Robert Zimmerman once said, “Chaos is a friend of mine.” He also said, “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” Zimmerman once said “I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I'll die like a poet.” He also said, “I think a poet is anybody who wouldn't call himself a poet.” Stranger still, Zimmerman once said, “There is nothing so stable as change.”
Of course, you know Zimmerman better by his popular moniker of Bob Dylan. And that name has been the most consistent aspect of the man that we have seen. For as the film “I’m Not There” portrays, Dylan has gone through numerous transformations, moving from one to the next just as the public was getting familiar with the old one.
And as you might have already heard, the way that writer/director Todd Haynes handles these transformations is the revolutionary part of the film. Six different actors play versions of the artist, each with different names, but none named Bob Dylan. They are revealing in their differences, and each occupies a distinct world of his own.
Consider the peculiarly precocious eleven-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin, who embodies Dylan as a guitar-playing boxcar tramp traveling under the name of Woody Guthrie, the folk hero of Dylan’s youth. Or the young philosopher Arthur Rimbaud, played by Ben Whishaw, who is only seen in interview-style clips, spouting mantras like and including some of those mentioned above.
There’s also Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, an embodiment of Dylan’s protesting folk hero of New York City. Heath Ledger appears as Robbie, an actor who starts out portraying Rollins in a film and encounters some marital troubles. Plus there’s Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, lifted from Dylan’s appearance in Sam Peckinpah’s western “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
The most talked-about performance in the film is sure to be Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, Dylan’s post-folk personality. Her segment begins with the Newport Music Festival where Dylan outraged fans by going electric. The scene is both true to history and fanciful: Pete Seeger runs around with an axe threatening to chop the power cords while Jude and his band blast the audience away with machine guns.
That marriage of the metaphorical and the historical permeates the whole film. This may be news for those who may not know much about Dylan to begin with. However, if you are familiar with him, you are sure to get more out of the film. A good resource for catching up would be Scorsese’s documentary “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan.”
The film flits back and forth between all the different characters, albeit at times confusingly. But the point here is not plot, it’s persona. The genius of Haynes’ method is that he’s found a cinematic language to handle both Dylan’s life and his poetry, not an easy feat, to be sure.
It’s been a few days since I saw the film, and I find I am still processing it, trying to work out this puzzle in my head to make a whole. But that is an erroneous approach. The parts exist simultaneously, but never in the same place.
And that’s how it should be. I find that all I can do is watch it again. And again. It’s one of those rare occasions when an unsolvable puzzle is a blessing, especially when it sounds so good.