Retro Rental: It’s Thanksgiving (American Style) With ‘I’m Not There’
[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you The Retro Rental, an older film on disc or download that connects with the here-and-now.]
There’s always the very good question of what, exactly, to watch on Thanksgiving when you’re relaxing at home and — not to put too fine a point on it — jammed to satiety with food. In the past, I’ve recommended all-American epics like ‘A Bridge Too Far’ or Mann’s ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ but this year, I thought of a near-perfect Thanksgiving film — shot through with the American century, as subject to as many views and interpretations as possible, and as non-linear and trippy as anyone wigged out on turkey-conveyed tryptophan and red wine could ask for: Todd Haynes’ 2007 ‘I’m Not There.’
Overlooked (and/or unfairly beaten up) at the time of its release, ‘I’m Not There’ has exactly the kind of cinematic, movie-mad ambition we so rarely see these days, which probably didn’t help it much at the box office or in the home video afterlife. (Surprisingly, the film is not available on Blu-ray; a shame, as it’s visually tremendous.) Inspired by the life of Bob Dylan — and filtered through the ideas of Haynes and screenwriter Oren Moverman, who’d go on to the excellent ‘The Messenger’ and ‘Rampart’ — ‘I’m Not There’ short-circuits, and, in doing so surpasses, conventional biopic modes and methods by having six different actors play six different views of the life of Dylan, each with their own story and own perspective and own illogical-but-consistent dream-logic.
The cast is exemplary. Ben Wishaw (now best-known as Q in ‘Skyfall‘) is a poetic, detached man giving testimony. Christian Bale is a singer who leaves it all for God. Cate Blanchett is a mumbling mystic in a ’60s borrowed from The Beatles and Fellini. Heath Ledger plays an actor who played Bale’s singer, once, and can’t move on or move forward in his shattered marriage. Richard Gere is a travelling man in a Western vision half peyote and half Peckinpah. And Marcus Carl Franklin is a young boy riding the rails with a guitar that kills fascists in a never-was past full of fantastic visions and omens of portent.
And this is not a way to explore Dylan’s life so much as it is a way of exploring what he meant to, and in, the American century — how he’d move so much pop culture around him, how he’s be shaped by the times and shape them, how he’d face political and ideological scrutiny and bad reviews and the questions of clueless reporters. The music critic Greil Marcus said that Dylan’s best music came from “The old, weird America,” and for all we tell ourselves this country is the construction of pilgrims and suffragettes, robber barons and social reformers, it’s also made up of blues songs and voodoo, snake-handling and revival meetings, minstrel shows and made-for-TV movies, phony-baloney Wild West shows and real Western tragedies.
That old, weird America, those pieces and moments from the past of a soul in evolution have come together to make a here-and-now as plain as everyday life, passed along from the strange past in poems and tall tales and the songs Dylan wrote and the songs Dylan covered and the songs other people wrote about him as critics or ex-lovers or fans or some mix of all three. You don’t see that America in the history books, but you do see it in movies — or songs, or books, or comics or any other of the many forms the lively American arts take, whether high or low — and ‘I’m Not There,’ all this considered, is the perfect film to sit back with pie and a dreamy kind of thought process to take in as a dream, as a vision, as a riddle not meant to be solved. If, as it’s said, Thanksgiving is a time for contemplation, then, really, what better choice to enjoy than a movie as worthy of contemplation as “I’m Not There’?
‘I’m Not There’ is available on DVD.