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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Bob Dylan is all there

By C. Glen Bellamy

“I’m Not There”The Weinstein CompanyDirected by Todd HaynesWritten by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman

Starring Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Bruce Greenwood, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross and Julianne Moore

Rated R/135 minutesOpened Nov. 21, 2007Four out of four stars

You don’t know anything about Bob Dylan. That means you, kid — yeah you, the one in the back. The one who spent all your isolated, disaffected high school years singing his folk songs and copying his style, the one who spent an unseemly sum for a vintage first-edition vinyl copy of Blood on the Tracks.

You don’t know anything about Bob Dylan, either.

It’s not just that he won’t let you — it’s that it’s impossible. It’s not your right anyway. Dylan has been a billion different things to a billion different people over the last four decades. He’s pissed a lot of them off. He’s “betrayed” them. He’s disappeared. He’s come back. For all his constant reinvention, there are those who continue to insist on defining him in cheap, almost oppressive terms.

The elusive essence of Dylan is what’s in focus — or, rather, out of focus — in Todd Haynes’ mesmerizing deconstructive portrait “I’m Not There,” which, in addition to being a virtuoso piece of free-form filmmaking, is a de-facto attack on the easy, Oscar-trolling Hollywood biopics that have become their own generic subgenre. As Godard — who, fittingly, is referenced throughout “I’m Not There” — famously said, the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie.

With that in mind, “I’m Not There” seems to call to task such films as “Ray,” “Walk the Line,” “Beyond the Sea” and others of that ilk, which use easily palatable character and story arcs to create all-too-simple portraits of people who were doubtlessly more complicated than they were portrayed. (Childhood trauma. Humble beginnings. Rebellion. Puppy love. Subversion of status quo. Eruption of sudden fame and acclaim. Sexual escapades. Drug addiction. Breakdown. Downfall. Redemption. Rinse. Repeat.)

Like Dylan himself, “I’m Not There” goes against the given convention, goes against its flat sides and 90-degree angles that were stifling to Dylan and would surely be stifling to any creative artist.

We, out here in the mainstream — we’re comfortable with boxed-in people. Makes it easier for us. A lot easier. We don’t like our expectations violated or challenged. That was the problem with Dylan, wasn’t it — his outright refusal to be classified, refusal to do what people wanted or expected? “I’m Not There” follows passionately in those footsteps. Writer and director Todd Haynes isn’t looking for absolutes — yet, “I’m Not There” creates a portrait of an artist who is simultaneously more ambiguous and more revealing than the biopics we’re used to.

The point of “Citizen Kane,” to cite the most obvious example, isn’t simply to represent a lost childhood — but that a person couldn’t be pegged or understood by a word or a label. A person couldn’t be “known” even by those who supposedly knew him or knew so much about him. The search for “answers” — about anyone in the public eye we think we know — is futile. “I’m Not There” understands that and uses it to its gloriously entertaining advantage.

As there have been countless manufactured versions of Dylan throughout his career, Haynes uses six different actors to play him, never letting us get too comfortable with one version or too clear of a picture of the person, the star, the myth, the icon, what have you.

It makes perfect sense for the film’s purposes — Dylan was always best known for fighting the establishment, and, in the case of this film, it’s not only the socio-political establishment or capitalist establishment, but the establishment of thought — the culture of sterilized thinking that hit the ceiling when he went electric (presented in a brilliant moment as Cate Blanchett’s “Jude Quinn” takes the stage at a folk music festival) or when he refused to provide definitive answers for who he was, what he believed, what his music was, what he believed his music was. Fame wasn’t necessarily Dylan’s problem — it was the commodification of not only his image and his music, but of himself.

Naturally, none of the versions of Dylan we see in the film is definitive, but all are oddly insightful. There’s Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), an 11-year-old black kid hopping trains and honing his craft with his one and only possession, a guitar. There’s Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), who achieves fame as a folk singer before, years later, converting to Christianity (representing two vital periods of Dylan’s career).

There’s Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), the star actor struggling to reconcile marriage, stardom, sex and politics. There’s Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) in a largely allegorical narrative examining Dylan’s notoriously quiet, elusive nature — his anonymity. There’s Jude Quinn (Blanchett, in a performance that transcends the simple fact that she’s a woman playing a man), the icon who defies all the conventions so quaintly laid out in front of him in a series of fantastic sequences of freestyle, surreal European-style filmmaking.

And there’s Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), whose narrative consists of a series of statements, answers, musings during a recurring interview — or interrogation, rather.

It’s easy for critics of the film to refuse to acknowledge what Haynes is attempting, and simply write his technique off as a mere gimmick, but that’s missing the larger point of the film. The format is hugely important. Haynes doesn’t just use six actors — he uses six different forms of storytellling.

Recent popular biopics have been impressive in certain ways — the cinematography and performances in “Ray,” the costume and set designs in “Walk the Line” and, of course, the music. They’re certainly not bad films, But, for all their merits, their outright lack of ambition is alarming.

“I’m Not There” is a film snob’s wet dream, referencing scenes and styles from Fellini to Kubrick to Richard Lester to the French New Wave auteurs. Especially Fellini, but it isn’t just that — it’s the most interesting, creative biopic since “Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould.” Like all great filmmakers, Haynes has taken huge chances, and they’ve paid off masterfully.

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