Imponderably hyperactive and indomitably hyped, I’m Not There is the indie/arthouse version of a summer blockbuster. Instead of Autobots and Decepticons, we have Bob Dylan deconstructed into a pop culture transformer, and co-writer/director Todd Haynes as the thinking man’s Michael Bay. The result is a high-concept spectacular that will geek out fanboys of Dylan and Derrida alike, a souped-up semiotics lecture, both bookishly erudite and blusteringly superficial, that is more simulacrum than synthesis of the avant garde biopic. Don’t get me wrong, though: as someone who enjoyed Transformers, I was just as entertained in the moment by this seductively shape-shifting account of Optimus Zimmerman.
Never one to be accused of modest vision, Haynes uses six actors to take on six versions of Dylan, though judging from the results it’s about three more than he really needed. For me the most stimulating embodiment is Marcus Carl Franklin as a young black prodigy aspiring to be Woody Guthrie. Despite rambling through the same cornpone mystical South from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Big Fish (there’s even a mythical whale that swallows our musical Jonah whole), Haynes gets at something via Franklin’s teddy bear demeanor, which grants him access into black and white households alike. Here the film establishes several major themes: Dylan’s hunger for stardom and his acumen for cultural appropriation, and how others seek to possess and mold his charismatic presence in their own image. The former theme is left underdeveloped while the latter gets beaten to within an inch of its life over the two hours that follow, mostly via the film’s other teddy bear performance by Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett’s role summarizes everything that’s appealing and appalling about I’m Not There. Empowered by the patented ’60s Dylan ’fro, Blanchett continues in the bland tradition of recent Oscar bait thespianism, giving an impeccably mannered impersonation with little interpretation beyond the gospel insight of electric-era Dylan as counter-cultural contrarian. Haynes complements Blanchett’s literalist performance with simulated D.A. Pennebaker lensing; his main creative stroke is to borrow brazenly from Fellini’s 8½ for carnivalesque high society absurdity, thus linking Dylan and Fellini as fellow artists stifled by the demands of the zeitgeist.
Haynes seems too entranced by the Dylan myth to bother examining what I think is the larger picture: of how Dylan’s rebellious appeal depended largely on the media’s fixation on him; despite his protestations, he needed them like Ali needed Frazier. You’d expect someone as culturally literate as Haynes to appreciate such a paradoxical symbiosis, but he falls for painting both Dylan’s abandoned folkies and media hounds (especially Bruce Greenwood’s party-pooper BBC journalist) as unhip fools and monsters preying on his hallowed genius. His apparent preference is to blow away the audience with Blanchett’s delectably freakish incarnation of rock’s Napoleon in drag. (Until Disneyland adds a Sixties annex, this theme park ride will suffice for dazzling re-enactment.)
Offering a more original though less entertaining counterpoint are the domestic scenes between a very un-Dylan-like Heath Ledger (as an absent celebrity husband-father) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (playing a version of Dylan’s neglected wife Sara). It’s refreshing to see Dylan presented unflatteringly as a philanderer whose resistance to being pinned down wreaks havoc on his loved ones. Even so, these conflicts are portrayed in no more illuminating a manner than in TV movies. Richard Gere registers a wistful tune as middle-aged Dylan, a Billy the Kid-type exile living in a stagnantly Peckinpah-inflected Western twilight, while scenes with Christian Bale as the iconographic folk Dylan (who later converts to Christianity) and Ben Whishaw as a Rimbaud-inspired visionary-in-development barely register.
What ultimately emerges is a schizophrenic survey of the many ways in which Dylan has (possibly) seen himself, each sequence sounding the same internalized tone of soul-seeking agitation and ambivalence towards others. I would have preferred a more conflicted view towards Dylan to begin with, but this six-ring circus does more to embalm the myth in familiar Dylaniana than to truly interrogate its cultural significance or enduring appeal, much less examine the larger complex of social machinery that creates and destroys cultural icons. Settling for less while providing a surfeit of sensory stimulation, Haynes offers Dylan as multiple obscure objects of desire floating in a nostalgic phantasmagoria. Diverting as this cavalcade is, any number of substantial insights on the man and the world that made him are left blowing in the wind.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker based in New York City. He has written for Cinema-Scope, The Chicago Reader, Senses of Cinema and Slant. His website is www.alsolikelife.com.