Jesse Jarnow

the thick, wild mercurial movie: todd haynes & the weirdness of bob dylan

“What Kind of Friend Is This?” – Stephen Malkmus and Lee Ranaldo (download) (buy)
from I’m Not There OST (iTunes-only) (2007)

“Bessie Smith” (live) – The Crust Brothers (download) (buy)
from Marquee Mark (1999)

“Visions of Johanna” – Lee Ranaldo (download) (buy)
from Outlaw Blues, v. 2 (1993)

“Goin’ To Acapulco” – Bob Dylan and The Band (download) (buy)
from The Basement Tapes (1967/1975)

(files expire September 9th)

This is an expanded version of my October 2007 Paste profile of I’m Not There director Todd Haynes, intended for the web, but which somehow never made it there. A year later, I still love the movie, maybe even more. Though, I suppose, I’m also the target audience. Of all the things the film did, it reintroduced The Basement Tapes to me–the official, cleaned-up two-disc version–as a concept album about running away to a weird, self-isolating internal place.

And some INT-related tunes to go with: an iTunes-only Stephen Malkmus/Lee Ranaldo cover of “What Kind of Friend Is This?” (from the ’66 hotel room tape) left off the official soundtrack, Malkmus’s piss-take version of The Basement Tapes‘ Band-penned “Bessie Smith” with Seattle’s Silkworm live in ’97, Ranaldo’s reading of “Visions of Johanna” from 1993′s Outlaw Blues, v. 2 compilation (with Mike Watt, Steve Shelley, and the late Robert Quine), and–finally–the Dylan version of “Goin’ To Acapulco,” pretty much the theme song for my summer.

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The Thick, Wild Mercurial Movie: Todd Haynes and the Weirdness of Bob Dylan
by Jesse Jarnow
(originally published in shorter form in Paste #38)

Todd Haynes is affable, enthusiastic, and forthcoming — in other words, the complete opposite of Bob Dylan, the subject of the 46-year old director’s recently released I’m Not There. This, of course, does not mean that the six different Bob Dylans that occupy his film’s non-linear plot (none of which is named ‘Bob Dylan’) and two-plus-hour running time are any easier to grok than Dylan’s work, nor — for that matter — any less dense with magpies’ bags of allusion and theft. Haynes is just more willing to talk about his than Dylan.

“Ray Charles’ music couldn’t be further from Johnny Cash’s, so why put them in the same-shaped box?” asks the former semiotics major, who rendered Karen Carpenter’s anorexic demise with Barbie dolls in 1987′s Superstar. Though he expresses admiration for Ray, Haynes says, “Dylan is more like dropping acid than reading a Cliff’s Notes, and that should be true for all these artists at one level or another, if it’s possible to find a cinematic language to get to the core of what their music is about.

“All biopics combine fact and fiction, and this one does it, but lets you in on the process,” continues Haynes, who turned David Bowie into Brian Slade in 1998′s Velvet Goldmine. “You know [Dylan] wasn’t really a black kid who called himself Woody Guthrie” — as sweet-voiced newcomer Marcus Carl Franklin does in the film — “so then you have to think ‘why are they doing it this way?’ That’s saying something about what Dylan was at this time.

“What was so remarkable is the unstated joke in all the accounts of him is how none of these unbelievable tales of his past made any calculable sense to anybody listening, but the sheer performance was so compelling that no one cared. That idea, of projecting yourself so passionately that nobody added it all up, I thought to take that one step further, and make the joke a visual joke where he’s also a black kid and nobody mentions his color through the whole time.”

***

Todd Haynes has never met Bob Dylan, though — in the fall of 2000 — the songwriter approved a two-page proposal titled “Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan” which quoted French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud and declared a “strategy” of “refraction, not condensation.” Haynes’ Dylans are amnesiacs all, Cate Blanchett’s thin, wild Jude Quinn trapped in a lush Felliniesque black-and-white and unable to reach Richard Gere’s heavy-handed Billy, exiled in Riddle, a town comprised of Dylan’s characters and indebted to Greil Marcus’s Old Weird America and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (in which Dylan appeared).

For all of its flaws, and it has many, it is obvious that Haynes is a stone Dylan freak, a fact that lends a certain charisma to the proceedings. He gets Dylan right, to the point where one could imagine a mash-up integrating I’m Not There with sequences from 1978′s Renaldo and Clara and 2003′s Masked & Anonymous, Dylan’s own garbled autobiopics. As an anthology of myths fashioned from interviews, liner notes, song lyrics and hearsay, I’m Not There might be daunting to non-fetishists, but it’s exactly this half-knowledge that Haynes wants to play from.

“People probably know more about Dylan than they know they know,” Haynes argues. “Whether it’s songs that we grew up singing and thinking ‘was that a traditional or did somebody write that?’ to literal things like ‘right, there was a crash! That sounds right!’ or how that echoes James Dean’s crash. And that’s fine. That’s actually so correct to see a repercussion of events in these very self-conscious anti-heroes that they themselves were the key architects of.”

For all of its shattered intentions, I’m Not There remains a series of a storylines, each character driven by his own boundaries, personal and cinematic. Some, like Blanchett’s Jude, ring with enough emotion to keep the runes of Dylan’s cryptic life aligned. Others are kind of hilarious, like Ben Whishaw’s Zoolander-like reading of the weary Dont Look Back-era press conference surrealism.

“I’m a consumer of biopics,” Haynes says, “and I think mostly what they offer as their raison d’être, and it’s a good enough one, is an extraordinary vehicle for performances, where an actor gives you something unique to bowl you over or frustrate you. That’s true for all those films. The performance Sissy Spacek gives in Coal Miner’s Daughter is one of the most astounding performances on film and makes whatever limitations the genre has, the formula has, pale at the power of that extraordinary performance.” But even if it is a good enough reason to exist, Haynes has his sights aimed much higher.

Like Dylan’s catalogue, I’m Not There frustrates. As Haynes points out, though, as experimental as it might be, it does deliver the “hit songs, the hit moments.” It gives enough of the songwriter that it makes perfect sense to talk about the film in the same breath as Martin Scorsese’s equally flawed No Direction Home, though in many ways the two semi-official features are opposites — Scorcese’s the Approved Baby Boomer Myth, Haynes’s a more gleefully modern and imploding deconstruction.

“He’s yours,” the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert introduced Dylan onstage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and he has been for over 40 years now. While Dylan might miss himself, as he suggested in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, his listeners probably don’t. One can keep discovering bootlegs, session tapes, outtakes, rehearsals, film clips, interviews and miles of other musical arcana from a functionally infinite body of work, all capable of yielding something seemingly new.

I’m Not There does exactly this, its name calling attention to one of the great, lost basement tape ballads recorded with The Band in 1967. The film plays by Dylan’s rules and is enjoyable for many of the same reasons his music is. Finding the real Bob Dylan isn’t the point. There’s probably a song or two about that. “It’s not all in there,” Haynes says. “It’s not all there.”

1 Comment

  1. gardner says: - reply

    Really glad you posted this. I’ve been anxious to read it since you posted about it months ago, but cheap bastards like me don’t buy print magazines. Thanks for throwing it up.