Monday, March 2, 2009

I'm Not There

Dir. Todd Haynes

The crime of the century was committed last year at the Academy Awards when Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton beat out Cate Blanchett for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. That year Blanchett portrayed one of the many faces of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, a fictional biopic based on the singer's fragmented life. Blanchett stars as Jude Quinn or middle 60s era Dylan, full of vicious snarkiness and contempt for humanity. Along side her are various other incarnations of Dylan including a young black boy who's named himself after his hero, folk icon Woody Guthrie, a vain Hollywood actor who falls in love with a beautiful but notoriously unselfish French painter, and a young folk songwriter turned bible thumper, among others. While Blanchett's role is the most obvious and literal recreation of Dylan, the trickle down effect finds the viewer searching, sometimes desperately, for pieces of Dylan they recognize in the ensemble players. For those of us, such as myself, who know little about Dylan, the film in a way constructs a very true image: chaos. With so many different images, ideas, and emotions passing by at a lightning pace we are forced to conclude that all of the film, every tiny piece of it, makes up some integral part of the universal understanding of Bob Dylan. Which, in a far more daunting way, points to how we understand each other and ourselves. Every piece of contradictory evidence, every remote possibility, every muttered phrase are all cogs that grind towards the bigger picture. The truth.

While Jude Quinn was my favorite character in the film, or I should favorite version of one character in the film, s/he was also the most difficult to grasp. Along with Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Wishaw), who's scenes were more like philosophized interpretations of previously witnessed events with other characters, a sort of oblique narrative, Quinn seems almost inhuman at times. There is something so exquisitely pleasurable about self destruction and Quinn rolls in the thick mud of decay, delighting in its filth. Haynes' screenplay, which he wrote with Oren Moverman, is simply brilliant. It captures a callous youth, an arrogant aging, and graceful decline, each represented with equal care and thought throughout the film's effortless 135 minutes. There's a hugeness to I'm Not There, one that actively refuses to be understood. Its not in the obviousness of the film's refracted narrative, or the intentional slurring of reality and fiction, but rather in the way it painfully reflects how little we know each other. We hardly know ourselves and as Robbie (Heath Leger), the Hollywood actor, tells his soon to be girlfriend and wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) we are at the center of our own world. So intrinsically focused on ourselves that we forget that it is cultural appropriation, more often than not, or manners that cause us to give the facade of being interested about other people. Ideas are one thing, when they're divorced from the people who create them, but people come with so much baggage. This caring is translated into never being entirely honest, thinking that we're doing some kind of good because we aren't telling people how we really feel. Quinn tears down the idol (or idle) giant, and suffers for it. He almost seems to want to cause as much pain to others as he has caused himself. It was one of the more detailed and gross portrayals of the breaking of a man's spirit that's been captured on film. Quinn is Haynes' archetype, the truest of the Dylan's on screen, which is, of course, ironic since there is little truth to Quinn. Like a man dressed all in mirrors, you only see what you want to in Quinn.

I'm Not There is not an easy film. It's narrative is told in piecemeal, making digetic and visual leaps from one decade to another. It runs the gauntlet of complex emotions and occasionally dips into surrealism. But as one of the pioneering directors of the 21st century, Haynes is not satisfied by simply telling a story. If I'm Not There fully represents anything it's how stories can be entirely misleading, and that the story beneath the story (which some might call truth, or a purer form of it at least) is far more interesting. Haynes gets at the guts of what it means to be alive; to be growing and evolving and changing your mind, changing it back and insulting your friends and taking too many drugs, and loving, and fighting, and fucking, and, at the end of it all, accepting it for what it was. Life is not crystalline. It's not a diamond. There is really no guarantee that you're ever going to get it; that you're going to understand a thing. You can read all the books you want. What I'm Not There theorizes is that knowing would take all the fun out of living, and all the hardship. It begs you to keep in mind that there is nothing more vivacious then dropping everything and starting all over again, while you still have time.

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