Sunday, May 4, 2008

DVD Review: I'm Not There

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin
Director: Todd Haynes
DVD Release Date: May 6, 2008
Running Time: 135 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Just this week I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about music. His and my personal tastes differ a great deal but we were able to have a very intelligent and passionate conversation. One thing he said really stuck with me. We were discussing the transition in rock music during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He said, “Listen, I can’t stand Nirvana but I can appreciate how their music changed the face of music during that time. Same with The Beatles, I don’t like their music but I respect how they changed rock and roll.” It was a refreshing statement because a lot of people are very one track minded when it comes to music and have a lot of negative things to say about anyone that doesn’t agree with them. I suppose the same can be said about movies.

I can’t say I am terribly familiar with the story of Bob Dylan. I would call myself a casual fan of his music at best and don’t claim to know much about him aside from the fact that he never stayed locked on one style for very long, so the story itself intrigued me.

I guess you could call I’m Not There a biopic but it isn’t one marred by the constraints of conventional wisdom; quite far from it actually. In telling the story of the career of Bob Dylan director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Underground) used six different actors to intercut seven different stories; none of which were actually Bob Dylan but each one telling a story representing phases in Dylan’s life. An African-American boy who calls himself “Woody Guthrie” (Marcus Carl Franklin) plays a version of Dylan as a boy, or at least the story he represented himself as having gone through. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is a young folk singer of political conscience. Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) is a fictional actor best known for his film portrayal of Jack Rollins (the Christian Bale character). Ben Whishaw plays a young rebel Arthur Rimbaud. Cate Blanchett plays Jude Quinn, a spin on the most well known version of Dylan at the height of his fame in the 1960s, just as his original fan base cried “sell-out”. Christian Bale is later Pastor John, representing the born again Dylan. Finally Richard Gere is an aging Billy the Kid in a western town.

The standout performances in the film are easily Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, but for different reasons. Blanchett nailed the physicality of Dylan during that time but is no means a simple impression – she owns this role that deservedly earned her a Supporting Actress nomination. Ledger’s story is full of passion as a man on the outside of his marriage looking in.

Each story is shot with a different style to further capture and illustrate the timeframe in which the story is told. Aside from Blanchett’s performance, none of the ‘versions’ of Bob Dylan sound like or even resemble the man. The stories aren’t even connected to each other aside from the overall canon of the story they are attempting to tell. They aren’t supposed to. Instead they are meant to create a collage of characters that embody the persona of a man who changed his image and style with such regularity that anyone attempting to make a film about his life would have no choice but to use different actors.

I’m Not There doesn’t try to explain the mythology of Bob Dylan but rather put each phase of his life and/or career on display for interpretation. In concept, I loved this film. I love the risks it took in swaying from convention. Some of the stories didn’t work as well as others – I still have no idea what is going on with Gere’s Billy the Kid story. I shouldn’t say that; I get the idea, but the placement was odd at times and took away from Blanchett’s story just as it was gearing up. Some of the others worked on their own merit but again, the placement was odd. It is hard to fault a film with no real plot, per se, for feeling like it is starting and stopping and random intervals, but that is inevitably what happened a few times.

This film is not meant to point to factual representation of these events but illustrating our perceptions of them, and of a man that is no closer to being explained at the end of the film than before you started watching.

The DVD Special Features are pretty standard fare: a director commentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, auditions, a written introduction to the film detailing each Bob Dylan version in the film, and a “Dylanography” feature (filmography, discography & bibliography). The best feature is A Conversation with Todd Haynes who describes, in vivid detail, his thought process before, during, and after making the film. It is a very interesting series of interviews that further explain the madness and the process that went into making the film.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

1 comment:

Fletch said...

I think it's a film that requires patience and persistence to watch, but pays off in the end. Even for more-than-casual fans, I can imagine the narrative being difficult to grasp at first, and overall the style is so experimental in nature that it plays more like an avant-garde student film than a multi-million dollar production. But, I suppose, that's entirely the point, and in that sense, it's a huge success.