Sunday, December 09, 2007

I'm Not There

Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how pathetic this year’s crop of films was. But, all the while, I was thinking of the fact that I still hadn’t seen Todd Haynes’s new film, I’m Not There. Thanks to a variety of factors, I hadn’t gotten to the film, so when I woke up today, I went to the first show, and finally saw the film. It’s easily the best film of the year, full of ideas and filmic innovation, a real masterpiece, and a great addition to Haynes’s previous music films, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine. Like those films, it uses a famous musician as the impetus for exploring a moment in time, and the nature of individual identity. I’m Not There is about Bob Dylan, it is about the cycle of human life, every single human life, from birth to death.

I’m not a particularly big Bob Dylan fan. I’ve heard his big hits, and am familiar with his mythos, but haven’t listened to many of his full albums. I don’t particularly like the quality of his voice, but I can certainly respect his writing and enjoy a lot of what I’ve heard. So, I was looking forward to the film more to see what Haynes would do than for any particular interest in Dylan himself.

I’ve heard people criticize the film as of interest only to hardcore Dylan fans, and inclusionary to people as a whole. I think this is totally off, for me, the film is even less about Dylan than Velvet Goldmine was about Bowie and Iggy Pop. It takes pieces of the Dylan myth, but other than Cate Blanchett’s Jude and Christian Bale’s Jack Rollins, the other characters are fairly standalone. I think you could easily enjoy the film without knowing who Bob Dylan is and without having any familiarity with the folk scene it explores. The film uses Dylan’s identity swapping as a jumpoff point to explore the way we all build up different identities over the course of our lives. It’s about the construction of self mythology, and our inability to live up to the image we put forth to the world. And, despite the fractured structure, this film is not six separate stories, it’s one story represented in six different aspects of the same person, following a life from childhood to old age, a life that need not be a famous one.

Right from the opening shot, I knew this would be a good movie, and I knew it would be a Todd Haynes film. The haunting POV shot tracking up to the stage is similar to the haunting POV shot that opens Poison. Haynes has an uncanny ability to create other worlds on screen, worlds that are at times so alien, they just freak you out. Superstar, Poison and Safe all scare me on some level, for the same reason Eraserhead does. It’s not what happens that scares you, it’s the alienness of the world. He’s not trying to comfortably draw you into a world, he’s opening a door to an other place, and leaving you there. This film has some of that otherworldly feel. Despite the big name stars on screen, you can feel adrift and odd. I couldn’t tell you what it is about that POV shot that unnerves me, but it really does.

But, when watching a film, I like to be unnerved. I like someone who opens a door into another universe and lets you stay there. The early section of the film focuses mostly on young Woody Guthrie, a kid who wants to be a blues singer, like his idol, Woody Guthrie. This is a kid who’s trying to be like someone from twenty years ago. He’s living the 50s, but behaves like it’s still the 20s, he has the concerns of an idol from previous times, and longs to live in the world that brought that music to life. Every kid wants to be like his idols, be they blues singers or simply his/her parents. Kids want to grow up, and by playing the blues, Woody is acting older than he is.

He gets mocked for trying to be like someone from twenty years ago, he gets thrown off a train, but he keeps dreaming anyway. He has this idealized version of Woody Guthrie, the older generation in his head. Here, I particularly like the surreal swimming through water sequence, which echoes Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in its ingenious use of layovers. This is one of those moments that only Haynes does, weird and dazzling.

Young Woody eventually meets up with the real Woody, an old man dying in a hospital. This is part of growing up, to recognize the humanity of your idols. What’s left for you once you realize that the man you want to be is flawed? Do you want to take on his flaws, or do you want to be better? Either way, it’s jarring, and marks the moment of change from child to adulthood. With the loss of the older generation, the young man becomes old.

I’d argue there’s a pretty clear structure to the middle segments in terms of overall narrative. Woody’s childhood gives way to rise, as shown in the Jack Rollins stuff. Here, we see a human being getting turned into a myth. The kid who just wanted to sing, alluded to by Julianne Moore, has, by the time we see him, turned into an iconic personality. Using what we’ve just seen, we can understand the impulses that drove Jack to become a singer, the reasons that he decides to move on from the traditionals and start singing his own songs about his own times.

The documentary format here is the most direct throwback to Superstar, but it doesn’t make for the strongest section of the film. It’s notable that we get almost no time watching Jack rise, he goes from kid to success seemingly in an instant. Looking at the film, it’s clear that the old Woody Guthrie’s death leaves an opening for Jack, and he takes advantage. Society will always need a voice, always need controversial figures, and that’s what Jack becomes.

It’s interesting that young Woody talks about wanting to go to Hollywood and become famous, because the rest of the film is about struggling to deal with fame, and wanting to return to the simple pleasures of anonymity. In each of the stories, we see the Dylan surrogate running from something. In the first, Woody is running from his past in Minnesota, he’s not really a blues man, he’s just a kid from suburbia, and this traveling bum is the first persona he’s put on.

Jack Rollins becomes a mythologized figure, someone who means many different things to many different people. At the awards dinner, he disappoints the crowd when he makes a mistake and proves himself to be only human. He can’t really apologize for it, he can’t possibly live up to the messianic image people have of him.

That’s where the Robbie the actor and Claire story comes in. Here, Jack Rollins is a character, a role that can be put on and representative of certain aspirational values. I love the way the characters’ relationship is inextricably wrapped up in the Vietnam War. Theirs was a generation with an idealism that gradually fell apart. Robbie plays Jack in a movie, a movie that both Robbie and Claire put so much into. They want the film to live up to the man himself and be a revolutionary work. Everything starts to fall apart when they see the film and it fails to live up to expectations. This is another case where the reality fails to match up to the ideal. It’s not bad necessarily, just not what they hoped it to be.

The Claire and Robbie stuff was my favorite of the six milieus of the film. The look of the segment was deep and wonderful, the film technique giving us the story of these characters in a small amount of screentime. We don’t need to know all that they are because we can feel what they’re feeling in the moment. That’s what good filmmaking does makes you experience the world in a different way, and in this case, it was through the eyes of these two characters.

Probably the most honest, least affected scene in the film is the discussion about the differences between men and women. There, we get some raw emotion, and really feel the idealism of the 60s cracking all around. The love they had, born out of an oppositional counterculture movement, is dying at the same time as the war they fought to end is ending. The seemingly arbitrary end of the Vietnam War doesn’t match up to any counterculture activism, it just happened. The sense of futility that Robbie discusses here perfectly captures what a lot of people, including myself, feel about the Iraq War. It feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop the war. In the context of the film, that means that the music is futile, protest songs don’t stop a war, they’re just a way to feel less useless. That’s what Jude says at the press conference, and it’s that fatalism that alienates Claire.

Ultimately, the storyline is about the way our own memories of the past become impossible to live up to. Robbie constantly flashes back to his first meeting with Claire, which is starkly juxtaposed with the coldness they feel in the present. The makeup work on Charlotte Gainsbourg is really fantastic, showing the effects of aging. I also love the cinematography here, particularly during the sex scene, with its abstract close-ups. A lot of Hollywood sex scenes become more about watching famous people naked than watching characters in an emotional moment. The extreme close-ups here work much better than something like Tell Me You Love Me’s explicitness at conveying the emotion of the moment.

In the end, Robbie and Claire are a casualty of the post 60s loss of idealism. This story is the last tied to Dylan himself, it’s more about the impact of the work he did. As such, it’s the most emotionally relatable in a traditional way. It’s the probably the least essential for the film’s mission, but I’m thrilled that it’s in the film.

The storyline that’s attracted the most attention is Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jude, the 60s celebrity Dylan. At first, it was a little distracting, when they called Jude him, it jarred with what I knew about the actress, but once the storyline got going, I forgot about that and just settled in.

The examination of celebrity culture has a lot to say about the world we’re living in. It’s difficult to make a movie about movies and celebrity without seeming self congratulatory, but, from a human identity point of view, I think it’s fascinating to consider the lives that people like Britney Spears or Brad Pitt must live. They have literally no privacy, and are hounded wherever they go by cameras. What does that do to your concept of life, to know that any time you’re out in public, you could be being watched. I think most people would find it hard to feel bad for celebrities, after all, doesn’t everybody want to be famous? But, as in all things, you want what you can’t have. I bet Brad Pitt would love to just walk down the street and not have to worry about who might be watching, but he can’t do that. Would he give it all up for a normal life? Who knows, I’m sure there’s a lot of days when he just wishes he could run away from it all.

The Jude segment is about the way that celebrity can produce an increasingly warped reality. On a pure visual level, this is best expressed by the scene at the Warhol party, where Jude gets sick while looking at his own image projected on the walls behind him. Cate Blanchett looks the most like Dylan, and her segment is the one where the most notable real world event is folded in, the electric performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The impact of this is represented in the great moment of automatic machine gun fire on the stage.

The aftermath of the electric performance is where the film most explicitly recalls Velvet Goldmine. I think Goldmine is a stronger film, but it’s also more explicitly tied to its subject matter. That’s a movie about glam rock, this movie is more about the nature of individual identity. Goldmine focused on the movement and impact of the ideas on individuals. However, both films are ultimately about the social construction of identity. In Goldmine, individuals adapt the glam rock style as a fiction suit, a new liberating persona. That’s most explicit with Brian Slade becoming Maxwell Demon, killing him and being reborn as Tommy Stone, but throughout the film, we see characters who find liberation in glam rock style. It is all about transcending societal norms and expressing some deeper sense of self in the outrageous clothes and makeup. That’s what Christian Bale’s character tells his parents, that underneath, he is Maxwell Demon.

I’m Not There interrogates this process of identity creation. Jude Quinn is a construction, one that people enjoy. They like his outrageousness, and they want him to change the world. It’s not the person they like, it’s the personality. However, Bruce Greenwood’s character needs to see behind that, to puncture the persona and discover the real person. He asks Jude the questions that others won’t ask, and winds up revealing the truth about who he was.

In the end, Jude moves further and further away from reality, invoking the wrath of fans who loved his down to Earth, socially interested early work. The funniest bit is when Jude asks Jesus “Why don’t you play your early stuff”? Once a celebrity, he is constantly maligned for not living up to who he was earlier. Jude has lost touch with the spark that ignited young Woody Guthrie because he is not a common person. He hangs out with other celebrities, has relationships with models from magazine covers and is constantly hounded by the press. How can you write about the working man when you’re living like that?

The notion of an eighty date tour drives him over the edge, retreating into a dream. I love the image of Jude suspended on a string, not quite drifting away. It’s an 8 ½ quote, and a well used one. Even the character’s own dream life is bound by what’s been set out in pop culture. He is existing in an echo chamber, and rebels against his fans as a result. They want you to be the same as you were, but if you stay the same, they’ll criticize you for that.

Coming off the manic celebrity of the Jude segment, we return to Jack Rollins, who has become a Christian preacher. While this references Dylan’s Christian period, it also works as a logical progression from the hyper celebrity. Jude was an isolated character, constantly surrounded by an entourage, but with no real friends. To become a preacher is to become part of something larger than oneself, to recover meaning. Perhaps the best musical performance of the film is Jack’s song from the pulpit.

This brings us to the final segment of the film, and what’s apparently the least popular, Richard Gere’s William and the town of Riddle. It’s tough to engage with because the connection with Dylan isn’t immediately apparent. That’s true, but I think it’s actually a good thing. It’s the segment that broadens the film’s scope and makes it more universally relatable. In Riddle, it’s Halloween all the time. People can go there put on a different personality, and no one will notice.

That’s what our main character has done, once a renowned outlaw, he now lives a quiet life of anonymity. To understand this segment, you have to understand that everyone reinvents themselves, creates different personas for different purposes, and doesn’t necessarily want to be reminded of who they once were. People talk about how radical it is to have six people playing one character, but what it is is a literal representation of what we all do in our own minds.

Here, we follow an old man, who’s been through celebrity and chaos and now just wants to be left alone. But, it’s not so easy to change identities, memories and legends always exist, and people won’t just leave you alone. The highway is coming to Riddle, society returning to disrupt this haven. A central moment here is when Rimbaud Dylan is talking about the seven rules of disappearing. One is not looking at yourself, we see Woody Guthrie, the only time two Dylans meet, but William doesn’t look at him. That kind of self examination is not for him at this moment.

His desire to move on from the past continues when he encounters Pat Garrett, a man who is this realm’s incarnation of the Journalist, both played by Bruce Greenwood. The film is one story, and character types recur throughout. This is the most obvious one, a character who seeks to push through the secrecy surrounding this man, and find the truth. However, what the film makes clear is that the identities one puts up to protect him/herself reveal a lot more about the person than the strict facts. That’s why this film is so much more successful than a traditional biopic. We know the facts, facts don’t tell us anything. We’ll never know what things were really like for Dylan, and honestly, watching that story doesn’t matter.

Superstar broadened Karen Carpenter’s story into a wide ranging exploration of how society forces women to conform to certain images, it’s about the social pressures we all feel in our lives. A straight biopic, of either her or Dylan, would lose that universal relevance. I don’t know what it’s like to become famous, and I can’t really relate to that story in the way I can to the story of someone who constructs false identities, all in search of some idealized self.

In the end, Garrett interrogates William and a temporary stop along the way ends. He’s back on the run, just like he always was. He has gone from childhood to old age, gotten everything he wanted, and now is happy to be back in the same place, dusting off the old guitar and rediscovering what made him want to get into music in the first place. Bringing it full circle gives the film a strong finality. He will continue to reinvent himself, but at the core there is the music, and the hope that somehow, singing these songs will make a difference. It’s not about people hearing it, it’s not about being famous, it’s about the simple joy that playing the guitar can bring. Maybe this machine can’t kill fascists, maybe it can’t change the world, but it sure can affect people, and maybe making them happy is all you can hope for.

There’s a wonderful haunting quality about the final scenes, as William watches his dog fail to catch up to the train. He wanted to take part of that life with him, but it didn’t make it, and really he doesn’t need it.

I think this film is a linear narrative, just one that’s split across six different characters. It’s the story of one man’s growth, rise to fame and ultimate rejection of the role society tried to put on him in favor of a simpler, quiet life. Wrapped up in this narrative are five individual stories, each aspects of the larger whole. It’s a really interesting structure and one of the most ambitious pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever seen.

At the same time, Haynes’s nails the directing side of things. He’s got so much ambition, nimbly leaping from style to style, all the while keeping things unified. There are images in here that sear into your brain, and throughout, he manages to distill complex emotions and ideas into singular images. Watching the film, there’s always something cool going on, something you want to watch. There’s no scene in here that feels “normal,” no exposition to get through before the good part. It’s all good, and this is easily the best film of the year. It’s a movie about the way we all live, as exemplified by one specific life.

1 comment:

Gavin Burrows said...

Ages since you posted this I know, but films open later here in the UK! I thought you might be interested in my take on I'm Not There, particularly as there are times when we seemed to be saying diametrically opposite things! When you say...

it uses a famous musician as the impetus for exploring a moment in time, and the nature of individual identity. I’m Not There is about Bob Dylan, it is about the cycle of human life, every single human life, from birth to death.

...I found it to be too closely about the hermetic world of Bob Dylan!