On the Aisle- Film Review by Tony Macklin

I’m Not There

Every once in a while a film comes along that puts
a critic to the test.
It reminds him that his usual approach may not
always suffice. He’d better be open to new things —
otherwise he may perfunctorily dismiss anything that
is beyond his usual critical experience.
Whether it be with Jean-Luc Godard, Kubrick,
Altman, Tarantino, et al., one has to be ready to
expand his movie universe into unknown territory.
I just went through that disorienting test with
Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There — Inspired by the music
and many lives of Bob Dylan.”

About three weeks ago, I went to a morning
screening of I’m Not There. It’s a two-hour and 15
minute film, in which seven characters are
incarnations of Bob Dylan. Dylan is never mentioned,
but he sings on the soundtrack as various stories
unfold. All are in some way related to Dylan’s life
and mythology.
I went into the screening with a few suppositions.
I knew Dylan. I thought Dylan was pretentious but
brilliant. I thought Haynes was just pretentious. I
didn’t like his Far from Heaven, which lives on the
edge of labored artifice.
The first segment of I’m Not There is about an
11-year old African-American lad who calls himself
Woody (Woody Guthrie), rides the rails, writes, and
sings. He is a smooth, precocious version of the
youthful Dylan. I realize he’s labeled the “Fake,” but
Haynes doesn’t have to be coy in presenting him.
I understand Brechtian distance, but the opening is
too coy for me. In fact, I find it fatuous and all too
I walked out of the screening after 45 minutes.
Three weeks later I took a shot of vodka, and went
back to try to sit through the entire movie. The
second time I tried to inure myself to the pretention.
One’s first instincts are to bludgeon a movie that
annoys him. One’s second instincts, too. But sometimes
we try to get down to our third instincts — to
attempt to understand a film as it is meant to be
understood, no matter how flagrant it seems. Then we
can bludgeon it. Or not.
I’m Not There is coy and fatuous, but it also can
be intriguing and thought-provoking.
The seven sides of Dylan the movie presents are a
19-year old poet Arthur (Ben Winslaw), a prophet Jack
Rollins (Christian Bale), an outlaw Mr. B. (Richard
Gere), a fake Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin), an
electric speed-freak Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett), and
a born-again Christian (born-again Bale).
The seventh is actor Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) who
plays Rollins in a bio-pic. This character also
reveals an actor’s private life.
It’s a hodgepodge of characters.
It’s also a hodgepodge of references to Dylan — to
incidents, dialogue, confrontations, and even clothing
from Dylan’s past.
Dylan purists may dislike the film, because it
takes things out of context, twists and misshapes and
The opening with Woody doesn’t work, and the
section with the outlaw is distended. Other sections
smack of self-indulgence, and they go awry.
But I’m Not There makes us consider Dylan with new
Each section is shot in a different style. Haynes
uses the styles of Kubrick, Godard, Fellini,
Peckinpah and D.A. Pennebaker, among others.
Pennebaker did the classic documentary
Don’t Look Back (1967), which captured Bob Dylan’s
three-week concert tour of England in 1965.
Eons ago I brought Pennebaker to a university and
introduced him before the showing of Don’t Look Back.
It was a remarkable experience for me.
In February of this year, Don’t Look Back was
released on DVD with commentary by Pennebaker.
Don’t Look Back is a considerable source for I’m
Not There, and makes a revelatory companion piece to
the new film.
Don’t Look Back shows the 23-year old Dylan being
petty, callow, feisty, and arrogant. It also shows the
break-up of Dylan and Joan Baez.
In I’m Not There, Julianne Moore — a veteran of
Haynes’s movies — plays a figment of Baez. Charlotte
Gainsbourg artfully portrays an amalgam of two women
in Dylan’s life (Suze Rotolo and Sara Dylan).
Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger capture intimacy and
But the tour-de-force, gangbusters, thrilling
performance of the movie — and the essential reason
for seeing it — is by Cate Blanchett as the
electric-folk Dylan character, Jude Quinn. She has
burrowed into the soul of Dylan.
Blanchett is mesmerizing. Her withering stare at
the camera blew me away. It should have been the
film’s final shot.
Haynes is openly gay, and Blanchett’s androgynous
performance is a brilliant stroke.
But Haynes doesn’t end with her looking at the
camera. He slogs on.
Fortunately, during the credits at the end, Dylan’s
version of Like a Rolling Stone blows away the sludge.
The final song during the credits — when the
theater is nearly empty — is a cover of Knockin’ at
Heaven’s Door by Antony and the Johnsons. Antony has
been called “androgynous.”
It’s a piquant final emphasis.
I’m Not There is both off-putting and enticing.
Some of it is the best of the year, and some is among
the worst. The bottom line is — I don’t know what the
bottom line is.
And, at this point, that’s good enough for me.
I’m There!

Categories: Legacy Archive