Monday, December 3, 2007

Movies: I'm Not There

Todd Haynes' (brilliant, stunning, gorgeous, fantastic) new Dylan anti-biopic isn't perfect, but it's damn well near, and surprising and different and new enough to make up for what it lacks otherwise.

By casting six actors to play Dylan at different historical moments, Haynes (likely unintentionally) establishes a test to separate the brilliant actors from the competent from the complete hacks (to break it down for you right off: Cate Blanchett and Ben Whishaw are phenomenons unto themselves; Christian Bale and Marcus Carl Franklin are capable and enjoyable, if missing that je ne sais quois of the aforementioned, and Heath Ledger and Richard Gere are vortexes of anti-charisma that threaten the entire film's stability; if the film were a souffle, they would be edge that might just cave in). To be fair, Ledger and Gere's Dylans are the Dylans we all might like least (except for Bale's Christian Dylan, whom we probably all hate the most (but Bale is redeemed by also playing the folksy Times They Are A-Changing Dylan, whom we probably all love the best))—the bad father/bad husband/bad movie-making Dylan, and the inscrutable, rambling, half-dead Dylan we see on stage today, his tempo hopped up, his hope gone, touring and touring and touring until he collapses dead on stage one day (I've been predicting it since the first time I saw him live; remember, you heard it here first). All that aside, final note to the casting directors: Ledger and Gere are both too fat to play Dylan, and far too goyische, adding insult to injury. They're in way over their heads!

Haynes makes up for these two's weakness by art directing the hell out of their sections (not that Blanchett's segments aren't art directed to the pearly whites (because they are, and brilliantly so), or Franklin's either (ditto). The director recreates five distinct historical moments (five instead of six because Wishaw's section—an interview only—features very little other than the actor himself, tightly framed, against a blank white wall): a hyper-colored late-50s South with creamed-spinach carpets and yam-colored walls;a xerox-copied late-60s with pills, cigarettes, and giant tarantulas; a home of an aging hippy (did I mention that Julianne Moore plays an amazing reminiscing Joan Baez, and perfects the Behind the Music interview persona to the very smallest of interactions with her cat?); the seaside empty family resort of the mid-70s, where Sara (played beautifully by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, in her naive hipsterish ways, probably walked onto set in her street clothes, more appropriate than any costume that could have been found) raises Dylan's first two daughters while he philanders on a film set far away; and the surreal, costumed, face-painted Western town of Riddle, through which Gere rides around on a horse while an Ophelia-esque corpse is displayed on stage while a sorrowful rag-tag Civil War band plays a dirge (this, I imagine, is the closest we'll ever get to Bobby's interior world, where Desolation Row meets Talkin' World War III Blues meets Not Dark Yet.)

The film is non-linear, non-rational, and non-realistic, and if that troubles you, you're probably not a big Dylan fan. I can imagine a non-initiate (in my reality, there can be no dissenters, only the not-as-yet-enlightened) watching this film with a mixture of trepidation, confusion, and frustration; he or she wouldn't get the hilarity of references to the great 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, for example, or appreciate the way snippets of lyrics are woven into the characters' dialogue. Never having seen many of the older movies, like the 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, I'm sure I missed some myself. The music, of course, is almost all Dylan (with the inclusion of The Monkees' I'm Not Your Stepping Stone, my absolute favorite song when I was five years old, no kidding), and so certain to please any fan (and although, as usual, my absolute favorite Dylan song of all time—Buckets of Rain—was not included, plenty of non-hits were indeed used, like my second favorite Dylan song of all time, Ballad of a Thin Man.)*

In the case that you are one of these non-initiates, I recommend that you listen to Dylan for a few years before attempting to enjoy this film. I was probably around 18 when I started to get into Dylan heavy, so it will take you awhile; don't worry, though, it will all be worth it. Dylan-haters, I refuse to believe you exist, but I paradoxically know you're out there. You, too, might find enjoyment in this film (believe it or not), because Blanchett and Wishaw, brilliant as they are, play Dylan with that perfect edge that he has always had: cold, sarcastic, distant, unappeasing. The entire film has a back-handed, razor-sharp current slicing underneath it, dramatizing the ever-present criticism and distrust of the Dylan persona: the slip-shod put-on-ness, the ugly detachment, the uncontrollable ego. As a lover, I love even these aspects of (yes I'll say it) the greatest song-writer of all time (who, don't get me wrong, has written some real shite in his day (see Empire Burlesque)). I've long had crushes on both Cate Blanchett, and more recently, Ben Wishaw (since first seeing him in Perfume), but they've managed to supersede previous incarnations of themselves this time around. That Wishaw, he is one to watch.

*Caveat emptor! The commercial soundtrack is comprised of all indie-star covers, for whose quality I can not yet vouch.

1 comment:

Florence said...

totally true and totally beautifully said. sadly the commentary by the little pink page man was without a clap, just indicating to me that he has absolutely no idea of the etherial beauty of mystery, confusion and the obscure.
i recommend you send him your blog to enlighten. perhaps he will listen to dylan's music before putting pen to paper in the s.f. chron section of movie reviews...