I’m Not There
Starring Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore
Directed by Todd Haynes
He’s not there.
Bob Dylan isn’t there.
They tell us that right in the title, I’m Not There, ’cause you can’t pin him down — he’s an enigma, man.
What we have instead are coulda-beens, mighta-beens, alternate universes, truths told in jest, a yellow-brick-road journey of you-were-theres, and you, and you, and the yous are all us.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: Director Todd Haynes steps aside to let us bring what we will to the many dimensions of a man who is all about what he is to us.
I don’t know much about Bob Dylan, honestly, beyond the odd song or two on the radio, and the looming Bob Dylan-ness of his influence stretching over, you know, pretty much everything in modern pop culture, or at least in modern pop music. I’ve heard serious Dylan devotees say things like, “Well, if you love Dylan, you’ll get the movie, but no one else will.”
But I can attest that that’s not true.
Oh, I’m sure there are many references to Dylan’s life and music and wisdom and poetry and demigodliness that went right over my head, but I relished There‘s challenging meditation on fame, creativity, larger-than-life personality, and on whether pop culture can ever be art or art pop culture.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who likes the “honest lies” of movies or the illusions of celebrity who won’t find this an endlessly provocative experience.
There’s no “character” named Bob Dylan here. There are six different characters with different names who metaphorically represent aspects of Dylan’s career and work — the one who would be most recognizably Bob Dylan-ish to most people is, ironically, the Beatlemania-era rock star “Jude,” played by Cate Blanchett in another of her chameleon-like performances.
But some of those metaphors are also what-if’s. What if Dylan really were the Dust Bowl-dusty traveling troubadour he fancied himself (played, in even more daring casting than Blanchett’s, by 11-year-old — and black — Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody”)?
What if Dylan never moved on, musically, from the folky, angry young Greenwich Village artiste (Christian Bale plays “Jack”) he started out as? And where might he go, nonmusically, from there? What if he’d been a movie star instead of a rock star during the cultural upheaval of the 1960s (Heath Ledger’s “Robbie”)? It’s as if we’re getting a peek into the deep and profound heart of fate: Dylan was always destined for greatness, of one kind or another, because what he had to say collided with the right moment when eager ears were ready to hear it.
The universe, in all its many parallel expressions, loves Dylan.
Or maybe not.
Another alterna-Dylan is “Arthur” (Ben Whishaw), a radical philosopher-poet defending himself before an unseen tribunal against unknown offenses. But he speaks directly to the camera — he speaks directly to us. We, all of us in the world who decide whom we’ll make famous and for what, are his judges, and there’s little he can do about that. “Never create anything,” Arthur tells us with an unruffled shrug. “It’ll be misinterpreted.”
The judging isn’t always kind: The final and perhaps most allegorical Dylan is “Billy” (Richard Gere), an outlaw in hiding from a world that won’t let him rest. Apparently, Dylan’s continuing experimentation with his own music on his current “Never Ending Tour” has left some fans less than pleased.
Dylan changes. He morphs. We all do. And the options for the directions we might take are many — but we don’t have the world watching with a critical eye.
Robbie the actor shoots to fame in a biopic of Jack the folk musician: celebrities play themselves on the stage of the world. Jude the rock star (along with David Cross as poet Allen Ginsberg) chat with the crucified Jesus, pop star to pop star: each with their own burden of expectation to bear.
“You never know how the past will turn out,” Jude quips, and that’s it, right there: The past is turning into something new right before our eyes, right here, as Todd Haynes, and the rest of us, reexamine it and reshape it into something it may never have been.