I’m Not There is the type of self-conscious back-patting art flick I’d normally balk at but I’m glad I saw it if just for the performances and to say it is very weird.
It’s very weird. Abstract, surreal, you name it, a movie about Bob Dylan that jumps back and forth between various timelines and narratives and settings and actors — it’s fucking maddening. It shows some semblance of structure as each vignette finds some way to segue into the next portion, making you temporarily forget it’s a fat mess. Bob Dylan’s music also ties everything together even though I have no clue what most of what’s happening in the movie means.
But I forgot about that and just let the performances and the music cascade over me. I tried thinking about what I was seeing, and it was difficult, but I came to a few vague possibilities of truth. There is an abundance of icons and symbols and images: a tarantula, Martin Luther King Jr., Nixon, Vietnam, Jesus on the cross, photographs, advertisements and of course, the various visages of Dylan himself as played by six different actors, all of which are very good. It’s overkill and ultimately, there is no final truth or message – unless it’s what you make of it – and ideally you’re a Dylan fan anyway and you have the wealth of knowledge and history you need to get the most out of this movie. Otherwise, it’s got some great performances.
The best ones involve Heath Ledger, who is quickly establishing himself as some kind of acting chameleon alongside Gotham City co-star Christian Bale, who sadly takes the brunt of Dylan’s Jesus-y days. But the award must go to Cate Blanchett, whose duel with Bruce Greenwood’s BBC man reveals Dylan for the Jewish white middle class privileged boy he is. It’s the few times the movie has some kind conflict, with Blanchett reacting to all of Greenwood’s accusations of falsehood and pretentiousness with the nervous tics and spasms of Dylan down pat. It’s when the movie feels fun, even as it feels weighty, since this is 60s Dylan and he’s cruel and philosophical and shaken, and even interesting. Blanchett’s story also provides some welcome madcap moments: fans revolt against him, The Beatles roll around in a lawn, and hopefully daffy David Cross will star in his own Allen Ginsberg spin-off.
In the end I found myself worn out, glad it was over. It’s a long, weird exercise but consider the alternative: the Ray or Walk the Line straight yarn with all the eye-rolling ups and downs of a musician’s career and life so typical of the biopic. Blanchett’s Bob, uh, Quinn (none of the Bob Dylans are actually named Bob Dylan) is tough to sympathize with – hell, they’re all scoundrels – but he, er, she does say something about his, um, her music that rang beyond the bounds of the messy diegesis: no song can change the world.
Which, as we now know, is true. The revolution was lost. Dylan’s a cypher, an obscured icon if I’m Not There is any indication. Other bits of hopelessness dot the movie’s progress – the world is awful, the corporations are winning – until we’re left with Richard Gere’s version of Dylan – idyllic, romantic – strumming a guitar in a boxcar on his way to God knows where.