Watching I’m Not There

(x-posted to The Valve)

Several nights ago, I had the pleasure of watching I’m Not There, the new Bob Dylan movie that excited everyone so much because of the prospect of seeing Cate Blanchett in drag, talking to Allen “David Cross” Ginsburg.

The film was initially a gigantic disappointment. I came away bitter about it, largely because I wasn’t prepared for the kind of experimenting involved. While I knew that Dylan would be played by several different actors, and assumed there would be stylistic differences between each thread, I was still looking for a biopic capable of explaining how Dylan produced so much great music. I have always loved origin stories more than any other part of grand narratives; Issue #1 is consistently my favorite. I like to study how people and their literary doubles become what they are.

Rather than give us any inkling into the creative processes at work in Dylan’s music, the film is really Dylan’s requiem, which is strange considering that Dylan is still alive. Dylan is a very obliging person, and when he wrote his own autobiography, Chronicles, he emphasized the intellectual friendships that struck him most, along with the claustrophobic places where he manged to land gigs, and the attics where he got access to old records. He writes about himself from the outside, in a practical fashion, drawing the easy causal connection between the period of hope and reckless apprenticeship, when he steeps himself in music and dreams, and the period (still to come at the end of Chronicles) of significance and celebrity.

The irony of almost every book or film about an artist is that, as much as the author wants to crawl inside the author’s head, we are still usually left with a work ethic and dime-a-dozen cultural obsessions. Lots of teenagers loved Nat King Cole as intensely as Ray Charles; when the camera in Control pans slowly across Ian Curtis’s bookshelf, we see a lot of books everybody in the theater has probably read. In order to ask the question of what made Dylan himself, without answering superficially by invoking passion and work, one has to enter the various dreams that his art echoed and magnified until everything about his life was blurry with dreaming.

My re-evaluation of the film came from a moment talking with my friend tomemos, who mentioned that all of the scenes with Richard Gere were performed with characters from The Basement Tapes (or, at least, with characters derived from the songs). Richard Gere makes a lousy Dylan. He’s too sad and hesitant to capture Dylan’s burning intelligence and wit, and too resignedly secular to show us anything about Dylan’s faith. Nonetheless, the character he plays, a version of Billy the Kid who is hiding out like Mortensen in A History of Violence, matters because Dylan undoubtedly thought of himself that way, as an outlaw with roots deep in the American soil. Gere is very convincing as someone Dylan wanted to be and perhaps thinks he attained.

More than one fantasy fills up the empty space of the ideal. Fantasies replace each other over time. For Haynes, Dylan is the sum of his fantasies — the fantasy of being black and young again, the fantasy of being a noble refugee with a history of violence, the fantasy of being a good and simple preacher, the fantasy of being the hippest cat, the fantasy of becoming the voice of his generation by forging its political conscience. Each fantasy was the slightly corny product of the times: the “scene” in London and in Warhol’s factory, the discovery of the blues, the war in Vietnam, the beginning and end of the rock era. In turn, each new fantasy changed Dylan’s direction and unwove the past fabric of his life. Wives, friends, audiences changed. In order to get inside Dylan’s head, Haynes measures the distance between who he thought he was at each moment, and what other realities gave that the lie. From that point of view, the scariest moments in the film are probably the scenes with Heath Ledger, where Dylan is seeing himself in an disturbingly flat fashion, as a harried professional, living out of a suitcase, trying to hold on to partial custody of his children.  It’s like that Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin dreams about getting out of bed and brushing his teeth.

Among the shards of every decade across which Dylan has spread his songs, these dreams have been preserved whole: the records, like I’m Not There, of the many people Dylan wasn’t, through whom he managed to survive a reality that would otherwise have suffocated him — and perhaps, without his eerie but courageous voices, more of us.