In Iâ’m Not There, Todd Haynes hears America singing.
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
The idea for Todd Haynesâ’ Bob Dylan movie is so goodâ"six different actors playing different sides of a canny shape-shifterâ"that it would have been easy for the film itself to disappoint. Happily, it doesnâ’t. Iâ’m Not There is a mischievous meditation on art, celebrity, politics, history, and the contradictions built into the American idea of freedom.
The movie recognizes that Dylan is a folk hero first, an artist second, and a fact sometime long after that. His life eventsâ"especially the ones from his early yearsâ"have been enlarged and embedded in the culture. His rises and falls and returns carry their own parables of betrayal, sacrifice, and redemption. Haynes treats them as Passion Play material. There he is at Woodyâ’s bedside. And there, singing Protest Songs. Going Electric! Being Booed! Getting the Beatles High! The Motorcycle Crash!
The story, scattered through strands that interweave and rarely connect directly, follows its protagonists (none of them named Bob Dylan) through events that either loosely or directly reflect phases of Dylanâ’s career. There is a freight-hopping black boy who calls himself Woody Guthrie; a Greenwich Village folk singer; a self-involved movie star; a poet who patiently spells out his name, A-r-t-h-u-r R-i-m-b-a-u-d; an aging gunslinger; and at the center of it all, a frizzy, speed-fueled, sarcastic folk-rocker named Jude Quinn.
The latter is played by Cate Blanchett, in the movieâ’s signature performance (sheâ’s on the poster), and sheâ’s a lot of fun to watch. In scenes that draw heavily on D.A. Pennebakerâ’s documentary Donâ’t Look Back, she nails the defensive, arrogant, alluring, brooding brilliance of Dylanâ’s peak years. Jude Quinn is disdainful and supremely self-assured, but also sexy and strung out and vulnerableâ"which is exactly what you hear if you put on Blonde on Blonde.
Speaking of which, Haynes makes wide and wise use of the Dylan catalog, in original recordings and assorted re-imaginings. He gives airtime to the classics (â“Stuck Inside of Mobileâ” at the beginning, â“Like a Rolling Stoneâ” at the close) along with tracks like â“Pressing Onâ” (from his born-again phase) and the title song, a decades-old bootleg. The music pulses under and often over the film, both anchoring and commenting on the flighty narrative.
But Haynes is up to much more than A-list Dylanography (besides Blanchett, the cast includes Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Christian Bale). Keeping pace with his muse, he varies his cinematic approach in each section, skipping from pastoral romanticism to faux-documentary to mock-Fellini surrealism to the washed-out palette that colors his Billy-the-Kid segment, a hipster-Western pastiche that nods to Dylanâ’s embrace of Americana carnival hokum.
All of the mutationsâ"both Dylanâ’s and Haynesâ’â"fit into a thesis about identity and self-determination that Haynes has been working on since Superstar, his Barbie-doll biopic of Karen Carpenter. In that and later films, he detailed the trajectories of repressed lives: the anorexic Carpenter, the AIDS-era Dr. Jekyll in Poison, the anxious housewife in Safe, the sexual outcasts in Velvet Goldmine, the gay family man in Far From Heaven.
Haynes is an old hand at identity politics, an ACT-UP activist who came of age when silence equaled death. So he understands that identity is a battleground, not a commodity, and that there is always collateral damage. What makes him click with Dylan is that both of them know that the price you pay for liberty (to be on your own) is loss (with no direction home), and that America gives you both, over and over.
The generation of activists that Haynes grew out of often seemed to believe that the key to happiness lay in the freedom to be your authentic selfâ"to be female, gay, black, Hispanic, Wiccan, whatever. But Robert Allen Zimmerman from Minnesota never wanted to be his authentic self; he wanted to be something else. In Iâ’m Not Thereâ"and, Haynes suggests, in the America of Bob Dylanâ’s dreamsâ"freedom means the right to define yourself as you choose, from one moment to the next. As the unseen narrator muses toward the end of the film, â“I can change in the course of just one day.â”
The narrator, by the way, has the voice of Kris Kristofferson. Who has his own ideas about freedom.
Movie Guru Rating:
Tsai Ming-liangâ’s I Donâ’t Want to Sleep Alone is not a good movie to watch in bed, or maybe even lying on the couch. Much of the action, such as it is, consists of minutes-long takes of people dozing, or sitting silently, contemplating. The camera never moves, and the main characters exchange virtually no dialogue. But there are currents moving beneath the placid surface of Tsaiâ’s laconic style, honed over the course of more than half a dozen films, including 2003â’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn and 2001â’s What Time Is It There?, that are likely to get you moving along with them before you even notice.
Set in the scabbier neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the film revolves around two men. One, a homeless young Taiwanese (Tsaiâ’s on-screen alter ego Lee Kang-Sheng) is beaten by thugs and taken in by a poor Bangladeshi laborer (Norman Bin Atun). The other (Lee again) lies in a coma in an apartment above a cafÃ© run by his imperious mother (Pearlly Chua), who dragoons a young waitress/border (Chen Shang-Chyi) into tending her vegetative son. As three of the characters move almost imperceptibly toward a love triangle, which briefly becomes a quadrangle, and possibly even a pentagon, a choking haze of pollution blankets the city, pushing the somnolent events toward actual drama and an ending that literally transcends the urban ruins, squats, and crappy apartments.
The long, quiet takes are something of a stylistic tic for Tsai, but that doesnâ’t mean he doesnâ’t know how to make them work for him. Though it demandsâ"and testsâ"patience, I Donâ’t Want to Sleep Alone rewards it with its low-key observations of the way the lonely hours of urban living can weigh on the soul and push even stoics fumbling toward one another. â" Lee Gardner
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