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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, February 01, 2008


There have been some very interesting e-mails bouncing my way - some forwarded to me, some addressed to me - by people either enthusing about, or ranting against, Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There. I've now received permission from all the writers of the excerpts given here to quote them.

The first came to me from Neil Corcoran, after he'd been very surprised to read my largely favourable review of the film in Sight & Sound. This was what he thought of the film:

"I think it's pretty bad. Blanchett wonderful imitation but totally pointless; Gere material unspeakably pretentious and pointless; the young black guy material sentimental and pointless (and he can't act); the film buff intertexts self-regarding and pointless, most notably the Richard Lester bit; the play with Dylan materials an invitation to knowingness and snobbery, and pointless; the Mr Jones stuff really bad video (and the self-cruising, if that's what it was, crass); the interweaving of the whole thing uninterpretable and pointless. Plus, I was actually very BORED much of the time. Useless and pointless knowledge."

Terry Kelly weighed in on that side too:
"I thought I'm Not There was a big nothing of a movie really; simply a cut-and-paste series of Bob references; a chronologically fluid cinematic tableaux, full of sound and fury, signifying very little more than a cultural tick-box. The Dylan biographical deck could have been shuffled any which way and Todd Haynes could have come up with something similar. Humourless and utterly predictable, when not arch and plain corny (Pete Seeger at Newport with - yes, you've guessed it - an axe; amphetamine, vomitific Bob insulting Edie; a drunken Dylan at the Tom Paine awards; etc etc).

Cate Blanchett is the closest 'impersonation' of Dylan, but even her performance quickly grows tiresome, with her conventional mimicking of the 1966 eye-rubbing and shade-wearing speed freak. But some of the other performances are truly cringeworthy. And most of the script is a patchwork quilt of lifted quotes from the Dylan canon. (But I could have second-guessed which quotes would have been used before seeing the movie). To be honest, most of I'm Not There felt like a well-meaning Idiot's Guide to Bob Dylan.

It didn't move or inspire me and the only scenes I found bearable - despite widespread criticism - were the less frenetic backwoods sequences with Richard Gere, particularly the carnivaleque performance of 'Goin' to Acapulco', which at least gestured towards some kind of emotional resonance. I'm Not There failed because it wasn't really experimental at all. The movie bore all the hallmarks of hyperactive Bob Dylan zealotry, with Haynes keen to share his referential grab bag with all and sundry. But none of the disparate parts coalesced into anything even approaching cinematic insight. A hollow victory of style over substance, lacking an emotional core, I'm Not There ultimately left me completely disinterested."

(Terry and I will have to disagree about his use of the word "disinterested" there...)

Then Robert Forryan, who hadn't read either of the above, sent this opinion independently to another friend:

"I was hooked from the opening credits/sequence when 'Stuck Inside of Mobile' came on. I found the whole thing terribly moving - not what I'd expected at all. I'd thought it was going to be very arty and clever-clever but instead I found it utterly emotional. Not like me at all. It created an overwhelming sense of loss, of times past. Perhaps it's my age. I could feel tears trying to break through though I held them back. Just the soundtrack was enough - so many of my favourite songs and they were mostly performed by Dylan which also I hadn't expected. There were flaws and I didn't like Bale much but nothing to spoil the whole. I loved it. Loved the images, the music, the allusions, the characters - each one someone else and not Dylan at all.

And right at the end - just before we get a snatch of the real 66 Dylan on harmonica - there is a view of people milling around outside a building. I was there. It is from Eat The Document and it is outside the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, 15 May 1966. It capped a wonderful afternoon.

And at the end, when Richard Gere says goodbye to the dog I could've cried. It was like Old Shep or Old Yeller all over again."

Finally, Roy Kelly was having none of that...:

"I couldn’t honestly see the point of it. If you were a film fan with no Bob interest, but wanted to follow the Todd Haynes career, what would you make of it? As a film narrative it was entirely incoherent, only held together by people who would know and recognise the quotes he used. Often though they were inaccurate or altered to make some point he presumably had in mind but which didn’t come up on screen. It functioned just like those clunky series I saw last year on Channel 5 about The Sixties, where everything is a cartoon and falsified and the sense of history is simply taken from headlines and caricatures that were wrong at the time anyway. In the end it was simply a chopped up biopic trying to make a virtue of not having Bob look alikes by claiming they were other named aspects of his personality, but then mocking up Bob albums and clothing and all of that flapdoodle until the only sensible reaction is: What point is he trying to make? What logic is informing the way this is put together? Knowing too that there will be an all-purpose get out in that it’s about the mystery alluded to at various times. Only the presence of Bob on the soundtrack made it worthwhile being there. I was struck by how much his voice made a difference. Christian Bale was miming to someone else I noticed at the end, Mason Jennings, never heard of him, and it reduced 'Hattie Carroll' to some Playalong ditty. Whereas when Bob came in with 'Idiot Wind' it focused on what we’ve said endlessly: the sound and timbre of his voice is what gives the songs meaning.

I think what I resented most was the way it promulgated all the layers of wrong-headedness it was supposed to be excoriating, if you could say he had any identifiable purpose at all. The Newport scene was the reduction ad absurdum of that. According to Joe Boyd, who was there, none of that is true, but hearsay and exaggeration play better. When 'Idiot Wind' reached the lines about images and distorted facts I thought that would be the ideal review headline. All he’s done is read all the stuff we’ve read and mixed it up all over the place. The core of the film is the Blanchett sequences, but they don’t sit at all well with anything else. Why spend so much time on a story featuring an imagined actor who is suppose to have played the imagined Bob person in a film, and give him a broken romance story. The reason, it seemed to me, was so that Haynes could film in an apartment in an imaginative way. And those colours and décor were the parts of the film where I felt he was really engaged, along with the landscapes. The washing up was more interesting than poor, wasted Ben Wishaw, and Christian Bale has an unsympathetic face and a ridiculous Method mumble. All of the pastiche filming of Sixties styles were as annoying as the pastiche things the Bob stand-ins and Joan stand-in had to say. Everything, everything else, is like a school play production told to re-enact what they think the Sixties meant if Bob Dylan had to be the thread. The Gere scenes make no sense at all in any context, and worse, look silly. As do all the instances where people enact or quote lines from songs. 'Pack up the meat sweet', indeed. Anyone who knows Bob’s lines or interviews is just going to get nettled by the continuing misuse, and anyone who doesn’t is going to have nothing else to hold their attention.

I felt that what kept me from being bored was being irritated, and a vague hope that something good would come out of it. It was lovely to hear 'I’m Not There' itself, but then that gets faded for dialogue. I was surprised that so little of the soundtrack covers album appears in the film, but glad that there was so much real Bob. It was the only thing that kept me going. Some people want to see it again, or went to see it again, but I think I’d want paying to sit through it twice. I could feel myself dying in there."

This is such an abyss of a divide of opinion - it makes it fascinating. Anyone else with strong views? More unusually, anyone with mild views??


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The film was dull. I was surprised at how dull it was. The only 'message' I got from the film was that Bob doesn't like to follow the party line : not in any of his incarnations. Well you can say that in two lines of text. I had had great expectations. I agree with the sentiment aired by some of the above; what was the point.

10:25 am  
Blogger ernie pancsofar said...

Review of I’m Not There
November 23, 2007

After reading mostly favorable reviews of this biopic, I was not disappointed with Todd Hayne’s work. He held my attention from beginning to end and the interplay among characters was artfully accomplished. I would definitely go see it again! My comments follow:
⇒ Overall rating: 9 out of 10 stars: no one can capture Dylan with perfection; a 10 out of 10 is impossible!
⇒ Cheesiest moments: Jude (Cate Blanchett makes a remark right after a huffy exit by CoCo, “Just like a woman!” and Jude frolicking on the lawn with Beatles look-alikes
⇒ Highlight of the biopic: Cate Blanchett’s gestures while playing piano at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, England, venue in 1966 during a version of Ballad of a Thin Man.
⇒ Overall Effects: town of Riddle, which appeared to contain a collage of characters who could have inhabited Desolation Row, resided by Highway 61 or assembled All Along the Watchtower.
⇒ Unexpected Moment: Ritchie Havens as Old Man Arvin singing on the front porch with little “Woody Guthrie”.
⇒ Best Aspect of Viewing the Movie: Attending with my daughter and sharing a “Dylan” moment.
⇒ Best Interpretation of a Song: Following Mr. Jones, the journalist, as lyrics are in the background and mirror Dont Look Back sequence.
⇒ Most Realistic Representation (aside from Cate Blanchett): portrayal of Joan Baez persona (Alice Fabian) by Julianne Moore.
⇒ Best Portrayal of a Member of the Dylan Entourage: Albert Grossman (Norman) character played by Mark Camacho.
⇒ Best Song Connected to the Script: Going to Acapulco sung by a man with white powdered face (My Morning Jacket) reminiscent of Rolling Thunder Revue days.

4:21 am  
Blogger Trivia and Information said...

It doesn't sound like Neil Corcoran is the brightest guy. First of all, he finishes with the referential "useless and pointless knowledge" after taking stabs at the references and "knowingness" in the film. He repeats the word "pointless" over and over without saying why. He's a writer interested in style and cleverness over substance, and that is the very definiton of pointlessness.

11:33 pm  
Blogger Trivia and Information said...

Re: Roy Kelly's questioning how INT fits in with Hayne's other films.
It wouldn't be a stretch to see it as a companion to Velvet Goldmine; clearly Haynes as an interest in the history of rock and roll, or pop music.
Also, although I'm not versed in queer theory or cinema, I imagine its proponents are having a field day with INT.

11:56 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Oh dear, what a wall of indifference we seem to have bumped into from blogreaders, despite the provocation of the intemperate views of those Clashing Bobcats. It seems a pity, therefore, that said, to demur from Cinautism's comments on Neil Corcoran's comments - because at least here we have a nicely snappish view expressed . . . but I do think it's unfair on Prof. Corcoran: he wasn't offering a polished essay but a rant to friends, which he was kind enough to give me permission to publish - so he was under no obligation to justify the rhetorical device of his repeated "pointless", nor to explain himself or his view of the film any more than he did.

But my thanks do go to you, Cinemautism, for perking up the debate here a bit and making that apt point about Velvet Goldmine.

4:38 pm  
Blogger George said...

It’s difficult to come to a verdict on one viewing but one thing that “I’m Not There” certainly does is to make you appreciate how utterly incomparable the actual Bob Dylan is. Such is the spontaneity of his finest performances and, shall we say, the roughness of his charm that everyone thinks he’s easy to imitate. But when HIS actual voice appeared it really trashed all pretenders. And when HE actually appeared at the end it was like the sun bursting out after a really dreary day.

This really makes me wonder how Dylan’s work will ultimately be seen. I can think of no other performer whose songs really do seem to need their creator’s presence.

9:21 pm  

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