I'm Not Here

‘I’m Not There’ ignores the cost of Bob Dylan’s transformations

by Jacob Rubin | November 21, 2007

How can you pack a life as multifarious and contradictory as Dylan's into a biopic without blasting the whole glib genre to smithereens? In I'm Not There, the acerbic and visually fastidious Todd Haynes attempts a solution: dispatch six actors—among them, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, a black child, Cate Blanchett, and a close friend of his Holiness the Dalai Lama (ahem, Richard Gere)—to capture the life of pop culture's most slippery genius. But the film misses a crucial twist in the story. In presenting Dylan's life as a song for six parts, Haynes neglects to show the sacrifice Dylan's metamorphoses necessarily entailed. I'm Not There diminishes Dylan's legacy by failing to name the price at which it came.

Perhaps Dylan's genius lies in how little we can say what is, or is not, characteristic of it. The man's life is well known, the man behind the life is not. After innumerable retrospectives, interviews, live concerts, biographies, TV specials, and an entire industry of appreciation, the Jew from the North Country still eschews definition. Indeed, just when the world had comfortably pegged him as "reclusive" and "enigmatic," there came tumbling toward the public a happy avalanche of confessional projects, like Martin Scorsese's revelatory No Direction Home, and Dylan's own, I-can't-believe-he's-actually-writing-this Chronicles: Volume One. And now Dylan himself, from his tour bus or Batcave or wherever he goes to do banal things like eat and approve the licensing of his work, has given his blessing to the Haynes project. Yet even the act of confession, when performed by a magician as stubborn as Dylan, cloaks as much as it reveals. Take this description from Chronicles of an artistic epiphany while onstage in Switzerland: "I conjured up some different type of mechanism to jump-start the other techniques that weren't working. I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil. ... Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place." Ah, Bobby. Even when he's there, he's not.

What all of this means is that the singer has succeeded in replacing his person with his art. Such alchemy has been a lifelong goal of Robert Zimmerman. He tried it as a young folksinger through the exuberance of his lies (inventing for himself a dustbowl carnival of a childhood) but has achieved it, finally, with a marriage to his muse. Reclusive novelists (Pynchon or DeLillo) do this almost dutifully—step out of the way so only their art speaks for them—but such monastic work is rare as hell for a pop star who faces his audience every night. There is, it's true, a frail crooner in a cowboy shirt who stalks stadiums across the country churning out invigorated remakes of old classics, but that person, really, has nothing to do with Dylan as we know him. "Bob Dylan" is no longer a person; he's a delicious web of rumor and song.

Haynes's impulse is spot-on, then, to present Dylan's life as a work of art unto itself, a knowing artifice, his life as the music itself and not an episode of Behind the Music. Characters and images from Dylan's oeuvre—Louise, for instance, a flawed foil of a lover in "Visions of Johanna"—seep into the film, as if his very biography were, like a song, his own creation. The movie is exquisitely researched, too, and often beautiful. Its music, captained by supervisor Randy Poster, throws unexpected and unexpectedly earnest voices at old Dylan favorites, including Sonic Youth, Jim James, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and is absolutely gorgeous. From top-to-bottom, I'm Not There vibrates with an obvious, but not unplayful, reverence. At its most inspired moments, the viewer feels like he's hanging out inside iconic photographs—the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, for instance, or Bringing It All Back Home. But in rightly portraying Dylan as a kind of timeless song, I'm Not There fails to acknowledge the cost Dylan, as a mortal man, had to pay. It is a painful trade-off, after all: to choose to be a worse person in order to be a better artist, a trade-off Dylan, who often dropped friends and lovers (including Joan Baez) to pursue his muse, so intensely embodies and one absent from the film.  

It is telling, for instance, that Haynes expunges from Dylan's life any trace of artistic self-doubt. His Dylan is a decider. Very little time is given to the singer's maundering years around Self-Portrait at the start of the seventies, except as quarantined in the narrative of Robbie (Heath Ledger), an icy movie star charged with the task of embodying the grand total of Dylan's sucky qualities. (Ledger acquits himself admirably, but must have been miffed when his agent told him he was only getting to play Dylan As Meanie.) When the most famous heckler in the history of Western Civilization screams "Judas" in Royal Albert Hall to protest Dylan's abandonment of politically-charged folk, Haynes's Dylan, embodied at the moment by the luminous Cate Blanchett, returns the favor with a nonchalant kiss rather than turn to his band and angrily mutter, "Play fucking loud," as one can clearly hear him do (and listen to him do over and over again while pumping one's fist) on Live 1966. Likewise, the famous boos at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan first went electric hardly rattle the singer (Blanchett again) in I'm Not There, who absorbs the crowd's fury with a sangfroid bordering on the inhuman. The real Dylan—it is important to remember—cried when he realized he was being booed, then finished his song.

Knowing that Dylan cried does not, as Haynes seems to fear, demystify the legend, but deepens it. How's that for courage: being hurt by the boos and still finishing the work that's causing them. Hurting the one you love—hurting yourself—in order to pursue some mystical sense of personal duty is, to be sure, one of Dylan's undying themes. It's no accident so many of his masterpieces are kiss-offs, tell-offs, or break-ups: "Positively 4th Street," "Just Like a Woman," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Take "I'm Not There," the long-buried and utterly heart-wrenching love song in which Dylan conjures a now distant ex-lover. "I wish I was beside her," he sings, "but I'm not there/I'm gone." Haynes selects the part of the lyric that is most coolly detached—"I'm not there"—but there is a very human desire, too: "I wish I was beside her." The drama of Dylan's life, the story of it, is in the war between the two: "I wish I was beside her" but, alas, "I'm not there/I'm gone." He wants to be loyal, content, sedentary, like all any normal human, but he must overcome these wishes: He's gone. Comfort, loyalty, the pleasures of being just one person—these he must relinquish.

I'm Not There, in other words, forgets a very crucial point: Dylan, despite his genius, is but one man. By fracturing him into six, Haynes cleanly avoids the pains and betrayals that accumulate in a life of merciless transformation. Think about the heaps of regrets that inevitably accumulate in a person so Ovidian as to be born a Guthrie-loving black kid only to become a woman-chasing Cate Blanchett, and still later a horse-riding Richard Gere. Imagine, for God's sake, being a woman-chasing Cate Blanchett then willfully becoming a horse-riding Richard Gere! With each new persona he gained, Dylan lost the man he'd been.

It occurred to me while watching I'm Not There how much we associate Dylan with the concept of betrayal. Alone among the musical pop culture icons of the 20th century—more than the Beatles, the Stones, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles—Dylan has been accused of treason, an offense usually reserved for the realms of politics and war. He betrayed the folksters at Newport. He betrayed the rockers when he found Jesus. He betrayed the Christians when he found Judaism. He betrayed the purists when he did Victoria's Secret. He betrayed the Poetry when he stole from the Japanese writer Junichi Saga. He betrayed Joan Baez. He betrayed Sad-Eyed Sara. He betrayed his secret wives of the '80s. It would be very tidy to say something like: In betraying everyone around him, Dylan never betrayed himself. But this isn't true. In each instance, he did betray himself, and with each betrayal became less himself—less human. He had to. He had no room for his own humanity. It all went into the songs.

Jacob Rubin is a writer in New York City.

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