May 5, 2008

DVD Review: I'm Not There

Bob Dylan. The man, the myth, the legend. The enigmatic character who became the poet of an entire generation. A shape-shifting chameleon who will leave anyone who attempts to unravel his life's story as confused, if not more so at the end than when they began. He also is the subject of I'm Not There, Todd Haynes experimental biography that seeks to disentangle the various personae of the artist. If you are new to Dylan, or are curious about the man and his music, this is not the ideal place to start. You would probably be better served paying a visit with D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back or Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. I have seen neither, but I can imagine they are a bit more straightforward in their approach.

I'm Not There is an experimental film from director Todd Haynes that attempts to distill Bob Dylan's various personae into baser elements. Watch them separately and allow the audience to take each of these elements and recombine them in their minds into a composite of the artist. To that end, Haynes has brought in six actors to play each of these distillations, and none of them are named Bob Dylan. I am not sure how these other names were arrived at, or if it even matters. There is Marcus Carl Franklin as Woody Guthrie, a young black child traveling the rails, learning to sing, play, and write folk songs. Ben Whishaw as Arthur Rimbaud, appearing in some interview segments. Christian Bale is Jack Rollins, the voice of a generation. Heath Ledger is Robbie Clarke, movie star. Richard Gere appears as Billy the Kid. Finally, Cate Blanchett is Jude Quinn. She delivers the finest performance of the film; it is hard to look away when she is on camera.

After watching the film, I am afraid I do not really get it. I guess that is partially my fault. I cannot lay any claim to being a Bob Dylan fan. Well, that may be overstating things. I have listened to some of his work and find him to be an amazing songwriter and an intriguing personality. I have had the pleasure of seeing him perform live a couple of times over the past few years, both times were extraordinary experiences. Still, I cannot say that I have much knowledge of the man's life and times. That becomes an issue when watching I'm Not There.

This is not the sort of film that you will be easily able to get a lot out of. I do not mean to imply that this is any great, deep piece of intellectual cinema, as I am not convinced that it is. I am simply saying that when watching I'm Not There, it certainly helps to be interested in Dylan's life and have some sort of working knowledge of his life.

Not being in possession of any such working knowledge, I found myself to be nothing short of being left in the dark. After a while of trying to put the puzzle pieces together into the semblance of a singular person, I just gave up. It was a bit much for me, I needed to find a different approach. So, I took a step back and watched in a bit more of a lyrical fashion. This did the trick. I found the experience to be considerably more enjoyable when I didn't try so hard to fit everything together. There is an interesting flow that emerges, the Dylan variations overlap each other, taking us into different periods of his life, creating a tapestry that weaves together in the hope of creating a single piece, a single work of art.

Is it a good film? Sure. Is it great? Questionable, probably not. It is definitely an interesting excursion into artiness.

Over the past few years, the biopic has become somewhat overly cliched, with so many people's lives becoming more and more similar as they are distilled to an essence to be played in broad strokes. For example, watch Ray and Walk the Line, two films about two vastly different artists, whose lives are suspiciously similar when seen on film. I am sure that had Todd Haynes elected to take a more straightforward approach we would have seen something more like those two movies. Instead, he has taken a much more experimental approach, daring to do something different with the genre. I am sure it helps to have such an intriguing subject as Bob Dylan is.

Audio/Video. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it sounds quite good. It has a fullness that does justice to the plentiful Dylan music that peppers the soundtrack. Video is anamorphic widescreen in a ratio of 2.35:1 and it looks quite good, presenting crisp black and white and nice color sequences. Nothing to complain about.

Extras. This two disk collector's edition has a nice complement of bonus material.

Disk 1:
  • Commentary. This track features by Director/Co-Writer Todd Haynes. I sampled the track and it is an interesting one, although I found I could only listen to it a little bit at a time. There is something about the way he talks that kind of gets to me. He knows what he is talking about, but there is an air of self importance that bugs me.
  • On-Screen Song Lyrics. This is a nice feature, if you want to see the lyrics, bit don't want subtitles on al the time, you can turn his on to see those lyrics.
  • Song Selections. This lets you jump to each of the songs, essentially it is a scene select function.
  • An Introduction to the Film. This is broken down into four text sections and help give some insight into Haynes' film, although they also seem to hype it up as some absolute masterpiece as it looks inside the make up of what makes Bob Dylan tick. The sections are called: "Who's Not There: Six Faces of Dylan," "Tangled Up in Clues: By Ann Powers," "Decoding an Entertaining Enigma," and "Notes on I'm Not There: By Greil Marcus."

Disk 2:

  • Deleted Scenes. Two scenes are included: "Silver Club Bathroom" featuring Cate Blanchett's Jude doing dope and "Mrs. Baker" features Gere's Billy the Kid. I like the Blanchett scene, but could not say wither would have added, or detracted, from the film proper. (2 minutes)
  • Alternate/Extended Scenes. Four scenes are included: "Tombstone Blues" "Hattie Carroll" "Goin' to Acapulco" and "Pressing On." The best thing about them is listening to the music. I'd be hard pressed to tell you quite what was different here without going back to the film. (19 minutes)
  • Outtakes. Watching them cut up on set, flub lines, and some other oddities strung together is pretty entertaining. (4 minutes)
  • Auditions. Marcus Carl Franklin and Ben Whishaw are the featured players here. It is always interesting to see these recordings, watching how they seem to nail the character right out of the gate. (4.5 minutes)
  • A Tribute to Heath Ledger. This is one of Ledger's final roles. In honor of his work, this is a classy piece stringing together a number of Ledger's scenes, some of which I believe were shot while not in a scene. All of it is set to a Dylan tune that I do not recognize. (3 minutes)
  • A Conversation with Todd Haynes. This is an in depth interview about the genesis of the film. It was interesting, but I found I could not pay attention throughout the entire running time. (42 minutes)
  • Making the Soundtrack. This is an interesting look into the music, considering just how important music is to this film. Interviews go into how they went about designing scenes around specific songs. (21 minutes)
  • The Red Carpet Premiere. This is footage of the cast and crew arriving at the premiere, included are interview snips. All of them clearly recognizing just how different of an approach this was. (2.5 minutes)
  • Trailer Gallery. This includes the two theatrical trailers as well as a series of previously unreleased "Flash Card" trailers set to "Subterranean Homesick Blues." These unreleased trailers feature a long edit, a short edit, and then each of the Dylans separately. They can be viewed all in a row. (21 minutes)
  • Stills Gallery. A ton of stills from the film, featuring all of the splintered Dylans.
  • Dylanography. This contains a listing of all of Dylan's albums, films, books, as well as a listing of reference materials. We also get to see the original proposal from Haynes about the film. Finally, we get Haynes' notebook, although I am not sure what I should be looking for when looking at the storyboards.

Bottomline. This is a interesting film told in a unique fashion. I may not have gotten all that I possibly could out of the film, I definitely respect Haynes for trying something different. and hope to see other filmmakers attempt different approaches to familiar material.



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