Monday, November 26, 2007

I'm Not There

Writing about Todd Haynes' 1995 film Safe, Jonathan Rosenbaum argued that "Haynes' hatred for most of what he's showing [upper middle-class California life] is his real subject" and not the supposedly central question of "environmental illness." With Haynes' new feature, I'm Not There, the real subject seems to be, not the "lives and time of Bob Dylan" (as the film's subtitle has it), but the director's delight in his own perceived cleverness. Splitting his central figure into six different characters, each highlighting a different aspect of Dylan's persona, Haynes' film cribs its various aesthetic conceptions (a different conception for each figure) entirely from within the world of cinema and builds its dialogue from a combination of Dylan lyrics and a series of gnomic utterances which are more frustratingly impenetrable than evocative. The result is an unsatisfying pop artifact, a work that refuses to engage with any conception of the world that exists outside the cinema (or television), that strings its audience along by flattering its ability to spot the references to Dylan's music and biography and to the film's catalogue of cinematic allusions and that, finally, doesn't tell us anything about its purported subject that we don't already think we know.

The film's central sequence, the one that conforms most readily to the image of Dylan that tends to prevail in the popular imagination, provides the film's most transparent display of many of its essential weaknesses. Channelling its subject circa-1965, Cate Blanchett plays a churlish rock singer named Jude Quinn who speaks in an indecipherable jumble that mixes lyrics from Dylan's oeuvre with a series of cryptic formulations and plays like a parody of the singer's persona in D. A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. Ultimately, this segment fails to add anything to our understanding of either the historical or the mythical Dylan. It repeats the shopworn conception of its subject as an impenetrable personality given to chiding the media and fans who want to confine him to a single, manageable construction, but this conception fails to take us beyond Pennebaker's film and only serves to perpetuate the misleading and superficial image we already have of Dylan from a myriad of inferior sources. If Haynes reaches for the most obvious point of reference for his imagining of his principle figure, he calls on an equally unilluminating source for his re-creation of the time period. His presentation of the 1960s takes place in a simplified version of the world of Richard Lester (he alludes directly to Petulia and A Hard Day's Night) and reduces that director's milieu to a generic view of the psychedelic parties and iconic figures that have come to represent the period in the simplest version of the public imagination. Refusing to present either its subject or its setting in any way that isn't sanctified by the conceptions of other films, Haynes' self-consciously referential approach winks at viewers savvy enough to catch the allusions, while confining our conceptions of a complex time period and cultural figure to what has already been well established by previous screen presentations.

But this is only one version of the Dylan legacy. Are the other five any more illuminating? The simple answer is no. While few are as disappointing as the Jude section, practically all repeat its simplification and cinematic/pop-referential strategies. In one sequence, Christian Bale plays a folk-singer named Jack Rollins meant to recall the Dylan of 1963 and 1964. The segment is shot as a fake-documentary and recreates the biography of his real-life counterpart with some pointed changes designed as hip in-jokes between Haynes and his audience. For example, the savvy viewer is expected to laugh at the altered titles of such Dylan albums as The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin'. Except for the fun Haynes has in changing these titles and in playing (rather unimaginatively) with the documentary form, the segment really has no reason for existing. In another section, Heath Ledger plays an actor who plays Jack Rollins in a film, a meta-theatrical ploy less clever than it sounds. His wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spends much of her time watching news broadcasts on television, a device that Haynes uses to fill in the historical background of the period, but in an inevitably simplified manner, since the news reports merely repeat iconic images and are designed to regurgitate the "reality" we have become accustomed to believing in thanks to the perpetuation of these too-familiar representations. Like the cultural conception of the 1960s drawn from the world of the cinema in the Jude section, this presentation of the political events of the decade draws on a similarly media-sanctioned conception that further reveals Haynes' desire to limit his concerns to the world as understood from movies and television and his refusal to grapple with any reality outside this self-contained world, both in terms of his central figure and the time period he covers.

Finally, there is nothing particularly striking in Haynes' various aesthetic conceptions. If each segment purports to employ a different visual strategy, they all end up looking pretty much the same. The bright greenery of the Woody Guthrie section figures later in the Billy the Kid segment. The garish indoor lighting of the Jack Rollins sequence is repeated in the Robbie segment. With the exception of the two black-and-white sections (the Jude sequence and another sequence where a figure identified as Arthur Rimbaud stands trial), there is little to differentiate Haynes' various conceptions. And none of them looks very good to start with. Unlike the unified visual presentation of the director's vastly superior Far From Heaven, I'm Not There partakes of an anything-goes aesthetic that results in poor staging of individual shots, a dearth of interesting compositions and a general confusion over which particular aesthetic components belong in which specific conception. For a film that pretends to attempt something daring with its visual scheme, I'm Not There looks surprisingly drab.

This visual monotony, combined with a correspondingly unilluminating conception of its central figure and time period, results in the director's first real misfire. That the film has received such universally laudatory reviews is indicative of a willingness on the part of many critics to overlook a poorly conceived and unreflective historical program, a program which reinforces a static and conservative view of history, and a general acceptance of a cinematic conception that is content to limit its engagement to other films and ignore interaction with any version of an external world. With the prominence of directors like Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, films whose cinematic milieus are drawn entirely from the world of other movies have become an unfortunate staple of the American cinema. That these films often illuminate more about their directors' perceived cleverness than the world as understood from either within or without the cinema, seems irrelevant to the many viewers who are all too happy to be taken in by their surface manipulations. Haynes' film not only simplifies its cultural history, blunting the impact of its iconoclastic subject by presenting him through the clich├ęs by which we are already accustomed to view him, but keeps us firmly locked within a media-dictated universe that prevents its creator from getting at any essential truth about either Bob Dylan or about the world that he lived in.

5 comments:

Librarianne said...

Yes, yes, yes. You've captured exactly what I didn't like about this movie. I actually prefer Weird Al Yankovic's parody:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nej4xJe4Tdg

Dave Zeto said...

You make a lot of good points regarding just where and how director Todd Haynes came up with the stylastic conciets driving this film's multy narrative approach.

But does your particular knowledge of Dylan lore and specific cinematic references in this cas over burden your viewing experience? Haynes is regurgatating onto film what is essentially for himself sense memory, emotions, and personally evocative images which comprise his own impressions. If he is going to be honest about this, his images will necessarilly suffer from the burden of influence. To give the film any merit at all, this truth must be recognized.

Haynes recognizes the 'riddle' of his subject, Dylan, is a metaphor for the real world unaccountability and plagerizing effect with which the mind views everything. Hence the structure of the film reflects a person's natural tendency to create something absurd to explain away seeming absurdity.

Is it going too far to say 'I'm Not There' is like David Lynch twice removed? Does it beat Lynch to the punch for where renegade cinema can only go next? Whereas Lynch forces audiences to become aware of themselves as a viewing other, Haynes takes it one step further forcing them to become aware still yet of a third party in addition to the subject and viewer...the self-revealing story teller. Of central concern then would be from where would the film's authority come? It's disturbing to think in good cinema it need not come from anywhere. But in the cinema of an alienated story teller it may just come from revealing the fact he doesn't really have real authority at all.

andrew schenker said...

Dave,
My particular knowledge of Dylan may overburden my viewing experience, but Haynes is the one who filled his film with weak, superficial references to Dylan's lyrics and biography and then challenged viewers to spot them. The fact that I caught many of them (and found them unenlightening) doesn't reflect negatively on me as a viewer, but on Haynes as a filmmaker. In fact, I think the film would play much better to someone unfamiliar with Dylan because that viewer would spare himself the nuisance of having to contend with a series of useless references that form much of Haynes' dialogue.

The fact that Haynes is expressing his subjective view of Dylan (as mythical figure more than as real person) and that his view draws on all the obvious sources, doesn't excuse his trite portrayal of his subject. Just because Haynes views Dylan the way everyone else views him doesn't make it valuable to regurgitate this portrayal. Haynes may view Dylan as a "riddle", a collection of signs (as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out his background is in semiology) and may even (perhaps) have something to say about the way the mind views the world (intepretation of these signs), but what I ultimately objected to was the suprising lack of imagination of Haynes' varied conceptions, how often he reaches for the most obvious portrayals of Dylan the mythical figure and the world of the 1960s. The film finally fails to tell us anything we don't already know (or think we know) about Bob Dylan, the figure, Bob Dylan, the man, the times he lived in, or even what it all means to Todd Haynes. What we do get is a confirmation of the influence of media-saturation (film and television) in homogenizing people's responses to a given cultural phenomenon and, of course, a sense of the director's gleeful "cleverness".

dave z said...

Andrew,

I came to the film unfamiliar with Dylan lore so your point is fair enough. I was suitably unburdened by any tiredly retread material. Haynes has to be accountable for how much the initiated can and will be force fed.

However one can't outright dismiss Haynes use of old material/references as some kind of throw-away self satisfied game of "Look at me I'm well versed and clever!" If Haynes is indeed making a commentary on the distortive nature of how cultural signals are subjectively percieved, there must be moments which serve as touchstones between the percieved and the personalized distorter. In fact it would be all that much better if these touchstones were tired and overused so they should not be lost on the audience. They almost beg the audience to pull themselves out of the moment, smack there heads and maybe even grimace to realize, "Oh, so that is the inspiration for this."

If anything Haynes can be blamed for doing a more artful version of Oliver Stone's 'Natural Born Killers' which commented on media saturation's contamination of personal experience. I'll also concede that there is no defense for being too unoriginal for a paying audience. Dylan and film afficianados might not learn anything new to justify logging-in extra brain cells to ponder 'I'm Not There." Posterity might be more kind in judging the films place in Dylan history on the other hand. Looking backwards unfamiliar generations may be less concerned with who came first with what..rather who summed it up best in the most memorable way.

Cesar Fernandez D said...

There are some that feel that a thriller has to be a rollercoaster ride with thrills and spills every minute. This film is not that kind of thriller. SAFE is like those chilling dreams where you are being dragged through something somewhat familiar yet otherworldly and just out of reach of total comprehension. Those sort of dreams are annoying, but we all have them anyway. Some people shrug them off, some think they can explain it away by analysis, and some just like to bask in the fact that they are mysterious, heart-palpitating, and fascinating. I'm in the latter category, and such is my love for this film. This film is like a kaleidoscope where the patterns seem fixed and definable, yet are constantly changing. consulta online medico online pediatra online medico online doctor online dermatologo online veterinario online veterinario online psychologist online consulta online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online abogado online psicologo online doctor online psicologo online abogado online abogado online There's no doubt that Todd Haynes has something to say about the toxicity of our environment, the toxicity of our relationships, the toxicity of our generic society, and even the toxicity of our venues of healing. Doctors and psychiatrists for example, are cold and sterile and seemingly wearing blinders and cotton in their ears when it comes to really seeing or listening to their patients. New Age healers on the other hand are warm and receptive and seemingly interested in seeing you, hearing you and knowing you. But they trod down the same path that religious fundamentalists do. If your faith isn't strong enough; you won't be healed. One recollects New Age ‘healers' like Louise Hay who claimed that AIDS victims had subliminal desires to hurt themselves, but could be cured with a strong dose of self-love. An especially nasty ruse, when one considers how most of society has already blamed the victim. AIDS victims shouldn't blame themselves, but they shouldn't believe that ‘enough' faith will heal them either. So we can feel for Carol White (as generic sounding a name as one could imagine!) who knows her illness to be real, but who feels guilty nonetheless because no one will let her own her illness. They don't even know she exists, really. And she, from the beginning of this film, isn't sure either.