In Which Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere Are Interchangeable But Why Didn’t Heath Play The Gay Cowboy In This One

And Man Gave Names To All The Animals

by Andrew Zornoza

I’m Not There

dir. Todd Haynes

135 minutes

It is not clear if they are hobos, farmers, or townsfolk, but it is clear that they are four people down on their luck, and they stare out from the movie screen as grimly as dustbowlers from a Walker Evans’ photograph. In the background, a weathered grey barn yearns for the sky. An American ruin, completing the picture.

And I find it difficult to suppress a yawn. It’s 2007; I live in paved-over Brooklyn. When I hear the word “americana” I think, for no rational or defensible reason, of the photograph of that lone man standing in front of tanks at Tiananmen Square. Except that, in my mind, the tanks are actually rolling down Flatbush Avenue and the man is Chris Rock, stripped to his underwear. Parenthetically, I do not think of Woody Guthrie’s hardscrabble narratives or Osh-Kosh overalls.

But this is a movie and that means the picture is moving. A distinctly unamerican giraffe enters the scene, serenely chewing on nothing at all as he poses behind the barn. Apropos of what?

The camera then pans out to take in a bandstand, where a man in white-face deeply contemplates the wood at his feet. The man wears a tight red jacket with big navy straps—an outfit that A) is so beaten and torn it looks like it has survived the bombing of Dresden B) is of indeterminate purpose: circus? parade? military? It’s impossible to tell.

The man sings in a plaintive, deep, reverberating voice. Cerebral gears engage, churning through this inversion of minstelry—but are wrenched to a stop by a pleasant moment of recognition.

The man is Jimmy James, lead singer of My Morning Jacket. Just as Jimmy’s song reaches a most achingly beautiful moment, he stretches out one single word: “Acapulco.” Yuck. A cover. One of the most awful Dylan tunes of all time. A moment later, the song continues, beautiful once again—wait, wasn’t this song awful?

I’m Not There” is a glorious trainwreck of a movie. How it avoided going straight to DVD is more a testimony to the purchasing power of Dylan’s army of committed fanboys and fangirls than it is to Todd Haynes art-house credentials.

But thank god for the fans—how long has it been since we’ve had a movie this self-conscious and painful? There is even a brief scene here with the Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale and Huey Newton waxing philosophical on “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I practically could smell the marijuana smoke of the past wafting over the TV, over the Betamax case for Goddard’s Sympathy for the Devil. . . .

What a great, brave, not-so-little, movie Todd Haynes has given us! This film addresses fame and persona more clearly (with a more challenging subject) than a million Basquiats and Walk The Lines and Fridas and Capotes and Pollocks all put together.

Dylan is largely an idiotic moron here, yet there’s the nagging sense that he’s onto something—artistically.

Dylan is in some sort of purgatory, doomed to sing for eternity (with the exception of five minute cigarette breaks marred by Samuel Beckett hitting him over the head with the Unnameable).

He clearly has put up a front all these years, but behind all of the strutting and nonsense and intimidation so clearly chronicled in Don’t Look Back and Eat The Document . . . despite this and Dylan having the strongest aversion to being pinned down of any performer of our time . . . despite this and more, he really was onto something.

Definitions can be the enemy of art. Words themselves are definitions. We are surrounded by building blocks but are not blocks ourselves. We are vessels. Love minus zero equals no limit. Don’t follow leaders. Watch your parking meters. The pump don’t work cause the vandals stole the handle. Et cetera, et cetera.

Dylan’s continual devil’s advocacy and psycho babbling were not an act of distancing himself from the public. They were an intimate demonstration of method.

In order to get the songs on multiple bleeding edges (irrational/rational; contemporary/past, emotional/intellectual) he had to dip into a primordial subconsious soup of armchair philosophy, Americana, and honest to goodness feelings.

And that’s what poured out of the idiotic wind between his teeth when he was away from the stage. Everyone tuned him out or took him far too seriously then–but the secret was there: you can’t make sense out of soup, you just got to eat it.

the old, white Woody Guthrie

You’re not allowed to think very much in the current model of biography pictures. Even if Ray or Capote is shown to be flawed, the flaws are neatly presented. There is no real mystery.

Todd Haynes has left the riddle behind and for that he should be applauded–or thrown your nine dollars. Haynes insists that the young Bob Dylan was a slight black boy with the name of Woody Guthrie who carried around a guitar case that says, “This Machine Kills Fascists.” What could be more ludicrous? Or better?

After being jeered as a Judas to the folk movement during the Free Trade Hall concert of May 17th 1966 (and having fans almost boo him off the stage), Dylan turns to Robbie Robertson and says, “Play fucking loud.”

The thump of Rick Danko’s bass and Mickey Jones’ drums drowns out the crowd in a decisive whoomp!

How little we knew then of who was on the right side. And how little it matters, if you’re down in it.

Truthfully, I wasn’t alive then. I have only experienced Bob first-hand in Victoria’s Secret commercials.

Which is something like meeting Walt Whitman in a supermarket.

It doesn’t get much more surreal than that, does it?

Andrew Zornoza is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. His latest story is available here. His photo-novel “Where I Stay,” will be available from Tarpaulin Sky Press in early 2009. You can e-mail him at azornoza at gmail.com.

Walt Whitman would have been a great blogger.

I’M NOT THERE PLAYLIST

“Pissin’ on Your Steps” — Del tha Funkee Homosapien (mp3)

“No Confidence Man (Live January 31 2003)” — Elliott Smith (mp3)

“Everyone Chooses Sides” — The Wrens (mp3)


PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING

Molly is with child, the child is The Sopranos.

Our links used to be sexier.

What exactly is the gnumber?

William Gass (left) reads This Recording, and Stanley Elkin probably would have loved us. Go Tigers!

8 thoughts on “In Which Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere Are Interchangeable But Why Didn’t Heath Play The Gay Cowboy In This One

  1. BLOG OF MYSELF

    1

    I celebrate myself, and blog myself,
    And what I blog you shall read,
    For every blog belonging to me as good belongs to you.

    I blog and invite my soul,
    I lean and blog at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

    My tongue, every atom of my blood, blogg’d from this soil, this air,
    Blogged here of parents blogged here from parents the same, and their
    parents the same,
    I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health blog,
    Hoping to cease not till death.

    Blogs and schools in abeyance,
    Blogging back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
    I blog for good or bad, I permit to blog at every hazard,
    Nature without check with original blogergy.

  2. Very insightful post about the artistic approach to this Bob Dylan movie. I do agree with you that the director was bold in leaving an element of mystery behind, as Bob Dylan is one of our most important musical/cultural icons, thereby doing him justice in a cinematic portrayal seemingly impossible. However, I do want to commend the movie soundtrack. The collection of artists (with some exceptions) were rather good, and for the most part I enjoyed it. You should check it out if you haven’t already.

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