OH MERCY : Todd Haynes’s ‘I’m Not There’ [4/10]

I was born to love her
But she knows that the kingdom
     waits so high above her
And I run but I race
But it's not too fast a pace
Of course I'll not deceive her
I'm not there, I'm gone
It's all about confusion 
     and I cry for her

Bob Dylan, 'I'm Not There (1956)' (1967)

Narrative incoherence is, it seems, the new rock 'n roll – such a pity, however, that the resulting tunes can be so off-puttingly discordant. With I'm Not There arriving on British cinema-screens in the wake of David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE and Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, 2007 has now seen three major American auteurs – each of them with superb masterpieces to their credit – take disastrous creative detours into realms of chopped-up storytelling and wayward, wilful self-indulgence. A grim trifecta, indeed.

But whereas Lynch and Van Sant have long been erratic talents, Haynes's last three films – Safe (1995), Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Far From Heaven (2002) – firmly established him as an ultra-reliable source of original, emotional, intelligent cinema (I haven't yet seen his 1991 debut Poison). Although never a success commercially, Haynes's career has been critically-acclaimed at every turn – and I'm Not There has indeed received ecstatic receptions from many quarters since premiering at Venice in August. For me, however, it counts as a severe disappointment: "a flatulent folly" was my instant reaction on emerging from the theatre. Haynes has simply tried to do too much this time, taking on subject-matter – what the opening titles describe as "the life and many personalities of Bob Dylan" – which proves a clanging mismatch for his particular skills and sensibilities.

Haynes's principal conceit is to address Dylan only semi-directly, by means of various subsidiary personae, spread across various time-frames - explored in a dizzying kaleidoscope of episodes and fragments (which the more literal-minded viewer may interpret as what might have gone through Dylan's mind as he lay wounded after the real-life 1966 motorbike-crash which obliquely bookends the picture). 

Some of these personae aren't recognisably "Dylanish" at all: a precocious African-American youth (sparky Marcus Carl Franklin) in the late 1950s who tours the country with his guitar and calls himself 'Woody Guthrie'; a grizzled, philosophical, Regan-era hermit (Richard Gere) known as 'Billy the Kid'. But most of the personae look and sound more like Dylan himself, even if they bear other names: Ben Whishaw as twentysomething small-town rebel 'Arthur Rimbaud'; Christian Bale as Greenwich Village folkie sensation 'Jack Rollins', who later embraces Christ and becomes a minister; Cate Blanchett, transcending the "stunt" nature of her casting to deliver a delightful turn as androgynous 'Jude Quinn', who causes a media sensation when visiting swinging London;. And then there's the wild-card in the pack: Heath Ledger as conceited actor Robbie Clark, who plays Rollins in an sixties movie-within-the-movie entitled Grain of Sand.

If this all sounds exceedingly complicated, then that's exactly how it turns out – although, as a means of dealing with such a notoriously elusive and slippery subject as Dylan, such methods clearly have much to recommend them. Ambition is one thing, however, execution quite another. Haynes's script (co-written with Oren Moverman) is modishly obscure and smart-alecky when it should be playfully illuminating, and audience members who aren't Dylan-devotees are likely to be hopelessly lost. At this point I should admit that, while I have paid to see him in concert, I don't count myself a fan – but I nevertheless still rank D A Pennebaker's documentary of his UK tour, Don't Look Back (1967), among my top dozen or so all-time favourite movies.

Haynes is also a Don't Look Back admirer – the Blanchett sequences are so slavishly modelled on Pennebaker's picture that they could almost be out-takes. This isn't by any means Haynes's only example of directorial pastiche/homage: the shadows of Fellini and Godard weigh exceedingly heavy over proceedings (though the Fellini borrowings actually come across more like limp imitations of Woody Allen's Fellini-homage, Stardust Memories), while the 'Billy the Kid' sequence captures, via Ed Lachman's exquisite cinematography, the look and texture of certain 1970s westerns from the likes of of Peckinpah and Altman.

But look and texture only take us so far, and the picture never quite manages to carry us along or, crucially, build up any kind of real momentum – we keep snagging on minor, silly distractions, such as Charlotte Gainsbourg's randomly-fluctuating English/French accents (as Ledger's girlfriend/wife/muse). Gainsbourg does, however, fare rather better than fellow supporting-players Julianne Moore (little to do as a quasi-Joan-Baez figure who pops up in one of numerous faux-docu segments) or Michelle Williams (a particularly fatuous cameo). And Haynes doesn't seem to know what to do with Bruce Greenwood, who pops up (showing off an astonishing English accent) as a skeptical London journalist who then morphs into a more diffuse and abstract (but welcome) 'anti-Dylan' presence.

One expects rather better from this directior - especially given (a) the nimbleness with which he combined the biographies of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Kurt Cobain into Velvet Goldmine's 'Curt Wild', and (b) the superbly skilful and emotional way he channelled Sirk and Fassbinder in Far From Heaven. As with INLAND EMPIRE, it's tempting to look behind the scenes for a possible biographical explanation of what went wrong: Lynch edited his film himself – the first time he'd done so since Eraserhead (1976) – after parting company with his long-time editor, and romantic partner, Mary Sweeney. And it's a similar scenario with I'm Not There, although the offscreen circumstances in this case were even more painful – indeed, tragic.

Each of Haynes's previous features was edited by James K ("Jim") Lyons, who sadly died in April of this year aged only 46 – an event that received scandalously little coverage, even in the movie press, at the time (there's a rather marvellous tribute page on indieWIRE). Haynes and Lyons reportedly broke up in between Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, but had been together for around a decade. Dedicated to Lyons, I'm Not There was edited by Jay Rabinowitz – best known for his collaborations with Jim Jarmusch and also responsible for Requiem For a Dream. Rabinowitz's ability, then, is beyond question – it could just be that he wasn't the right choice for this particular project, or that the nature and scale of the movie (which reportedly cost $17m) would have defeated even the most inspired of editors. Well, perhaps all bar one. The death of Jim Lyons was, needless to say, a personal tragedy for all those who knew and loved him. And, speaking solely as an admirer of film, and as an admirer – now bloodied but, optimistically, still unbowed - of Todd Haynes, the more I think about I'm Not There, the more I, who was never able to meet Lyons, sincerely rue his passing.

Neil Young
31st December, 2007

I'M NOT THERE : [4/10] : aka I'm Not There. : US (US/Ger) 07 : Todd HAYNES : 136 mins (BBFC) : seen 28 Dec, The Tyneside Cinema, Gateshead, UK (public show – paid  £6.50)

nb – various sources (including the IMDb and the BBFC) put a full-stop at the end of the film's title.