Back in the early ’90s, a guy named Brian Morton published a now out-of-print novel called The Dylanist. Don’t bother reading it. My wife found a copy on eBay several years ago. I cherish it, but I’ve got to admit: As a novel, it just isn’t good.
I bring this up only because there’s a slightly famous scene in that distinctly unfamous book where a bored woman at a party discovers a Bob Dylan bootleg album in the host’s record collection. There’s a song on the bootleg that usually goes by the name “I’m Not There (1956).” This was “a song that she'd heard just once, the summer after high school, and that she'd been searching for ever since.” She puts on the record. When the song starts playing, she turns to a fat man. “This,” she says, “may be the greatest song ever written.”
To the extent such a thing can be said without sounding like a complete moron, many, many rabid Dylan fans agree with her. The music critic Greil Marcus once wrote: “There is nothing like ‘I’m Not There’ anywhere else in Bob Dylan’s career.”
It's a fantastically peculiar song, no doubt about it, even by Dylan standards. On the recording, Dylan sounds somewhat loaded. Thankfully, The Band, as usual, is totally on. Once you settle into the thing, though, it’s hard not to notice that the long, rambling verses don't make actual sense, and not just because of Dylan’s typically incongruous lyrical content. It’s actually because--à la Lewis Carroll--at least half the words are invented. They aren’t Chinese. They certainly aren’t English. They don’t seem to be anything. It’s a heart-wrenching song nonetheless, purely due to the specific tone of Dylan’s delivery. The composer Michael Pisaro says it’s like Dylan decided to make up a whole new vocabulary then use his invention to sing about the most important event of his life.
This song, a new movie that steals its name and Bob Dylan himself are cut from the same stone. If you listen (and watch) closely, you’ll know exactly what they’re all about. On the other hand, if someone asks you to explain that awareness, you’ll probably fail. Such is the frustrating life of a Dylanist.
In the movie, directed by mainstream experimentalist Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), six different actors play six different versions of Dylan. The movie is structured--if structured is the right word--in a manner reminiscent of Dylan’s own film experiments. The editing is heavy, creating a fragmented ambience that coheres miraculously into a beautiful kaleidoscope of Dylanesque imagery and ideas. The words “Bob Dylan” are never mentioned once by anyone. The six avatars each have different names. Sometimes Dylan is Woody Guthrie. Sometimes he’s Arthur Rimbaud. Sometimes he’s Quinn the Eskimo. When Richard Gere comes around, he’s Billy the Kid.
Most of the other characters don’t have accurate names, either. Dylan’s real-life, money-grubbing manager, Albert Grossman, is named Norman. Andy Warhol’s lady friend Edie Sedgwick is named Coco. Dylan’s wife, Sara, is transformed into a French painter named Claire.
All in all, maybe 10 percent of the movie contains some level of historical accuracy. Dylan really did get into a motorcycle accident. He really did once claim to sympathize with Lee Harvey Oswald. The rest of the movie, honestly, is complete bullshit. But what great bullshit! Like Dylan’s own infamous biographical deceptions, it’s all very entertaining if you’re into this kind of thing. The performances are spectacular, too; especially Cate Blanchett as the 1966 electric-head amphetamine version of Dylan, who sneers, riddles and slurs so expertly she seems more Dylanish than Dylan himself.
Likewise, the soundtrack is just sensational, mixing familiar tunes with oddball covers and a few mind-blowing songs from the vault. (These include the titular tune, pulled from the bootleg shadows for the first time, only to scurry back after a few brief seconds in the sunshine.)
My suspicion is most viewers who enter the theater lacking an intimate familiarity with Dylan’s work and biography will think this is the worst kind of pretentious cinematic sham. To be fair, this film isn’t made for them.Think of it as a really good inside joke aimed squarely at Dylan obsessives.
Here’s a dirty little secret: Many Dylan fans occasionally find themselves sympathizing with those who mock their freaky, big-headed hero. His voice is whiny. His harmonica playing is meandering. His lyrics can be goofy and/or lame. Yet, for so many of us, that voice and those words can hook deeply into the skin, and the point is always barbed. This movie is an experimental attempt to penetrate the mystery of Dylan’s inestimable musical impact. For decades, countless thoughtful, intuitive people have tried to explain the meaning of his artistic accomplishment. In my opinion, no one has come close to success. I’m not even sure anyone can succeed. Maybe after he’s dead. Maybe in 3030.
At least I’m Not There has ambitions to make some progress in a useful direction. It recognizes there’s a void to fill, that the legacy of the man’s work matters to our culture. Fittingly, the film takes the sort of nonlinear approach Dylan so often takes in his songs. It’s oblique. It’s funny. At the end of the day, it’s largely inexplicable. I mean, you know, it makes perfect sense to me. I feel what it means. But it’s difficult, and probably ill-advised, to say much more than that. Ask me for more details in 3030.