by Tony Dayoub
Look up the definition of a cipher. The first definition on Dictionary.com for cipher is simply the word zero. Singer Bob Dylan has been anything and everything but a zero. However, as Todd Haynes illustrates in his paean to Dylan, I'm Not There, Dylan viewed himself as somewhat of an empty receptacle. As he used his chameleon-like abilities to create new personas he could hide behind, friends, fans, and particularly the press, would fill that receptacle with their own preconceived notions of who Dylan really was. Haynes found it so difficult to present Dylan in a straightforward manner, that he instead chose six actors to interpret many of his adopted personas. And if much of the stories told about Dylan or by him are apocryphal, then Haynes found the best way to tell the story. He took the advice of a character in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Among the personas appearing in the movie are the poet-like Dylan known as Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), Rimbaud being the poet whose quotation, "I is the other," is the central thesis of the film. Young African-American actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, plays the Woody Guthrie persona. Dylan had fashioned a background story for himself as a young folk-singing hobo, who spent his youth jumping on trains to travel cross-country, a story later found out to be false. Haynes casting of the 11-year-old Franklin is a wink to viewers, making it obvious that this kid could not possibly be a surrogate for Dylan despite his stories leading one to believe it so. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is the Greenwich Village folkie that we closely associate with Joan Baez (or in this movie, Julianne Moore's Alice Fabian). Bale also reappears as Pastor John, the born-again Dylan of the late seventies. Jack Rollins (Heath Ledger) is the self-absorbed movie star Dylan, who's crumbling marriage is symbolized by the trajectory America takes during the Vietnam war. Richard Gere is Billy the Kid, the Dylan that retreats from public view to live a quiet life in Riddle, a town populated by characters from his songs.
The most iconic and spot-on performance, in fact, almost a transformation, is Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, the defensive Dylan facing rejection from his folk fans after going electric. Her nomination for an Oscar is well deserved, for at no time are you consciously aware that this is Blanchett acting. You are transfixed by her charisma as the androgynous rock star at the height of his sixties-era confrontational posturing towards the press. Blanchett captures the Dylan that sees himself as a cipher, "One having no influence or value; a nonentity."
Haynes shoots each story in the style of cinema suited to the period and story being covered. For example, Blanchett's segment is reminiscent of Fellini's 8 1/2, and Gere's evokes the westerns of the seventies, like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which Dylan appeared in).
I was enthralled by the enigmatic film on a level that I can't quite explain. It certainly has an emotional effect on the most visceral level. But the enigmatic film resists any intellectualizing. Much of the explanations above were derived from a thorough survey of the special features included on the DVD, in stores now. I am a casual Bob Dylan fan so I did not have any reference points to lean on when watching the film. But the wealth of extras on the disc can serve as a crash-course on the singer's life and work. Special attention should be payed to the writings on the film collected under the title "An Introduction to the Film" on Disc 1. The point is that none of this should hinder enjoyment of the film, as long as you can accept its perplexing metaphorical nature.
"I is the other." As Dylan would say, I is not me... I'm not there. Haynes fractured biopic depicts the nonentity that characterizes Dylan. And perhaps his film consciously exemplifies yet another definition of a cipher, "[a private mode of communication] contrived for the safe transmission of secrets."
Still provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.