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With: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Richie Havens, Peter Friedman, Alison Folland, Yolonda Ross, Kim Gordon, Mark Camacho, Joe Cobden, Kristen Hager
Written by: Todd Haynes, Oren Moverman
Directed by: Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 135
Date: 09/03/2007

I'm Not There (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Subterranean Homesick Fused

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to critique films was to make one. Director Todd Haynes did precisely this with Far from Heaven (2002), which more or less used a Douglas Sirk framework to discuss Sirk's films as well as a more modern look at racism and homophobia. Now Haynes does it again with his exceptional new I'm Not There, a deconstruction of the biopic as well as a fascinating look at the cult of celebrity, and, on a deeper level, the celebrity as a godlike being with answers to all our questions. Whereas most biopics are made solely for the purpose of providing a rich centerpiece role (and, hopefully, an Oscar) for an ambitious actor, Haynes deliberately subverts this by casting seven different actors -- of all different ages, races and even sexes -- to play Bob Dylan.

Marcus Carl Franklin leads things off as a 13 year-old African-American Dylan, going by the name of Woody Guthrie. (He even sports Guthrie's famous guitar case, painted with "this machine kills fascists.") A twenty-something Dylan (Ben Whishaw, from Perfume), filmed in black-and-white, seems to be answering questions in front of some kind of official panel. Christian Bale plays a fictitious version of Dylan, who early on gave up music to become a preacher. His segment is presented like a TV documentary, complete with talking heads of old friends. (Julianne Moore, star of Haynes' Safe and Far from Heaven, appears as one of them.) And, brilliantly, to comment upon that strain, Heath Ledger plays a Dylan-like actor who portrays the Christian Bale Dylan in a movie biopic. In later years, we get Billy (Richard Gere), who has given up music and lives like an anonymous recluse in a peculiar Western-like town that celebrates Halloween all year round.

Finally comes Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). It's Jude who converts from folk music to rock 'n' roll in the mid 1960s and alienates all his fans. And it's Jude who goes to fancy parties, does drugs, puts up with annoying fans, meets celebrities and succumbs to soul-sucking interviews from prying journalists. Ironically, Blanchett's cross-dressing performance comes the closest to capturing our Dylan, and is so far getting the most awards buzz. (I suspect that this is more due to Blanchett's enormous talent than to anything Haynes had planned.)

Haynes mixes these sequences up, crosses them back and forth and sometimes places two of the actors in the same context. Haynes also shoots in various styles, color and black-and-white to be sure, but various shades and textures therein. The Blanchett and Whishaw segments are both b&w, but Whishaw's is stark and grainy while Blanchett's is far richer and more visually complex. Gere's segment has some odd digital color tweaking, enhancing certain yellows to make them seem ethereal. And the film's timeline or historical setting is hardly ever clear. As a result, some sequences seem more "real" than others.

The ultimate point here is something that Martin Scorsese may have discovered inadvertently in his dutiful, thoroughly researched, four-hour Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (2005), that the "real" Dylan -- and, in fact, the "real" anyone -- is essentially unknowable. Moreover, Dylan has no more concept of the secret of life than any of us. Most biopics take great pains to seem like the final word on a person's life, and all fail. By offering a criticism of this, and a deliberately slippery example at the same time, Haynes has set a new kind of precedent.

As for the question of emotion, it's just as elusive, but I believe it's here. I think Blanchett -- with her sorrow and defeat -- affected me the most deeply, and most of all in his/her scenes with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (David Cross). In my favorite moment, the two pause beneath a huge statue of Jesus on the cross, shouting advice up to him. After some thought, Dylan makes a request that he himself must have heard his entire life: "Do your early stuff!"

DVD Details: The two-disc DVD set from The Weinsten Company/Genius Products comes with a pile of bonus stuff. Haynes provides a commentary track, and there are optional subtitles and optional lyrics. There are printed articles on the film, deleted scenes (2 minutes), extended scenes (20 minutes), outtakes, trailers, red carpet footage, still galleries, a "Dylanography," a tribute to Heath Ledger, and more. The focus is to help untangle the film for those who were baffled by it the first time, but also to help turn it into more of an event. (It was very highly acclaimed, but virtually ignored at the box office.)

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