Movies We Like
I’m Not There
Contrary to the average Hollywood celebrity, Bob Dylan’s a star who largely created the stories surrounding him, sold his image based on those stories, but then resisted those stories once the media and his fans began to read him too literally through them. In this fantasy documentary about the singer, director/co-writer Todd Haynes tries to walk the line between individualism (subjectivity defining itself) and his own radical semiotic belief that everything is just stories, signs signifying other signs. The problem here is that if there is no core Dylan that we can ever arrive at, only a series of stories that we compile, how can we understand or appreciate what Dylan was resisting against or why, since that rebel is nothing but another confabulation, no truer than the rest? As the title suggests, the movie celebrates Dylan’s resistance to being defined, giving its subject what he wants, a portrayal on his own terms, not held down by anything he says about himself or others. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Dylan gave permission for the extensive use his music. The irony here is that, despite its postmodernist structure of multiple narratives, the film divines a core Dylan-construct by giving into and clearly defending his side of the story, or stories.
One might be tempted to take the position that the only thing important about Dylan is his music, but this film isn’t about determining the meaning of his lyrics from his personal life. Rather, it asks how we should view an artist (or artist qua celebrity) in relation to his art. Haynes is right in the sense that, at best, all we’re going to get is a construct/story of Dylan, but aren’t some constructs better than others? You can sail as long as you like, but you ain’t going to fall off the world, regardless of how old your map is. Therefore, aren’t we entitled to hold the storyteller, or mapmaker, responsible for at least some of his creations? It’s in addressing this question of moral/political/aesthetic responsibility that Haynes gives up the postmodern ghost. As has been well reported, there are a number of actors playing what’s been best described as avatars of Dylan. None of them are named ‘Bob Dylan,’ nor are they supposed to be biopic versions of the man himself, only cognates of stories about the man that have been spun by Dylan and others. I’m only interested here in a few of them: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett as a female version of Pennebaker’s folk-rebelling Electric Bob in Don’t Look Back), Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin as a black child representation of Americana that Dylan emulated at an earlier age), and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere as the storybook American rebel and rambler that Dylan often played out in his songs and as symbolized in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, which featured Dylan in a supporting role). I no more care about their actual veracity than Haynes does, only the way he uses them as suppositions in his argument as a movie.
Told in a nonlinear and metaphorical fashion, Haynes’ central argument goes something like this: Dylan created an image of himself as a folk musician in touch with the most essential strains of America’s traditional musical heritage – a music which helps define us as a culture, but always remains largely underappreciated until some way is found to wrap it up in a package, making it a marketable commodity. In the film, Woody is shown riding the rails in the 50s with his guitar in a case emblazoned with our Woody Guthrie’s slogan, “This machine kills fascists.” Somewhere along the way, Dylan became aware that he was being railroaded into the commodification of the music he loved to play, as suggested by little Woody’s receiving a wake-up call from the matron saint of authentic Southern rural blues, Mrs. Arvin (Kim Roberts). She says something like, “Child, you need to tell your own stories about your own times, not imagine what it was like riding the rails during the Depression” (good advice to the retroactively inclined musicians of today).
That sets the stage for understanding why Dylan was such a prick to the hectoring journalists with their dipshit questions, as well as his turning up the volume to drown out the hooting and hollering from his folk audience in Pennebaker’s documentary. After the tumult of going electric, Jude Quinn spars with a reporter (Bruce Greenwood playing a composite of reporters from the aforementioned documentary) over Quinn’s betrayal of her fans’ expectations based on the folk music she’s played in the past. It’s not that Dylan’s subject matter radically changed upon going electric. He dealt with the apolitical in his acoustic phase (e.g., “Don’t Think Twice”) and the political in his electric (e.g., “Hurricane”). No, the accusations of selling out were based entirely on his no longer fitting the spectacle – the mediating image – of the solitary representative of a vox populi who needs nothing more than what he might use on a street corner to get the people’s message across. “Electricity comes from other planets,” said Lou Reed. That folksy Dylan used microphones must have escaped the notice of his naysayers. Why, if you squinted your eyes, you could see him standing in front of an old truck playing to an audience of rural black folks. There’s footage to prove it.
Jude understands that continuing to play by the rules of the folk revivalists wouldn’t be a defense of folk music, only an ossification of her own – ‘folk’ being nothing but a brand-name. The music itself needs no defense and can’t be betrayed. Denying that she’s a folk singer, Jude says to the reporter, “traditional music is too unreal to die”; it might come out of cultural politics, but it isn't reducible to them. Dylan might’ve betrayed the story of himself he was selling up to that point, but he wasn’t selling out his music. By conflating the two (the image of the musician and the music), the reporter and the folk audience desire some king of cheap vinyl bust of the artist to put on their mental shelf. In what’s one of the weaker scenes, this reification is shown quite literally as a nightmare of the reporter’s, where he identifies with Jude’s status as a celebrity-product by finding himself in a cage being probed by microphones. It would appear that, contrary to the film’s title, there is someone or something there. And doesn’t that suggest that some stories might be more truthful, more authentic, representations than others?
In his most telling sequence, Haynes gives us a Dylan as an aging Billy the Kid facing off with his old nemesis and oppressor, Pat Garrett (Bruce Greenwood, again). Pat comes to Billy’s town as a representative of a commercial entity that’s taking over much of the land, including Billy’s, in service of a new railroad, whether the townsfolk like it or not. Realizing he can’t stop the land-grab, Billy hops a train to find Woody’s dusty guitar case with its epigram somewhat faded, but still legible. The Frankfurt School-tinged lesson from the real Woody Guthrie could hardly be clearer. Commercialism is its own form of authoritarianism, which the musician or artist must resist: “This machine kills fascists.” I don’t know if the original Woody Guthrie meant exactly that by his slogan, but here it creates an image in service of keeping art from being just another product reducible to its exchange-value – an act of resistance that is justifiably celebrated in Bob Dylan as an artist (or, rather, artist-construct). That the so-called media elite and the counter-cultural bohemians can be so closely aligned in their desires shows us just how pervasive the manufacturing dream of consumerism has become. While the film might be another story, it is one in service of the music coming from Guthrie’s machine against the cultural land-grabbing of what we old-fashioned types still call the culture industry. Despite Haynes’ postmodernist leaning and Dylan’s own snarky dismissals of any sort of responsibility, we’re left with a defense of authenticity, a story of what artistic responsibility continues to mean, one individual at a time.
_________________________ I'm Not There was nominated for one Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett).