As determinedly unconventional as Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is, it’s not without precedent—a precedent set by the subject of Haynes’ film himself, Bob Dylan. There probably aren’t a whole lot of folks around who remember Dylan’s own 1978 cinematic fiasco Renaldo and Clara. I think a few actually died while trying to sit through all 232 minutes of the film—a perfectly understandable response.
Having survived the ordeal myself, I can attest to the fact that Dylan’s film sought to find Dylan (or Dylan sought to find himself) via a nonlinear structure where Dylan played a character named Renaldo, while 300 pounds of Ronnie Hawkins played Dylan. To aggravate things, Sara Dylan played Clara, while Ronee Blakley played Sara Dylan. Allen Ginsberg played something called “The Father” and Joan Baez played the “Woman in White” (who, at one point, Dylan as Renaldo trades for a pony). The idea (I guess) was to get at some inner truth, but if that truth was clear to Dylan, it wasn’t immediately—or even eventually—apparent to anyone else.
Now we have Todd Haynes casting Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw and Marcus Carl Franklin as various embodiments of Dylan at various points in his life/career. The results are less demented (and about 100 minutes shorter) than Renaldo and Clara. They’re also a lot more entertaining and accessible, but I’m not at all sure that they don’t prove the same thing that Renaldo and Clara did: Dylan is too complex to be understood by Dylan or anyone else. This is not a criticism—at least not a negative one.
Haynes bravely presents his own views of Dylan at different points in time, hooks them together in a nonlinear manner, and leaves the viewer to draw his or her own conclusion. That’s admirable and surprisingly effective. Even when individual sections don’t quite work, the structure masks many of the deficiencies of those sections. In other words, you’re less apt to be bored by the more uninteresting parts—especially, the Christian Bale scenes—because you don’t get them all at once. On the other hand, when the film completely works, it soars.
The Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere sequences are among the best I’ve seen all year, and yet it’s unfair to isolate these scenes from the rest of the film. The fantasticated nature of both segments is held in check and enhanced by the more realistic segments surrounding them. Moreover, as nonlinear as the film is, it does have a structure that’s more or less circular in that the oldest “Dylan” (Gere) is ultimately brought back to the essence of the youngest Dylan (Marcus Carl Franklin). Taken out of context, neither the Blanchett nor the Gere scenes would have the impact they do when looking at them as part of Haynes’ larger canvas.
Blanchett’s sequence is fascinating in its complexity. Her Dylan (called Jude Quinn) is the only one to really look like Dylan, and her segment works as much on capturing the mood of the time in which it takes place as anything else. Haynes has created a miniature 8 1/2 (1963) for her—perfectly sound since 8 1/2 is certainly a key work of that time and is about an artist in a state of flux and indecision—but it’s more than just an outburst of Fellini. It’s Fellini with a dash of Richard Lester when the Beatles show up to cavort with Dylan/Quinn in direct imitation of the “Can’t Buy Me Love” scene from A Hard Day’s Night (1964). It’s Fellini with something of the feel of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back (1967). But it is Fellini’s 8 1/2 (Dylan/Quinn even enters a fantasy by looking over the rims of his glasses à la Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2). Haynes uses this to anchor the footage to the era.
Similarly, the Gere sequence is heavily informed, not by Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), but by the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, specifically El Topo (1970). It might seem that Peckinpah’s film would be more logical, since Dylan is in it (though not as Billy the Kid, which is the name of the Gere version of Dylan)—but in a film with six Bob Dylans (none of whom are actually named Bob Dylan), literal logic is hardly the order of the day. In any case, it makes for a sequence that’s at once playful and a little disturbing (much like Jodorowsky).
All of this probably makes I’m Not There sound a good deal more confusing than it is. It’s an unorthodox film about an unorthodox subject, but it’s not hard to follow or process—as long as you’re prepared to just go with the flow of the film. And it’s a film that’s certainly worth going with. By the end you may know little more about Dylan than you did when you walked into the theater, but you’ll have some interesting food for thought as concerns Todd Haynes’ imaginings about Dylan, and that’s equally worthwhile. Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity.