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Hero with a thousand faces: Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There

Dylan I'm Not There

Todd Haynes began his career with the ultra-low budget biopic Superstar that used Barbie dolls to portray the sad life of singer Karen Carpenter. Mattel and the Carpenter family made short work of that and so the movie hasn’t been seen (legally) since. But the only person who could have objected to Haynes’ latest biopic about Bob Dylan is the eccentric singer himself. And as it turns out, Dylan approves of the film — as well he should — it’s brilliant. This time around, Haynes’ gimmick for capturing the essence of his subject isn’t dolls, but actors — six of them: Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett playing Dylan at different stages of his life. From the get go, we know that Haynes is not going to use corny verisimilitude to give us an ersatz depiction of Dylan’s life. It’s going to be an analysis, a stylized dissection, with actors as the tools he uses to explore the body in question.

The film opens with Marcus Franklin depicting the young folk idealist, riding the rails, introducing himself as “Woody Guthrie” and spouting anachronistically of the travails of ununionized labor and telling anyone who will listen that he “wants to be a real singer — on television — or, otherwise, the voice of a generation.” All who meet him are duly dazzled by his precocity, but it takes a plain-speaking black woman to tell him that it’s 1959 and he needs to stop talking about the Depression and “sing about his own time.” The charge of inauthenticity is a leitmotif throughout the movie: the musical genius who worships Depression-era ballads but doesn’t see the crisis of his own time, the folk hero who wants to front a rock band with electric guitars, the idealist who won’t admit to idealism.

Christian Bale picks up the story in the early sixties as the activist Dylan who moves to Greenwich Village and alongside Joan Baez (here represented by Julianne Moore) becomes the voice of his generation — just as he had planned — using his genius to express the prevailing mood of times that were changing at a furious clip. But the role of public custodian of the era’s ideals chafes and it’s not long before we see Cate Blanchett in a thin black suit and Wayfarers gunning down the audience at the Newport Folk festival. Haynes’ portrayal of Dylan’s switch from acoustic guitar to electric and all that it implied for his furious fans is one of the more brilliant turns in a movie packed with clever references and sight gags. Blanchett depicts the period from mid to late 60’s when Dylan tried to forge an identity free of the oppressive idealism and expectations of his earlier years and symbolized by his doomed relationship with that other icon of 60’s culture Edie Sedgwick. As he says when challenged (again) about his sincerity, folk music never solved anything because it acts as a comforting shield from the world, a world he wanted to embrace in all its aspects. That embrace is poignantly rendered by Blanchett in a performance that is transformative. She deftly conveys the physical fragility of the man and the toll taken on one who offers oneself up to the world as its public conscience.

And when the world stopped needing him to speak for it? Christian Bale returns to portray an ideologically bereft middle-aged born-again Christian Dylan and, finally, Richard Gere represents the older Dylan as a grizzled desperado who has retreated from the world to silence and, perhaps, it is suggested right at the end as he holds the guitar that he played when he called himself “Woody Guthrie”, reclamation of ideals from long ago.

Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgwick
Bob and Edie, together again. Corner of Prince and Mercer streets.

The dramatic centerpiece of the film is Dylan’s struggle to invent an authentic personal identity. Part of the challenge involved resistence to his public role as musical savior. This is summed up in a scene with Dylan and Allen Ginsberg standing before a statue of Christ on the cross. Riffing on martyrdom, Dylan cracks to Jesus, “Why don’t you do your earlier stuff?” But the crisis for Dylan goes beyond mere avoidance of public ossification. Haynes seems to see Dylan as a medium more than a coherent self — an ingenious multifacted mechanism through which the culture spoke, for a time. The metaphor of using multiple actors to depict the subject becomes obvious: he is legion and he is no one. Authenticity is almost beside the point because he’s not there.

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