Tuesday, 8 January 2008
I’M NOT THERE
1. An Antidote to Biopics
Only recently I was bemoaning the paradox that while technology has made it so much easier for us to re-watch films, what’s being churned out is less and less worth even a single viewing. The growth of the rock biopic is a classic case in point. We pretty much know the parade of clichés and anecdotes before we even buy our tickets; in fact we wait for them to reassuringly appear, like children being re-read their favourite bedtime stories. The auspicious first meeting, the early rehearsal where everything just clicks, the later ‘creative differences’… Of course urban myths always cluster around culturally important figures but biopics seem to do to them what collectors like the Brothers Grimm did to folk tales – emaciating them, not just cutting out the good parts but ossifying them, weighing them down with literalism and pinning them to one definitive version.
So I was interested to hear of this far less literal approach to the life of Bob Dylan, in which he’s played by six different actors who look neither like him nor even each other. I was doubly interested to hear that the director was Todd Haynes, whose earlier glam rock picture Velvet Goldmine (1998) had been a favourite of mine. Even if turns out to be a complete white elephant, as have so many of Dylan’s own forays into film, I reasoned better a white elephant than a regurgitating parrot like Oliver Stone’s toecurling take on the Doors.
Impressively, the film actually feels like a Dylan song rather than some prosaic account of events surrounding its recording. It feels like one of his sprawling mid-Sixties electric numbers, packed with hallucinogenic images and allusions like an over-wired fusebox ready to blow… In fact, it feels more than that, it feels like several key Dylan numbers from different eras, spliced together by an remixer so audaciously they now feel like a new work. It would be as absurd to review this film after a single viewing as it would for such a song after a single playing, but it’s what’s going to happen anyway…
In fact, as far as its relationship to the prosaic goes, it lays its cards on the table almost straight away by killing its central character and sticking him on the slab. Most of us know Dylan didn’t die in his 1966 motorbike accident, in fact the most likely story is that it never even took place – it was already mythologised. We’re being tipped off the film intends to take the overly familiar elements of Dylan’s story and screw with them, like a poet or painter referencing folk-tales and legends. But the image of an autopsy (intercut with ‘another’ Dylan sat in front of a McCarthyite hearing) is the film’s verdict on conventional biopics - cutting someone’s life down to a recognisable set of elements, killing the subject of interest via the very process of examining it.
2. From Basements to Backwoods
This has led to a common WTF response, particularly on film message boards - with frequent carping that none of the six characters are actually called ‘Bob Dylan’. The critical response has generally been kinder, normally praising Cate Blanchett’s cross-dressing performance as ‘Jude’ (mid-Sixties Dylan) while scratching their heads over Richard Gere’s later role as ‘Billy’. ‘Jude’s “going electric” (and alienating his original folk fans) is perhaps the most famous Dylan story, being captured on film almost immediately with Pennebaker’s documentary of the ’65 tour Don’t Look Back.
Ironically, the ‘Jude’ incarnation of Dylan lasted for a mere two years while the lesser-known ‘Billy’ hung around for the best part of a decade. Admittedly, there are exacerbating factors which separate this section not just from ‘Jude’ but all the others in the film and can make its presence jarring. For one thing, the otherwise consistently frenetic pace is suddenly dropped to a slow amble. Also, the other strands all pack an array of cinematic references. Though ‘Billy’ refers to Dylan’s role in Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, there are few visual references to this film. (Indeed, it’s more naturalistic style would make it harder to borrow from than the ‘artier’, less linear examples elsewhere, such as Godard, Bergman and Fellini.) It does at times feel reminiscent of Jodorowsky, but mostly the imagery comes straight from Dylan - particularly the Basement Tapes album, and it’s evocation of the “old, weird America”. Indeed, it often feels as if the cover of Basement Tapes had been made a window and we’ve stepped through it.
While other sections are interwoven, this leads straight on from Jude. Jude’s (now fatal) motorbike crash is morphed with the legend that Billy the Kid faked his death and lived his life out in anonymity and seclusion. Billy is the Jude who has given up on staring the world in the eye and got as far away from it as possible. There’s a convention that when a films portrays several different levels of ‘reality’, there’s always one that turns out to be ‘really real’. Here it’s the reverse. It’s as if the other strands have occurred in some kind of reality but here Dylan has become a hermit inside his own imagination.
But having been living in retreat there for some time, he’s now decided to sell up. He leaves his rural hideaway to go into town, but even there he meets not stand-ins from reality (Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick) but characters from his own songs (Mrs. Henry). His ‘imprisonment’ by Pat Garrett is but his sublimated lingering wish to remain, which he rejects to jump a boxcar. He finds a guitar there left by ‘another’ Dylan, his talisman to re-enter the world. The soundtrack jumps from the languid Basement Tapes track Going to Acapulco to the later One More Cup of Coffee, a song about a journey.
(Disclaimer: I may simply be biased here as this has long been my favourite Dylan era. But my candidate for least memorable strand would be the pedestrian marital problems undergone by Heath Ledger as actor ‘Robbie’. Or perhaps the underdeveloped ‘Pastor John’ strand, representing Dylan’s born again era. This felt somewhat tokenistic, like it was being included solely so no-one could claim it hadn’t been.)
3. “I is Another”
Nevertheless we won’t always find such linkages and the critics are correct to find Blanchett’s Jude central. However the crucial line is said early on by ‘Rimbaud’ (the Dylan on trial), when he quotes the real Rimbaud’s line “I is another”. Many accounts of this film quote this while failing to recognise its importance. They tend to see the six faces of Dylan as facets which the viewer combines into a multifaceted portrait, like a 3D object being built up in a Cubist painting. Indeed, even one of the film’s own posters seemingly gives credence to this idea with a composite image of Dylan’s like a police photofit – see above. Yet the same accounts almost all refer to the centrality of Cate Blanchett as Jude. Blanchett’s performance is universally praised, but with few seeming to ask why a woman would be cross-cast in such a role to begin with. Partly it serves to underline the theme of Dylan’s misogyny, whenever ‘he’ says for example “just like a woman” we’re reminded it’s actually a woman who’s saying this. But there’s more…
Dylan’s electric ‘betrayal’ of the outraged earnest folkies is of course covered here. But while one of these even tries to assassinate him, everyone he comes across seems out to get a piece of him. A more important character is the challenging BBC interviewer constantly out to pin him down, work out his allegiances, at one point triumphantly announcing his parentage to the world. He typifies everyone else out to access the man beneath the act, the haircut and collection of mannerisms propelled into life by Blanchett. But the very casting of Blanchett reminds us there is no real Dylan underneath the disarming non-sequiters and cryptic put-downs – the act is all there is. I’m not there, remember?
While Blanchett’s been praised for her acting what she’s really doing is impersonating. (The style is similar to, yet greater than, her version of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.) In fact, fully half of Dylan’s personas are named after other people, Woody Guthrie, Arthur Rimbaud and Billy the Kid… or more than half if we accept the obvious Jude/Judas comparison. Meanwhile, many of the Dylan songs on the soundtrack are actually performed by others.
One of Dylan’s famous dictums was “a poet tells you what you feel.” Part of his disenchantment with the folk scene came from the didactic, literal interpretation of that statement, the sense that his job was to neatly summarise and sloganise stock notions of oppression. But an artist who can intuit, regurgitate and flatter his audience’s expectations is just a politician who can rhyme. As Jude, Dylan consequently takes the opposite tack of refusing to confirm or deny any interpretation of himself or his music. “You just want me to say what you want me to say,” he complains to the BBC reporter. (Recalling Sillitoe’s “whatever you say I am, that’s what I’m not.”) In the Ballad of a Thin Man scene the reporter obviously imagines the sneering song to be about him, visualizing it as a cage built to trap him. But we immediately cut to the Black Panthers, arguing over their own quite different interpretation. We write the song by the act of hearing it, the process of recording and releasing it is nothing more than the process of turning some meaningless splodgy inkblots into a Rorschach test.
Jude is a kind of anti-messiah or devil clown, his hurtling life becoming like the speed pills he continually necks. He’s living off all the negative energy (the hostile press, the angry crowds, screwed –up sexual encounters), at the same time as it’s killing him. Though Jude most epitomises this aspect of Dylan, it’s prevalent throughout. ‘Rimbaud’ warns us never to create anything, for the object will then get stuck in time and people will act as though you’re still beholden to it. The film starts and ends with scenes of different Dylans riding the boxcars, the blues image of escape. The artist’s job is to keep moving while leaving as short a shadow as possible, as if he’s perpetually behind enemy lines.
4. The Dylans They Aren’t Really A-Changin’
Praising the film in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw comments it “addresses an unfashionable subject, the artists need to change in order to survive.” In some ways the earlier Velvet Goldmine dealt with a similar theme, with its focus on Bowie. But despite Bowie even writing a song called Changes, Dylan seems more associated with change - largely for the very reason you don’t get the sense of him playing out a set of characters. To say Ziggy was not ‘really’ Bowie, just a role, would be a banality. To say Dylan’s protest singing years were just a role would be quite another.
However, ten years into a New Labour ‘project’ almost entirely predicated upon the supposed intrinsic value of change, we might wonder just what Bradshaw finds so daringly unfashionable about this theme. It’s almost like the agenda of the most dated of Sixties films, opposing the ‘straight’ and ‘uptight’ to the ‘hip’ and ‘with it’. But more importantly, the term ‘change’ seems entirely the wrong one for what’s presented here. The only time Dylan ‘changes’ in the film is when Billy decides to abandon his hermitage and stand up for the townsfolk. What Dylan does the rest of the time is perpetually reinvent himself; when tired of one personality he doesn’t progress from it but burns it down and starts up another one. He transforms his way of being in the same way he transforms his way of dressing; he loses his old set of thoughts as fast as his last hat. He’s the ideological equivalent of a serial monogamist. (It even becomes one of Rimbaud’s ‘rules’ that no incarnation of Dylan must have any contact with any other.) Change is associated with growth, like coral building new shapes on top of the existing ones. Reinvention is what’s done to the wheel, oblivious to the fact that there’s already a wheel.
Blanchett takes over to the point where the film comes to feel like her performance; a cluster of mannerisms and smart remarks, a collection of allusions to and quotes from not only Dylan’s music but numerous other films– a stand-in for something else. Despite the film’ strengths there is something self-congratulatory about the way we’re asked to spot these allusions, in many ways as self-congratulatory as the sense of moral virtue found by the folkies from listening to ‘pure’ music. But there’s also something almost post-modern about its making its landscape from of a mere sea of allusions. In fact Sadie Plant has used this very metaphor to describe post-modernism:
“…we step into the postmodern with the same sense of giddiness and trepidation that accompanies the first step onto a boat. The deck shifts and sways beneath us; for a while there seems to be nothing to hold onto since everything is moving, and we look back with longing and fear as the land disappears. But after a while, we relax enough to turn our attention to the horizon, forgetting what dry land was ever like.” (The Most Radical Gesture, Routledge, 1992)
Admittedly this angle shouldn’t be pushed too far. Traditionally post-modernism in popular culture is reflected by a fixation upon the primacy of the media. Dylan may have many similarities to the media thus conceived – it’s ceaseless quest for novelty, it’s sacred right to contradict itself. Yet we shouldn’t forget the journalists or fans are not the subject here but Dylan, who is presented as something inscrutably outside the media – hardly a post-modern notion!
However at this point it may be worth asking, didn’t the folkies have a point? They may have had pathologically restrictive conceptions of ‘authenticity’ in art. They certainly had naïve enough notions of politics to venerate Castro’s Cuba. But they stood for something which was often worth standing for - and they kept standing. That’s what’s unfashionable. After years of standing for some ill-defined underdog, perhaps they have now become the underdog themselves.
And besides, how valid is this notion of ‘reinvention’? The idea Dylan woke up one day and was somebody else… it may feel compelling, indeed it may feel particularly compelling to Bob Dylan, but does it actually fit the evidence? Take Dylan’s second acoustic album, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. As well as featuring the protest classic Blowin’ In the Wind, it also features examples of the surrealistic urgency later taken up by the electric songs (A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, Talking World War Three Blues or I Shall Be Free). Even his desire to upend and junk his folk following was prefigured on earlier acoustic songs such as Bob Dylan’s Dream (1963), It Ain’t Me Babe or My Back Pages (both ’64).
Of course realism is not the object here. But something vital is being missed. If Dylan’s mid-Sixties hallucinogenic albums were better than the earlier protest material (and I would agree they are), it’s largely because they better epitomized their era. Just as Dylan’s shield of semi-meaningless put-downs only makes sense in the context of earnest folkies and gormlessly literal BBC interviewers, his early electric material only makes sense in the context of the chaos and confusion that typified America in the Sixties. Dylan changed the way the surrounding society changed, not in sudden flashes of inspiration but in a slower process of development and modification – just the way it always is.
But we get very little sense of the surrounding era from the rarified atmosphere of this film. After dismissing his earliest incarnation as a Woody Guthrie copyist who needs to “find your own time”, this film about the guy who wrote The Times They Are A’ Changin’ seems disinterested in the whole question of time. It’s like each section has been built up like a cartoon; first the central character is sketched in, given a look and some mannerisms, then the surrounding world is built up radially around him. Even with the arch-antagonistic Jude, there’s a sense he’s made his world the way he wants it – lots of stuff to react against.
The very centrality of Blanchett’s role as Jude also presents a problem for the film’s main conceit. If we have one defining Dylan, is there any real reason to continue employing the other five? Worse, the goes-electric story is the central, most iconic Dylan myth of all. For example Scorcese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home not only centered itself around this but continually returned to it, as if it were his ‘origin’, the point where he was bitten by his radioactive spider. Ironically, Dylan fans now seem as fixated upon his ‘electric’ self as the folkies were over his ‘acoustic’ one.
Dylan changed his style of music (plus his personal image) and went from playing solo to with a band. Perhaps the killer app was that his music became more confrontational just as it became more oblique and allegorical, turning his listeners into confused ‘Mr. Joneses’. But it’s interesting that it’s always the ‘goes electric’ part that is expected to stand for the rest of that. The central image of electricity (complete with apocryphal stories of Pete Seeger attempting to axe his power cables at Newport) carry connotations of progress, as if the folkies were the losers of evolution - akin to the guys who’d walk in front of the first motorcars with red flags. The film underlines this, with the electric guitar arrive limousines, celebrity cameos, speed pills, fancy visual effects - even machine guns! It epitomises something found elsewhere – all too often the devices used to portray Dylan’s mythologising are hyperbole and exaggeration. Motorbike accidents go from injurious to fatal, heckling folkies become assassins. Surely, particularly for myths coined as long ago as the Sixties, we need to consider some de-mythologising, over linear notions of progress in particular.
5. Down to One
At many points the film does leaves you wondering who precisely it might be aimed at. Those with no knowledge of Dylan’s mythology may be entirely mystified, like being handed a jigsaw puzzle with the lid missing. Perhaps its made for the Dylan obsessives, but planned in the same way his Newport Folk Festival performance was – purely to annoy them, and confound their notions of possessing privileged information they just need to assemble correctly. If so I suspect it’ll backfire just like John Lennon’s Glass Onion, they will merely use its goading for further fuel.
But despite often attempting to be as elusive as its subject, the film is shown in a clearer light if contrasted against Velvet Goldmine. Though loosely based on the characters of Bowie and Iggy, Velvet Goldmine was primarily a film about metamorphosis, about suburban kids escaping the humdrum life they’d seemingly been born into with nothing more than an act of will and some eyeliner. This is a film about mythologisation, an important distinction. But it’s not just that Velvet Goldmine adds up to something while this film determinedly dodges the bullet of interpretation. Velvet Goldmine had an ensemble cast, not all of them modelled on the famous. This employs an ensemble cast merely to present us with one man, and we react to his life as spectators. Even when ‘Rimbaud’ gives us seven lessons they’d be useless for us to follow, he’s telling us what he’s doing. Earlier we used the quote “a poet tells you what you feel”. But this film seems narrowly concerned with what we feel about Bob Dylan, like he’s some cultural beacon for the rest of us to orient ourselves around, rather than using his songs as a kind of correspondence, his music as a jumping-off point to look at the wider world.
However, it can’t be denied this approach does hit a moment of truth. A key part of the appeal of Velvet Goldmine is that it wasn’t made by a movie producer who’d well researched his subject – it was made by someone who instinctively knew and got glam. Similarly it often feels that Haynes instinctively gets Dylan in a way few others have, certainly not his fans or enthusiasts. It’s perfectly possibility that it’s a perfect photofit of Dylan, but all objections stem from the fact that the picture isn’t particularly pretty. Dylan became irritated by journos constantly asking him whether he was for or against the Vietnam War, but this could have had a simple reason – for him the real issue was who was for or against Bob Dylan. In his biography No Direction Home. Robert Shelton recalls how Dylan wouldn’t look back – he’d obsess over his current recording, only to lose all interest in it once it was released. However, there is a line between dealing with the mythology of Dylan and feeding Dylan’s mythologising of himself. That line gets terribly blurred here.
Despite all these caveats and criticisms, I feel I need to see this film again. As mentioned earlier it’s a film you simply need to take in more than once. Despite its length this review doesn’t really cover the film in enough detail, there’s little focus on ‘Woody’, ‘Jack’ or ‘Robbie’. But beyond that I feel I need to see it again – if only to see if I came out with a similar response. It’s in many ways an audacious antidote to the clichéd genre of biopics, which in many ways does show the way forward for portraying figures from popular culture on the screen. It’s the epitome of the film you might love or hate but can’t ignore. Even where I disagree with its approach I can’t pretend it’s bad, merely say I it falls out of my favour. It just didn’t tell me what I feel…