Imagine those abstract paintings at contemporary art museums, canvases covered in a single color that baffle the casual visitor as he wonders, “Is this really art? How can you tell?” The Pollocks and Picassos stare right back at you, daring you to be na’ve enough to ask such a question. Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There” is such a work of art, a movie truly inspired – in both plot and thematic spirit – by its subject, Bob Dylan.

Kelly Fraser
(COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT VINTAGE)

To give a synopsis is difficult. The movie is a mélange of different pieces that together evoke the life of one of the 20th century’s most provocative artists. The marketing hook is that each portion of the film stars a different actor portraying a Dylan-esque character – someone with a different name, age, skin color or even gender, but whose spirit represents the artist. Some of the sections are direct reenactments of the singer’s life, others are more abstruse, “inspired” by the life and music of the subject.

Haynes and Oren Moverman’s script tries to capture the constantly changing artist, whose persona didn’t evolve over the last half-century as much as it morphed from one incarnation to another. The more you know of the legend’s biography, the better you’ll understand the movie’s different plotlines and textured homage to details of the singer’s life. The prominent feature of a black tarantula in a key scene is an allusion to Dylan’s book of poems Tarantula; a character named Woody Guthrie is a reference to one of Dylan’s idols. These sort of suggestions pervade the film.

The performances range from strong to fantastic to so good it’s as if “I’m Not There” is a documentary and you’re looking into the face of Bob Dylan himself. Cate Blanchett, the only woman to play the folk legend, is perfect in the role. She captures Dylan’s look, his mannerisms, his voice inflections, his essence. Christian Bale is similarly inspired in his sister performance.

Blanchett’s and Bale’s performances, among the best, are also the easiest to understand. Playing Jude Quinn and Jack Rollins, respectively, the actors ostensibly portray Dylan at different stages in his life. The significances of other roles – Heath Ledger’s portrayal of actor Robbie, Richard Gere’s downtrodden Billy and the young Marcus Carl Franklin’s (“Lackawanna Blues”) pre-adolescent, black Woody – are harder to identify.

With all the intersecting storylines, it’s hard to empathize with any single version of Dylan. The viewer might have to settle for sitting back and watching the film objectively, like a visitor to the MoMA might stare at that painting. From this standpoint, “I’m Not There” is wonderful. The film splits into parts as Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman establish a different lighting scheme and film stock for each story. For the Jude Quinn portion, it’s grainy black and white, summoning the contemporary documentaries of the 1960s. For the Billy the Kid section, it’s a beautiful color scheme that accentuates the picturesque nature of the landscape. And for Jack Rollins’s story, it’s a washed-out image that mimics the look of ’70s film.

Fans of avant-garde will most appreciate what Haynes has set out to accomplish. With clear intent – to make a movie not about Dylan’s life, but about what Dylan represents – the film is to audiences what the singer was to his listeners. For those who want to take from the film greater significance and attribute to it the same messianic qualities forced on the young Dylan, there’s enough cryptic material to inspire such a search. For those who thought Dylan was just another singer and this is just another movie, there’s that possibility as well.

This much is clear: Haynes, seeing in Dylan what so many other fans and disciples have already recognized, had the guts to make a film that destroys convention – just like its subject.

4 out of 5 stars.
At the Michigan Theater

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