If Robert Zimmerman did not exist, we would have to invent him. And then we'd have to invent Bob Dylan like he did. Then we'd have to re-invent him. And re-invent him again. And again. And that would only cover his public persona--not the myths and mis-interpretations and the transferences imposed on him by a public trying to possess the unpossessable. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. Well, Dylan is somewhere in the dozens now (and we won't even count the Victoria's Secret ads!) in his quest for a place in the American song-book. Todd Haynes has tried to capture some of the sides and asides of early Dylan in the kaleidoscopic and appropriately named I'm Not There (though it could have just have easily been named "It Ain't Me, Babe"
In an attempt to capture Dylan at the creation, Haynes has made the movie episodic, with a collection of stories with a handful of actors playing stages and aspects of Dylan, none of them forming a complete picture, but making a collage of impressions of the artist in his first 15 years in the limelight.
They are: 1) Woody Guthrie--an 11 year old black kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) who rides the rails escaping from a bad situation with just his guitar and his wits to keep him going. He eventually ends up making a pilgrimage to the New Jersey Hospital where the real Woodie Guthrie is dying of TB (Guthrie died in 1967).
2) Jack Rollins--Christian Bale plays the young activist folk singer who ardently sings "finger-pointing songs" and when he finds himself used by political groups, rebels, turns away from them and towards Christian Evangelicism.
3) Robert Clark--Heath Ledger plays an actor who played Jack Rollins in a film, and must deal with the effects of fame, notoriety and their demands on his ideals, private life, and marriage.
4) Arthur Rimbaud--Ben Whishaw plays Dylan the poet, answering straightforward questions at a police booking with wistful asides that aren't really answers (but will do in a pinch). Whishaw has the least to do, and like the next aspect of Dylan gets the lion's share of the best lines.*
5) Jude Quinn--the most hyped stunt-casting of the movie has Cate Blanchett playing Dylan on tour in London, where he is famously heckled by audiences for abandoning folk music for electric rock and challenged by the press trying to understand or categorize this strange creature from the States. This segment is shot in black and white (looking remarkably like the Dylan documentary "Don't Look Back") and heavily influenced by the style of Fellini. Quinn is perpetually bedeviled by esoteric questions that he either dismisses or vaguely answers and rails against the needling inquisition of one reporter (Bruce Greenwood) for whom Quinn writes "Ballad of a Thin Man" in one of the few instances where Dylan's music is used as fore-ground comment.
6) Billy the Kid--Richard Gere plays a Dylan aspect, alone and hiding out in isolation in a freak-filled town called Riddle, Missouri, where he lives under different identities and speaks up for the town when it is threatened by domineering Commissioner Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood, again). It's done in the style of Sam Peckinpah in a fever dream with a slow-tracking camera and a wandering editing style, and a narration by Kris Kristofferson (who played Billy in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, of which Bob Dylan was an integral part.*
And the bizarre thing is, the bloody thing works. It helps to be hip on Dylan or you'll miss some of the in-jokes.** But it's enough Dylan and just enough kinda Dylan that one can't be too anal-retentive about getting the facts right. The film is more about the myth, and the persona and mystique (and expectations) of the artist than the real thing, and the use of Dylan songs edge along and suggest deeper meanings than, say, a cultural mis-fire like Across the Universe (which used its Beatles covers to tell you that A = A). Dylan's songs--some the traditional recordings, some enthusiastic "live" versions, some covers (there's a wonderful segment of Richie Havens and Franklin doing his "Tombstone Blues") form a suggestive background soundtrack, as his music did for us, that suggest but doesn't hit us over the head, with the exception of that "Ballad of a Thin Man" segment.
Does it succeed in explaining Dylan? Nah. Some aspects of him are presented, and the acknowledgement that there ARE aspects puts this head and shoulders above the standard Hollywood "CliffsNotes" bio-pic ("Ali," anyone?). And the film is filled with references and reverberations enough to fill several movies and a few lives, and that is an artistic victory in itself. And the tackling of the splintering of the artist for changing his art and himself--the holding of the mirror up to the flightiness and provinciality of audiences is a brave act, indeed. I came away not knowing Dylan any more than I did, but glad for the journey and reflected on three quotations on the way out.
"I don't think any one word can sum up a man's life" (Citizen Kane)
"He was a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" (Touch of Evil)
"No decent career was ever founded on a public." F. Scott Fitzgerald
And, of course, he doesn't follow any of them.
** Dylan played "Alias," a member of Billy's gang, and also created the film's blue-grass score, which included his song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
*** My favorites--at a party Quinn is assaulted by the Tommy Boyce-Bobby Hart "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone" a faux-Dylan piece of silliness performed by the Monkees, and Brian Jones is introduced as belonging to "a really good cover band."