Attention, smart people: I think we should have some kind of symposium on the Todd Haynes film I’m Not There. Probably an online symposium, though honestly I’d like to get us all in a Mariott ballroom talking about it, as it’s a film where our disagreements are more important than our agreements. Because while I liked the movie overall—I’d say three stars on Netflix—it’s also the most disappointing movie I’ve seen in years; I didn’t love it by any means, and yet no one who loved it has said anything I’ve disagreed with. So I’d like to start us talking about how we could all be thinking such similar things about the film and coming to such different aesthetic conclusions.
Here’s what I’m going to say today: I’m Not There is a textbook example of why, in art, the conceptual is unsatisfying without effective practical execution. In fact, I used it in class a week ago to make that very point to my students. Somewhat like the other Todd Haynes films I’ve seen—Safe (which I saw while young, admittedly) and Far From Heaven—the movie is thoughtful and has interesting ideas, but does not actually feel interesting to watch. The disappointment of I’m Not There is so keen for me because the concept is especially good, while the execution is often mediocre and occasionally bad. (Spoilers follow from here on out.)
In fairness, I should note at the beginning that I experienced the film in a sub-optimal manner: some reels were shown out of order, so that (for instance) we first encountered Cate Blanchett’s Dylan before he had been properly introduced. Perturbed by the abrupt shifts in scene, we suggested to a theater employee that the reels might have been out of order, but he said he had arranged them correctly and added, “It’s what you call an extremely disjointed narrative.” It took a week to confirm that this was incorrect; the friend we checked with wondered at first if maybe we just didn’t understand avant-garde cinema. On the one hand, you could say that we would have enjoyed the movie more if we had seen it in order, and that’s probably true (though it wouldn’t have made any difference for the Richard Gere and Heath Ledger sequences, which had nothing redeeming for me). On the other hand, the fact that the projectionist couldn’t tell that the film was out of order isn’t exactly a point in its favor. (There weren’t a lot of audience members around us who shared our suspicions, either.) So, with that out of the way:
Joe Kugelmass, who initially disliked the movie, came to appreciate it by thinking of it as a statement on Dylan’s use of self-mythologizing: “For Haynes, Dylan is the sum of his fantasies—the fantasy of being black and young again, the fantasy of being a noble refugee with a history of violence.…” Uncomplicatedly, in a comment on that entry, agrees:
Everyone goes through successive reimaginings of themselves– which is part of what gives the film weight and resonance– but this is especially important for Dylan, who was bent on reimagining himself in defiance of people who wanted to hold onto the particular incarnation they had connected with.
This matches other opinions I’ve heard: the movie is intended to capture Dylan’s constant re-invention, both to the public and to himself, and the impossibility of settling on a “true” Dylan in light of this. This is made explicit in Richard Gere’s words near the end of the film: “Me, I can change in the course of a day. I wake up thinking I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”
Here’s the thing: I get all that. What’s more, I agree with all that. It’s what I understood Haynes’ object to be when I heard he was making a movie with six very different Dylans, and as someone who’s been a Dylan fan most of my life, it’s what made me excited to see it. And, despite some unfortunately literal uses of Dylan lyrics, Haynes’ use of this concept is exemplary, as he makes observations—criticism, really—about Dylan’s life and career that make intrinsic sense. My favorite of these is the way that Christian Bale’s Dylan, the early-sixties protest singer, resurfaces in the late seventies as a born-again preacher. It’s true that Dylan’s Christian period was in some ways a reprise of his protest period: he believed, again, that he could change people, save people, through song. I had never thought of it this way, but, thanks to Haynes, now I have.
My problem is that the enjoyment or fulfillment I got from watching these concepts in the movie was equal to that I got from reading about them in film reviews ahead of time: it was an intellectual enjoyment, not an aesthetic one. In other words, for the most part the concepts and ideas work only as concepts and ideas; aside from a few good scenes, almost all in the Bale or Blanchett sections of the movie, they are not actually executed in a way that gives pleasure beyond figuring them out or understanding them. And so the movie ended up for me as a noble failure, a smart but disappointing effort, rather than a comprehensively good film.
Of course, one could reasonably argue that you can’t judge a film fairly once you’ve spoiled it for yourself by reading reviews, and that if I had seen the film without prior knowledge I would have been able to achieve full enjoyment of its ideas. I would respond with two points:
1) The film’s own promotional materials made a point of explicitly selling, and explaining, these same concepts, running the same risk of spoilage as the reviews did. I’m not just talking about the trailer, although that’s part of it (the Gere quote from above is right there in the trailer); I’m also talking about “I’m Not There: The Official Guide to the Movie,” a six-page booklet, given to us with our movie tickets, which contains articles explaining what part of Dylan’s life and iconography each of the actors represents and what all the sources for the people, dialogue, clothes, etc. are. Now, obviously Haynes didn’t make the trailer or the booklet; he may abhor them. But it is relevant to me that the film was sold by giving the concepts away: it created my desire to see the movie that went along with those concepts, and that movie didn’t stand up. Moreover, I wouldn’t be too quick to say that this is separate from what Haynes himself does: in both the beginning and the end of the film, we see a rapid-fire display of snapshots of the six actors playing Dylan, which seems to be Haynes’ way of pushing the film’s central concept to the forefront.
2) More importantly, the film should stand on its own. This is true of any work of art: the intellectual or conceptual material is not less important than the practical execution of that material, but both halves need each other to thrive. A friend of mine disliked the novel Hannibal, until he found a website that claimed to find a system of oblique references (to what, I don’t remember) in the novel. Without weighing in on the plausibility of the references, or the quality of the book—I’m not familiar with either one—literature is not an Easter-egg-hunt; it’s not just about finding references, nor is it just about making points and developing ideas. Those references, points, and ideas have to be artistically presented to an audience. A boring or unconvincing novel is better with well-developed ideas than without them, but it remains boring and unconvincing either way.
Losing sight of this means losing sight of why we take the two hours to actually watch a film, rather than just talking about its ideas. When a film is all concept, it’s impossible to discuss it on any other grounds; every flaw is actually an essential part of the concept. The Richard Gere sequence in I’m Not There is derivative (basically a watered-down McCabe and Mrs. Miller with giraffes), but that’s okay, because Dylan’s vision of the West was itself derivative. The Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg divorce scenes are boring, but that’s okay, because it shows us how flat and boring Dylan’s life felt to him during this time. On the other hand, I just watched a Sopranos episode (“House Arrest”) about Tony and everyone around him being bored and depressed, and it was compelling from beginning to end. Everyone who’s been in a writing workshop has heard someone say that a character is supposed to be annoying, or a scene is supposed to be frustrating. The fact is, good art is able to make all the emotions and experiences of life, even the banal ones, feel interesting and worthwhile (not to say pleasant or enjoyable) without making us think of justifications for their banality.
I would compare it to surprise endings. Obviously, a movie with a surprise ending is better when you don’t already know the ending, so that you don’t lose the surprise. At the same time, a good movie should be good independent of that surprise. The fact that The Crying Game doesn’t stand up when the twist (not actually at the end, I know) has been spoiled is a sign that it isn’t a very worthwhile film. On the other hand, I loved Citizen Kane, even though I had known what Rosebud was since I was seven. A concept, like a twist, is something one can know and understand independently from actually seeing the movie (or reading the book, etc.). Experiencing that concept or twist has to be worthwhile in and of itself.
I do admire Haynes for making such an ambitious and conceptual movie; I do enjoy thinking through what it has to say about Dylan and about identity in general. As it turns out, all of that doesn’t have much effect on my experience actually watching these people say those lines. “But then all this had somehow to be turned into art,” Martin Amis once wrote at the end of a book review; “that is where the real trouble started.”