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May 6, 2008

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DVD of the Week – Review of I’m Not There (2007)

by HELEN GEIB

The boy in the still is Marcus Carl Franklin. He is one of six actors embodying a facet of Bob Dylan– man, artist, cultural icon- in writer-director Todd Haynes’s mind-bending biopic I’m Not There. The other actors are Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Ben Whishaw. None plays a character named “Bob Dylan,” and only Blanchett is made up to look like the film’s subject. The stars are the exoskeleton of a film that turns the traditional biopic inside out.

The intrinsic problem with the biopic as a storytelling form is that it is impossible for any film to fully capture a person’s life. This is true no matter how great the fidelity to fact, no matter how inspired the performance, no matter how sympathetic or nuanced or focused the script. A story is told through selection and emphasis of certain events and certain character traits, and selection and emphasis inevitably creates distortion. A great biopic, like Capote or Walk the Line, is exceptionally true to life, and yet nonetheless no more than an imperfect facsimile of the true life.

The problem is compounded when the subject is an artist and the more successful the career, the greater the problem. One subject multiplies into many: the person; the character(s) created by the art, with all the real and imagined light it(they) sheds on the person behind the curtain; the public persona that emerges from the collision of person, art, marketing, art criticism, and the public’s imagination, and that may change radically over the course of a long exposure to the public eye.

The narrative structure of I’m Not There is acknowledgment and answer to this problem. The film is composed of six interwoven segments. Each segment tells one part of the life, or one of the lives as the film (“inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan”) would have it. Storytelling and filmmaking style changes radically with each segment.

The stories / filmmaking styles:

– Franklin as young Dylan, self-described walking Woody Guthrie jukebox / traditional Hollywood period drama;

– Bale as acoustic folk singer Dylan / a “where are they now” television documentary;

– Ledger as Dylan the actor, a “might have been” life / inspired by the American “auteur” cinema of the 1970s;

– Blanchett as electric Dylan / 1960s European arthouse cinema;

– Gere as Dylan as survivor and contemporary (eternal) muse / draws on the literary genre of magical realism;

– Whishaw as Dylan the poet / experimental short subject filmmaking.

The film’s formal aspects are not gimmicks or stunts. The filmmaking styles work in concert with the stories to draw out and explore the themes and purpose of the film. The segments, in varying proportions, tell the life story, establish the cultural-historical-artistic backdrop, and showcase the music. I’m Not There trades superficial fidelity for probing examination and passionate celebration.

Other new releases this week: 2007 Academy Award Nominated Short Films, First Sunday, The Hottie and the Nottie, Over Her Dead Body, P.S. I Love You, Teeth


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 6 2008

    This is a fantastic review. I’ve been looking forward to a film like this ever since my dad first introduced me to Dylan, and it sounds like exactly the kind of movie I would make, if given half the chance. I can’t wait to see it.

  2. Helen
    May 6 2008

    You won’t be disappointed by the music. The soundtrack is an incredible collection of Dylan originals and covers.

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