Saturday, February 02, 2008
Print the Myth
I saw I'm Not There this afternoon, which does a good job of both absorbing and extending the mythology of its subject, Bob Dylan. Indeed, it's about what it means to be a myth. As you've probably heard, the movie doesn't so much tell the life of Dylan as it does re-imagine and re-create him with a variety of people playing a character who is either closely modeled on Dylan, or someone he (or we) imagine him to be.
There's the Dylan who is a folksinging black hobo kid named Woody, who rides the rails and sings "From a Buick Six." This is, you might say, the ideal Dylan, not the one who exists but whom maybe the singer wished he was, a real folksinger with real roots, real street cred, a blend of Leadbelly and Guthrie, instead of a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota.
There's the folksinger Dylan, played by Christian Bale, who shoots to the forefront of the counterculture and even has a film, titled "Grain of Sand," based on his life.
The actor who plays him is Heath Ledger, who in turn represents yet another Dylan: the huge celebrity who has the idiot wind blowing like a circle around his skull, who finds it hard to juggle the fast lane with domestic life, and who will finds himself a subject of gossip and rumor -- a creature not of what he says about himself but what others say.
Dominant among all this, of course, is the 1960s Dylan, called Jude, brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett -- an enigmatic figure who constantly struggles to define himself against the celebrity he is becoming. Haynes freely adopts the look and style of Fellini's 8 1/2, with Blanchett's Dylan as a Marcello-esque figure burdened by being the absolute center of attention, looked upon as a savior with all the answers to every problem, and then scorned for only answering in riddles.
There's also the Old West Dylan, played by Richard Gere, who is Billy the Kid, who actually survived the killing by Pat Garrett; a semi-heroic figure who lives very much in the world described on Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes, which Greil Marcus aptly called that "old weird America." This is presumably another figure from Dylan's imagination.
Who is the real Bob Dylan? All and none. He's a fact and a legend. He's quicksilver. He's here, he's there, he's a genius, he's immortal, he's like some Christ figure who cannot stay buried, either in our definitions of him or his own. The minute you think you know him, well, he's not there.
In other words, the Dylan, or Dylans, of I'm Not There is very much the authorized version, a man for whom genius means never having to say you're sorry or to offer explanations, because he's too diverse, he's sui generis, and you can't tell him what to do any more than you can predict his next move.
Outside of that, Rodney, was it any good?
Oh yes, because beyond the structure, the undeniable fact about Dylan's life is that it's enormously productive and complex, and the film amazingly and imaginatively manages to nail just about all of it, in so many strange and unusual and delightful ways, particularly if you're steeped in the music. Dylan's songs are used to fantastic effect throughout, song lyrics turn into crazy dialogue, character names from songs are worked into the plot, highly iconic album covers become terrific sets.
Todd Haynes is the perfect director for a project of this scope -- as anyone who has seen his scandalous first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (which you can watch here)or his glam rock lovefest Velvet Goldmine knows, he's attracted to the fever dream of celebrity myth, how it both builds, nourishes, intoxicates and destroys the people who fall under its spell.
It's what I think of as a very postmodern biography, but told in reverse. Think of a modern novel, Pale Fire, for example, where you have to decipher the words of an unreliable narrator to get to the "real" story. I'm Not There takes the real story, the one we know or think we know -- and of course we all know about the elasticity of truth, and that history is only what people tell us it is -- smashes it to bits, and then reassembles those bits into a patchwork of fact and fancy. It doesn't really deconstruct the myth of Dylan, though; it's a little too adoring of its subject for that, and probably wouldn't get made if it weren't.
What's that classic definition of myth, "a lie that tells the truth"? I can't speak for the truth, but this film makes sure the legend will live on for years to come.