Mr. Quinn: Astronaut.
In true tribute style, “I’m Not There” opens with the sounds of adoring fans waiting for their favorite folk-rock star to grace the stage. The camera maneuvers in first person point of view through the winding corridors leading from the dressing room to the stage. This build toward the reveal is one we’ve all seen before but this is perhaps the most traditional thirty seconds of the entire film. It isn’t long before the cheers are interrupted by the roar of a motorcycle and a man on a bike driving across a deserted dirt road. The shot is ultra wide and the sky is that deep grey only black and white film can provide.
Writer/Director Todd Haynes inadvertently announces, in the mere seconds it takes the shadowy biker to cross from one end of the screen to the other, that what we are about to watch will be anything but traditional, aesthetically breathtaking and an experience unlike any other. Blinking boldly on and off in the middle of the sky are the words of the title – one by one they appear out of sequence until they settle for a moment in order and all at once, before flickering away yet again. “I’m Not There” is inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan but he is somehow nowhere to be found in the two hours that follow and yet still everywhere at the same time.
“I’m Not There” is entirely and unapologetically experimental. Six different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Wishaw) play six different characters that represent human incarnations of Dylan from various periods of his existence or from inspired interpretations of where his life could have gone. No one story is told from beginning to end nor overtly connected to any of the surrounding stories. Each is told with a different visual motif, from smooth to grain, from subdued black and white to brilliantly expressive color, from cinema verité to abstract imagery that leaves you lost and puzzled. The entire undertaking can be daunting and overwhelming if you aren’t prepared. Even if you go in armed with sharpened knives ready to dissect the onslaught of non-linear imagery, it will come at you so fast, your knives will be dulled before you can make the first cut. While it certainly helps to be a fountain of Dylan knowledge, it won’t hurt if all you can do is maybe hum along to “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a good day because Haynes is not concerned with telling a direct account of Dylan’s story. Rather, he is paying homage to what his life and how he lived it inspired both passion and rage in millions.
What saves “I’m Not There” from being overbearing, pompous and pretentious is intention. Haynes had been a Dylan fan in his high school years but only recently rekindled his love for the artist. His decision to cast and shoot without boundaries was meant to embody the same spirit and freedom of the man whose life story he was telling. His unfettered approach does at times come off as film student idealism (with expert technique, mind you) but his innovative and open-minded choices ultimately win out as inspired. His decisions are not only experimental but also successful. There is never a moment that Haynes’s love for Dylan is in question. In fact, his love is so potent that, just like the real love experienced in intimate relationships, it clouds his vision. Haynes’s Dylan is put upon and criticized to the point of hiding and recluse but his attackers (members of the press or fans who have turned on him) are always portrayed as people disappointed that he is not what they want him to be or need him to be. People needed Dylan to bring them peace but all he could claim was that you couldn’t change the world with a song, that all he could sing was what was inside of him. In that regard, he never stopped singing about the truth.
The truth behind “I’m Not There” is that it is best enjoyed if you don’t try to define it. If you allow it to be what it is, to let it go where it must in order to be complete, then its secrets will inevitably reveal themselves when they are meant to be seen and understood. I don’t pretend to say I understand the film in its entirety. I have theories about what is being said and how it needs to be said in a certain fashion but I can’t claim that any of them are accurate. For me, both Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan are poets and this film is but a love poem from one man to the other.
Review by Joseph Bélanger