Thursday, March 6, 2008

I'm Not There (Haynes)

I'm wondering if it would be possible to evaluate the quality of I'm Not There without simultaneously becoming bogged down in a lengthy discussion on my rather mixed feelings toward Bob Dylan himself, for that is an essay of a more thorough nature. Perhaps I'll just keep it brief and say that I like him more than the average pop music listener does, but I don't like him as much as most rock critics do. If someone starts ripping on him, for example, I almost feel like a fan. But when hardcore Dylan nuts start going on and on about the pure transcendence of "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," I just scratch my head in befuddlement. Occasionally I've been inclined to think that decades of effusive praise for Dylan's work is a case of the Emperor having no clothes; as John Lennon once said, "Dylan got away with murder." But when someone like Yoggoth tells me that he thinks Dylan is at least as good and possibly better than the Beatles, I just have to shrug and say "De gustibus non est disputandum."

And so it is that I came into I'm Not There with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. Excitement because I admired Todd Haynes' previous film, Far From Heaven, and because it seemed that the premise of having several different actors represent Dylan (even of different races and genders) was delightfully off-the-wall and ridiculous. Skepticism because I only like Dylan so much, and this seemed like a film geared almost exclusively toward those who speak of Dylan in that hushed, reverential tone I tend to reserve for the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. "How good could it be?," I told myself. "Even if Haynes has made the world's greatest Dylan movie, it's still know...a Dylan movie."

And although that evaluation is ultimately not too far off, I enjoyed I'm Not There immensely. Yes, maybe Haynes has made "just a Dylan movie," but he really went balls to the wall with his "just a Dylan movie." For what he set out to do, he did splendidly. The problem with most biopics, I think, is usually a lack of effort. Most filmmakers figure that since people already know their subject's basic story, they don't need to try very hard to make the actual film itself entertaining/dramatically convincing/educational/aesthetically adventurous/evocative/weird/etc. I'm Not There does not have this problem. Haynes has submerged himself in a big ocean of Dylan: he packs the movie with so many knowing references and bizarre snippets that you feel like you're almost swimming around in an artist's work. If every biopic of a classic rock musician were made with the level of enthusiasm that Todd Haynes brought to I'm Not There, then I would be a happy man.

But when the credits rolled, I didn't feel as though my life had been enriched in any way. I had a good time, but didn't discover anything new about Dylan, Haynes, myself, or life in general. And this is where Haynes' approach arguably falls short. The standard critical word on I'm Not There is that "at least it's not another cliched, pseudo-uplifting Oscarbait biopic" along the lines of, say, Ray or Walk The Line. Not being an admirer of Walk The Line, I do not mind such an insult. But I bristle at the insinuation of Ray being "Oscar cheese" while I'm Not There is held up as a work of great artistic integrity. Ray, I feel, was the perfect example of a musical biopic that worked, and it worked because the film's director, Taylor Hackford, submerged himself in a big ocean of Ray when he made it. Hackford's enthusiasm and grasp of even the smallest details of Ray Charles' career came through. When Ray was over, I felt like I had learned something about Ray Charles that I hadn't known before. Hell, I felt like I learned something about myself. By contrast, Walk The Line was disappointing precisely because I was hoping to be submerged in an ocean of Cash, but instead I was only lightly doused with a squirt gun of Cash.

My point is, splitting Bob Dylan into eight different people was not necessarily the only way to make a great Bob Dylan film. In fact, I think one could make a great Dylan biopic featuring the same actor playing Dylan. I might actually enjoy such a movie more. There is this awkward veneration of "Dylan the shape-shifter" that I don't really understand. It seems like Dylan fans have continually re-written the script of their own fandom in a way that seems a little forced to me. It's like, "Oh, so he's not the folkie hero, he's the guy that constantly wants to change, know what the best part about Bob Dylan is? It's that he's the guy that constantly wants to change!" Sure, yeah, I guess so. My favorite work of Dylan's might actually be his Chronicles book, because there he seems to admit that he's basically been a normal guy who's never really changed in any profound way throughout his career and that his fans have probably read too much into his artistic choices. Maybe so and maybe not. But I don't think Dylan is "above" the standard biopic format. It would just have to be done with care.

Maybe every great musician deserves two biopics: the standard one and the crazy one. I wouldn't complain.

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***1/2

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