The Many Faces of Dylan

Dennis Harvey November 21, 2007

One of those American icons who got that way partly by carefully shaping his own enigma — oh, plus he’s kinda talented — Bob Dylan is not the kind of musician one would expect to lend himself to something as corrupt, populist, exposing and/or distorting as The Movies. He’s no Elvis, capable of being haplessly soul-sucked into a Hollywood machine that might wring his commercial value dry (in such deathless vehicles as “Tickle Me,” “Fun in Acapulco,” “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Clambake”) while destroying his artistic credibility.

Elvis needed — and fortunately got — a strictly-music career “comeback” that restored his cred. Dylan, on the other hand, never pandered. In fact, he frequently left his core audience bothered and bewildered by making creative leaps they were only able to process (if at all) in retrospect. Since his earliest brushes with fame he’s clearly enjoyed confabulating, confounding, and confusing any clear perception about himself, refusing to play the usual celebrity game of fake transparency. With Dylan, there’s always smoke both in front of and behind the mirrors.

Todd Haynes’ new “I’m Not There,” the talking-point movie of this fall’s festival season, both replicates and examines the hazy landscape of fact, fiction, art and myth comprising Dylanology. It’s not a documentary or even a dramatized biography, but rather a meditative fantasia on the many guises and interpretations Dylan has lent himself to thus far — though in fact his name is never even uttered.

Instead, we have a crazy sextet of not-at-all-alike actors playing aspects of a mostly imaginary yet familiar iconography. Marcus Carl Franklin is a pre-teen, Southern, African American blues prodigy who calls himself “Woody Guthrie.” Arthur (Ben Whishaw) is the very portrait of slouching Beat poet disaffection. Robbie (Heath Ledger) is a ’60s Method actor — clearly Brando and James Dean helped shape Dylan’s self-image, as they did a whole generation — whose stray-dog wanderings have pretty much exhausted the patience of his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), prompting her toward her own new independence.

Christian Bale plays Jack, the folk-music hero who “betrays” his flock by going electric, then finds another entirely by going Christian. Richard Gere (!) is Billy (as in The Kid), an exhausted Old West outlaw hero forced into one last confrontation, amidst the carnival-ized Americana of Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (in which Dylan played a supporting role) and some post-folk, pre-Jesus Dylan songwriting. Last but way-not-least, Cate Blanchett does a brilliant drag king turn as Jude, the squirrelly, rude, media-taunting anti-Beatle flirting with Op Art pop stardom in an Andy Warholian B&W-chic milieu — complete with Michelle Williams as a pathetically needy stand-in for doomed Warhol “superstar” Edie Sedgwick, with whom Dylan supposedly had an affair. (Among other paramours, Haynes regular Julianne Moore is wryly funny as somebody very like Joan Baez.)

These stylistically, tonally disparate strands are interwoven in an unpredictable manner that makes the execution even more post-modern than its already-left-field concept. “I’m Not There” will no doubt baffle many, but for those willing to go with the flow, its craft, intuition and sheer adventure can be exhilarating. These 135 minutes go by a hell of a lot faster than many a mall flick has of late. One only regrets that director-cowriter (with Oren Moverman) Haynes makes movies so slowly — in the decade before this he’s only delivered the beleaguered (by budgetary problems) 1998 “Velvet Goldmine” and brilliant 2002 “Far From Heaven.” That he chooses subjects so far outside the commercial mainstream (i.e. the earlier “Poison” and “Safe”) has probably kept him from being properly regarded as one of the greatest active American directors.

At least Haynes has been mightily discriminating in applying his talents to the screen. There’s somebody I can think of who hasn’t been nearly so careful…and his name is Bob Dylan. Looking beyond his many, many bestowings of music useage to film and TV projects in recent decades — good, bad and ugly (“Days of Thunder”? “Georgia Rule”? “Free Willy 2”?!?) — there are his deeper cinematic diggings as actor, scenarist and director. Every artist is entitled to blunder into the wilderness once in a while, but arguably this one’s most embarrassing (as opposed to simply controversial) public expressions were all on celluloid.

Herewith a Hall of Shame list, most of it mercifully unavailable for home viewing:

“Don’t Look Back” (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker’s film about his 1965 tour of England — neatly parodied in “I’m Not There” — is a classic portrait-of-the-artist, but that artist sure comes off as a dick. Watching him ridicule the pathetically worshipful “British Dylan” (ha) Donovan is like watching a pro baller make fun of a Little Leaguer. Unflattering.

“Eat the Document” (1972)
Dylan’s first directorial effort is another tour document that’s been compared to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” and The Rolling Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues” — other unwatchably amateur records of rock stars at their peak that have gained cache by being extremely little-seen. Covering the same period as “Don’t Look Back,” it was considered so dreadful it was shelved for years. It’s been semi-shelved ever since.

“Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973)
This revisionist Western flop by Sam Peckinpah cast James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson as the titular real-life characters. Dylan (who also contributed the mixed-bag original soundtrack) was third-billed as a character called “Alias,” and was stiff as a board. MGM drastically recut the film without the director’s permission; after his death it was “restored” for DVD release by its original editor. This version is considered a definite improvement — but still a flawed movie, with at least one (guess who) very flat principal actor.

“Renaldo and Clara” (1976)
Dylan’s only exercise as star, director and writer (with Sam Shepard, wbo obviously went on to better things) is a monumental, impenetrable four-hour exercise in obscurantist wankage that drove me out of the theatre during a college screening around 1980 or so. It’s badly shot, pretentious, aimless, humorless, and most of all endless. Still, the suspicion remains (even in my brain): Could it possibly have been so bad? It was shot during the legendary “Rolling Thunder” tour. It featured a cast including not only the inexpressive Cipher Himself but Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Harry Dean Stanton, Allen Ginsberg, Ronee Blakley, and T-Bone Burnett. Plus not-exactly-acting cameos by musicians Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, Mick Ronson, Roger McGuinn, Arlo Guthrie and David Blue. It’s surely an important slice of cultural history. And on that day when a DVD finally comes out, you too will know that it’s also an unbearable hunk ‘o’ dreck.

“Hearts of Fire” (1987)
Given prior evidence, who’d have possibly thought Bob Dylan would make a good dramatic lead in a narrative film? Some batty Brits, apparently. This famous (but-only-as-a) flop tale of a wannabe pop star (actual pan-flash Fiona), her jaded older mentor (Dylan) and contemporary rocker lover (Rupert Everett) was written by none other than the inimitable Joe Eszterhas, between “Flashdance” and such later triumphs as “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” Director Richard Marquand (“Jagged Edge,” “Return of the Jedi”) died before its release-taking the easy way out, some might say.

“Masked and Anonymous” (2003)
Dylan had learned his lesson (OK, at least one-third of a lesson) after “Renaldo and Clara:” Don’t direct yourself in your latest quasi-autobiographical cinematic masturbation. So he got brilliant but presumably bedazzled Larry Charles (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Borat,” “Seinfeld” et. cetera) to do it for him. As a result, “M&A” is so starry and polished it required extreme pretentious vacuity to render it unwatchable. Mission accomplished. Dylan plays “Jack Fate” (whoa), a reclusive musician held in captivity (for being so individual!) who’s released to participate in a sham benefit concert intended to bolster his quasi-fascist country’s widely rich/poor-divided status quo. Does he rebel? Does Willy get Free? Among those suckered into the bluntly “symbolic,” misanthropic and misogynist proceedings are Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Christian Slater, Mickey Rourke….and a dozen-plus more erstwhile-hippie or born-too-late Hollywood actors desperate to serve their idol’s “vision.” Oh you glittering thespians: Must you always be so easy?

“I’m Not There”
Though he presumably had no direct participation in its creation, “I’m Not There” gains instant status as the supreme representation of Dylan on film. It’s a more sophisticated Portrait of the Artist than any he’s offered himself. Excluding his music, of course. In that realm, he’ll always be more purely Bob Dylan than any visual-media interpreter could manage.