than one character. When Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger’s take on Sad Movie Star Dylan) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) first meet in a café, the cleverly angled mirrors present three reflections of the couple. When Jude Quinn attends a Beat party, his image as a leering, stumbling Dylan is projected onto three surrounding white walls. Dylan is everywhere and nowhere, in multiple forms. As he sings towards the end in the film’s title track, “Don’t follow me. I’m not there. I’m gone.”

Fundamental to any portrait of Dylan is his inability to be at rest, musically and literally. Both films show Dylan in motion, but while Pennebaker presents Dylan trapped in the weirdly mobile stasis of touring, Haynes explores the development of his character. The prophet Dylan is manifest in Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), a sixties protest singer shown in a VH1’s Behind The Music, with Julianne Moore as Alice Fabian, the Joan Baez figure. Rollins is hailed as “the promise of a new generation,” but grows disillusioned and becomes a Baptist minister.

Bale’s understated, hyper-realistic performance as Rollins doesn’t quite fit with Haynes’ mockumentary style. But maybe that’s the point with a musician who was always a little at odds with his surroundings. Other Dylans in the movie grow and adapt, culminating with Richard Gere’s performance as Billy The Kid: a reclusive outlaw fantasist confronted with his past. Gere alludes to his alter egos, saying, “It’s like you’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what may happen.” There’s a particularly effective moment when Billy The Kid walks past Woody, his childhood self, and the two stare each other down. Ben Whishaw, as Poet Dylan, narrates number three of his Seven Simple Rules for Life in Hiding: “If confronted with yourself, never look.” This moment perfectly illuminates the withdrawn, isolated figure that Pennebaker’s Dylan was in the process of becoming.

Pennebaker’s film is a good documentary. It’s nothing new or revolutionary, but it gives insight into how unhinged and strangely enchanting Dylan’s world could be. Haynes’ film is a lot more difficult. There are moments of magnificence. Haynes uses heightened color as he did in Far From Heaven: to illustrate beauty and emotional power. There’s a potent Sondheim influence, with New York filmed as gray, bleak and sober, whilst the countryside is bright and vivid. As a collection of Dylan-themed short stories, it almost works. But the kooky collage effect and obvious symbolism jars. Hyper-naturalism is what Haynes does best, and that mixes poorly with his psychedelia and heightened realism. As a portrait of Dylan, the film is an accurately fragmented jumble of ideas that doesn’t quite make sense.


Sophie Gilbert

London, England's Sophie Gilbert is a secret fan of Disney movies who currently resides in Queens.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 07-JAN 08

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