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 clichés 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.