The key sequence here begins with an absolutely stunning performance of “Goin’ to Acapulco”—a song from Dylan’s Basement Tapes period, naturally—by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, backed by Calexico. It’s a gorgeous piece, expressing the desire for escape from ordinary responsibilities, and James sings it in the whiteface makeup that Dylan wore on his post-comeback Desire tour, further building the continuities between multiple incarnations of Dylan, suggesting that the need for escape and disguise is the one constant in this artist’s work. But Billy can’t necessarily escape his responsibilities very easily, as he’s confronted by Pat Garrett (played by Bruce Greenwood, who also plays the clueless Mr. Jones). In this version of the story, Garrett is a corporate monster and Billy is a noble outlaw, a rebel who’s looking out for the good of the common people. And it’s fascinating to see how Billy gets pulled back into the world, first speaking out against Garrett’s cruelty while wearing a mask, then shedding this disguise to confront him with his own face. It’s an elegant and entirely visual metaphor for the way that the artist ultimately can’t avoid commenting upon and responding to the world; isolation is not a viable alternative for very long.
This moment, Billy’s decision to forgo escape and re-engage with the world, echoes back to two earlier scenes that unite the multiple incarnations of Dylan in this film. Early on, the young black blues singer Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin) is told that he needs to “live your own timeÖ sing about your own time,” a call to create art that engages with the present, with the world beyond the song, rather than existing in a hermetic dialogue with the past. The other moment is Jude’s rambling press conference, in which he desperately tries to explain himself to a room full of journalists who just seem puzzled and annoyed by his cryptic answers. But in the midst of his poetic epigrams and surreal asides, Jude provides one of the film’s best explanations for Dylan’s infamous shift away from protest songs, when he says that protest songs simply allow audiences to feel comfortable and complacent, to feel that they’re on the “right” side of an issue. Protest songs, he suggests in his gnomic way, foster the feeling that one is doing something just by listening, whereas his new songs are still engaged with the world, just in a less obvious way, a way that perhaps requires more thought to unpack. Taken together, these scenes build a powerful thematic foundation for the film, an exploration of the artist’s relationship to society and the imperative for art to engage with the state of the world.
JB: I’m not sure I would go so far as to say the film suggests an “imperative” for art to engage with the state of the world. The film suggests that artists can only dodge the truth for so long, which is kind of the same, but not exactly. The Billy the Kid chapter includes a moment in which a rapid-fire slideshow of the other Dylan avatars wakes Billy from slumber like an alarm clock. The montage suggests that Billy has tried to shut his eyes to the world and to his previous selves without success. And this is hardly the only time the film criticizes Dylan for pretending. Woody, of course, is trying to be something he’s not. Robbie is an actor who tries to convince himself that he’s the center of his own world, in need of no one else. And then there’s Jude who prides himself on his inscrutability in an effort to make an identity out of being unknowable.
You’ve already mentioned the way the Jude chapter uses Bruce Greenwood’s reporter as a symbol of the ills of literalism and the danger of compartmentalization, but we must be careful not to overlook that the reporter also exposes the fallacy of Jude’s posturing. In their initial debate in the car, Jude wins the early rounds, first asking, “Who said I was sincere?” and then observing, “You just want me to say what you want me to say.” But then the reporter strikes, capping off their argument by saying, “You either do truly care about nothing at all or tremendously much that people think so.” This sends Jude into such a fit that he says he doesn’t even have the basic emotions of fear and love. Jude has become so wary of standing for something that now he stands for nothing. His wisdom could be wisdom, or it could be a pose. In the moment, even Jude doesn’t seem to know. But, as I said, Haynes suggests this kind of act can only last for so long. By the end of the film, in the Billy the Kid chapter, the truth catches up. Billy eventually runs away and in the process he finds himself, picking up Woody’s guitar off the train and gently dusting it off, ready to start over again, but slowly.
EH: Yes, dusting off the guitar case and finding the enigmatic words “this machine kills fascists,” a phrase that comes from Dylan’s idol Woody Guthrie, a reminder for Billy of both his roots and of the power of music. When two hobos see the film’s Woody with his guitar case early on, they think it’s a weapon, a prophecy that’s fulfilled with that insert of Jude and his band machine-gunning the audience at a folk festival, where their electric music really does come across as violent and dangerous. Maybe you’re right, maybe Haynes doesn’t suggest there’s an “imperative” for art to engage with the world: it’s more like he’s saying it’s inevitable that it will engage with the world, whether it’s meant to or not—if it’s any good, anyway. Great art, he seems to be saying, reaches out beyond the artist, beyond whatever hang-ups and poses might affect a conflicted artist like Jude, to resonate in the world regardless of whether the artist intended it to or not. The Basement Tapes is a great example: never intended for public release, bootlegs leaked out anyway and eventually motivated Dylan and the Band to release some of the material officially (though the bootlegs, rough and raw and sprawling, are arguably still superior to the more polished and augmented official product).
As you say, in addition to rediscovering the merits of speaking out and playing music, at the end of the film Billy the Kid is starting over. This is another constant theme in the film, whether it’s Robbie and Claire reaching a new, awkward status quo as a divorced couple, joined together still in a shared love of their kids, or the folk singer played by Christian Bale early on in the film re-emerging later as a preacher, his gravelly voice mumbling now over gospel choirs. Dylan’s conversion to Christianity and the subsequent slick, spiritual albums he made in the early ’80s represent a period in his career that many don’t really know what to make of. It’s a puzzling detour in a career full of puzzling detours, but I’m Not There places it in context as yet another search for meaning and identity from an artist who made this search his one perpetual theme. If Jude believes in nothing and Billy is starting to believe again, the ’80s preacher incarnation of Dylan is one possible end point of that belief. And by making Bale the only actor to play two different versions of Dylan, Haynes draws a connection between the protest singer and the preacher: two different forms of passionate belief and advocacy, united by depth of feeling rather than content. Even so, despite this thematic resonance, this is the one segment of the film that feels a bit lackluster, as though Haynes doesn’t really know what else to say about this especially bizarre and unexpected version of Dylan. Maybe Dylan, chameleonic and unpredictable as ever, managed to throw even Haynes a curveball with this particular transformation.
JB: I absolutely agree that the Bale segments are lackluster compared to the rest. They are not without their moments. Something about Haynes’ intimate cinematography during Jack’s performance of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” always gets under my skin (that’s a compliment). But other than that moment, the Bale segments are noticeably less intimate, a product in part of the fact that Julianne Moore’s Alice Fabian spends more time describing Jack than he spends revealing himself. What I respect about Haynes’ approach to the religious conversion chapter, which is only reinforced by the bit of Dylan history you provided, is that Haynes doesn’t look to hammer his question marks into exclamation points. It’s as if he’s admitting, “This is as close as I got to figuring it out.” There’s beauty then, rather than emptiness or frustration, in Dylan’s unknowability.
But as you already touched on a while back in referencing the Robbie-Claire chapter, I think my favorite thing about I’m Not There is how universal it is. It’s easy to get lost in the embedded Dylan references, in the music-geek Da Vinci Code treasure hunt. But I see now that the ultimate effect of all of the film’s specificity is, ironically and amazingly enough, malleability and inclusiveness. It’s one thing to take a Forrest Gump approach to the life cycle in which the world changes but the subject does not. It’s another thing to take a Curious Case of Benjamin Button approach in which the body changes but the soul does not (or at least no more uniquely than anyone else’s). But I’m Not There is something far more radical: a suggestion that over our life span we change so significantly that, while linked to our former selves, we are entirely redefined, over and over again. I’m Not There achieves this not just by using multiple actors and narratives to play Dylan (though that’s certainly a noteworthy factor), but also by juggling tones, moods, cinematic aesthetics and, last but not least, timelines.
By the end of the film it’s clear that there’s a surprisingly traditional character arc providing a spine for all these stories, but as I’m Not There unfolds time vibrates forward and backward so quickly that it essentially stands still. The Robbie-Claire chapter provides the best example. Their relationship begins at its end, with the couple divorced, and then flashes back to the moment in which through alternating slow zooms Haynes captures Richard Nixon’s announcement of the end of the Vietnam War and Claire’s stunned expression as she digests this historic moment as some kind of symbolic closure in her tumultuous relationship with Robbie. From that scene, we flash back to Robbie and Claire’s romantic first meeting at a coffee shop and their passionate early sex. While we’re here, it’s worth pointing out that Claire’s moment of sadness in her living room is captured in a warm, golden glow, while the first blush of romance unfolds under an equally contradictory cold, blue haze. In these shifts in time and tone, our souls are suggested to be bits of our experiences smashed together like a mosaic. Haynes’ attempts to reveal Dylan have a remarkable way of reflecting humanity at large.
EH: I like the “Hattie Carroll” scene, too. It helps that that song sends chills up my spine whenever I hear it, in whatever form or context: it’s one of Dylan’s best protest songs, simply shattering in its brilliant use of repetition and the outrage that Dylan encodes into every syllable. That’s one of the reasons that I wish Haynes had used the fiery original rather than a cover version, which is not bad but no substitute for Dylan. At his best in this era, Dylan seemed to be spitting his words, forcing such vitriol into every phrase that he put the comparatively mild-mannered folk of his peers to shame. It’s easy to forget, now, that Dylan was never truly part of the peace-and-love folk movement of his contemporaries, even if songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” have become anthems for that vision of ’60s folk. For the most part, his was a very angry, personal form of political protest and rebellion. When others were putting flowers in the barrel of a gun, he was warning the warmongers that he’d like to see them dead. He could be funny, too, and romantic and whimsical and, even on his earliest work, surreal, but when he buckled down to write a protest song, it was invariably dripping with anger and contempt. In a way, songs like these are the best possible answer to the later disconnection and flatness of affect that Jude professes to feel. Listening to Dylan sing this song, it’s impossible to miss the passion in his voice, the very real engagement he feels with the racism and injustice at the heart of this story. (For that matter, it’s impossible to miss that passion, in a very different form, in the electric music Dylan was making later in the ’60s.) Maybe, after feeling this intensely, after pouring so much of himself into songs like this, the Dylan of later years had to temper things a little; although his music would remain very personal throughout his career, almost without exception, never again would he seem as naked as he does on performances like this, or “Masters of War,” or “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” The disguises, masks and new identities of Dylan in the post-protest era can be seen as layered over this nakedness, this core of outrage and righteous anger that seemed to come from such a deep place within the young Dylan. Haynes enhances this moment, as you say, through its intimacy, by making it an off-the-cuff performance by the side of a truck, with an audience that seems to have just wandered up to hear Dylan vent his frustrations at a system so blatantly unfair and biased.
But, as I mentioned, he also dilutes the scene a bit by using a Mason Jennings cover rather than Dylan’s own version from The Times They Are A-Changin’. It’s not that it’s a bad cover, but I think—and maybe I’m just biased by my love of Dylan’s music and my particular love for this song—that the scene’s meaning and effect are enriched by my reaction to the performance I imagine being there rather than the one that’s actually there. This is particularly true since Jennings doesn’t really deviate from the original in any significant way that would justify the cover. For this reason I think Haynes’ frequent use of Dylan covers in place of the originals is mostly a poor choice: more often than not, even when the covers are decent, I’d rather hear the original unless an artist is really re-imagining a song in a substantial way.
There are only two exceptions here, both cases where the original song is changed in a substantial way, its effect and meaning altered by the new rendition. One is the Jim James performance I’ve already mentioned, a union of music and visuals that, as far as I’m concerned, is matched only by Rebekah Del Rio’s turn in Mulholland Dr. and a select handful of other sublime cinematic/musical fusions. The other is Marcus Carl Franklin’s stomp through “Tombstone Blues” while jamming on a porch with some black blues and folk musicians, including Richie Havens. That’s a performance that completely alters the original song by translating it into this rollicking country blues idiom, drawing a lineage between Dylan and the black musicians who influenced him and built a foundation for his own music. At other times, Haynes seems to switch interchangeably between Dylan originals and cover versions of varying quality that are mostly pretty similar to the original anyway, and I’m not sure why. Maybe he couldn’t get the rights to everything he wanted, or maybe he felt that it was a way to suggest Dylan’s enduring influence on new generations of musicians and the fact that he’s been so frequently covered, but either way it’s an occasional distraction in a film that otherwise bowls me over on nearly every level.
JB: Let me come at Haynes’ use of covers from a different angle. I’d argue that the use of covers suggests the influence and spread of Dylan’s music, even when the covers aren’t significantly different from the original. I’d argue that consistently giving us Dylan songs but not always Dylan helps us focus on the music itself and not Dylan’s aura around it. I’d argue that using Dylan’s own versions sparingly heightens the impact of the times we do hear Dylan’s originals. I’d argue that getting away from Dylan’s voice allows the multiple interpretations of Dylan to stand for themselves rather than seeming like Dylan puppets and nothing more. And I’d argue that if this was all Dylan all the time, even with the film’s strong writing and narrative intricacy, I’m Not There could have started to feel like a dramatized documentary or, worse, a mockumentary in which the dramatizations are to be chuckled at more often than not.
That last argument goes a bit far, I admit. But my overall point is that it’s seemingly odd decisions like this one—to not always use Dylan cuts in a movie about Dylan—that make I’m Not There as rich as it is. Moving toward the center, toward the standard rock biopic, in any way would have been against the spirit of everything else going on here. And there’s also this: Sometimes covers are the best way possible to alter one’s rigid interpretations about a musical artist. To hear James singing “Goin’ to Acapulco” is to hear something that sounds nothing like Dylan, not to a non-Dylanologist, at least. I realize that’s the extreme, and that you’d have happily supported more bold diversions like that one, but even in the more faithful “Hattie Carroll,” and more traditional interpretations like it, Haynes gets us beyond the stereotypical Dylan image—the nasally voice, the harmonica, the whine—and that’s core to the film’s mission. Besides, goodness man, there’s plenty here for the Dylan devotees, stuff that Haynes has buried for them and only them. So maybe the covers, even when mostly faithful to Dylan and not as impressive as his own versions, are urging fans like you to loosen your grasp on what the legend’s music is or isn’t. In the least you should be happy that Haynes didn’t use Sophie B. Hawkins.
EH: That’s fair enough. I realize I’m just nitpicking with that complaint, and that it’s bound to bother only a pretty big Dylan fan. But, as you say, I just wish that if Haynes was going to use so many covers, there were many more new perspectives like the James/Calexico collaboration, and less slavish imitations of the original. Your point about covers providing contrast and offering up alternate interpretations is well-taken, but I don’t know how well that purpose is served by covers that hew so closely to the original tune. There’s a great compilation called Painted Black, on which a number of electronic and avant-rock artists cover the Stones’ ubiquitous “Paint It, Black,” and each track deconstructs and re-imagines the song in different ways, offering up new perspectives, some of which focus on the rhythms of the original, some on the mood, some on hints of the melody, and so on. I wasn’t looking for anything so radical here, by any means, but more stuff like Jim James, and less like Eddie Vedder, would’ve been much appreciated.
In any event, this is a fairly small quibble, and on the whole I’m Not There is a masterful work that represents much of what’s best about Haynes as an artist. It’s a summation of his themes, encompassing his interest in fame, music, the impact and meanings of art, identity and the self, and the role of the outcast, the unusual person, in society. And as always it represents a skillful blending and balancing of disparate cinematic styles. He tells the story of ’60s-era electric Dylan in a black-and-white style that mixes D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, the most famous cinematic representation of this era in Dylan’s career, with Fellini’s 8 1/2, another story of an artist who has trouble living up to society’s image of him and dealing with his internal problems at the same time. The film also blends in Haynes’ usual fixation with documentary conventions, his Godard influence (directly quoting from Masculin feminin, that ultimate document of mid-’60s naivetÈ and ennui), references to pop culture and world history, and more. And yet, rather than being daunting or only for those who get all the in-jokes, about Dylan or otherwise, it is, as you say above, universal.
That’s why I love your analysis of the film as a radical reconfiguration of the Forrest Gump/Benjamin Button plot structure where a character passes through history. Haynes’ destabilizing structure uses historical markers much more loosely, but in the process winds up presenting a much more convincing portrait of history, because it captures the mood of historical eras rather than simply showing clips from a highlights reel. This film captures the spirits of rebellion, protest, upheaval and, naturally, change, that ran through Dylan’s life and the ’60s generation in general. Haynes, as I’ve kept saying throughout this conversation, might be very cerebral and intellectual—his is undoubtedly a cinema of ideas, in the best sense—but he’s equally attuned to mood and emotion. That shows through in this film’s kaleidoscopic evocation of the flickering pace of time and history, as it does elsewhere in the fastidious but bitingly satirical recreation of ’50s middle America in Far from Heaven or the lurid music video aesthetics of Velvet Goldmine’s glam fantasia. Haynes may visit the past often, but that hardly means he’s looking backward; his dissections of earlier eras resonate forward into our own and beyond, as visions of what the world once looked like, what it looks like now, and what it might look like someday in the future.
JB: That’s beautifully put, and I think it’s accurate. At the outset of this discussion, when I was praising Superstar, I suggested that part of that film’s power over me might be attributable to the fact that it was the final Haynes film I watched in preparation for this conversation. On a similar note, I think watching Haynes’ films in close succession has had a significant effect on my rapidly increasing admiration for I’m Not There. Because it’s in looking at Haynes’ filmography in near totality that the depth of his filmmaking is best revealed. This could be said of many auteurs, of course, and indeed going film-by-film through the works of Fincher, Mann and Tarantino in our previous conversations helped me to discover recurring themes I had previously overlooked when seeing their films spread out over time. But I think Haynes benefits from a broad understanding of his work more than many writer/directors, if for no other reason than his lack of blatancy, which we debated. Though I don’t want to imply that Haynes’ films can’t be powerful in a vacuum—indeed, someone could see just one Haynes film and be blown away by it—it’s by watching several of Haynes’ films that the once camouflaged or ambiguous or just inconspicuous becomes unmistakable.
That’s why if someone first encountered Haynes by watching Safe and found the film unengaged, or if someone’s initial exposure to Haynes was I’m Not There and he or she found the film random and imprecise, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. And my advice to that hypothetical person wouldn’t be to watch those specific films again, but rather to watch some of Haynes’ other films and only then to reconsider what they’d already seen. This would probably be good advice in almost any situation in which someone had a small sampling of an auteur’s work, but I think it might be particularly effective in the case of Haynes, precisely because of my theory that his films often pass through the brain to the heart instead of going straight for the gut. I mean, if someone got introduced to Hitchcock by watching Rear Window, how likely is it that their understanding of that film could be completely rewritten by seeing North By Northwest and Vertigo immediately afterward? Not likely, I’d guess, in most cases. Themes might be spotted, repeat viewings might be enriched, but the thrust of Rear Window is self-evident the first time around, no matter how many Hitchcock films a viewer has encountered before. I wouldn’t say the same thing about I’m Not There, which is an intricate, thoughtful and emotional picture, but which might not seem that way to the person unfamiliar with the work of Haynes (and Dylan). Seeing several of Haynes’ films is the difference between suspecting there’s great meaning in some of his movies’ smallest gestures and knowing it for a fact.
As before, I make this observation not to disparage or otherwise insult Haynes’ films but to attempt to articulate the way his films work and the reason that his films feel so different from the American norm. I think Haynes is fully aware of the kind of films he’s making. I think he knows that, by subtly encoding his films with meaning, he runs the risk that his meaning won’t always be apparent. I think that looking at Superstar, Poison, Dottie Gets Spanked, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There it’s obvious that Haynes is capable of making almost any kind of film he wants, so we can only conclude that there’s a reason he makes the kinds of films he does. If Haynes wanted to be in the mainstream, he’d jump in. If Haynes wanted to be blatant, he’d lift his films out of the mist. That’s not his intent. Haynes’ films are by no means inscrutable. They are layered, subtle and thought-provoking (indeed, sometimes I find them more interesting to think about than to experience; but that’s me). Best of all, they are personal. Even when Haynes’ films don’t mean tremendously much to me, I never doubt that they mean very much to him.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.