Monday, August 25, 2008

I'm Not There

It is often said that becoming an artist or a poet is the same as finding a "voice," which is seen as the key to authenticity, to who one is, the true self but what if one keeps reinventing the self? And after all isn't that what being in the world ultimately means? Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, the best and certainly the most interesting American film of last year, poses these and many other questions and makes you think about them too. The only problem, or actually more accurately an impediment, is that Haynes assumes an extensive familiarity with Dylan's work and career (and not so much his personal life) and also wider American cultural history in general. Those who are not steeped in these matters will find themselves baffled by the film, as I certainly was when I saw it last year. The new two-disc special edition DVD comes to rescue with a nice commentary and supplementary materials which to some extent provide the much needed footnotes to the film.

As probably everybody knows this is not a dramatization of Bob Dylan's life. It is more like an advanced level critical essay on his work - part biographical yes, but more a work of cultural criticism. We see many different aspects of the idea of Bob Dylan. We see him as Rimbaud explicating his philosophy of self and language by answering questions in some kind of court room trial. The title of film, though taken directly from one of his songs, also seems to make a reference to the oft-quoted line by Rimbaud - "I is someone else", which in other words means that the moment you conceptualize your self as an abstraction you are already alienated from that idea. By casting Bob Dylan in this light Haynes himself acknowledges the limitations of any straightforwardly "factual" way of approaching him. So in other narratives which run in parallel throughout the film, Haynes tries to capture the various facets of "idea" of Dylan as constructed by his fans and admirers, the idea as an amalgamation of his influences, the idea as a spontaneous outcome of a specific subculture in a specific time and place. He also delves into his personal life but again more interested in a generalized idea. Played by Heath Ledger, it is actually the weakest section of the film for obvious reasons since it feels so far removed from his "work". I was also baffled by the "Billy the Kid" section and I am also not familiar with the Sam Peckinpah film in which Dylan acted so may be that's one reason.

As noted elsewhere also the best part is the one played by Cate Blanchett - the celebrity prophet, the so-called "voice of the generation", hounded by reporters and fans. It is also the most inspired section in visual terms. Haynes pays homage to 8 1/2, which actually enriches it thematically besides making it look absolutely ravishing. Haynes also says that he was making references to Godard's 60s films in the Heath Ledger section but I couldn't really appreciate it. He also says that he cast Charlotte Gainsbourg because she looked like the "kind" of woman which would have interested Dylan - again making it clear that the film is not interested in character but rather an idea or abstraction.

I had a couple of complaints or rather doubts about the film. First, Haynes makes absolutely no reference to Dylan's "real" ethnic roots. I understand the idea here is to show him rejecting any passively imposed identity and create and invent new ones for himself but it would have made more sense to show what he was really escaping from or rejecting. I find it specially intriguing because being a Jew he belonged to an ethnic minority in America. Without this his conversion to christianity and his later "religious" phase (you have to always use quotes talking about this film!) doesn't make a lot of sense. The other complaint is about the songs. With someone as imaginative and intelligent as Haynes at the helm I expected some sharp interpretations of his songs. As it is now, there is only one sequence which comes close to doing it - the sequence where Cate Blanchett sings about the mysterious "Mr. Jones". This is probably the best scene in the film too. (It can be seen here. The original is here.) In one other case however Haynes almost spoils a great song (contains mild nudity).

Overall this is not only a fascinating film but also demanding and very intellectually engaging. For those who are new or unfamiliar with Dylan it will inspire them to take a trip to the library or a bookstore and get a volume of one of those critical cultural and historical studies inspired by his work (I haven't done it yet) and there is no greater proof of the success of the film. This is also I think a major step forward for Haynes in what already looks like a very important body of work in contemporary American cinema. Both Safe and Far From Heaven are major and important masterworks and Velvet Goldmine was great too. I have been looking to get my hand on "Poison" and some of his early experimental medium length films but haven't been able to so far.

9 comments:

puccinio said...

Actually I think that the film isn't so much about Bob Dylan as it is about the 60's. Which is why you have references to key 60's works like ''8 1/2'' or ''Masculin-Feminin''.

Todd Haynes studied Semiotics in Brown University and that informs his filmography. Like he recreates a chair that Barbara Steele's character sat on in ''8 1/2''.

''8 1/2'' is the main crux of the film since that's about a film director tormented by different selves or different parts of his childhood, his fantasies, his ideas and wondering how to express what he has in mind with absolute honesty.

Here it presents Bob Dylan or popular musicians in it's days making great music but under various guises and layers of inauthenticity. To an extent this film is also critical of Bob Dylan and his attitude to have everything both ways. He started out as a protest singer but claimed not to have any interest in politics. Bob Dylan might have been aware of that when he gave Todd Haynes full access to his catalogue of music. He had seen some of Haynes' films and decided to acquiesce.

The Billy the Kid part of the film is not based on ''Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'', the film which Dylan scored and played a role in. It's based on Dylan's fascination with Westerns and frontier stories and he saw himself in the tradition of an old cowboy or something. Visually the inspiration was ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'', a modernist Western which uses 20th Century ballads written by Leonard Cohen(a different, more serious singer-songwriter but also in the folk ballad tradition of Dylan).

As for Dylan's Jewish identity, I don't know to what extent he considered himself Jewish. He came from a working-class town in Minnesota and worked from there he moved to New York and established himself as Bob Dylan(his real name is Robert Zimmerman). I think that Haynes didn't want to restrict Dylan to notions of ethnicity and the like.

The song sung by Jude Quinn(itself a reference to the song ''The Mighty Quinn'', in turn a reference to a Nicholas Ray film) is ''Ballad of a Thin Man'' from ''Highway 61 Revisited'', a very dark song indeed. But the album which Haynes cited as relevant for his film was ''Blonde on Blonde''. The title song(one of Dylan's greatest songs) was a number he had never intended for publication since it was made in music recordings after hours which was later released as part of his ''Basement Tapes'' anthology.

Alok said...

Yes I agree, at least most of it is indeed a cultural history of America in the 60s and uses Dylan only as an entry point and something of an emblematic artist of the age.

Also about "inauthenticity" i don't think he is really critical of Dylan in this regard. Haynes sees it as a natural and very understandable position for an artist to take in this post-modern world of ubiquitous media and its myth-making abilities and also with our obsession with surfaces and perception. He does clearly underscore his attitudes towards women though... and it doesn't put him in a very good light!

About his Jewish identity it just intrigued me because belonging to an ethnic minority strengthens one's identity but now that i think of it American culture is full of great jewish artists who tried and succeeded in redefining themselves as WASPs or at least non-jews (for various reasons). One example is classical hollywood itself - there were lots of Jews at influential positions but there is hardly anything Jewish in those films.

About the billy the kid film. When I saw it first i hadn't even heard of this film, much less knew that Dylan acted in it. I also felt that this section was probably cut too short...it left out some vital details. It felt more like a snapshot also thematically I don't know, did he see himself as an outlaw? That Leonard Cohen connection is wonderful. As I said in one of the previous comments I love this Altman film but it also baffles me and can't really pinpoint when someone asks me to talk about it. One of the reasons is the Leonard Cohen songs...it takes the film into a really strange territory but yes it is interesting to think both of them belonging to the same tradition.

puccinio said...

Dylan's cowboy fascination is there in all his early albums, there's a song in ''Bringing it All Back Home''(my all time favourite album of his which has my favourite of his songs - ''It's All Over Now(Baby Blue)'') called ''Outlaw Blues'' which says, "Though I look just like Robert Ford, I feel just like Jesse James." But that cowboy attitude is part of a great American tradition of songwriting typified by Woody Guthrie(a white socialist-protest singer of 20's who's ironically played in this film by a little black kid). Guthrie was a big influence on Dylan and Dylan modified himself on him.

That'll go over the heads of many people today since American history is of very little interest to Americans these days. Someone like Guthrie and his music is completely marginalized these days though he's as American an artist as anyone.

Dylan's attitude towards women does get it's treatment in this film but it also reflects the tension of the 60's where the whole idea of rebel-posing on the part of musicians and songwriters was part of a macho-hip posturing. And while many women were major figures in that period, an equal number was excluded. Dylan in his recently published memoires, ''Chronicles Vol. 1'' kind of tries to atone for that by mentioning the importance women had for him in his life.

Re: ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' maybe you should devote a post to it because it's too great a film to be dealt with as an aside. Altman got the idea of music during post-production. He didn't want traditional music scores but he felt that music that could capture the mood of the film would be nice. He had listened to Cohen's first album two years ago and later after production went to a party where they played songs from it and decided to use three songs, ''The Stranger Song''(which plays over the titles), ''Sisters of Mercy''(which fills the screen when the prostitutes come to that town) and ''Winter Lady''(Mrs. Miller's song, it plays over the end credits).

Alok said...

I have been looking over the wikipedia and the internet ever since I saw this film looking for more information on the references. for a newbie and someone with only a casual interest in his music (so far), it is a lot of ground to cover. I also realized how little I know of american culture and history and in general how in general american culture is condescended to... I have been guilty of that myself. I also don't think any other contemporary film which shows such genuine interest, curiousity and passion for cultural history, not academic history but history as a shared collective memory, as a key to identity. This is what makes this film even more impressive.

puccinio said...

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This is what makes this film even more impressive.
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Exactly! You know something ironic, ''I'm Not There'' is an international production with money outside America. One of it's producers is Hengamah Panahi, an Iranian businesswoman who is a key player in the production of International films. Just imagine the boiling blood of some American superpatriots when they hear that Iranian money had a hand in one of the best American films in recent years.

The thing about American popular music is as Bob Dylan himself said in his memoirs was that it didn't always close it's doors to the folk or regional musicians of America and the popular music in it's day could even be good or great. Dylan like Brecht/Weill music as well as Woody Guthrie, the Blues musicians, Chuck Berry and others as well as Broadway songs. He also liked Judy Garland as a singer and wished that he could have met her.

Now of course in virtually every medium, literally, music, theatre, film, there's this absolute no-tresspassing sign for anything with even half a cm of personal identity or vision or craft. It's almost totalitarian. Popular culture used to be democractic or it had the possibility of democracy now not anymore. It's not even popular culture, it's a corporate culture or rather a culture of buying and selling.

Alok said...

There is something in American culture (and in fact in general modern societies everywhere) that coopts, commodifies and exploits these cultural artifacts leaving them as soulless and inauthentic. This film itself makes a point about this and something that Dylan was aware of and tried to resist himself...

Robert Altman's Nashville is similarly about country music. Also Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd to which this film makes a reference too (the poster of Heath Ledger's film looks very similar to one of this film). Both show how grassroots popular authentic culture can be exploited and turned into something false and propagandist.

puccinio said...

Well the point of ''A Face in the Crowd'' is that Lonesome Rhodes participates in his own commodifying and co-option but that he remains unconscious mostly of the factors and forces that made his anarchic personality lose all it's edge.

Dylan was certainly very cagey about being reduced to carrying baggage and he hated being called a prophet or whatnot though he certainly encouraged it.

''Nashville'' on the other hand is more ellusive and polyphonic in it's political commentary. Because Hal Phillip Walker's political speeches seem to be that of a liberal's but his method and modus-operandi is of a first class demagogue and Michael Murphy's character could just as easily be a campaign guy for a Republic, a Democract or whoever. The party line he serves itself doesn't mean anything to him. Where the country music scene comes into play is that it is a rural community with a distinct identity that kind of connects to an old American idealism of grass-roots regionalism but the point of the film is that is dead because of the society we live in.

Hence the haunting last song, "You may say that I ain't free/But it don't worry me!"(written by Keith Carradine by the way, whose character is as talented as he is a horrible human being).

Incidentally, Patricia Neal the star of ''A Face in the Crowd'' appeared in Altman's ''Cookie's Fortune'', one of Altman's most lighthearted and whimsical films, which he considered a special favourite of his. It's a comedy in the Deep South but as in all Altman films, nothing and everything happens.

Anonymous said...

i think nashville kicks ass because it takes both the pseudo-conservative as well as the pseudo-liberal and the cardsharpers beneath the microscope; nashville and country music just providing the context. One of the reasons I like altman! Though i think films like nashville should not be restricted to around 2 hours. It needs to be a 5-7 hour opus like tarr's. that would be real fun.

Alok said...

I think it probably nears 3 hours already. If you need more you should check out his mini series Tanner '88 and Tanner on Tanner which I did last weekend. Almost as good as Nashville, and in some ways even better.