I’m Not There

I think I’ve been waiting for I’m Not There more than I’ve been waiting for any other single in this blog. I anticipated that I would write a huge, sprawling post on the greatness of this film. When I first saw it, when it was released in 2007, I thought that it was absolutely brilliant. When I watched it again last night, I thought the same again. Indeed, I was so impressed by it that I’m not even all that certain that I have a lot to say.
I will say this: I wish I had made it.
For me, there is a certain very small set of cultural texts that I so admire that I really wish that I had made them. They seem to hit my aesthetic and cultural interests so squarely that I find myself thinking “I couldn’t improve upon that” or “I wish that my brain worked in such a way that I could have made that, that I could have been the one to communicate that”. I don’t think it’s a form of jealousy, because I always feel it in a rueful manner. Certain of the films by the Coen Brothers do this to me. Certain of Chris Ware’s comics. Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, was the last thing in text that did it for me. Last night I, again, had that feeling about I’m Not There.
Strangely, I’ve never had it about an entire Dylan album. I don’t think that I’ve ever wanted to be Bob Dylan, and I’m not even sure that I’d want to meet Bob Dylan. I admire a lot of what he’s done, and he can even hit me on an emotional level. But there is always a little bit of distance there.
With Todd Haynes it is less. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I wasn’t cool enough – or Hamilton wasn’t cool enough – to have known about Superstar when it came out in 1987, so I wasn’t there from day one like all the hipsters. I saw Poison as a film student, and Safe, and Velvet Goldmine in the 1990s. It was Far From Heaven in 2002 that put him over the top for me. That’s when he went from “really interesting, I should see that” to “my god, this man is an absolute genius”. Of course, a lifetime of watching Sirk films as a film student is great prep for loving a film like Far From Heaven.
Similarly, a year of listening to nothing but Bob Dylan is great prep for loving a film like I’m Not There.
Every single bit of the film is just great. Not just great, but great great. The attention to detail is really amazing. When Christian Bale, as Jack Rollins, plays in front of that truck, it is like watching Dylan photos brought to life. The use of material from Eat the Document – particularly the John Lennon bit – was actually eerie. There are parts of the film that I could talk along to, because I’ve heard Dylan give the press conference answers that come from the mouth of Cate Blanchett and Ben Whishaw. Fantastic.
The thing that amazes me about I’m Not There is that there is no single genre of filmmaking that I dislike more than the Bio Film. There are so few of them that I can stand to watch (Raging Bull, ummm, I’m running out of others….). A film like Walk the Line, to pick an example that explores territory that Haynes could have explored here with a very similar subject, is, for me, painful to watch. Yes, it has some great performances, but there is so little drama to it – it’s a rote ticking off of boxes in the life of this Great Man. When I watched Walk the Line I wished that the scene where Johnny Cash and Elvis and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis are drinking in a parking lot was the whole film. I wanted to hear from those guys – those young guys – about what they wanted to do with their lives, with the full awareness of what they did do. The rest was just so much bumf.
Haynes gets rid of (almost) all of the crap that clogs the arteries of the Bio Pic. The specifics of Dylan’s life can be rendered dramatic – and then they booed him at Newport! and then they called him Judas! and then his motorcycle crashed (and all three of those things are in the film) – but that also seems like the least interesting thing about Dylan. Scorsese got drama out of No Direction Home, but only of a limited sort. Haynes goes for something much, much bigger. He actually wants to tell us something about Bob Dylan, not about the life of Bob Dylan. It’s a big distinction.
The film is, of course, most famous for the fact that it takes six actors to play Dylan. Each is charged with a part – a private part, or a public part, or a part that might never have existed. The casting of Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody is the first masterstroke of the film. There are so many embedded layers to that decision – from Dylan’s desire to take on the persona of his idol, to the very falseness of it, to the depiction of his youth and naivete on the subject. “We’ve had the union since 1939”, one of the hobos says about Woody’s union songs in 1959; “sing about your own time”, he’s told.
Ben Whishaw probably doesn’t get enough attention for his strong performance here. He has the least showy role – sitting on a stage, smoking, as Arthur Rimbaud (about whom Haynes had made an earlier film), quoting Bob Dylan endlessly. I think he’s great here, although he isn’t asked to do a lot more than mimicry.
Christian Bale’s is a strange performance, but I love the connection between the young, politically committed Jack Rollins and the older, religiously committed Pastor Jack. It’s a harrowing vision of what Bob Dylan might have become in another lifetime. Heath Ledger, who plays an actor playing Jack Rollins, is strong here too. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s combination of Sara Lowndes and Suze Rotolo generally upstages Ledger in most of their scenes together – not an easy task. I actually would have loved to have seen a film just about her character.
I love all the Richard Gere parts, and not simply because Days of Heaven is one of my two or three favourite films of all time. Everything here from the loss of his dog to the confrontation with Pat Garrett/The Thin Man, to the passing giraffe, is just done so well. The mythological Peckinpah hero simply ties together so many parts of the Dylan mythology, and even though I didn’t like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the use of the characters here is a wonderful reflection on a man hiding from his fame.
Finally, Cate Blanchett as Dylan at his zenith. So, so great. It’s hard to watch a lot of this material – the cruelty, the vanity, the self-importance, the preening. The drug-addled Dylan is one of my least favourite Dylans, and it is tough to watch it literalized here. Again, this could have been the whole film. I’m reminded that Factory Girl, which was roughly contemporary with this, featured a Dylan surrogate named Quinn who torments Edie Sedgwick to her death (Dylan threatened to sue). That wasn’t a good film, but it made me want to see a film that was simply about the night Bob Dylan tested for Andy Warhol. Now that would be a great film about two very different (though somehow related) ideas of the 1960s.
When I first watched I’m Not There I thought it was a great Todd Haynes movie. Last night I thought it was a great Dylan piece. Haynes brings elements into contact with each other in a really knowing way. There is such great richness here. When Robbie Clark has an affair with an actress in London, cheating on his wife Claire, Haynes gives the actress the name Louise, and plays “Visions of Johanna” over the scene so that we think:
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near

She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here
The film is replete with moments like this one, where the subtext of Dylan’s songs adds tremendous gravitas to this film about his songs. I think it was wise of Haynes to hold off, then, on “Like a Rolling Stone”, playing it only over the closing credits. The song itself is so cinematic, so rich, that to use it in the narrative would be too much like playing with fire. Additionally, I really like the way that Haynes uses songs from later in Dylan’s career. While the film doesn’t go much past the end of the 70s with Pastor Jack (unless Billy the Kid is Dylan’s future, set in the past? Could be), it does use songs from much later (“Man in the Long Black Coat”) and uses them really well. Haynes has a deep, deep understanding of the Dylan catalogue. As proof, let’s note that the title track had not been officially released until this soundtrack appeared, and not on a Dylan album until a couple of weeks ago with the release of the new Bootleg Series. I knew the song, as I’m sure Haynes did, only from the depths of A Tree With Roots or another complete basement tapes bootleg. It’s a tremendous song, by the way, and an outstanding choice for the title and the theme.
Certainly the most jarring part of the film is the very last piece – when the “real” (and I think that this film makes me want to always question that term) Bob Dylan arrives on stage, blowing on his harmonica. This is Pennebaker filmed material from 1966, “Mr. Tambourine Man”. After this magical tour de force Dylan seemed so alien in his real body up on that stage, powerfully present yet also more distant (despite the close proximity of the camera) than the fictionalized versions of himself. It’s a gut punch of an ending, I’ll tell you that.
Dylan himself had little direct involvement in the production of the film, though he did like it. He told Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore, in 2012, “Yeah, I thought it was all right. Do you think that the director was worried that people would understand it or not? I don’t think he cared one bit. I just think he wanted to make a good movie. I thought it looked good, and those actors were incredible.” I guess that’s as close as you’re going to get to a rave from someone like Dylan. Me, I like it a lot better than that.

Dylan (2007)

With a career spanning more than five decades, it is no surprise that there is a surfeit of Bob Dylan greatest hits collections. Indeed, there are three volumes of Greatest Hits, there is Essential, there is the mid-career-spanning Biograph, and, in 2007, the compilation Dylan, released as a single CD and a triple-CD. It is probably not too surprising that Dylan would release a second album titled Dylan, since he disavowed the first one (made without his input by a spiteful record company, only last year allowing it to be released on CD, and presumably only for the sake of semi-completeness). I’m not so much interested in the title as in the consolidation of the notion of what is essential in Dylan’s catalogue.
If you look at the previous Greatest Hits volumes, you have three volumes, one of which is a double-album (volume two). Released in 1967, 1971, and 1994 respectively, Greatest Hits includes 46 songs. Of those, seven of the songs were unreleased at the time that they were included (basically almost all of side four from Greatest Hits v2, and two tracks from v3). That makes 39 tracks from 1963 (nothing from his first album made a Greatest Hits) to 1994 that had already been anthologized under the rubric “greatest”, rather than being a form of cynical record company manipulation (“Hey, we know you hardcores have all this – but two unreleased tracks!”). So that’s our starting point.
Dylan, the three volume version (I’m going to essentially ignore the single volume here), has 51 songs – so twelve more in the thirteen intervening years. But, of course, it’s not entirely just an addition of new material. Here’s how it shakes out.
In the period that was covered by the earlier Greatest Hits, we have some new additions:
“Song to Woody” becomes the earliest song, rather than “Blowin’ in the Wind”. This could never have been considered a “hit” in 1967, but by 2007 it is clearly an essential porto-Dylan song.
“Masters of War” is added. It was an inexplicable absence from the earlier Greatest Hits collections.
“Most Likely You Go Your Way (I’ll Go Mine)”. Great song, but is possibly added to Dylan only to promote the Mark Ronson remix that will be used as a sales hook for the set.
“On a Night Like This”, which I think is a bit of an odd addition – I don’t think that this is a better known song than many that were deleted.
“Simple Twist of Fate”. This easily could have been included on Greatest Hits v3, and probably should have been.
“Precious Angel”, “Dark Eyes”, and “Blind Willie McTell” are all promoted to essential songs from the 1980s. Interestingly, “Blind Willie McTell” was originally not even going to be a release, as Dylan cut it off of Infidels (still one of his most bizarre choices of all time). This seems a testament to the influence of the Bootleg Series and, of course, to Dylan’s touring performance selections.
The remaining ten new songs on disc three are all post 1997 (“Things Have Changed”; “Po’ Boy”; “High Water (for Charley Patton”, etc.). In some ways it is interesting that Dylan gives twenty per cent of the set to the most recent decade of his life. The work deserves it, but this isn’t the work that a lot of people know and love. In this way, Dylan provides the kind of service that you’d want a career-retrospective to do.
What about the songs that have disappeared?
Well, from Greatest Hits v1 “I Want You” is gone, which isn’t the biggest loss of all time, but otherwise the whole album is there. Basically, an argument can be made that Greatest Hits v1 holds up entirely – smart choices all around, and a strong early consensus on “important Dylan songs”, with the exception of the miss of “Masters of War”.
Greatest Hits v2 is far, far spottier. Deleted are “Watching the River Flow”, “Stuck Inside of Mobile”, “I’ll Be Your Baby”, “Tonight I’ll Be Stayin’ Here With You”, “She Belongs to Me”, “The Mighty Quinn”, “Tom Thumb’s Blues”, “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Down in the Flood”. That’s a ton of songs. Of those, three were unreleased at the time and didn’t hold up (though both “Masterpiece” and “Down in the Flood” are good songs). I think that the deletions here are indicative of the fact that Greatest Hits v2 was too broad, covering a relatively thin period for Dylan with a double-album set. While I like almost every one of these deleted songs, it is true that a number of them were in no way “greatest hits”.
Greatest Hits v3 fares much better – only one song didn’t make it, one of the two unreleased songs added to goose sales (“Series of Dreams”). This album, of course, covers twenty-three years and includes a ton of awesome albums (Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Infidels, Oh Mercy….) so it would have been much more difficult to get this wrong.
Remarkably, there is very little movement on the first and second Greatest Hits – one song deleted from each after forty and ten years respectively. That’s a clear consensus. Greatest Hits v2 was a bit of a predictive disaster, however, and looks illogical from the standpoint of 2007.
As an album I’m not sure how Dylan sounds – I don’t own it and haven’t actually listened to it. With only one new track, it is simply things that I have re-arranged. As a list of songs, it is really great. I’ve begun to think about how I will compile my own top fifty or one hundred or whatever at the end of this, and Dylan is a good starting place. There’s nothing here that I would want to delete particularly from his canon, and lots that I would add to it based on my personal tastes, so I guess I’ll have to go to one hundred. I said earlier that I think Biograph is the best single source for a new Dylan listener, but this would give it a serious, serious run for its money, if only because it has two additional decades of great material to draw upon. If you’re looking for Christmas presents for the casual Dylan fan in your life, this might be a good way to go.
I should also mention that my eight-year-old son thinks this is the best Dylan album cover. He just loves the red and the big bold DYLAN.