The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
I'm Not There

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Photo from the article I’m Not There seems to me to be a film that is - if not purely, then at least to a significant degree - about issues of representation. This Alternate Take will be concerned mainly with identifying and exploring some of these issues.

A notion that it would be virtually impossible to avoid in any thorough discussion of the film is that of the postmodern. Unfortunately, 'postmodern’ is also now famously a word which - when not simply being dismissed as a meaningless buzzword - has come to be used in so many different ways over the last thirty or so years that it is often very difficult to know what exactly is being meant by it. When an economics professor can refer to a market trend as postmodern at the same time as a tabloid film reviewer can apply the word to a horror film, we might guess that its meanings are potentially infinitely various. This fact in itself, however, shouldn’t stop us from dealing with concepts associated with the word - that should only happen if we believe that everything that has ever been written about the postmodern is of no use whatsoever (something that many would no doubt argue). Probably the best thing for those intending to use the word now is for them to begin their discussion by defining what they mean by it in a particular instance.

For my purposes here, then, I will be using the word to refer mainly to two things: (1) an aesthetic trend in late 20th century western societies that was in part the result of the massive acceleration in the media’s coverage and its production of images; (2) a conception of identity that understands the self as fundamentally multiple and fragmentary rather than singular and complete. (To anticipate possible objection, I would add that neither of these is a purely postmodern [i.e.: very loosely, post-50s] phenomenon, but both describe things that seemed to become more prevalent, or at least more visible and accepted, in western society in the second half of the last century.)

Haynes has always made it clear that his main interest in Bob Dylan stems from the ways in which the singer has seemingly embodied many personas, shifting between images, styles, and approaches to his public appearance throughout his career. (In this way the film is certainly comparable to Haynes’ other full-length imagined musical biopic, Velvet Goldmine, whose main object of idolatry was David Bowie - perhaps pop music’s ultimate shape-shifter.) His decision to cast multiple actors as different characters who all represent different facets of Dylan must be seen first and foremost in this light. This technique is virtually diametrically opposed to the more ‘traditional’ biopic tactic of attempting to create a coherent central subject whose motives and life we are encouraged to understand in relation to various staged biographical anecdotes. While, say, Walk the Line (2005) or Ray (2005) try to give us the impression that the images they create of their artists allow us to understand them better - that they constitute, if not complete, then at least consistent portraits - I’m Not There is instead concerned with telling us again and again that there is no chance that Dylan will be explained by this narrative.

What is especially striking here is not only the fact that ‘Dylan’ has multiple actors playing him, but also that each actor is in fact playing a completely different character (a fact that was played down in the film’s publicity material, perhaps for fear of making the film’s concept seem even more confusing than it already did). This means that the film throws traditional forms of coherence to the wind in at least two ways. First, the multiple actor strategy means that identification is resisted - not just in the sense of emotional/psychological attachment, but on the most basic of levels: without prior knowledge of the film’s concept it would take a long time to even recognise that all these people are - in an abstract sense - representing one person. Secondly, the multiple character concept ensures that the conventional form of a singular narrative is also rejected, since each character has their own lives, narratives, and worlds, apparently more or less independently of one another. This technique is even more radical than that of Todd Solondz’s excellent Palindromes (2004), which changed the actors playing its central character, whilst keeping that character herself the same.

The main reason why I’m Not There’s rupturing of our experience of character is so extreme, then, is not only because it requires that we constantly readjust ourselves to representational shifts, but also because these representational shifts simultaneously require shifts in our understanding of ‘Dylan’ as subject too. We relate entirely differently to Heath Ledger’s character than to Richard Gere’s, since we do not treat them in our minds as the same person (not even as representing different stages in the same person’s life, as happens in a traditional biopic). The effect is destabilising, and in a sense approximates what it might be like to watch a film composed from the spliced-together parts of several different biopics.

While the biopic norm is to create one narrative from a real person’s life, and thus potentially construct a false image of a fixed narrative subject, I’m Not There does the same for six separate people, then asks us to understand that they - loosely - constitute one. There is nothing so necessarily outlandish to be found within the individual characters’ narratives themselves: they do after all stage famous set-pieces from Dylan’s life - albeit in an often playfully exaggerated manner. Similarly, it wouldn’t be too strange for a film to present these various protagonists in a multi-character narrative: though we might question the relevance of linking them within the framework of a feature film, we would have no trouble understanding the individual windows we are given onto their lives. The coup comes in the demand that the film makes that we at once understand the film’s central character as one person and these many people - that the characters in some sense form one subject, but that that subject is multiple, consisting only of many various subjectivities.

This approach is a perfectly succinct representational strategy for conveying the postmodern notion of the self as multiple, and the idea that the ‘true’, ‘inner self’ is essentially an illusion. We might well say that, despite this, the film still finally gives us little understanding of Dylan, but this is clearly to miss the point: from the surprising literalness of its title onwards, this film is about the very impossibility of such a project. This is why I was tempted, in my short review, to describe the film almost as a spoof of the biopic genre, since it basically pronounces the entire concept of summarising a person through a series of biographical details to be an essentially flawed one.

Such an approach could quite easily fit the telling of any character/person’s life, but what makes it particularly fitting in this case is the fact that Dylan was (and is) also - first and foremost - a public figure and celebrity, and thus constantly in the eye of the media. Specifically, he was a subject for media scrutiny at precisely the (postmodern) moment when media production and consumption was expanding at a whirlwind rate, and at the moment when television was beginning to explode and become the absolutely ubiquitous part of Western cultural life that it is today. He was photographed, filmed, and interviewed countless times, in the constant hope that such representations would reveal things about him for the pleasure and consumption of the viewing/reading public. This, apart from anything, is one of the main functions of the media in the creation of celebrity: the desire to invade public figures’ lives and capture their personality, make it understandable, and make them into images that we can comprehend, and thus judge.

Dylan, as represented here, is painfully aware of this function of the media, and undertakes not to allow himself to be fixed or pinned down in one image, instead always shifting and reinventing his persona in an attempt to never be misrepresented. This seems to me to be what the film is most interested in: the problems arising from living in a media-saturated world, and particularly being a public figure in a media-saturated world. The central place that the theme of media, and representation more broadly, has in the film is made clear in three main ways.

One is that, unlike more ‘traditional’ biopics, which pride themselves on taking us behind the scenes of the public presentation of their subjects, I’m Not There shows Dylan in contact with the press a great deal, meaning that our access to even these diffused images of him are shown at yet another level of mediated remove. Blanchett, Bale and Wishaw’s characters are shown being interviewed/interrogated a number of times (Wishaw exclusively so), and the main line of action in Blanchett’s section revolves around the relationship between Jude and a reporter (Bruce Greenwood) intent on defining and explaining him. Such a focus on the star’s public interactions (on “Dylan” rather than Dylan?) relate to the fact that Haynes has said he became most interested in Dylan when he saw some of his 60s interviews, which he regards almost as instances of performance art. As well as these moments of overt acknowledgment of the media, two other Dylans are also depicted explicitly embodying other characters, in an echo of the performativity and levels of remove that our postmodern media age can encourage: Gere playing a variation on Billy the Kid (one of America’s earliest celebrities, and one who Dylan felt a particular affinity towards), and Ledger playing Bale’s Dylan in a film of his life (another moment at which the film leans towards spoof - or self-chastisement).

The second way in which representation is foregrounded as a concern is through the film’s constant pastiching of various styles. The documentary-style of Bale’s portion, as well as the continual nods to Godard (the gunshot-cutting of Vivre Sa Vie [1962]), Bergman (the close-up spider of Persona [1966]), and particularly Fellini (the Jude section is shot almost entirely as if it were 8 ½ [1963]), must be seen primarily in the context of the film’s absolute obsession with issues of representation. In a sense these quotations exist to conjure up a period, and specifically a period in which media and representation became widely recognised as a political and ideological battleground (think of Godard’s statement that we must make political films politically). However, more than this, by showing ‘Dylan’ as basically only existing within the confines of these styles, they go so far as to suggest we can only access this period through its cultural products. What’s more, the elements Haynes has chosen to quote also constitute some of the most famous and instantly recognisable signifiers of their various directors ouvres - the parts of their legacy that have now almost become cliché. This serves the double function of both making them instantly recognisable for many, and also forcing those who do recognise them to notice that they are recognising them - making them (consciously or not) engage with the process that this film is attempting to lay bare: the easy fetishising of one or two facets of an artist’s image at the expense of a more complex and multiple understanding of them and their work.

Thirdly, the fact that many of the more famous aspects of Dylan’s mythology are presented here in such blatant, and sometimes exaggerated, ways must also be seen in this light. By showing his legendary transition from acoustic to electric, for example, in such a parodic fashion (Dylan and his band machine-gunning the audience), Haynes is partially parodying the way in which this moment has become so iconic - or rather, the way has been made so by repetition again and again in histories as told by the media. And it’s not just Dylan himself who is treated this way: almost everyone in this film is reduced to the most comically basic signifiers that they are known (or were, at one point, known) for: Edie Sedgwick is depicted as a stoned Alice in Wonderland, The Beatles are crazy lads being chased by screaming girls, Ozzie Osbourn is a wildman who bites the heads off chickens, and so on. In a sense, I’m Not There is drawing attention to the impossibility of now getting to the ‘truths’ that lie behind these one-dimensional signifiers.

Except, that is, in the case of Dylan himself, who - because he is represented as not just one, but a collection of varied and various signifiers - is in some sense allowed to emerge as a more complex representation than those around him. He is shown here continually attempting to outrun, or dodge, the oversimplifications that have fixed public figures in the media’s sights throughout the twentieth century. Thus, although perhaps not ‘true’, his constant shifts between characters and actors in this film, as well as personas, beliefs, genres, and politics, do amount here to an image of a certain degree of complexity.

Dylan’s constant shifts in persona have long been acknowledged. What makes Haynes’ treatment of his chameleon-like quality interesting is that he treats it as his defining feature. Through the way he is presented in I’m Not There, Dylan effectively becomes a sort of unwilling postmodern hero whose almost every move is a sidestep away from singularity and coherence - or, more specifically, away from being represented as coherent or singular. Interestingly, it could potentially be argued that, by so foregrounding this element of his personality, Haynes is almost doing that which he seemingly renounces - creating a ‘fixed’ portrait of his subject - even if the only fixed quality he attributes to Dylan is his lack of fixedness. It is problems like these that can sometimes make postmodern artworks such as I’m Not There frustrating, but it is also such contradictions and complexities that can also occasionally make them, for those interested in engaging with their questions, so fascinating.

This Alternate Take was published on February 19, 2008.

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