How appropriate that, as Dont Look Back wheels its way into New York’s Film Forum, I’m Not There is still commanding one of the theater’s other two screens; it’s as if D.A. Pennebaker’s film lined itself up perfectly with the prism of Dylanology created by Todd Haynes. What’s important to remember, of course, is that it is actually Haynes who is reading Pennebaker, not the other way around. Both I’m Not There and Dont Look Back forge a portrait of the same mythic, unfixable character, depicting a man who is “everyone and no one.” For Haynes, Dylan’s various facets are so different as to constitute their own separate identities (six in all). Interesting, then, that Pennebaker presents a similarly divided (and divisive) Dylan.
I'm Not There (#1–10 of 3)
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?
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.