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Not Quite There: I’m Not There

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Not Quite There: <em>I’m Not There</em>

Todd Haynes has always struck me as less filmmaker than conceptual artist—a man with grand ideas whose mind works faster than 24 frames per second, the screen never quite able to contain the weight of his brain. He’s a man working in the wrong medium, like Tarantino striving to be an actor before thankfully realizing his talent lies elsewhere. Haynes’ spirit is simply not conducive to the formal requirements of film. But because Haynes doesn’t suck at moviemaking the way Tarantino sucked at acting, he’s unaware that he can scale to greater heights. If Haynes can demonstrate this level of artistic quality in his experimental-posing-as-accessible films, just imagine what he could do guest-directing a Wooster Group production, exhibiting at the Whitney Biennial. For Todd Haynes has a masterful eye for lush set design and sharp cinematography, for period costumes and jarring camera angles, all readily on display in I’m Not There, his tribute to the “many lives” of a fellow visionary, the legendary Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, what works for music—or painting or poetry, or any of the abstract arts for that matter—rarely works for the screen. After all, how does one shoot a concept?

Thus, instead of tackling Bob Dylan as subject head-on, Haynes films the paradox that haunted the American icon throughout his career, namely his needing to change in order to stay the same. Dylan knew that as an artist he had to evolve in order to remain the artist he was—and he felt frustrated by those fans that wanted to stop him from being what they themselves expected him to be. Pretty heady stuff. And near impossible to tell in a literal manner, which is why Haynes divides his central character between six different actors (four of whom are non-American!), eschewing any sense of linear time and place. On paper it sounds like a brilliant move, but as the film chugs along on its 135-minute way, from the rail-riding vagabond kid named “Woody” to the dandy “Arthur Rimbaud” to Richard Gere in the guise of Billy (as in “The Kid”), you get the feeling Haynes has one too many balls (i.e., Richard Gere) in the air. That the film holds together as long as it does is a testament to Haynes’ formidable talent, but alas, the collision of the director and his subject is a train wreck waiting to happen.

But at least it’s a beautiful wreck, one worth rubbernecking for. As with Velvet Goldmine, Haynes is so in love with his fantastic visuals—band members machine-gunning from the stage, a dwarf in yellow top hat—that he loses control of the movie. The director’s ideas cannot last feature-length (though he’d be unrivaled if he stuck to shorts). The one thespian to emerge unscathed is, of course, Cate Blanchett, an actor so talented it’s scary. To Haynes’ credit, he assembles a worthy cast—Heath Ledger and Christian Bale have never been known to disappoint—but the movie belongs to Blanchett as Jude, Dylan at his speed-freak height of fame. Her gender bending notwithstanding, Blanchett is just at another level, period. She’d be mesmerizing even if Jude were played female. It’s like gathering the greatest ensemble around Vanessa Redgrave channeling a Mastroianni character.

But when all is said and done, I’m Not There merely adds up to a series of colorful set pieces. Julianne Moore’s former folk singer delivers talking-head commentary about Christian Bale’s coffeehouse Jack. Marcus Carl Franklin’s black Woody serenades two 1950s white couples in a living room straight out of Far from Heaven. Heath Ledger’s shade-wearing Robbie threatens a paparazzi in a park. And then there’s Blanchett’s Jude—flying high above the crowd in black-and-white long shot, tethered to the earth like a breathing balloon. This is a glimpse of Haynes’ tiny masterpiece buried beneath all that distracting rubble. Another scene in which Jude is accosted by questioning reporters, the camera gliding along in close-up with the gorgeous grotesquerie, feels like a lost outtake from 8 1/2. Which makes one wonder why Haynes didn’t just assign all the roles to his newfound muse, especially since every one of Blanchett’s scenes are shot in this most loving nod to Fellini (who, like Dylan, knew how to place his concepts within an accessible context). What gives Fellini’s films their joyride thrill is that his passion always threatens to overflow the frame, his glass filled to the rim, not a single drop spilled. Haynes’ cup continually runneth over.

Dylan was a provocateur because he cared enough to force people to think for themselves. He understood that music is a visceral medium, became enraged when labels and definitions threatened to drain its lifeblood. Haynes, being a non-visceral filmmaker, his work passively cerebral, isn’t quite there. He’s too afraid to lose himself in his passion—a requisite of all great artistry. Instead he enlists Blanchett, a visceral performer who thrives on tightropes, to do it for him. In fact, she’s the only visceral actor (save for 11-year-old Franklin—keep an eye out for this kid in the coming years) in the film, the one thus able to elevate the material to the level of Dylan’s poetry. There’s a scene midway through in which Arthur lays out some rules, one of which is to speak so the person standing directly in front of you can understand. Dylan’s genius lay in this ability to take huge concepts and pare them down to a simple song. Haynes, conversely, takes a magnifying glass to even the most magnificent ideas.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.