Like a Complete Unknown

The changing face of Bob Dylan on film

I'm Not There is the movie of the year — but to whom does Todd Haynes's Bob Dylan biopic actually belong, and when was it really made?

The great attention-grabber of last month's New York Film Festival, I'm Not There is as notable for its stunt casting as its elusive subject. It's Six Actors in Search of the Great White Wonder. Half a dozen performers of assorted age, race, gender, and prominence play the variously named protagonist — who is introduced by a stand-in for the poet Arthur Rimbaud as a corpse on a slab: "God rest his soul . . . Even the ghost was more than one person." I'm Not There shows a showbiz life falling apart and reconstituting itself multiple times, but it's not anything like The Bob Dylan Story. His name is never uttered.

On first viewing, there seems to be no particular form. This is a dense film with an all-over free-associational structure. The characteristic means of advance is two steps forward, a dipsy-doodle step back, and a flying leap into the future. As Haynes's 135-minute phantasmagoria rolls on toward closure, the oldest of its Dylan figures hops a freight train along with the youngest — so it must be yet another one who crashes his motorcycle by the tracks. Meanwhile, the flaming electrified Dylan of 1966 dies of a drug overdose, floating over London as the actual Dylan "posthumously" croaks the movie's haunting title song — a 1967 "Basement Tape" session, which, until this movie, existed only as a bootleg.

How to explain the film's jokes and allusions? The glimpse of the street musician Moondog on Sixth Avenue? The meaning of veteran folkie Richie Havens singing "Tombstone Blues" on the porch of a sharecropper's shack? The tortuous Black Panther explication of "Ballad of a Thin Man"? Small wonder that one enthusiastic Film Comment writer has compared I'm Not There to Finnegans Wake.

This isn't the first time that Haynes, who studied film as semiotics, has taken pop stars or pop music for a text. He established his reputation in the late '80s as the co-author of Superstar, a Super-8 tour de force that wrung maximum pathos from the tale of Karen Carpenter by using a cast of Barbie dolls. A decade later, Velvet Goldmine — probably the most cerebral rock and roll movie ever made — proposed glam rock as a Dionysian religion with a David Bowie-like androgyne as its cynical high priest.

I'm Not There is doggedly pop-modernist in its layered, nonlinear, post-Citizen Kane structure and strategically applied Dylanology. The viewer is invited to search for the author's footnotes as well as the subject's fingerprints. Quotation merges with invention. A tarantula crawls through it. Original recordings mix with covers. The title is made literal by Haynes's subtitle: The Lives and Time of Bob Dylan. The lives are his. The time — however chronologically skewed — is ours.

Bob Dylan may not be one to ever look back, but his past has never been more present. I'm Not There is part of the larger, ongoing Dylan revival brilliantly orchestrated by his manager, Jeffrey Rosen.

A discreet fellow, to the business born (his father was the accountant to Dylan's legendary first manager, Albert Grossman), Rosen opened the vaults to issue the multi-CD "Bootleg Series" in the early '90s and produced the 2004 Scorsese-signed documentary No Direction Home; he encouraged the publication of Dylan's memoirs and the unfortunate Twyla Tharp ballet; he facilitated not only I'm Not There but also the release of several archival documentaries.

Is it all too much? Following the New York Film Festival press screening of I'm Not There, I walked to the subway with a post-'60s, European-born film programmer. She could appreciate I'm Not There as a Todd Haynes film, but the Dylan minutiae was a baffling source of annoyance.

Can one communicate the significance that Haynes takes as a given? The best sense may be found in a two-page story written by a man who very likely never heard of Dylan. In "Everything and Nothing," Jorge Luis Borges writes of an artist who has "no one inside him" and whose words, "which were multitudinous, and of a fantastical and agitated turn," suggested "a dream someone had failed to dream." To understand that dream and Dylan's importance to his audience of dreamers, catch Murray Lerner's The Other Side of the Mirror, a straightforward documentary of Dylan's mid-'60s appearances at three consecutive Newport Folk Festivals.

Something Dylan always resisted making, The Other Side of the Mirror is a pure performance film. But it is also a three-act drama. In 1963, a 22-year-old lad turns up at Newport as a mysteriously accomplished folk revivalist. The movie opens during an afternoon workshop with solemn Bob performing his original iron-mining dirge, "North Country Blues," on a stage crowded with other folkies. Chanteuse Judy Collins stares fixedly into space; old time banjo-picker Roscoe Holcomb — himself a former coal miner — looks baffled. Not for the last time is somebody wondering: Who is this nasal-voiced kid, and where did he come from?

Later, a beaming Joan Baez introduces her protégé, and together they bellow Dylan's protest ballad "With God on Our Side." (Roscoe seems even more puzzled.) Lerner cuts to a nighttime version of the Dylan-Baez duet; someone declares that this curly-haired boy "has his finger on the pulse of our generation." Dylan does a total Woody Guthrie impersonation with "Talkin' World War III Blues" and then, switching from antiwar satire to civil-rights pathos, overwhelms the crowd with the complicated phrasing, credible analysis, and palpable emotion of his Medgar Evers-inspired "Only a Pawn in Their Game." The festival ends in a paroxysm of good feeling, with Dylan fronting a half-dozen performers singing his (or rather Peter, Paul and Mary's Top 40 hit) "Blowin' in the Wind." He's serious and modest, and he upstages them all.

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