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.

In 1963, Dylan was a prodigy performing for a particular coterie. A year later, he is the festival's undeniable star, confident and no longer scruffy, with a repertoire of original songs — "Mr. Tambourine Man," "All I Want to Do," "Don't Think Twice" — so good that the audience seems to shake its collective head in disbelief. Had the coffeehouses of MacDougal Street really incubated so miraculous a talent? No longer is Dylan anybody's protégé; now Baez is his straight man, particularly when they sing their increasingly lugubrious anthem "With God on Our Side."

For his final number, Dylan introduces "Chimes of Freedom," declaiming it in a controlled beatnik ecstasy. It's his most complex song to date — and his most generous ever, a Whitmanesque embrace extended to "every hung-up person in the whole wide universe." The words keep spinning and tumbling; the sense of communion is overwhelming. Dylan delights in blowing the audience's mind. The crowd can't stop applauding. In a moment no one will ever see again, after a song he will soon cease to play, Bob pops back onstage to tell the fans that he loves them.

As the '65 festival begins, Dylan sports a fancier guitar and a better haircut. What's more, he's wearing shades and smoking his cigarettes onstage. It's clear that he's planning to run away from home. And the songs are even better! When he sings "Love Minus Zero (No Limit)," the audience still leans forward to concentrate. Then he appears in a polka-dot shirt and leather jacket, fronting the amplified Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and blows the audience away with the declaration that he ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. Scattered sullen boos. Dylan charges into his just-released Top 40 hit "Like a Rolling Stone." More boos.

In I'm Not There, Haynes envisions Newport '65 as a direct assault on the audience. The dandified Dylan and his band spray the crowd with machine-gun fire. Then, following the logic of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Haynes elects to "print the myth": He stages the apocryphal scene in which Pete Seeger has to be restrained from cutting the power supply with an ax. It's war!

In The Other Side of the Mirror, Dylan simply leaves the stage, but the crowd calls him back. Can't it please be the way that it was? Dylan returns alone and contemptuously sings them something they'll like: a polished, slightly rushed, and vaguely sarcastic version of "Mr. Tambourine Man." The audience begs for more. He leaves them with a hyper-enunciated rendition of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." End of story. Was ever a star more appreciated — or more stifled by that appreciation?

Haynes's protagonist first appears as an 11-year-old African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin) riding the rails, hobnobbing with hobos, and calling himself Woody. Singing his Dust Bowl ballads and doted on by white Southern liberals, this plucky, pint-size vagabond is a hilariously self-aggrandizing, assured, voluble, and precocious performer, even if he has to be reminded that it's 1959. He's also a tough act to follow, but the mythmaking has only just begun.

Dylan's next avatar, the diffident protest singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), resembles another Dylan model, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and inhabits a pastiche of the Scorsese doc No Direction Home. Looking back on the folk scene, Julianne Moore plays a fictional Joan Baez ("Every night I would invite this ragamuffin on stage") while Jack explains why he decided to take a powder: "All they wanted from me was finger-pointin' songs." (Not that Dylan ever stopped pointing his finger; he just shifted targets. Indeed, Jack will later reappear as the born-again, gospel-singing Pastor John.)

Haynes now executes a Pirandellian pirouette, jumping to the last days of the Vietnam War. The protagonist is now Robbie (Heath Ledger), an egocentric Method actor who, after Jack Rollins's disappearance, became "the new James Dean" by impersonating the folkie icon in a biopic called Grain of Sand. Still with me? Robbie is introduced breaking up with his wife Claire. Haynes then flashes back a decade to their meeting in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. An independent artist and then the mother of Robbie's children, Claire is the relationship woman, combining aspects of Suze Rotolo and Sara Dylan and played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, herself a text as the daughter of a '60s "It" Girl, Jane Birkin, and a monstre sacré, French troubadour Serge Gainsbourg.

Having unmasked and remasked the protagonist, Haynes skips at once back and ahead to mod London to present his own sacred monster — the incandescent mid-'60s electric speed freak Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). Haynes is not what one would call a natural filmmaker. His ideas are too evident, his schemata overly present. He is, however, a sort of natural Brechtian: His actors are always "quoting." I'm Not There gets surprisingly naturalistic performances from Ledger and especially Bale. But it's the blatant alienation effect provided by Marcus Carl Franklin's and Cate Blanchett's fastidiously copied mannerisms that truly dramatize the self-invented, sheer sui generis-ness of the Dylan trip.

With Blanchett, the movie turns black-and-white faux vérité. Drawing on D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and riffing on A Hard Day's Night (Jude frisks with under-cranked, helium-voiced Beatles at a British lawn party), Haynes ponders Dylan's most alarming and compelling manifestation as the vitriolic brat-visionary "voice of a generation." Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) dances attendance; a smug BBC journalist (Bruce Greenwood) casts himself as the clueless Mr. Jones; an Edie Sedgwick-like ex-debutante (Michelle Williams) drifts onto the scene, grist for Jude's malicious humor.

Self-destruction seems imminent, but Haynes isn't finished. A mature Dylan (Richard Gere) named Billy (as though he were the Kid in retirement), but referred to as "Mr. B," is riding out the apocalypse of High Sixties craziness, incognito in a western town named Hallowe'en that, complete with giraffe, is part Woodstock and the rest Fellini. This is the righteous Cowboy Bob of the John Wesley Harding LP, the Dylan of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and the bicentennial "Rolling Thunder" tour, as sanctimoniously played by the only actor in the film who was of age to experience the Dylan juggernaut firsthand.

Everything is here, but is I'm Not There intelligible to anyone beyond the cognoscenti? Is Haynes addressing Dylan? Is he imagining how Jude Quinn must feel — a freak suffering a surplus of intelligence and feeling, the loneliness of forever talking above people's heads, the pressure of being the smartest, the most popular, the coolest, funniest, most talented person in the room? When everybody's a kiss-ass phony or a belligerent poseur, how are you supposed to be real? (Especially since, as with the subject of Borges's story, you have trained yourself to pretend to be somebody so that no one discovers your "nobodiness.")

Could this conundrum be the root of Bob Dylan's long, tortuous, not entirely requited love affair with the movies?

One needn't be a hardcore Dylanologist to figure that Bob grew up on Hollywood westerns or to glean that back when he was hanging out on Bleecker Street, he was also glomming nouvelle vague flicks at the Bleecker Street Cinema. The 2000 Oscar he won for the song "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys meant so much to him that he took it on tour, perched as a talisman atop his amplifier.

Haynes, who has surely thought as much about Dylan and the movies as anyone on earth, told a New York Film Festival audience that I'm Not There referred to a number of Dylan's favorite movies — by which he seems to have meant Fellini's — as well as Dylan vehicles. Haynes further noted that, although he had no direct dealings with his subject, he was told that Dylan gave his blessing to the I'm Not There project on the basis of screening Haynes's earlier movies.

Dylan always identified with directors; he imagined his own life as a movie. Yet to appear in a movie would be to fix an identity, to admit that one was acting. Perhaps it was this conflict that denied him something like Mick Jagger's charmed résumé — collaborations with Kenneth Anger, documentaries by the likes of Peter Whitehead, the Maysles brothers, and Robert Frank, a career-defining performance in the cult film Performance. Jean-Luc Godard made a Rolling Stones rehearsal the centerpiece of One Plus One; Dylan had to make do with an inane dis in Masculine-Feminine: "Who are you, Mr. Bob Dylan?" Hey, how did Godard guess that the question of identity would haunt every movie (and every move) that Mr. Bob Dylan would make?

In early 1965, Dylan informed the host of a TV chat show that he planned to make a "horror cowboy movie." (Asked if he'd be cast as the horror cowboy, he replied that, no, he'd be playing his mother.) That spring, Dylan visited the Warhol Factory and sat for two screen tests — one impassively behind shades and another smoking a cigarette and glaring at the camera. As a gift, Warhol presented him with a silver Elvis painting, which Dylan would give to Albert Grossman in return for a couch. Soon after, Dylan was starring in his own vehicle, Don't Look Back's account of his 1965 British tour. Too much of nothing is revealed: A hypersensitive 24-year-old attempts to cope with mega-celebrity. The inability of virtually everyone to respond to him as a normal person is a given. Meanwhile, local journalists play a collective Margaret Dumont to Dylan's sour Groucho: Who does this guy think he is? (In I'm Not There, Haynes dramatizes the press's revenge — outing Jude Quinn's suppressed middle-class Jewish origins.)

Don't Look Back premiered two years later at the same Summer of Love Montreal Film Festival that opened with Bonnie and Clyde — with Dylan already many months into post-motorcycle-accident seclusion. Hardly a substitute for a new album, Pennebaker's film reprised the uneasy last days of Dylan's pre-electric incarnation. It was nevertheless received as a breakthrough, the first feature-length vérité pop-star portrait. Dylan, however, must not have cared for it: He appropriated the footage that Pennebaker shot of his 1966 British tour (meant for a TV documentary) and — working with filmmaker Howard Alk — produced his own perversely pulverized version. At once withholding and self-indulgent, Eat the Document fragments brilliant onstage performances in favor of Dylan's backstage riffs with soul mate Robbie Robertson and other members of the entourage.

Although much of the footage would appear, even more perversely re-normalized, in No Direction Home (and provided material for the Jude Quinn sequences in I'm Not There), Eat the Document was never really released. As befits a would-be underground movie, it had its theatrical premiere at the Whitney Museum. Dylan, meanwhile, was down in Mexico, making his first "real" movie, Sam Peckinpah's hippie western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Peckinpah supposedly had no clear idea who the singer was. Both the star, Kris Kristofferson, and the screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, would take credit for recruiting Dylan to play the Kid's smirky sidekick; Dylan, however, was surely responsible for naming his character "Alias."

Did Bob Dylan really exist? Such was the question posed four years later, when Dylan directed his celluloid magnum opus, Renaldo & Clara. This four-hour extravaganza was born as a rockumentary of the 1975-76 "Rolling Thunder" tour; its purpose, according to the filmmaker, was "to put forth a certain vision which I carry around, and can't express on any other canvas."

Hired to write dialogue — little of which would be used — Sam Shepard was enjoined to study the epic backstage love story Children of Paradise (the one previous movie that Dylan thought to have successfully "stopped time") and Truffaut's New Wave noir, Shoot the Piano Player. ("Is that the kind of movie you want to make?" Shepard asked, receiving the laconic reply: "Something like that.") Scorsese, who first met Dylan when he was shooting The Last Waltz in late '76, remembers a more suggestive model: Dylan spoke to him about R.W. Fassbinder's Beware of the Holy Whore, "a film about the collective idea and about its impossibility."

To dream the impossible dream: Fassbinder would have had an easier time imagining Dylan than vice versa. Shortly before Renaldo & Clara's release, Dylan gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he took care to name-check (and patronize) the two key filmmakers of the '60s: "Warhol did a lot for American cinema," he explained. "He was before his time." As for Godard, Dylan recalled that, although he had never seen a movie like Breathless, once he did, it seemed totally familiar; he remembered thinking, "Yeah man, why didn't I do that, I could have done that."

A monstrously curdled ego was about to be uncorked. "My film is about identity — everybody's identity," Dylan declared. Asked about the running time, Dylan expressed surprise "that people think that four hours is too long for a film. As if people had so much to do. To me, it's not long enough . . . Americans are spoiled, they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there." Advertised as "a motion picture mural about relationships, about Bob Dylan, about all of us," Renaldo & Clara opened with a performance of "When I Paint My Masterpiece."

Truly, pondering Dylan brings out the grandiloquent in everyone, even himself. The height of psychodramatic self-deification, Dylan's movie presented the filmmaker as Renaldo, a man in the clear plastic mask, a Third World savior, venerated by Native Americans, African-Americans, and beatnik Americans alike. When not performing in clown-face, Renaldo swanned around bare-chested as the Woman in White (Joan Baez) competed for his attention against long-suffering Clara (wife Sara, who would divorce Dylan during editing). The character "Bob Dylan" was played by fat Ronnie Hawkins, the onetime leader of the band that became the Band.

This humorless, solipsistic spectacle was hell on audiences but heaven for headline writers: "Gone With the Idiot Wind" or "Ballad in Plain Dull." The Village Voice sent six writers to review, five of whom panned it. "So many reputations are sunk by Renaldo & Clara that it's like watching the defeat of the Spanish Armada," James Wolcott cackled; Mark Jacobson put his life in jeopardy, beginning his review, "I wish Bob Dylan had died." In The New York Times, Janet Maslin nailed the star's peculiar narcissistic diffidence: Dylan gives the impression "that he isn't really interested in acting, and that he is always acting anyway."

New Times reported that Dylan now considered himself a filmmaker with a dozen movies planned. But after Renaldo & Clara's critical bludgeoning (and $2 million loss), he retired from the field. Although stranger things have happened, it seems unlikely that the movie will receive a 30th-anniversary re-release. Still, the 2003 Masked & Anonymous, directed (pre-Borat) by Seinfeld's Larry Charles and starring Dylan, revisited Renaldo & Clara on a lower, less grandiose key and was more fondly shrugged off. Although The New York Post called Masked & Anonymous "a strong contender for the worst movie of the century," few critics managed much indignation; more typical was Michael Atkinson's assessment in the Voice of the film as "the final survivor of a dying dinosaur species . . . a trash-can monument to Dylan's aging coolness."

Certain cultural figures have a particular inevitability. Charles Chaplin and Elvis Presley rode technological waves, surfing to superstardom on powerful socio-economic currents. Had Chaplin never come to America, another slapstick comic would have emerged to reign over the nation's nickelodeons; Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock and roll.

No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Minnesota would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world's first and greatest rock and roll beatnik bard and then — having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning — vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.

Lerner opens The Other Side of the Mirror with ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert introducing Dylan at the 1964 festival. This artist, she tells the crowd, "grew out of a need." The times demanded him, and so did the audience. "You know him — he's yours." It may be pretty to think so, but that's a social function against which Dylan would spend decades rebelling. Not until the debacle that was Renaldo & Clara would Dylan's fans fully appreciate the monster they had wrought.

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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