There is increased media attention on Bob Dylan at this point in time, in the fall of 2007, and it is thanks to a sprawling, strange film epic called “I'm Not There”. Directed and co-written by Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), the film does not so much tell the story of Bob Dylan, but tells several stories of "a musician like Bob Dylan," presenting us with six different selves (none of whom are named Bob Dylan), each of which embody a different phase or facet in Dylan's storied career as writer, musician, actor, and persona. It's as experimental as the genre of biopic gets, and it's a remarkable achievement. Because of it, there is more ink spilled than usual about Dylan, but the truth of the matter is that he is always around, part of national and global discourse. His is a singular mind, and even today's media affords him a great deal of respect.
Director Todd Haynes spoke to Dish about the film at the recent New York Film Festival. He referred to a certain quote in the film, "‘It's like yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room; there's no telling what can happen.’ That came out of a period where he [Dylan] was studying with a painter in the mid-70s - this was before he did “Planet Waves” and “Blood on the Tracks”. The painter, who didn't know Dylan or, if he did, didn't care, treated all of his pupils with a harsh equality, and Dylan responded to that. The theory that the teacher was putting out there was that on a canvas, all of these separate realities can co-exist, not only narratively and representationally, but standing back from the painting, one might find a different meaning to the piece than when examining it in pieces. It inspired Dylan to take more liberty with temporal representation and meaning in his lyrics, and also to put together different stories in his songs."
Dylan encompasses countless aspects of American life. He has been a Born-Again Christian and practicing Jew, he has been hermit, an Angry Young Man, and a philosopher King. But unlike the latter, his dominion is written in words, and we have extant confirmation of these things, through record and print and film. We even have glimpses of the Dylan since gone by the wayside of contemporary media culture- whether through suppression (the post-“Don't Look Back” film “Eat The Document”) or mysterious disappearances (Dylan's magnificent, Godardian four-plus hour opus “Renaldo and Clara”), or even works like “The Basement Tapes”, that have gradually become available but are separate from that which is Official. And again, this is why Dylan fascinates.
Haynes' film is a remarkable achievement- his idea that any one human being is too complex to be adequately expressed by one character is daring, so the multiple character approach feels right, in theory, for any complex portrait. That Dylan's many lives and ideas can weave all the disparate elements into something cohesive and evocative makes his career, and thus this film, feel even more satisfying.
Todd Haynes explains, "What's fascinating about Dylan is the way he skirted who he "really was" for things that he really wanted to be, and the wannabe kept changing faces. So he wanted to be Woody Guthrie, and he wanted to be not Jewish, and he wanted to be Arthur Rimbaud, and he wanted to be Billy the Kid, so I let him be all of those things. But a lot of the film, and the jokes in the film, are about trading one authenticity or
fakery for another."
In 1992, Bob Dylan was quoted as saying, "People today are still living off the table scraps of the Sixties. They are still being passed around." So not surprisingly, he resists such accolades as 'voice of a generation,' precisely because those kinds of epithets are limiting, and there is a spatial and temporal freedom to his songs that spill over such arbitrarily-drawn edges. Whose generation are we speaking of in such statements? To try and nail down a time/space of influence for Dylan's work is to deny that it is an ongoing phenomenon. Tom Robbins was heading along the same lines when he said that "every day is judgment day.
When Dylan said, "I don't call myself a poet, because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist", there's a prankish sense of humor at work. In the same vein, the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to “I’m Not There” doesn't feature his own recordings, but rather two discs' worth of mainly other artists taking their turn at Dylan's work. [Dylan’s original version of the title song, previously only available as a rare bootleg, does appear on this cd!] But it serves as a testament to Dylan's relevance and authorial voice that this in no way diminishes the value of the collection- if the film can only explore six different facets of this Bob Dylan, the album spreads its wings further, allowing thirty-three different voices to add their tones to the picture.
"The theory of freedom is very much tied into the idea of identity that the film posits Dylan's life as an argument for- I think his life, and his work, and the pressures that he lived under, kept forcing that identity into question, and I think the ultimate freedom is to be able to reinvent yourself," Todd Haynes suggests.
The philosophy of reinvention has served artists well – just ask David Bowie and Madonna, who have mastered the art of making personal evolution into a facet of marketing. This is not meant to diminish either of their achievements, far from it; but they have made that reinvention into something that is shared with the public on a global scale, while Dylan, no less adept a chameleon and shifter of shapes, has kept his hand close to his chest. It's in the music that we find where he's been and where he's going, and there is something personal and democratizing about that fact.
Haynes continues thoughtfully, "The unique weirdness of Dylan at that time [the 60s] has gotten to be so normal, so canonized, we know those images so well- but he was bizarre. When he would play piano in concert, and you see this in Scorsese's film, where his hand flies up between every line, and he would jump around the stage like a speed-y marionette, and the way he spoke, his gestures, everything about him from that time, is not evident in “Don't Look Back” from a year earlier and would never return again after his motorcycle crash at the end of '66. It was such a complete immersion in this moment… And that's something you always want to try as a director, you want to re-excite the shock of Chopin in his moment, the craziness of famous people in their famous moments."
So with “I'm Not There” unspooling in theatres throughout the country this Thanksgiving weekend, with articles written and exhibits opened in galleries and music played and songs sung in honor of the man, the artist, the enigma, it seems a little easier to catch a breath of relief. As besieged as the American soul has been over the past decade, it all seems just a little bit more manageable knowing that we still have Dylan around, vital and vibrant and making music, holding out hope while cutting to the bone.
"A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do." -Bob Dylan
“I’m Not There” opens on November 21, 2007 in theatres everywhere!
For Dylan fans in the Nashville, TN area, don’t miss a FILM TRIBUTE TO BOB DYLAN at the Belcourt Theatre beginning on November 21 and continuing through December 17, 2007! For tickets go to Tickets.Belcourt.Org, or at the Belcourt Box Office after 4pm