Todd Haynes has never been a stickler to structure. His most conventional films still reveal characters who have a need to break free from their normal surroundings. Mundanity always threatens to burst through the frame and dive into the surreal. So when he takes hold of a biography of Bob Dylan—not a performer known for his mundanity—the experiment is the structure. Six different actors play six different iterations of the famous musician in I’m Not There. (2007). The actors (Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Marcus Garl Franklin, and Ben Whishaw) depict wildly discontinuous versions of Dylan’s life. The intercutting vignettes, while attempting to portray the complicated inner life of an all-too-public individual, end up as less a biography of a haunted musician lost in transit and more of a comprehensive study of how people change—through formation, crisis, love, and, for some, celebrity.
So much of I’m Not There. focuses on the events that form, alter, and reform a character’s life. Woody (Marcus Garl Franklin) is a young, black boy with wisdom beyond his years and his upbringing. He’s fallen on hard times, but families and people accept him with open arms for his talent. A dream child of sorts, promise marks every point of Woody’s life. The viewer, alongside supporting characters, assume that the universe selected this child as a prophet, with more musical talent and poetic wisdom than the prophets that have come before him. Haynes, with a more attuned knowledge of the relationship between image and meaning than most of his contemporaries, stages a stunning sequence where Woody falls from a bridge into a river only to be swallowed by a whale. Beyond being a prophet, though, I’m Not There. argues for his young foolishness, a bold hope in the world and its workings. He has no sense of disillusionment and represents the child so confident that their fall from grace is inevitable.
The fall comes with the broken promises of the other characters. Jack (Christian Bale) embodies Dylan at a more public stage of life. His disillusionment is evident in his performance and in the way the documentary about his life stages him. The documentary component adds another complicated stylistic layer to the film. Regardless of the talking heads from staged academics (including Julianne Moore), the documentary lends an every man feel to Jack’s character. He is famous, but he is humble. The struggling artist on display is wholly unrelated from the other iterations of Dylan. In comparison to the movie star, the child, the aging man, and the transitioning artist, Jack is a seemingly stoic musician, one who understands his message without question and delivers it in as straight-forward a way as he can.
Even when love is strictly parenthetical, it is life-altering. That’s what Robbie (Ledger) figures out as a movie star who, while filming abroad, falls in love with a co-star. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) reminisces their original romance, once passionate and fulfilling, now dead—always fleeting. Many of Haynes’s films function as memories with past loves romanticized and unrequited. Robbie has never foregrounded love and relationships. He enjoys them, but only until the next comes along. He obsesses over career and celebrity so much that even the political punctuations forming some of our other characters only affect the periphery of his life. His character longs for a transition from one stage—his marriage—to the next. In the case of the movie, the transition comes in the form of June Quinn.
The most poignant component of I’m Not There. is its relation to celebrity, which is the crux of what Haynes wants to say. Starting as a brilliant, young artist Dylan latched on to many common sensibilities of the 60s. He is so emblematic of the folk revolution that it is impossible to talk about the movement without him. Which is why when June (Cate Blanchett’s version) attempts to alter style at an outdoor concert, his fans turn on him. Blanchett’s academy award nominated performance is by far the most potent portrayal of the tortured artist. She plays him as a singer who wants to try a different path, explore thoughts he hasn’t before, and make music that sounds different: rock ’n roll.
“We were his biggest fans,” some enraged fans exclaim following June’s disastrous debut of “Maggie’s Farm.” The lyrics of the song include,
“Well I try my best
to be just like I am.
But everybody wants you
to be just like them.
They sing while you slave and I just get bored,
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”
While particularly pertinent to celebrities who have attempted an image shift, Dylan’s lyrics signify the deeply-felt human emotion that comes with understanding. People have a desire to be accepted by others despite the changes in their life. Whether you go through six distinct changes, one major change, or dozens of minor shifts, the need to be understood and treated as more than a commodity is the heart of the movie.
“I’m not fatalistic,” Arthur (Ben Whishaw) says at one point in a series of interviews. While the movie is partially about disillusionment with life, it is not all pessimistic. Arthur’s argument is that his personage is not predetermined and he withholds the right to change whenever it suits him. I’m Not There. is a movie about embracing small and monumental shifts in a person’s life and learning to be close to these people through changes. Dylan has, in essence, remained the same. His personality has shifted, his music has changed, and some of the lyrics have remained and others faded; but the heart of his music, the spirit that fills every measure, has remained the same and has inspired people in the same way from his first record to his last.
Featured Image: The Weinstein Company