Off-Key

sarris imnotthere1v Off KeyI’M NOT THERE
Running Time 135 minutes
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger

 

Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, from a screenplay by Mr. Haynes and Oren Moverman, has convinced me that Mr. Haynes knows infinitely more about Bob Dylan, his life, his times and his music than I have ever wanted to know, even though I am way old enough to remember the first bandyings of his name, his music and his causes when he made his appearance on the pop scene in the early 60’s. Of his few screen appearances that I happened to catch, I remember rather liking his nervy, contentious reactions to the mavens of his day. He does not materialize in the flesh in this film except through his recorded songs. Hence, the ironic title of the film. To represent what he regards as the perpetually precedent-shattering stages of Mr. Dylan’s relentlessly restless career, Mr. Haynes has recruited a top-drawer cast of Dylan alter egos and cultural-influence personifications ranging from Arthur Rimbaud to Billy the Kid. As the production notes promise us: “Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw are all Bob Dylan.” Though Ms. Blanchett is clearly playing a male role as “Jude,” there is not the slightest hint of bisexuality in the film. “Jude” represents the period in his career when he toured England with a new-fangled electric guitar, which allegedly outraged the fans of his hitherto traditional folk music. Still, I found Ms. Blanchett’s the outstanding performance in the film, possibly because I responded to the amused perversity in her eyes; it somehow corresponded to my own bemused reaction to the seemingly endless masquerades, for which the accompaniment of what seemed like the total Dylan repertoire struck me, at least, as insufficient compensation.

I had never known, or, perhaps, had forgotten, that Mr. Dylan had suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident that impelled him to join a church as its pastor, and preach the gospel. Or maybe I have gotten the sequence of events mixed up.

So for further guidance, I turn to the production notes: “In 2000, seeking a peaceful place to write the screenplay for Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes left New York City for Portland, Oregon, where his sister lived. Around that time he found himself increasingly preoccupied with Bob Dylan. ‘My love for his music started in high school, but I didn’t listen to him for many years,’ says Haynes, ‘but I found myself curiously coming back to him at a moment in my life when I was looking for a change, though I may not have known it yet. I’ve heard that people at crucial times in their lives can turn to Dylan to either lose themselves or find themselves again. And I did change my life. I gave up my apartment in New York and moved to Portland.’”

As it happens, I am not one of the great admirers of Far From Heaven (2002), in which Mr. Haynes created a stylistic sendup of Douglas Sirk movies by adding once-taboo subjects like gay and interracial sex to an otherwise idyllic American suburb. The Oscar-winning Julianne Moore, who played the beleaguered housewife in Far From Heaven, makes a courtesy appearance in I’m Not There as Alice Fabian, a possible stand-in for Joan Baez, who was rumored to have been intimate with Mr. Dylan. The other significant female as female presence is that of Charlotte Gainsbourg, as one of Mr. Dylan’s alleged main squeezes. I have seen Ms. Gainsbourg in so many French movies that I began to wonder about the full extent of the French Connection in the overriding Dylan folk legend.

All right, I confess. I was bored and confused most of the time, but I plead ignorance as a critic to the many nuances of Mr. Haynes’s pop cavalcade of Mr. Dylan’s golden oldies, enmeshed as these are in Mr. Haynes’s hopelessly and interminably cluttered mise-en-scène.