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Like a Complete Unknown

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Having unmasked and remasked the protagonist, Haynes skips at once back and ahead to mod London to present his own sacred monster — the incandescent mid-'60s electric speed freak Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). Haynes is not what one would call a natural filmmaker. His ideas are too evident, his schemata overly present. He is, however, a sort of natural Brechtian: His actors are always "quoting." I'm Not There gets surprisingly naturalistic performances from Ledger and especially Bale. But it's the blatant alienation effect provided by Marcus Carl Franklin's and Cate Blanchett's fastidiously copied mannerisms that truly dramatize the self-invented, sheer sui generis-ness of the Dylan trip.

With Blanchett, the movie turns black-and-white faux vérité. Drawing on D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and riffing on A Hard Day's Night (Jude frisks with under-cranked, helium-voiced Beatles at a British lawn party), Haynes ponders Dylan's most alarming and compelling manifestation as the vitriolic brat-visionary "voice of a generation." Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) dances attendance; a smug BBC journalist (Bruce Greenwood) casts himself as the clueless Mr. Jones; an Edie Sedgwick-like ex-debutante (Michelle Williams) drifts onto the scene, grist for Jude's malicious humor.

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?

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J. Hoberman
Contact: J. Hoberman

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