Like a Complete Unknown

The changing face of Bob Dylan on film

I'm Not There has one near constant: Everyone complains that Jack or Robbie or Jude or even Mr. B has changed. (Haynes too: Several observers have made the point that where Velvet Goldmine attacked its chameleon-like David Bowie character for betraying his fans, I'm Not There reveres Dylan for his existential metamorphoses.) This resentment is complicated by an aggrieved sense that Jack/Robbie/Jude should have been changing the world instead of himself — as if he actually had a choice.

I'm Not There is a unique collaboration. It's an essay that derives its intellectual force from the idea of Bob Dylan, and its emotional depth from his songs. Haynes doesn't deny his subject's insistence that his authentic self could never be explained or portrayed — and might not even exist. "I don't know who I am most of the time," little Woody confesses in the midst of his compulsive mythmaking. We don't either, although, then again, we really do.

Moments before I'm Not There ends, Haynes presents a shock close-up of the young Dylan taking a harmonica solo and then, over the credits, the sound of the inexhaustible performance that is "Like a Rolling Stone." There's a chill every time the actual voice is heard. Six characters and one ghost who, except for that brief moment, is not even there. This is the Dylan movie that Dylan himself could never make.

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