Friday, December 21, 2007

New Math

Clapton + Dylan = Awesome

In honor of one of the only two or three books I've finished this year and one of the best movies I've seen this year. Watch and enjoy!

Monday, December 10, 2007

You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal...

If Pulp Fiction is "three stories about one story," then Todd Haynes's I'm Not There ups the narrative ante, telling six stories about one story. The one story being the life, art, and maybe more accurately the enigma that is Bob Dylan. And in each of the six stories, a different actor--Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, and Heath Ledger--plays Dylan... or a character based on him... or like him... or something like that. If I sound a little confused, then maybe I am, but confused in the best way. In the way a great piece of art (a book, a song, in this case a film) can push and pull you, or maybe tug and shove; in the way a melange of competing images, sounds, and ideas can leave you in an emotional and intellectual tumult and yet can adhere to one (well, actually two) vision(s); in the way, after already two great films have been made about the de facto poet laureate of America's greatest popular art, that remarkably another great one can be made as original and different as the subject himself.

Each of the six stories tackles a different and specific phase of Dylan's life and career and, though only tangentially do any of the six intertwine, they can certainly be said to be linked thematically. And that each of the six stories are embodied by six very different actors perfectly captures the breadth of who Dylan is, the competing personalities that have defined him throughout his career: the poet, preacher, actor, rock star, troubadour, figurehead, cowboy, hermit, husband, father... and on and on. I have the feeling, if he wanted to, Haynes could've used a lot more actors.

Stylistically as well, Haynes uses a variety of approaches, not only among the segments but within them also. No more is this the case in the episode featuring Blanchett. In it she plays a character named Jude Quinn, which is essentially Dylan at his most iconic. It begins with the most notorious moment in Dylan's career: the moment he "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. (Well, it's actually when Quinn went electric, but you know what I mean.) Consequently it takes us through the period in which he emerged from a folk hero to fully-fledged rock superstar and for most of it the film has the look and feel of D.A. Pennebaker's equally iconic documentary of Dylan during that period, Don't Look Back.

But other parts of the Blanchett/Quinn segment takes both its visual and narrative cues from the work of Fellini, more specifially La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. The former can be said to be the last of his neorealist work, moving toward an almost full-blown surrealism in the latter that would dominate the second half of Fellini's career. From the mania of the media and the superficiality of celebrity to the cartoonish closeups and the mysterious Coco, the episode acts as a semi-homage to the critical point in Fellini's oeuvre, the hinge around which he changed the trajectory of his work.

And to me that's the most interesting thing about I'm Not There at large: the mashup of styles, the pastiche of influence. The entire film works as a collision of style, existing at the nexus between documentary and the avant-garde; and in doing so, shatters every notion of the traditional biopic. The cutting back-and-forth among the six different parts (featuring six different actors) only serves to blur things even more. As I've already suggested, none of these characters are even named Bob Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman) and three of the characters are named after other historical figures: poet Arthur Rimbaud, folk singer--and Dylan hero--Woody Guthrie, and Billy the Kid. Part of the implication here is that in the same way a reading of I'm Not There would have to include the acknowledgment of the various styles and influences from which it is drawing, an understanding of Dylan's life can only come from at least a recognition of the people and places that inspired him.

But the conflicting styles and shifting narratives lead also to conflicting results. On one hand, the various characters don't tie our perception down to just one monolithic view of Dylan, but a richer range of views that wouldn't be available in a more linear and anecdotal structure of the standard biopic. On the other hand, though, the helter skelter style and tone can also distance us from really getting into each story, nudging us past it and into a different direction. It reminds me a bit of Citizen Kane, when Thompson finally comes to realize that whatever Rosebud was, it really wouldn't have explained anything about the man himself. Haynes is essentially making the same comment: the search for the answers just leads to more questions; the more we think we know about him, the further we really are. In the end, he's really just not there.

I'm Not There (dir: Todd Haynes; running time 135 minutes)