Don’t think twice, biopic’s all right

One easy initial complaint with “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’s fractured, devilishly idiosyncratic Bob Dylan picture, might be that the writer and director has fallen victim to the very same stylistic pretensions of the man whose life he attempts to portray. A valid observation, certainly: with six different actors playing characters representomg Dylan’s various personae, and with countless lines of dialogue appropriated from Dylan’s lyrics and interviews, in many respects the film places the singer’s artistic vernacular in the service of his biography. But that observation, far from an indictment of Haynes’s movie, is ultimately a testament to the wildness and intelligence that pervades nearly every segment of the film.

Whether such an achievement would be possible with any other subject besides Dylan is dubious. More so than any other artist over the past 50 years (and probably even longer), Dylan has made a business out of cultivating alternative selves that maintain the appearance of absolute sincerity and authenticity, no matter how radically they diverge from their predecessors. And with each new Dylan, it seems, onlookers have only clambered over one another more eagerly and more intensely in their efforts to discern who the “real” man actually is. He’s certainly given them plenty of material to sort through: Dylan’s life is the stuff of endless rumors and legends, in whose promotion nobody has been more assiduous than Dylan himself.

“I’m Not There,” titled after one of Dylan’s previously unreleased songs, doesn’t call Dylan’s bluff so much as it plays along with the idea. The singer’s various selves are divvied up into different characters with their own assigned labels. There’s the poet, Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw); the prophet and, later, born-again Christian, Jack Rollins (Christian Bale); the fraud, Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin); the outlaw, Billy the Kid (Richard Gere); the star of electricity, Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger); and the rock ’n’ roll martyr, Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). Each character’s separate narrative arc is cut into disjointed pieces that are then woven together throughout the course of the film.

The result is an expansive, variegated cinematic collage of images and words and sounds that, at times, manages to work much in the same fashion as some of Dylan’s very best songs. Ideas surface briefly, then vanish; familiar emotions are summoned in the most jarring and unfamiliar of forms. To see the film is often to be affected in truly moving terms without being furnished the means to explain why or how. And with each of its six narratives, with each arresting song that maps a further corner of its sprawling internal geography, “I’m Not There” flirts with an imaginative possibility: not that biography influences art, nor that art influences biography, but — more boldly — that biography is itself a kind of art form, that the self is less an organic, autonomous whole than a consciously created synthetic product.

And so Haynes’s film is a whole world — several worlds, really — where nothing is ever the way that it seems, where truth and fiction exist on equal terms, frequently blended together. Always present, as in Dylan’s own words and music, is the challenge of extricating one from the other, of determining whether the audience is witnessing the genuine article or simply an elaborate put-on. One journalist (Bruce Greenwood), leveling an accusation at Blanchett’s cantankerous hipster Jude, cuts to the heart of the dilemma: “You either do truly care about nothing at all, or tremendously much that people think so.”

“I’m Not There” never makes any serious attempt to resolve such matters. Instead, it delivers an unremitting stream of scenes that exude a winking self-awareness without pausing to offer clarifications or definitions of reality. It’s no mistake that the character of Robbie, whose failing marriage is the center of the most emotional narrative, is not a musician but a famous actor who has played Bale’s folksinger Jack Rollins in a movie. It’s no mistake, either, that “I’m Not There” is narrated by Kris Kristofferson, who once upon a time played Billy the Kid, the same character portrayed by Gere.

Audacity per se isn’t necessarily the mark of a great film. Truth be told, “I’m Not There” does wander occasionally from brilliance into simple confusion, its stitched-up tall tales sometimes feeling as though they’ve been spliced together arbitrarily. But the film’s audacity in this case is incidental to a much rarer, more precious attribute: a real and immediate vision of how stories — real stories and fake — can be told. The question isn’t whether Haynes’s movie is an accurate one, but whether it is good filmmaking. And on that score it is a sound success.

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