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|Written by April Yorke|
|Sunday, 02 March 2008 19:00|
For the most part, critics enjoyed last year’s Bob Dylan “biopic”, I’m Not There. Even more than the movie itself, though, they loved Cate Blanchett’s turn as the ‘65-‘66 Dylan. Dana Stevens announced her girl crush. The Vulture was quick to remind us that it combined the technical mastery and creative spark that people fall all over themselves to reward. The accolades piled up. But what about the movie?
Writer-director Todd Haynes, probably best known for his heartbreaking interpretation of Douglas Sirk movies in 2002’s Far From Heaven, cast five other actors, in addition to Blanchett, to take on various aspects of Dylan’s life, music, and personae. Each of the character’s stories overlap and help to define each other. Haynes’ innovative approach produces a fragmented commentary on Dylan that steps outside the bounds of traditional biographical pictures and awakens us to the need for something new.
Of course, Haynes has been trying to tell us to wake up for years. He made a name for himself in art house circles with 1987’s underseen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. At 44 minutes in length, the short film moves through Carpenter’s discovery, her struggles with anorexia, and her eventual death as a result. It’s touching, sly, and sorrowful. It also stars Barbie dolls instead of human actors.
Barely out of film school and a scant four years after Carpenter’s passing, Haynes used a shocking celebrity death to say volumes about the media’s obsession with girls’ bodies. Barbie may be the ultimate image of the over-the-top female ideal, but her inclusion wasn’t a joke, at least not under Haynes’ care. He built the sets to Barbie’s scale, carefully constructing the costumes, apartments, and Ex-Lax boxes. He whittled away at the arms and face as Carpenter got thinner and thinner. And in between all of this, Haynes took jabs at politics and documentary filmmaking. The young filmmaker took Carpenter’s personal tragedy and turned it into something more: social commentary.
Biopics used to be little more than hagiography. Recently, the warts-and-all approach has become more common, but filmmakers are still rarely willing to dig deeper into the narrative. The audience boogies to a few classics, gets a little misty, and then smiles when the celeb finds success in the end. Two hours, and the lights go up. Haynes knows that there’s more to be found in these people’s lives than just a simple story and a quick buck.
In 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, Haynes took David Bowie and filtered him through Citizen Kane. On the ten year anniversary of the death of glam rock superstar Brain Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a journalist and former devotee (Christian Bale) goes searching for truth behind his idol’s disappearance. Instead, he finds the truth behind who Slade really was. It’s terrible thing to find out who’s behind the mask; it’s even worse to find out no one’s there. Bowie may have been the impetus, but Haynes’ movie, filled with dialogue from Oscar Wilde, digs deep into issues of sexuality and identity.
It is the very notion of identity, specifically the identity of an artist, that informs the way Haynes sets up I’m Not There. In no way is Haynes trying to offer up the definitive Dylan. Anyone familiar with his music knows that there is no singular Dylan. In 1965, Dylan told an interviewer, “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.” Haynes took that to heart to make a stirring portrait.
Is the movie “about” Dylan? Absolutely. But it’s not about showing us Dylan from birth to troubled times to later career success. Neither was Goldmine or Superstar. In each of these movies, Haynes tells the story of a given musician’s life, but he doesn’t let it end there, and it is that to which audiences need to awaken. Haynes uses the troubled and complicated lives of these characters and artists to make a comment about society. He is issuing a challenge to other filmmakers, asking them to look past finding an actor who can bring the right collection of tics and mannerisms. He is asking, quite simply, for us to look into the life of another, to view it as a whole in all its complexity, and to be able to take something away from it.
All these ideas come to a head in I’m Not There. In Superstar, we watched as Carpenter, a woman whose life was controlled by those around her (particularly her domineering family in Haynes’ version) found a way to exert control over her body instead. In Goldmine, Slade, having lost his position in his fans’ eyes, fakes his own death and undergoes plastic surgery to come back as a new pop icon. In I’m Not There, all of the Dylans are on the run, each in his own way: riding rails, dodging questions at a press conference or in a one-on-one interview, converting to Christianity, and hiding out in Europe. Richard Gere as Billy the Kid may be, as David Edelstein put it, the silliest Dylan, but he also may be the one in which Haynes’ message is most clear.
Haynes, in all of these pictures, wants us to acknowledge that there is a real, human cost to being in the spotlight and to the constant reinvention that is required to stay in the spotlight and still develop as an artist. For Carpenter, that loss was devastating, but for Dylan, it may be worse yet. Haynes suggests that the choices he makes as an artist may cost him his very soul, fractured endlessly for our benefit as his patrons. It is also that to which Haynes wants us to awaken. There isn’t one story; there’s at least half a dozen and probably more. Why limit ourselves?
We can only hope that the DVD won’t limit us as well. A fully developed release should allow us to view the film in its entirety, as Haynes intended it. We should also be able to watch each story separately or re-arrange the segments into a loose chronological order. We should, in short, be allowed to carry it further. And then those Blanchett devotees will be able to watch her haunting incarnation and nothing but.