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I’m Not There – he’s just everywhere, mostly in our heads

Cate Blanchett - the best of 6 Dylans

Cate Blanchett: a tour-de-force as one of 6 Dylan alter egos

I’m Not There – Todd Haynes

It may depend when you joined the train. Bob Dylan and I are the same age. When we hit our teens in 1954/5 young people all around the world started boarding the music trains, leaving home for ever. We left our parents standing on the platforms shaking their heads and with their hands over their ears. We’d see them again. But we’d never, ever be their children again. Our journey – not theirs.

The Pied Pipers were all on board: Bill and Buddy, Elvis and Jerry Lee, Chuck and Richard. We didn’t know where the music came from – just that it was there. And it changed us and it changed the world. Bob Dylan brought more on board than most: a talent for words and musicianship; a love of Woody Guthrie and the working man’s music; a passion for life and an instinct just to be.

Not since perhaps the First World War had a whole generation been drawn along a single path. There, tragically it was the path of duty, an old mens’ war and death. In 1955 we were haunted by the horrors of a Second World War and the apparent irreducibility of military conflict represented by Korea, itself the tip of a cold war iceberg and a chilling augury for Vietnam. Plus the futility of nuclear weapons. As the young people tumbled aboard the music trains they gradually began to acquire a sense of self as a generation. A consciousness of youth on its own journey, with its own sense of identity. Youth not as a state of ignorance leading through social conformity and rites of passage to the knowledge of adulthood. They rejected all authority they had not authenticated and acceded to willingly themselves.

Then an extraordinary thing happened: one unique voice, angry and sad, rebellious and concerned, passionate and nihilistic captured the contradictory spirit of a generation and an age. The times were a-changing. A generation became conscious of itself through elliptical, allusive, elusive, haunting melodies and tunes often carrying angry bitter words that somehow resonated with their doubts, their fears and their aspirations and, oh yes, their frustrations. No voice for most of them, captured more, all the conflicting emotions of their times than that of a shock-haired whine-gravel-voiced dissident with all the right questions and none of the answers. These were the days when Robert Allen Zimmerman, born to a middle class family in Duluth Minnesota, ceased to exist and the icon that was to become Bob Dylan, as much nightmare as inspiration, was born. From that time on everyone wanted a piece: the corporate blood-suckers; the mocking media mud-chuckers and the obsessive fan mind-f**kers. Bewildered by the pace of change around them, and with all maps and guides and rules left behind, a generation mistook the conduits of a revolutionary spirit, for the spirit itself. Like expecting an oil pipeline to provide a chemical analysis of the oil that flows through it. They loved his questions and never forgave him for not having the answers that went with them.

This background sets up the extraordinary artistic ambition lying behind Todd Hayne’s film. It makes the coup-de-cinema of casting 6 different actors to play the deeply divided, often contradictory and divisive aspects of Dylan-the-man’s persona on screen. The result is a quite extraordinary film, by far the most imaginative, original and stunning film I have seen this or any other year. If at times the portrayals especially the inspired casting of Kate Winslett, teeter on the edge of parody or even momentarily cross it, Haynes pulls us back with a mixture of the never failing authority of Dylan’s music and more arresting imagery that resonates with at least some of the power of the man’s lyrics themselves. The choice of music, woven into the texture of this film is impeccable, capturing and enhancing the many moods and turbulence of the times and the man.

Of all six actors playing a different Dylan ego (each with a different name) none is better than the youngest – the amazing 14 year-old African American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin. Franklin is the only one of the Dylan ‘selves’ to sing his own songs. Representing the young Dylan as loner, shape-shifter and outsider riding the rails and so taken with his hero Guthrie that he sang derivative Guthrie songs. In a telling scene the kid effortlessly fabricating lies and fantasy stories, is told by the wife of one rescuer – “gotta sing of your own times son.”

Becoming successful on the folk circuit and Greenwich Village, Christian Bale is Jack Rollins, capturing all the intensity and latent mental energy of Dylan as a young man. Ben Whishaw reappears throughout the movie always talking to camera, as an Arthur Rimbaud character, iconoclastic, articulate dissident. Jack Rollins transmutes into Robbie (Heath Ledger) on a personal level – Dylan the husband and father – married for 10 years to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg); professionally the one-time folk-singer who went electric and stirred the passionate hostility that only purist ‘folkies’ can muster. Not the first group to attack Dylan for not being the invention they made of him in the first place. But never was.

I attended his 1966 concert in Cardiff where the first half was all the acoustic folk that had made his name and the second half a thrilling pounding folk rock whose only disadvantage for me was that it was harder to hear the lyrics that were always a unique and special feature of Dylan’s appeal. Cries of “Judas” greeted him on this tour.

Kate Winslett is ‘Jude’: in a bravura androgenous performance she captures the spiky, hyped, if not hopped-up Dylan on a tour of England. Many of Dylan’s more ironic and acidly witty remarks come from this part of the movie. Perhaps it was that uniquely English quality of intelligent stupidity represented by journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood) that tweaked Dylan into responding more coherently. Certainly this part of the film gives us some insights into how he thinks, notably his implacable hostility to being the Guru people want him to be; or to let himself be stuck in a category box within which he knows he can be dismissed.

And so to a suitably grizzled and calmer Richard Gere as the older more reclusive ‘Billy’ now living quietly in retirement near the town of ‘Riddle,’ his instinct to fight authority only re-fired by a pointless freeway to be driven through the natural beauty of his retreat.

I’m Not There is given a structural shape by a narrative thread linked to many of the key events in an impossibly busy and complex life. The multi-faceted person whose music and lyrics became part of the furniture of the minds of a whole generation is hinted at, impressionistically and necessarily subjectively, captured by Haynes’ own memories and pre-occupations. What you will make of this as I said at the beginning may depend on where you joined the train (and you did all join the train if you are even aware of modern popular music). Those who only ever thought of Dylan as a purist folk-singer of the 60’s totally forgot that the real musical and social revolution started a decade before and the 14 year-old Robert Allen Zimmerman was blown away by that iconoclastic, genuinely revolutionary music just as I was. The roots, the genesis of change that Punk was to return to 3 decades later after corporate art-suckers had milked all life out of the music with the pretentious longueurs of corporate rock.

Haynes has avoided all the major pitfalls: cliché, visual and musical; biographic hagiography; and misguided rationalisation or ‘explanation’. If the Oscars were really about imagination, flair and innovation in using the medium of film to express something about the inexpressible, then for my money this is the film of the year. But, and I must accept this, Dylan and I have travelled the same journey as defined by time; seen the same changes; been angered and disillusioned by many of the same failures of leaders and politicians; and perhaps beaten down by the apparently immutable law of man’s unfailing inhumanity to his fellow man – (and women). The only song missing from the film for me is ‘Not Dark Yet’ (…but getting there).

One last thing: the only film director to actually use Dylan effectively was Sam Peckinpah in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. As the journalist who wants to share and record Billy’s magnificent but doomed destruction by the implacable forces of capitalism, corporatism and social conformity – Dylan’s character is asked simply “what’s your name?” his reply to Peckinpah’s credit is perfect – “what do you want it to be?” Dylan personified.

Maybe Dylan is just a phoney enigma that only his contemporaries elevate to special artistic, iconic status. That could be. These are dangerous waters to keep hold of anything as solid as truth. But I have a deep conviction that in 1,000 years time if there are any people left on this planet, they will still be listening to the fragments of a true musical and poetic original, a unique recorder of his time, who was known as Bob Dylan.

Never summed up, never captured, ever elusive, he would probably feel comfortable with this – an ancient saying of the American Indians of the part of the earth where he plied his trade as a troubadour:
Song is the breath
of the spirit
that consecrates
the act of life

Zettel (January 2008)

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