I Am Not a Serious Fan of Bob Dylan

I'm_Not_There My name is Russell Newman and last week I learned that I am a Bob Dylan Hobbyist. In honor of the release of Dylan’s thirty-third studio album, Together Through Life, Paste.com dedicated the day of its release (4/28/09) to the man himself.  I confidently began their Super-Impossible Brain-Busting Bob Dylan Trivia Quiz. Surely an easy task for a heavyweight fan such as myself – or so I thought. My score: Hobbyist. Barely above the Novice level.  Serious Fan was way out of my league.  

What’s a man like me to do?   Press on, of course. In Dylan’s universe, the only rule is that there are no rules. And with that in mind, let this simple Hobbyist take your hand and show you something strange and wonderful as I tell the tale of my love affair with a movie that celebrates all things Dylan.  

The film is I’m Not There by Oregon-based filmmaker Todd Haynes. Since early adolescence I’ve been devoted to Bob Dylan’s music. So naturally, I was salivating when I first learned about a film that would portray his life story. Yet, how on earth could anyone pull this off? The task itself seemed insurmountable.

When pitching the film to Dylan, Haynes outlined his vision:

"If a film were to exist in which the breadth and flux of a creative life could be experienced, a film that could open up as opposed to consolidating what we think we already know walking in, it could never be within the tidy arc of a master narrative. The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation. Imagine a film splintered between seven separate faces — old men, young men, women, children — each standing in for spaces in a single life."
                (excerpted from The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2007)

The film follows no linear narrative. And rightfully so.  Dylan has compared himself to a “trapeze artist,” and it is only natural that this movie feels like a circus show. Six different actors portray different sides of Dylan (none going by his name). Together they seek to embody the “breadth and flux” of Dylan’s creative life.  The actors that play Dylan include Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, a classically trained Brit (Ben Whishaw), an African-American adolescent (Marcus Carl Franklin) and a woman (Cate Blanchett). My favorite (by far) is Blanchett. Her stunning rendition of Dylan makes me convinced that she picked up a few things from playing Galadriel and must be channeling magical Elvish acting powers.  

So, why use a woman to play Dylan? Or why use so many different kinds of people at all? Because each character inhabits a unique dimension of Dylan's life, these (sometimes widely varying) dimensions are best conveyed not through one actor, but through a multitude of voices. Dylan is the ultimate Rorschach test of American folklore. As biographer Anthony Scaduto has written, “He created a new identity every step of the way in order to escape identity.”

Haynes describes his movie as being “like nothing else: both intimate and panoramic, the story of a personality and a nation. I think it’s deeply patriotic. It’s rich and literate but it’s very moving and fun.”  The film's characters move across the backdrop of 1960s – 1970s America. Through these images we are given a sort of underground tour of the country. By the end, we are not just watching a film about Dylan. We are being immersed into a larger-than-life story about our nation’s history. We feel that it is not just Dylan being celebrated, but the places that surrounded him.

In one scene, Jude (Blanchett) sits at a typewriter, head buried in a pile of magazine clippings (an excerpt of this scene can be seen at the beginning of the trailer). This is Dylan totally immersed in the chaotic maze of American culture: its famous people, its war, its current events. Jude is at the center of it all, weeding through the images for ideas, as if sifting the chaff from the wheat. From these images, the songs would come. 

For Haynes, Dylan is the great imitator. He becomes his music:  a white-faced carnival character, an emulator of Woody Guthrie, and a chauvinist rock star. He is Billy the Kid, Marlon Brando, and James Dean. He is a father and a farmer, a boxcar kid, and a revolutionary turned evangelist. He is a put-on in snakeskin boots, with a fitted cowboy hat, and a cigarette in his hand. At the end of the day, he is all these things and he is one of us, whoever we are.