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Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman
Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, aka "The Bob Dylan Movie", attacks, head-on, the hokum that is the standard Hollywood biopic. Even though it doesn't entirely succeed, it does offer a blessed aesthetic alternative to the boilerplate formula of dreckish fare like Ray. Point well taken and much appreciated, Mr. Haynes, if nothing else.
Essentially, Haynes' film is an aggregation of six different films about Bob Dylan, each adopting a distinct tone and a different actor to play the man himself; the film never actually mentions Him by name, instead offering a series of pseudonyms and aliases, including "Woody Guthrie" and "Arthur Rimbaud". Haynes takes on the role of master of the remote control, flipping between these disparate incarnations as though they're playing on all the movie channels concurrently. The substance of I'm Not There isn't in the content of any of these takes on Dylan's life and psyche, so much as it is in their assemblage, with Dylan's music (both in his own voice and in cover versions) binding them together.
The best of these sections—which otherwise include a faux-documentary with Christian Bale in the Dylan role (looking like he's bent in a fetal position even while standing up), a face-to-face interview with Ben Whishaw as Bob, and three others—is, by far, the one with Cate Blanchett (!) as ca. '65 Bob Dylan. Haynes feels most at home as a filmmaker there, stylizing the section as a blend of Pennebaker pastiche and Fellini homage. (Those thick black shades seem equal part accurate historical artifact and Mastroianni tribute.)
As the opening credits state, the film is "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan," and Haynes attempts to piece together, fractured piece by fractured piece, the famously unknowable man who called himself Dylan. Importantly, I'm Not There is not an attempt to get at who Robert Zimmerman was, but an examination of how measures of man and mythos combine to produce celebrity and, ultimately, legend. That is, it's not about who Bob Dylan is, but an exploration into what "Bob Dylan" is and what it's like for a man to wear that mask.
For all the cleverness of the film's form, the unevenness of the different sections of the film—the one with Richard Gere as a 19th century frontier recluse in a Wild West Anatevka is, for the most part, pointless—indicates not that Haynes & co-writer Oren Moverman didn't have the right idea but that maybe they weren't the ones to make it work. (In fairness, they do come up with some wonderful moments, such as when Dylan & his band, at their infamous electric appearance at Newport, symbolically turn to the audience and spray them with machine gun fire.) After all, if I'm Not There, as it is, had rather stuck with the Blanchett section of the film and dropped the rest, sorry to say that it likely would've been a better, if less interesting or notable, film. Hopefully, if anything, I'm Not There will at least inspire future filmmakers considering a biopic to try something fresh and not to rely on the same old failed conventions.