Saturday, November 24, 2007

"I'm Not Here": A Dylan jigsaw puzzle

The most conventional aspect of "I'm Not Here," Todd Haynes's cubist biopic of Bob Dylan, is that the iconic songwriter is portrayed by 6 different actors, including Cate Blanchett and African-American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin. After that it gets really far out. The kid version of Dylan gets swallowed by a whale that's swum straight out of Melville's pages; the older, "John Wesley Harding" era Dylan lives as an outlaw in his own Western wherein horses roam alongside a giraffe; and the mid-’60s Dylan, imposterishly played by Blanchett with a tangled bouquet of hair and cheekbone shadows even darker than Dylan’s hideaway sunglasses, floats up into the sky as dangerously as the key tethered to Ben Franklin’s kite. All of which is to say that “I’m Not There” is a visually astonishing film.

The point of it all? To convey the idea that Dylan, portrayed here mostly as a self-centered snot, had to keep reinventing himself because he wearied of the pidgeonholing and expectation and labeling thrust upon him. Though his music became the rallying cry of counterculture discontent, he was uncomfortable with the mantle of folk-music messiah. He was the anti-Bono.

That's still as true today as it was then. Whenever Dylan does something blatantly commercial, such as appearing in a Victoria's Secret ad or hawking his music in a car ad, commentators get into a snit about how he's sold out to The Man in a betrayal of '60s ideals. (The man has been called Judas more than a few times.) A more striking example of how others expect the man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman to conform to a certain ideal emerges from the following exchange between hippie-spirited Jann S. Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, and Dylan in an RS interview earlier this year:

Wenner: What do you think of the historical moment we’re in today? We seem to be hellbent on destruction. Do you worry about global warming?

Dylan: Where’s the global warming? It’s freezing here.

Wenner: It seems a pretty frightening outlook.

Dylan: I think what you’re driving at, though, is we expect politicians to solve all our problems. I don’t expect politicians to solve anybody’s problems.

Wenner: Who is going to solve them?

Dylan: Our own selves. We’ve got to take the world by the horns and solve our own problems. The world owes us nothing, each and every one of us, the world owes us not one single thing. Politicans or whoever.

As prickly and mumbly and obtuse as Bob can be, he does open up eloquently on "No Direction Home," the comprehensive Martin Scorcese directed documentary on Dylan, which is a great companion piece to "I'm Not There."

In "I'm Not There," some of Dylan’s greatest songs, including “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” get their own appropriate montages. Most of the music is comprised of Dylan originals, but a few cuts from the stellar accompanying soundtrack of interpretations by 30 or so artists are included, too. The best of these appears in the Western sequence (featuring Richard Gere as Dylan) when My Morning Jacket’s Jim James stands in a town-square gazebo and sings “Goin' to Acapulco.”

The movie’s website has a nifty feature: You can send someone a message inscribed on the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards as flipped through by Dylan.

P.S. That appropo photo courtesy of Geeenta's photos on Flickr in the creative commons area.

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