If you go to I’m Not There expecting to see a standard biopic about Bob Dylan where you can learn about his personal life, struggles, successes and failures, forget it. Todd Haynes’ new film was inspired by Bob Dylan, but it is not about Bob Dylan. The trailer states the film is “Inspired by true, false, authentic, exaggerated, real, imagined, stories.” So while inspired by Dylan, the movie is actually an absolutely brilliant treatise about the artificial construct of identity and the fallacy of authenticity. It is about the human tendency to project identities onto people like Bob Dylan and create fictions that they mistake for fact. It is about how identity is a malleable thing which is constructed by its environment and morphs and changes depending on how we interact with and are reflected off others and even off ourselves. The trailer for the film begins with the Bob Dylan quote: “All I can do is be me. Whoever that is.” The film then deconstructs the idea of a “me,” and in its deconstruction, I’m Not There offers one of the very best, most innovative and intelligent movies of the year.
Todd Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman (Far From Heaven) use the medium of film itself to challenge the audience’s perception of identity, art and film. Manipulating genres, actors, histories, and styles, the movie does not allow us a fixed position in relation to its content. Just as we think we know the character and the movie being presented, it shifts gears and we lose our ground. In a recent article in American Cinematographer, Haynes talks about how Dylan liked “taunting the audience and generating friction rather than adoration.” Indeed this is just what Haynes’ film does. It undermines our expectations and fucks with our perception of the movie and its characters. As we watch the film and impose our interpretations and assumptions on the characters and the genres, we are asked to acknowledge that our projections are flawed, that identity is not a fixed form but changes according to outside influences, including our own reflection in the mirror.
Our assumptions about the movie shift constantly in relation to our personal experiences of film and music. The audience becomes complicit in the manipulation of the film’s identity as our expectations and perspectives constantly shift in relation to genre and style shifts. The movie opens with an 11 year old black boy named Woody Guthrie in a depression era boxcar scene. The rich greens of the countryside evoke a kind of nostalgic pastoral narrative, while the boy’s interactions with “hobos” on the train are laden with a kind of cliché Capraesque social dialogue. By starting the movie with a black boy as Dylan, Haynes immediately pulls the rug out from under our feet in relation to our identification with the lead character. What movie are we watching anyway? We question “how” we are going to watch this film as we struggle to get hold of the narrative. I personally wondered if I could make it through a movie that was operating in such clichés and overt philosophizing. The boy’s name further fucks with our perception. Is this a movie about Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie? To complicate things further, we learn that the boy is not actually living during the depression but during the 1950’s. Our knowledge of racial tensions during the 50’s projects another consciousness onto the film as this young black kid ends up in a suburban Caucasian household that is barely one step removed from the house in Far From Heaven. We try to get our grounding and wonder if we’re watching a melodrama, social realism, or a biopic. The social conscious narrative imposes itself on the white melodrama narrative. Our knowledge of Haynes’ films adds yet another twist to our perspective as we recall the lush cinematography and the racial tensions in From Heaven. We are acutely reminded that more than anything we are watching a “Todd Haynes” film and are also asked to question our perception of Haynes as a director, (which may be the ultimate question in the film). Further, the boy’s historical confusion adds yet another layer of mutability as we question history as a construct itself. So in this one opening scene Haynes is not only manipulating our perception of Bob Dylan, but of film, race, genre, and history itself.
Haynes then busts the movie wide open and we find ourselves experiencing a dizzying array of characters, genres, and styles. In one moment we are in the middle of a black and white Fellini-esque romp in which Dylan is named Jude and is played by a woman Cate Blanchett. In another we are thrust into a revisionist Western with Dylan (Richard Gere) as Billy the Kid. Next thing we know, we are in the home a 1970’s movie star (Heath Ledger) as we watch the disintegration of his marriage. Then we are in gritty documentary style realism as we see the folk singer turned preacher Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) belt out some gospel. In between, Dylan as Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) sits in a minimalist scene and philosophizes on the inherent malleability of identity and the fallibility of truth. In between all this, the film is punctuated by absolutely brilliant segments of “faux documentary” footage in which Julianne Moore (a utterly hysterical parody of Mimi Farina) reflects on her experiences with Jack Rollins. In these scenes, we have a fictional documentary about a fictional version of Dylan which further manipulates our sense of “truth” about the characters we are watching and the film itself. This manipulation of identity extends itself into other characters as well. For example, Allen Ginsburg makes an appearance with Jude. When we see him, he looks just like Allen Ginsburg, yet we are very conscious that he is not Allen Ginsburg. Still our knowledge of Ginsburg projects onto the character in the film. We want him to be Allen Ginsburg, so there is tension between “knowing who Ginsburg is” and knowing that the man in the movie is not Ginsburg. Because the character looks so much like the Ginsburg we see in photographs, we are forced to question the solidity of the identity of Ginsburg himself, and in the end Ginsburg appears to be more of a concept than a person. And that is the basic premise of the film that identities, especially of artists and public personae, are concepts and constructions that only exist in relation to the projections of others.
Despite the movie’s conscious manipulation of the audience in its attempt to undermine our “identification” with the identities of the characters and scenes, the film also manages to bring some amazingly strong musical performances to the screen. But then those performances also turn on themselves. For example, when Woody and Richie Havens sing “Tombstone Blues” together, it’s like the movie opens at the seams. Suddenly all this real raw music and energy pours out, and we lap it up hungrily. The music sounds so “authentic” and “honest,” yet we are reminded of the construction of Woody and have to pull back from the appearance of sincerity by reminding ourselves that it’s “not real.” Likewise, in the Billy the Kid sequence when Jim James from My Morning Jacket sings “Goin’ to Acapulco,” we again experience this relief and catharsis in relation to the music. James’s performance is so laden with authentic feeling that we feel relief in his sincerity. It gives us something to hold onto. But then I realized that my personal relation to this scene was manipulated by the fact that I was projecting my relationship to the music of My Morning Jacket and my love for their music, and that my relationship to the scene had little bearing on any relation to Boy Dylan or even the movie. And it is that “personal relation” that ultimately causes false identity constructs. An utterly brilliant scene in which Christian Bale as the preacher Jack Rollins sings “Pressin’ On” has a similar manipulative effect. The music is beautifully heart breaking in its unrelenting faith, yet the sincerity of the song is undermined by Haynes’ almost parodic construction of the scene. He uses grainy 16mm documentary type film which produces a kind of self-conscious exaggerated tawdriness to the scene, so we end up laughing instead of crying. The self-conscious staging deprives us from any true identification. Not to mention, we can’t trust the performance itself. On the soundtrack John Doe sings the song, so we have to ask is it John Doe, Christian Bale or Bob Dylan?
Certainly Todd Haynes’ vision is the true star of this movie (along with the impeccable cinematography of Edward Lachman). Haynes’ manipulation of genre, styles, sets, gender, and race poses infinite questions about identity and perception that we as the audience must try to answer. Haynes pulls out all the cinematic stops — from black and white neo realism, to lush revisionist Westerns and pastorals, to faux documentaries, and lavish melodrama and shows us how the morphology of identity is unfixed. Like the highway that threatens to tear apart the idyllic landscape of Billy the Kid’s Western oasis, our preconceptions and assumptions rip through the people we meet, the art we experience, and the films we watch. Richard Gere as Billy the Kid says, “Me, I can change in the course of the day. When I wake up, I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain that I am someone else.” And that is true for everyone. Who we are when we are alone, when we are at work, when we are fucking, writing, performing, or screaming changes according to how we are perceived, and those perceptions are based on a constantly changing bank of experiences, like seeing this movie for example. Ultimately the movie questions the notion of authenticity in people and art. It asks if identity is inherently false or if there is a neutral place to be “me.” Certainly according to this movie, identity is a plurality. It is not a movie about Bob Dylan, but about the human desire to form and contain concepts like Bob Dylan and to try to ascribe a fixed identity to art itself. I’d have to agree with Haynes. We are never who you think we are. At least I know I’m not.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.