Like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn’t going to try

Near the tail end of Todd Haynes’s lush, lyrical anti-biopic I’m Not There — inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan, we’re told during the opening credits — one of the many actors who doesn’t quite play Dylan, Christian Bale, puts on a fatherly gut, grows out his fro, cinches his belt too tight and pulls his pants too high, takes up a tambourine, flanks himself with gospel singers on backup, and starts to preach the word.

From the perspective of most Dylan fans, this is the one really inexplicable moment from the life — more mysterious, even, than what really happened when he crashed that motorcycle — this moment, in the late 70s, of Dylan’s conversion to born-again Christianity.

The movie encourages this perspective to some degree. Generically hybrid, it includes several sequences from a faux documentary that at once spoofs Scorsese and does homage to Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. Bale has played “Jack Rollins,” the Greenwich Village folksinger version of Dylan (whose name echoes that of Jack Robin, Al Jolson’s character in The Jazz Singer). Bale’s “Dylan” really only enters the film to be satirized and to allow the film to savage the folk scene, with Julianne Moore skewering Joan Baez even more viciously than Dylan did his former fans in “Positively 4th Street” (or when he claimed that folk was just “a bunch of fat people”). A victim of media hype, crushed by the expectation that he be a spokesman for a generation, Jack Rollins succumbs to booze and makes an ass of himself early in the film (embarrassing himself in front of James Baldwin, no less) then resurfaces a decade later in an evangelical church in Stockton as Father Jack. The theater audience snickers and giggles when he begins his sermon, still railing against media and the music industry. You shift a little in your seat, and who knows, some people around you may even have to look away from the screen in shame.


The music kicks in. The song is “Pressing On,” from Saved (1980), smack in the middle of Dylan’s born-again days. The sequence is still laughable when the music starts, still in the mockumentary mode, the lip synch not quite right. And then, as the song continues to unfold, something remarkable happens. The vocals (performed on the soundtrack by John Doe) escape the visuals. The song is, actually, quite beautiful. And you begin to wonder not only whether the born-again episode was inevitable for someone who hit rock bottom as the 70s pulled out of the station, but whether this phase was simply necessary in order for Dylan to write gospel songs like this one and to round himself out as the songwriter of the American century.

Which is certainly one of the arguments Haynes’s film wants to make. What American musical form hasn’t Dylan taken up and made his own? The movie makes a lot of the fact that American popular music is a racial, ethnic, and stylistic hybrid beast to begin with — made up folk songs, Negro spirituals, blues, labor hymns, you name it. Marcus Carl Franklin, the kid who plays the youngest “Dylan” incarnation — and who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” — is black, and the film points out at times that radical black movements (or Jimi Hendrix) might be as likely to take up a Dylan anthem as anyone else. But the more fundamental argument the film makes is that these songs will stand upright and walk on their own for a long, long time to come, beyond movements, beyond history, even as the myths surrounding them will continue to multiply. (The myths are so deeply and tightly woven through this film that it would take The Dylan Encyclopedia, Google, the complete recordings, and a DVD playing on freeze frame to begin to decode all the references.) It’s a bit overwhelming to think about how much amazing music someone like Dylan has given us, and the film does an admirable job of finding nuggets — like “Pressing On,” or like “Señor,” the track Willie Nelson sings, from 1978’s Street Legal — to rescue and reintroduce into the canon. Though the movie doesn’t make it very far into the 80s, Dylan’s most recent music still folds back into these imaginings of his past — the ragged old voice of Dylan in his 50s and 60s.

In fact, the movie and the soundtrack album both eschew Dylan’s most familiar songs — with a handful of exceptions, like “All Along the Watchtower” or “Positively 4th Street” — in favor of more obscure material, and they leave out the early folk songs almost entirely. “Finger pointing songs,” Jack Rollins calls them, “and I only got ten fingers.” If Haynes favors any one Dylan phase (simply in terms of the music), it’s the mid-70s, Spanish horns sound of the Rolling Thunder Review. In the film, the apotheosis of this phase comes via a breathtaking performance of “Goin’ to Acapulco” by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, wearing the infamous whiteface makeup, backed by Calexico. On the album, Calexico backs a handful of other singers, from Willie Nelson to Charlotte Gainsbourg — folding other phases of the career back or forward into this mid-70s sound. (We already knew how good Iron & Wine and Calexico sound together, but clearly Willie and Calexico need to undertake a full-length collaboration.)

If Haynes is to be faulted for anything, it’s perhaps for letting the drugged out Dylan of the mid-60s — Cate Blanchett’s character — take up too much screen time, though given her performance (yes, she deserves an Oscar) it’s easy to see how he let it happen. Perhaps rightly, some find this section of the film a little preachy: the teen beat reporter becomes Pat Garrett and all that. One of Haynes’s big claims seems to be that the media — and the corporate capitalism that also fuels the music industry — hounds these various Dylans, drives them to whatever mistakes or drugs or bad ends or failed relationships they may suffer. (In the Age of Britney it’s hardly a novel argument.) Blanchett’s performance is all the more remarkable because she’s able to make this insufferable, diffident kid so very charming. In fact, it leaves one wishing that Britney were capable of giving this kind of interview:

If the worst thing Haynes does is give a brilliant actress too much time on screen (in what is undoubtedly the most mimetic variation on the Dylan theme), among Haynes’s decisions that make this film work so well — and it’s clearly the sort of project that could have gone seriously wrong — none was more important than letting Dylan’s songs themselves populate most of the film (even though only one Dylan original — the title track — turns up on the official soundtrack album). Having a bunch of contemporary artists cover the songs for the album was a brilliant move, thematically in line with the movie’s suggestion that no one actor or storyline could do justice to this sort of character. The best songs on the soundtrack album, too, are the ones that move furthest from the sort of karaoke Stephen Malkmus offers up on “Ballad of a Thin Man” and fully reimagine or reinvent the originals. Some of these versions — including Malkmus’s, but more impressively one like Tom Verlaine’s bone-chilling, minimalist rendition of “Cold Irons Bound,” from Time Out of Mind (1997) — do appear in the movie. But it’s much more satisfying when a Dylan original has its moment on screen: when Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger have their first, frantic sex to the unlikely upbeat jangle of “I Want You” (which had never sounded sexy to me before) or when they break up, a decade later, to the deceptively gentle “Idiot Wind.”

At such points Haynes pulls off his finest feat, something much more impressive than mining Dylan’s catalog for overlooked gems. He takes songs we already thought we knew, plays them as they were originally recorded, and humanizes them, gives their stories depth and weight, makes you feel like you’re looking beyond the silhouettes and psychedelics and myths into the experience of an actual human being — someone who’s lived long enough to see himself occupy the place of the greatest living American artist.

21 responses to “Like a web too intricate to understand and I wasn’t going to try”

  1. Dave says:

    Great post title.

    I like your observation about the movie’s use of the songs. With one exception I can think of, the uses to which Haynes puts them open up the songs and the film both, without lame literalism. (The “Mr. Jones” sequence was the exception for me — although the Black Panther part was great, the whole BBC guy in a cage sequence was cringe-inducing. We’ve heard the song, we know what it’s about, man.)

    More later.

    Has anyone else seen this yet?

  2. Dave says:

    P.S. I imagine the post title read by the guy who does the Dylan impressions on Garrison Keillor.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I haven’t seen the film yet (considered seeing it on Thanksgiving Day, with my mom, but we opted for the more holiday-friendly film, No Country for Old Men), partly because, as one reviewer stated, its premise is “a recipe for the most-pretentious film of all time,” but I will have to see it now.

    And what’s the deal with the lack of comments on the last few (really, really good) posts?

  4. Tim Wager says:

    Not enough time to do justice to the amount of thought and care you’ve put into the post and the film on which it’s based, but I’ll try to do my part to keep comments going. (As an aside, I think everyone’s more than a little busy with year-end work and holiday commitments, with just enough time to read and not enough time to comment.)

    I saw the film on Friday, partially because I wanted to see it before Bryan posted on it. I disagree that its one major flaw is giving too much screen time to the Blanchett character.

    I personally liked the movie a great deal, but found it a mess–a beautiful and intriguing mess, but a mess all the same. Without prior knowledge of a great deal of Dylan’s biography (and a real investment in the importance of Dylan as cultural icon), the movie doesn’t make much sense at all, nor does it inspire the casual viewer to want to spend the time trying to figure it out.

    Perhaps its major flaw, though, is also its major strength. It’s disjointed, rambling, comes to no real conclusion, a little bit too long, . . . hmmm. It’s starting to sound a lot like any number of Dylan songs (don’t get me wrong: I really, really like Bob Dylan!). Also, it perfectly mirrors the disjointedness of Dylan’s life. Amazingly, it does a remarkable job of summing up, praising, *and* critiquing this chimerical icon of American culture who has led a very messy life, without tying everything up in a neat package.

    However, it’s still a mess. It only makes any sense if the viewer provides the connective tissue between what he/she sees on screen and Dylan’s life. In a way, it reminded me of reading Joyce. Either you know or have the desire to track down enough of the historical, linguistic, mythical, literary, political, biblical, and biographical references and allusions to make sense of it, or you don’t.

  5. Bryan says:

    yeah — what jeremy said about comments.

    so the reviewer is partly correct, but i think haynes sidesteps most of the landmines. it is certainly worth seeing — i’ve seen it twice, in fact, and keep wishing i could go back. i think it’s much more successful than _velvet goldmine_, which i quite liked, in spite of a clunky narrative framework. the man sure does know how to put pictures and music together.

    dave — i thought the mr. jones sequence was pretty bad too — though it went a little ways toward redeeming the malkmus rendition. the thing is, those lyrics should have been perfect for malkmus. it was too bad that he couldn’t put his own stamp on the song. i thought the black panther bit was funny though — and a good example of how he deflated a lot of the more over-the-top dylan myths via humor.

    one thing i wanted to say in this piece but forgot was that this soundtrack, i think, should be a perfect way into dylan for those who have never been able to manage it because they’re put off by his voice. ahem, ms. guilty as charged out there in the LBC. after all, i finally gave elvis costello a fair shake on your insistence. it’s time for you to reciprocate and get past this “dislike that makes me feel guilty” stage you and dylan have been in all these years.

  6. Bryan says:

    i can’t agree with you, tim, though i can see where you’re coming from. i’ve never read much on dylan outside a few key episodes. i knew almost nothing before i went to see it about his marriage and kids, for instance. the movie made me curious enough to go dig around — and finally to read the copy of chronicles i’ve had on hand for a long time (thanks, farrell and trix!).

    yes, i’m certain people steeped in dylanology probably have more fun with all the little references here and there — and have more to go on. but i had no trouble at all piecing together the key concept — that these were all versions of the same life. i found it to be too long on the first viewing but the second time around was able to relax and enjoy it more because i wasn’t worried about where it was going.

    fwiw, i think if it had been any more coherent in terms of structure or storyline it would have fallen into the biopic formula traps haynes was trying hard to stay out of.

  7. Bryan says:

    Either you know or have the desire to track down enough of the historical, linguistic, mythical, literary, political, biblical, and biographical references and allusions to make sense of it, or you don’t.

    I think that’s right — and it’s also probably true of a lot of Dylan’s songwriting, too. I don’t think this is a film that will win huge audiences — don’t get me wrong. But the right kind of people will enjoy it even if they find it messy. Myself, I kind of wish it had been a little messier.

    By the way — tell me what you think about this. My colleague and co-author Cyrus, who saw it the same night I saw it the first time, found the whole Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid thing to take on the shape of the Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs antagonism, with the highway coming through Riddle a reference to the planned expressway that would have cut up the Village and obliterated SoHo.

  8. Tim Wager says:

    fwiw, i think if it had been any more coherent in terms of structure or storyline it would have fallen into the biopic formula traps haynes was trying hard to stay out of.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I wouldn’t have wanted a straight bio film at all, and wouldn’t have wanted Haynes to change anything in the name of “making it easier to understand.” My feeling is that the mess is the real strength and weakness of the movie, it’s sine qua non, if you will (adjusts monocle).

    . . . found the whole Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid thing to take on the shape of the Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs antagonism, with the highway coming through Riddle a reference to the planned expressway that would have cut up the Village and obliterated SoHo.

    I don’t know anything about this particular event, or about Dylan’s relationship to the Black Panthers.

  9. Short version re: expressway.

    Dave will have to go into Black Panther lore —

  10. Tim Wager says:

    From scanning the wiki entry on the expressway, it certainly could be part of the set of references in the movie, but it doesn’t seem exact to me. In the movie, the highway’s going through, no matter what the townspeople say or do. Moses got stopped by community organizing.

  11. LP says:

    I thought it was a mess, too — a gorgeous mess at times, but just as often a frustrating one. It also felt to me like Todd Haynes was showing off in certain segments; he made a huge range of filming choices, spanning all kinds of genres, styles, decades, etc., but to little more end (that I could tell) than because he could. Sorry, I just did find the whole thing a bit pretentious.

    And I agree with Bryan’s reaction on first viewing: too long! By the time the incomprehensible Richard Gere segment came along — ostriches! funerals! village half-wits! My Morning Jacket! — I was well and truly twitching in my seat. To which Wager can attest.

  12. Dave says:

    Here’s the Black Panther reference. The Robert Moses things sounds spot-on, Bryan, recognizing of course that it would be just a minor part of a full reading of that sequence.

    I’d agree that the film was a bit pretentious. But we need things that are a bit pretentious; god forbid we’re only left with movies that have the common touch.

  13. I want to reemphasize the point that on second viewing length was not an issue — the problem the first time around is that you don’t know if you have 3 minutes or 30 left.

    The Richard Gere/Billy the Kid segment was the least satisfying for me. But I’m not (that) old and I haven’t seen the movie it’s referencing, so I’m willing to leave it open that I’ll like it more someday. I didn’t mind the circus freak aspects, though: that shot of Moondog in the Village during the opening credits gives it something of a full circle effect.

    Reading Chronicles after seeing the movie was interesting, too. It was like taking a little decoder to parts of it — not all, by any means, but parts. It’s an interesting book: doesn’t give you what you’re looking for (it jumps from 61 or 62 to 70 to 87-89). It made me want to go read one of the full-life studies.

    I mean think about it. We’re dealing with a living being who has his own freaking Encyclopedia. How could the movie be other than a little pretentious?

  14. autumn says:

    Bryan, this is an excellent review (and comments too, fellow readers).

    I saw this film with a few friends, including my Brother Bain. Upon completion, we all ran to the toilets (because it was very long) and then discussed our takes for the next long while. I was the most knowledgeable about Dylan, so I filled in some blanks but I too enjoyed the alternative views of others. The same goes here.

    I loved the mess. To me it felt like every aspect of the film was well thought out and the layers came together in such a brilliant weave, albeit twisted an convoluted—I can’t help but think –that IS the point. I feel that the characters played in time frame to Dylan in real life. The folk singer was more shy and introverted as he was becoming well known (less time on screen, more awkwardness) the married film star and 60’s eras were all media hype and international celebrity (more myth and time on screen). I didn’t think Cate/Dylan was too preachy–not in relation to the Dylan of that time who was struggling with himself and against a media image of some sort of folk savior turned Judas. Granted, he was a clever devil and his verbal lashings were indiscriminant to most all others.

    The composite (non-linear) structure of the film really impressed me. I imagine that if many the key players in each of our lives were to make account of each us–would not a collage be made? I think we are all being born again throughout or lives.

    The Gere/Dylan segments confused my mates as well. I too believe that it was the most disjointed part, but I feel that the Gere/Dylan was the alterego/subconscious face of Dylan. Where the outward Dylan could be acidic, abusive, brilliant and selfish–there too in the man must be an inner voice of great compassion and humanity.

    In the end, my Brother Bain downloaded “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and used it as an illustration in a recent friend-to-friend counseling session. During a visit this last weekend, he said that the movie has him thinking about perspective and perception as never before.

    For me too, I have an echo from a friend in my take on the film. She said she thought it was a serious mediation on the nature of creativity. This coloured by viewing (since she said this the day before I saw it) but it rings true to me. The Ben Whishaw/Dylan touches on this most acutely in his list (paraphrase) #?) Don’t Ever Make Anything or ‘they’ will chain you too it.

    One of my favourite parts was the festival stroll of attendees, all giving their take on his shift to electric. I think of all the media and fan buzz surrounding any bands move from the music that MADE them.

    Which brings me to conclusion and leads to this NY Times Article on Radiohead’s ‘gamble’ with In Rainbows release. I thought of the film when I read the article, thinking that the face of protest and change has so many different faces.

  15. lt says:

    Thank goodness other people besides me thought this movie was a mess. Like Tim, we had to go see it before Bryan posted today. Afterward, the most favorable descriptor I had for the movie was “fun.”

    I’ve got more to say, but no time now. Cate B., by the way, makes the film worth it.

  16. LP says:

    From the New Yorker review, this paragraph sums up my frustrations with the film:

    “The problem for “I’m Not There” is not one of credibility (after all, these tales are meant to be tall) but of what authority a movie retains when its component parts fly off in different directions. Dylan, to judge by the ardor of his admirers, is indeed inexhaustible, in his gifts as in his changes of tack, and one quite understands why Haynes—who co-wrote the film with Oren Moverman—should have scorned a plain bio-pic. To come at a stubborn subject from multiple angles was a smart move, but Haynes is so enthralled by the stylistic opportunities that his plan affords, as he was in the fifties-hued “Far from Heaven,” that he ends up more interested in the angles than in anything else, leaving the elusive Dylan, once again, to slip away.”

    Scotty, did you read that? Or did you avert your eyes, to remain a New Yorker virgin?

  17. he ends up more interested in the angles than in anything else, leaving the elusive Dylan, once again, to slip away

    In my mind that’s exactly what should happen. I’m supposed to believe a movie is going to give me the “real” Dylan?

  18. and am i the only one who was moved by the heath ledger/charlotte gainsbourg character? that narrative rips me up.

    frankly, the one scene with blanchett and david cross as ginsberg in the field with the crucifix would be worth $10.50 plus online surcharge.


    ps — I’m so happy you folks went out and watched it! I almost didn’t write that post today, so I’m glad I actually buckled down and did it.

  19. Dave says:

    LP, I think that passage makes a fair criticism of the film. There was a lot of “Look how creatively I can expostulate about Dylan” in the directorial choices.

  20. E. says:

    ooo. this looks good. one of my old roommates had a great little soft cover book about the size of your palm on hanuman books called “saved! the gospel speeches of bob dylan” — after googling it, turns out it’s worth over $100. hm. i should try to find it.

  21. I asked for Saved (the LP, pictured above) for xmas. I’m really keeping my fingers crossed.