Provincializm #17: I’m Not There Again

Provincializm #17: I’m Not There, Too, Either, Again

by William Bowers

Three other Voice typists have done pieces related to the new Todd Haynes prism about a certain awesome Jewish male performer whose most ebullient song about marriage is tellingly entitled “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” But the freelancin’ mustn’t stop until it’s a half-dozen articles deep, in order to better homage the film’s six-Dylan homage! And as a tribute to the film’s spirit of disjoint, my column won’t bother with coherence! It’ll be a bunch of unsubstantiated ideas! But please, consider its structure “complicated,” like that of banana pudding when tossed into unicycle spokes.

[Popping pills and donning Wayfarers]: Cuz nobody thinks in ordered paragraphs, maaan, except popes and po-leece! Linearity’s for squares. You can’t, like, contain the planet’s moodswings with a calendar any more than you can airbrush away an IED. Thesis Christ on a clipboard—

I was going to say something very I-went-to-grad-school-in-the-nineties about the black-kid Dylan, but the audience at the projection that I attended was over twenty percent African-American, so. There was also a hippie adult letting a liberated child run around the theater making all kinds of noise, and none of us ticketholders griped about it, because the sixties and all. During one of the film’s somber moments, an usher came in, and asked, “Has someone lost a son, or a boy? He’s roaming the street outside?” But the ponytailed father-figure didn’t claim the tyke! I thought for sure that Haynes had staged this sideshow as some kind of promotional bonus, like buzzers in the seats of screenings of 1959’s The Tingler, as a nod to Dylan’s apprentice year.

Still, I found the occasion/event of the film…embarrassing to be at. Maybe on an old sofa, accompanied by a lover, or a gaggle of Dylan-geeks, watching it’d be fine, but in a theater, with a straw and a lid… I can’t get sober enough to explain what felt wrong about it. And anyway, in the film’s world, sobriety’s a caricature and explanations are obstructions to enlightenment.

A toast to the cast: Christian Bale as Michael Landon, Ben Whishaw as Nick Cave, Heath Ledger as Sean Penn, Richard Gere as Neil Young, etc. All were excellent. Cate Blanchett’s Dylan substitute Jude Quinn was almost as good as Edward Norton’s turn as the bald Oops Toxic in the similarly promethean Britney Spears un-biopic I’m Totally Not.

Flick presents peerlessness as a curse. Understandable, but why not raise the dramatic stakes by having a few of the Dylans encounter each other? “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” (That’s from Yeats, and if you find that kind of context-less literary quoting pompous, you have probably already hated I’m Not There.) But staging a Dylan (or Dylans) thinking and writing the songs that are the reason that we love most of the rest of “the stuff about him” wouldn’t be as cinematic, reckon. So the film gives us “his life” again, but even that is done dishonestly, as usual in that it pretends that Dylan died in the mid-seventies, his white wives and children conveniently eclipsing his later “secret” black ones. Of course, Faulkner told his daughter, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” (See how I acted like quote was earned, or seemed to follow? Learnt that trick from Todd Haynes.) Honestly, I don’t “care” about Dylan’s life—just his work. The “real” context has nothing to do with how his music has contextualized some of my favorite evenings during my one stay on earth.

Flick feigns political/progressive seriousness, but is actually much more interesting in fetishizing “the cool.” You know: detachment, decadence, fashion, and nice old/new cars. Like, Merchant-Ivory’s Turbulent Times. While coveting the togs, you can almost hear a Bank Of America opening somewhere in the distance. The film’s most sixties trait is how fervently it maintains its delusions of being revolutionary. Now that the computers have returned us to the pre-Proper Noun days in which everybody’s an artisan and no one’s a Picasso, how self-importantly can a non-groupie watch someone (even—gulp—Dylan) be depicted? Guernica itself ends up being (aesthetically amazing) fan-fiction, something for a dissenter to look at wistfully while wars wage on in spite of its warning. As long I masturbatype about Dylan’s “undeniable” cultural impact, I get to live in a world too vividly conscious to have allowed two George W. Bush terms. Anyway, the episode of General Electric/Vivendi/Universal/NBC’s The Office, during which Dwight gets applause at a business conference for a speech that he plagiarized from Mussolini, is more subversive than this film (if just as fanciful).

Flick is most disingenuous, for all its supposed narrative freedom, about how much fucking narrative weight it thrusts upon the viewer without any commitment or payoff. Piles of names and gads of scenario exposition, for too little purpose. Oooh, intrigue-balls: Who’s that calling about the hobo child? Hmmm, why’s that Western-ish town bailing on itself? Gee, who will comfort the French skeleton lady? Oh, okay, that was all just red herrings and non sequiturs, like Dylan’s unpindownable identity! I get it! No, that was like the sick triceratop’s big pile of shit that had nothing to do with the remainder of Jurassic Park. Or like Sherlock Holmes Flips You The Bird For Paying Attention.

The film offers another brothy regurgitation of the mega-uber-pivotal Judas-yelping moment, but it’s made up for by a great Ginsberg-accompanied scene mocking a giant crucifix. Then, sigh, the film has to go and buy into that motorcycle-wreck martyr-myth. (That a particular indie-rock comedian playing Ginsberg contributes to the four of the films sections’ echoing skits from Mr. Show, with, you know, “Bob” and David.)

To be fair: I almost wept when the kid visited Woody Guthrie’s deathbed, an emotional response which made “sense” to my artless gauchery of a self. But I have no idea why I explodo-sobbed during Jim James’ Rolling Thunder-faced pantomiming of “Goin To Acapulco.” So Todd Haynes’ elliptical logic got some licks past my defenses, even if I found that sequence less Fellini-meets-Pat-Garrett than Deadwood-versus-Carnivale. Maybe I’s crying for ego/biographical reasons, feeling convicted by the realization that the film was about aborting one’s idealism, and then dodging the burden of mourning that abortion through disappearing into artifice (or into the real Dylan’s current becostumed workaholism).

And I hereby yield that Haynes’ using the one-dimensional Mason Jennings as the vox for the “sincere,” “finger-pointing” Dylan and the next-dimensional Stephen Malkmus as the mouthpiece for the wordplayful, slippery Dylan was brilliant.

The film’s chief strength, though: it contains lots of actual Dylan music, but the songs are introduced in a gratingly repetitive manner, as “climaxes” to Wes Anderson/Garden-Stately scenes that exist to justify their fade-ins. Leaving the theatre on a manic Dylan high, I was prepared to dedicate my existence to thinking about his songs, and actually worried about not having any heroes after spending my twenties pouring cynical Drano on my idol-clogged imagination. But then an SUV passed blaring Hurricane Chris’ “A Bay Bay,” so all the way home I just thought. “A bay bay/ A bay bay.” Great tune. Could be karaoked alongside “Lay Lady Lay.” Who am I trying to kid? I’m Not There, like most nostalgia trips, leads one to despair.

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