Like a Complete Unknown

I'm Not There and the changing face of Bob Dylan on film.

Self-destruction seems imminent, but Haynes isn't finished. A mature Dylan (Richard Gere) named Billy (as though he were the Kid in retirement), but referred to as "Mr. B," is riding out the apocalypse of High Sixties craziness, incognito in a western town named Hallowe'en that, complete with giraffe, is part Woodstock and the rest Fellini. This is the righteous Cowboy Bob of the John Wesley Harding LP, the Dylan of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and the bicentennial "Rolling Thunder" tour, as sanctimoniously played by the only actor in the film who was of age to experience the Dylan juggernaut firsthand.

Everything is here, but is I'm Not There intelligible to anyone beyond the cognoscenti? Is Haynes addressing Dylan? Is he imagining how Jude Quinn must feel — a freak suffering a surplus of intelligence and feeling, the loneliness of forever talking above people's heads, the pressure of being the smartest, the most popular, the coolest, funniest, most talented person in the room? When everybody's a kiss-ass phony or a belligerent poseur, how are you supposed to be real? (Especially since, as with the subject of Borges's story, you have trained yourself to pretend to be somebody so that no one discovers your "nobodiness.")

Could this conundrum be the root of Bob Dylan's long, tortuous, not entirely requited love affair with the movies?

One needn't be a hardcore Dylanologist to figure that Bob grew up on Hollywood westerns or to glean that back when he was hanging out on Bleecker Street, he was also glomming nouvelle vague flicks at the Bleecker Street Cinema. The 2000 Oscar he won for the song "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys meant so much to him that he took it on tour, perched as a talisman atop his amplifier.

Haynes, who has surely thought as much about Dylan and the movies as anyone on earth, told a New York Film Festival audience that I'm Not There referred to a number of Dylan's favorite movies — by which he seems to have meant Fellini's 8½ — as well as Dylan vehicles. Haynes further noted that, although he had no direct dealings with his subject, he was told that Dylan gave his blessing to the I'm Not There project on the basis of screening Haynes's earlier movies.

Dylan always identified with directors; he imagined his own life as a movie. Yet to appear in a movie would be to fix an identity, to admit that one was acting. Perhaps it was this conflict that denied him something like Mick Jagger's charmed résumé — collaborations with Kenneth Anger, documentaries by the likes of Peter Whitehead, the Maysles brothers, and Robert Frank, a career-defining performance in the cult film Performance. Jean-Luc Godard made a Rolling Stones rehearsal the centerpiece of One Plus One; Dylan had to make do with an inane dis in Masculine-Feminine: "Who are you, Mr. Bob Dylan?" Hey, how did Godard guess that the question of identity would haunt every movie (and every move) that Mr. Bob Dylan would make?

In early 1965, Dylan informed the host of a TV chat show that he planned to make a "horror cowboy movie." (Asked if he'd be cast as the horror cowboy, he replied that, no, he'd be playing his mother.) That spring, Dylan visited the Warhol Factory and sat for two screen tests — one impassively behind shades and another smoking a cigarette and glaring at the camera. As a gift, Warhol presented him with a silver Elvis painting, which Dylan would give to Albert Grossman in return for a couch. Soon after, Dylan was starring in his own vehicle, Don't Look Back's account of his 1965 British tour. Too much of nothing is revealed: A hypersensitive 24-year-old attempts to cope with mega-celebrity. The inability of virtually everyone to respond to him as a normal person is a given. Meanwhile, local journalists play a collective Margaret Dumont to Dylan's sour Groucho: Who does this guy think he is? (In I'm Not There, Haynes dramatizes the press's revenge — outing Jude Quinn's suppressed middle-class Jewish origins.)

Don't Look Back premiered two years later at the same Summer of Love Montreal Film Festival that opened with Bonnie and Clyde — with Dylan already many months into post-motorcycle-accident seclusion. Hardly a substitute for a new album, Pennebaker's film reprised the uneasy last days of Dylan's pre-electric incarnation. It was nevertheless received as a breakthrough, the first feature-length vérité pop-star portrait. Dylan, however, must not have cared for it: He appropriated the footage that Pennebaker shot of his 1966 British tour (meant for a TV documentary) and — working with filmmaker Howard Alk — produced his own perversely pulverized version. At once withholding and self-indulgent, Eat the Document fragments brilliant onstage performances in favor of Dylan's backstage riffs with soul mate Robbie Robertson and other members of the entourage.

Although much of the footage would appear, even more perversely re-normalized, in No Direction Home (and provided material for the Jude Quinn sequences in I'm Not There), Eat the Document was never really released. As befits a would-be underground movie, it had its theatrical premiere at the Whitney Museum. Dylan, meanwhile, was down in Mexico, making his first "real" movie, Sam Peckinpah's hippie western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Peckinpah supposedly had no clear idea who the singer was. Both the star, Kris Kristofferson, and the screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, would take credit for recruiting Dylan to play the Kid's smirky sidekick; Dylan, however, was surely responsible for naming his character "Alias."

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