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I'M NOT THERE, 2007
Movie Reviews!

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I'M NOT THERE, POSTERI'M NOT THERE, 2007
Movie Reviews

Directed by Todd Haynes

Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Kris Kristofferson
Review by Mark Engberg


SYNOPSIS:

The life of Bob Dylan is told in this fictionalized biopic, featuring six different personifications representing the man, his music, and his lifelong struggle of fame and politics.

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REVIEW:

Todd Haynes wastes no time in order to place the audience member behind the protective screen of Bob Dylan’s elusive and omnipresent shades. As a stage manager guides the performer through backstage hallways, an exuberant crowd’s cheers steadily become deafening. He approaches the stage entrance, sees the blinding spotlight, and rides off on a motorcycle upon a rural highway. Roll the credits.

Such is the non-traditional style of Haynes’ impressive film and its impeccable ability to represent the poet/rock star through the talents of its six gifted actors. This is not a movie with a singular storyline following a linear plot. Like Dylan’s life itself, the film jumps around to different areas of his own personal and public history. However, Bob Dylan’s own name is mentioned only once in the entire picture: “Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan”. The actors portray fictional characters with clear and undeniable reference to the man and his music.

Marcus Carl Franklin plays Woody Guthrie, a train-jumping 11-year-old African American child who carries a guitar as his only possession. Embracing Dylan’s fascination with the legendary folk singer of the same name, Woody is the embodiment of Dylan’s mythical backroads origins. As the young boy entertains hobos and homeowners with folk songs and acoustic jams, we understand that this is the impression of what Dylan wanted us to believe him to be: an earnest and talented kid from the country who paid homage to the past with heartfelt performance.

While the rural scenes of Woody Guthrie’s storyline are warm and picturesque, the cinematography drastically changes to black-and-white when Ben Whishaw’s character of Arthur Rimbaud (alluding to the 19th century French poet) delivers eloquent phrases to unseen questioners in a deposition form of interview.

“I’m not fatalistic,” says Rimbaud bluntly to the camera. “Bank tellers are fatalistic. Clerks are fatalistic. I’m a farmer. Whoever heard of a fatalistic farmer?”

The scenes with Rimbaud are short and spared, but riveting nonetheless. If not for Cate Blanchett’s commanding performance of Dylan the Rock Legend, Whishaw’s portrayal would be the most accurate, in my opinion.

Christian Bale portrays Jack Rollins, the embodiment of Dylan’s civil rights and protest movement. Though Dylan himself may be confused that he was considered a topical songwriter during his prime (really?), Bale relishes in his grasp of politics and disdain of societal opinion. In a scene lifting text from Dylan’s actual embittered acceptance of the Tom Paine Award from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, Rollins drunkenly insults the audience and admits he can identify with Lee Harvey Oswald.

Under the pleasant singing voice of John Doe, Bale’s character of Rollins not only depicts the troubadour lifestyle of Dylan’s protest period, but also the salvation of his religious resurrection. John Doe/Christian Bale’s performance of “Pressing On” is incredibly rhythmic and moving.

In this storyline, Julianne Moore entertains the audience with a brief appearance as Alice Fabian, an on-the-spot portrayal of Joan Baez, who shared the stage repeatedly with Dylan as his star was ascending in the mid-60’s.

While most people will remember the late Heath Ledger for his performance of The Joker in “The Dark Knight”, they should take an alternative look and reflect on his performance of Robbie Clark, the star born out of Rollins’ tortured politics. Robbie is a philandering socialite and popular actor who is unable to remain faithful to his artistic wife, Claire (the very beautiful and talented Charlotte Gainsbourg). His inability to relate to her on any human level is a representation of Dylan’s destroyed marriage to Sara Lownds (the “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and mother of Jakob Dylan). The breakdown of their love story is emotive and provocative. As “Idiot Wind” plays on the soundtrack, it is heartbreaking to witness the two former lovers part ways in a dramatic and unrelenting embrace.

But then the movie becomes imaginative once again as it explores the ragged and surreal life of Dylan the Outlaw. Richard Gere plays Billy, clearly an allusion to Dylan’s own portrayal in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. Referencing Dylan’s preference of isolation from attention, Gere’s Billy is a hermitic wanderer forced to reconcile with authority in a public accusation. His unwanted abandon of his own dog Henry (perhaps named after Mr. McCarty, Billy the Kid’s actual name) is an example of Dylan’s inability to persist with any fellow creature. That is perhaps why he is “not there.” Though these scenes are somewhat muddled and hazy, this is Mr. Gere’s best work since “An Officer and a Gentleman”.

But the performance that shines the brightest in this epic belongs to Cate Blanchett, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, the exhausted and drug-addled manic Dylan became when his popularity reached rock star proportion. Angry, rude, and oblivious to human emotion, Blanchett’s Quinn is a perfectly aimed arrow at the target that is Bob Dylan’s fury. Filmed in pure black-and-white, her depiction of Dylan’s obsessive maintenance and self-control expose the man for whom he truly was during his heyday of popular fortune: a media icon who was too intelligent to enjoy his own fame and glory.

Following no particular or chronological order, Haynes’ film juggles these representations alternating mood, style, and overall vision. The black-and-white cinematography of the Jude Quinn scenes lets the picture exist as a subversive and psychedelic storyline. By contrast, the story of Jack Rollins is told in documentary fashion, with clips of fictional interviews and snapshots of familiar album covers.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy Haynes’ picture is to watch Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary on Bob Dylan “No Direction Home” beforehand. There are so many elements in Haynes’ film that are undeniable nods to the actual historical events in Dylan’s life. Christian Bale’s portrayal of Jack Rollins, for example, can be much more appreciated if you take a look at footage of old-school Dylan performances in Scorsese’s film. You will realize that the portrayal is dead solid perfect.

Wonderful ironic moment: Notice that the actor Bruce Greenwood plays not only the obtrusive and assertive British reporter Keenan Jones in the Jude Quinn storyline, but also Pat Garrett, sworn enemy of Billy the Kid, in the Richard Gere plotline.

Favorite part of the movie: Joey Burns, also known as Calexico, demands your attention as a mourning widower singing a soulful rendition of “Going to Acapulco” from the Basement Tapes. My eyelashes sweat with tears every time I hear or see it. Longtime Dylan friend Richie Havens also impresses the audience with his version of “Tombstone Blues” in a delightful scene in “I’m Not There”. But if you’re a true fan of Dylan’s music, do yourself a favor and pick up the entire soundtrack. It contains several versions of some of his best songs by contemporary artists including Eddie Vedder covering “All Along the Watchtower”, Willie Nelson performing “Senor, Tales of Yankee Power”, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot doing a jaw-dropping “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”.

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