Monday, December 03, 2007

I'm Not There

The other night the fresh snow and still-drizzling (rattling) sleet prevented
us from driving to
campus for this week's free Godard film, so we decided
to hike on over to the egregiously overpriced Sundance 608 Cinemas
(where they charge you an obligatory "convenience fee" of three dollars
so that you "can"--must--reserve a seat) to see Todd Haynes' I'm Not
for a second time.

There is, I admit, the occasional dopey moment--but not many, and
they're more than counterbalanced for me by the things that are simply
fun for someone with my enthusiasms: the Rimbaud and Nietzsche
quotations, Fellini references, the fact that the Richard Gere sections are
basically film versions of the cover of Dylan's Basement Tapes. None of
this stuff, though, gets at the substance of the film's excellence, which is
there to be found whether you care about Dylan or not (some of this post
is the offshoot of a late-night conversation with my pal Rick, who sort of
likes some Dylan, but has always been pretty skeptical, and certainly
doesn't know or care much about his biography and "legend").

First, there's the level of craftsmanship of nearly every shot; in any
scene there's a great deal to be discovered simply by looking around the
screen. The subtle and the spectacular are both present. In the Gere
sequence alone (which I'll concentrate on a bit here, since it's the one
nobody seems to like much, while I think it's astonishing), there's:

--the shot in which Billy, gazing at the Missouri hills (shot in gorgeous
color), has a fast series of short Vietnam war flashbacks--except they're
flashbacks to the war as televised, which we've seen exclusively in the
Heath Ledger sequences. This is an instance of a fascinating narrative
trajectory: as the various "Dylans" diverge increasingly from each other
(Billy, the last presented, being the least literal Dylan), there are more
and more instances of shared memories between them, shots that could
belong to two or more of their stories. When, a few seconds later, we
return to the image of the hills, it's shot on video.

--the brief shot in which Homer has helped Billy escape from jail at dawn.
We see a shot of Homer waving goodbye from beside the tracks as Billy
pulls away on a boxcar. The sun is rising on the side of the train opposite
Homer, and we see him illuminated, just for a moment, by the new sunlight
shining between the train cars. A metaphor for film, perhaps, and (as Rick
notes) for the quick emergence and disappearance of characters in Dylan's
songs, but also simply the kind of gorgeous camera work that almost
nobody bothers with, or has the eye for, these days (or maybe ever).

--the composition of the sequence that leads up to the funeral: the camera
wanders as strange humans and animals emerge from behind buildings; we
see the buildings of the town of Riddle, brief references tothe world of The
Tapes, shots of the road leading out of town... this disorienting
sequence hides the slow gathering of all its elements toward the bandstand
where the scene is to take place, subtly gathering direction until we suddenly
realize we're there, with the whole town in attendance.

There's plenty of "artier" editing, just as accomplished, throughout the film:
the jump cuts of dishes being washed with the TV sound in the background
(producing channel switches because of the visual shifts); the difference, in
the Cate Blanchett sequences, between the crisp black and white of the main
story and the slightly grainier one used for some of the directly quoted
material (i.e., the reconstruction of the press conference near the beginning
of the famous London tour); etc.

More important to me are the possibilities the film offers for the expansion of
scale in art. How can artworks include as much of the world--or (and this is
different) open out onto as much of it--as possible? How to make it vulnerable
to the world's answering back to the work? I'm Not There gives me a lot to
think about in this regard.

Haynes sets up his multiple narratives so that they suggest perspectives on
one another. There are plenty of lines, referencing the larger social world,
that within a given narrative are casually dropped in and then left there,
but that can be seen retroactively as a lens through which to view another
of the stories. Some of these are gestures that ask us (or directly ask a
character) to look outside the purview of the people in the film and their
narrativized concerns,but we don't get that look directly in the story that
contains the gesture.

The largest formal instance of this mutual conditioning is the movement I
noted above: by the last third of the film, the "Dylans" have diverged from
one another in character, mode of presentation, and comparative distance
from the "real" biography to a great extent, seeming less and less like
portraits of the various "sides" of one person (some of the plot
trajectories contradict each other)--even as we see more shots that are
common to the experiences and memories of characters in different stories.
The switch to video in the shot of the Missouri hills is, of course, a
psychological representation of the resonance of the memory (of the televised
war) in the present. But it's also a memory of a past in which the outside
(the war) leaked in, in which the protagonist's neglect of the sociopolitical
exactly paralleled his neglect of his family and his friendships. Finally,
it's a leaking-in of the kind of film manipulations that characterize many
of the other narratives (and of the variation in film stock and technique
between sections that characterizes the movie as a whole), an invasion of
the spectacular, full-color naturalism of the Billy the Kid world (which was
untouched when it appeared in the literal kid-world of Marcus Carl Franklin's

Narratively, this particular constellation of examples sets up the incursion
(leak) of the interstate system into the town of Riddle, and the new
"invasion" of politics into Billy's life when he decides to speak up about
it. As part of an accumulation of various such moves, it has a more wide-
ranging formal effect: as the film progresses, the stories become porous
with regard to one another. That porosity, once it passes a certain
threshold, renders them so full of holes that they open onto the outside
of the film. By the Gere/Billy section, I'm unable to view the movie
without reference to contexts outside it. The section is set in an ambiguous
time: explicitly Billy in hiding (thus late 19th century), but also Dylan
in hiding (between 1966 and, maybe, the present) and perhaps even
Rimbaud in Africa. The scene itself looks like the Old West, but the
interstate highway system is being constructed, and its planners show up
in old cars that were new in the 1970s. The anachronisms throw me outside
the narrative so that, when Billy is jailed for speaking out against the
plan that will destroy the town, I can't help but think, "oh, criminalization
of speech and arbitrary imprisonment in the face of profit-driven destruction.
That sounds kinda familiar."

The fact that Billy is the least identifiable as Dylan (both in terms of
his story and as someone who, unlike the real Dylan, sticks his neck out
at risk of his life), and that his section is the one that closes the film,
opens the whole work out far beyond the "bio-pic" form, and is the strongest
argument against viewing it in terms of the accuracy or sufficiency of its

treatment of its subject. In terms of its content, I'm Not There is as much
a film about the question "what is/could/should be the relation of art to
politics?" as it is about Bob Dylan. This question is posed repeatedly, and
Haynes certainly doesn't seem to take Dylan's various responses to it as
successful answers. The film instead enacts the question, and does so in
an environment in which the idea of political art is snidely dismissed in
many mainstream and avant-garde art worlds. I'm grateful to Haynes for

In most art that tries to address the question I posed above
(how to enlarge the scale by inclusion or opening-out), the expansion requires
a gesture of expansion that has to persist for as long as the artist wants
things to be seen on that scale. In big Russian novels, this is analogous to
a pulling-back of the camera, showing us the larger society for a while before
returning us to the lives of the main characters. In Joyce's Ulysses, its the
intrusion of a strange discourse that marks a point in the story as a
manifestation of cultural or historic layers that prod through from below or,
floating above the story's world, confer a greater significance on its mundane
events. Pound, in his Cantos, takes a "hodgepodge" tack, and the expansion of
scale is achieved through a greater range of collaged sources, or (when a
section focuses more closely on one main subject, as in the Adams and
"China" cantos) a greater speed through the chronology of his materials
(Pound is the apex of "inclusion," of trying to "get it all in" in a mania
for order). Ron Silliman's long works, while trying to get it all in, give as
much weight to the "opening out onto it" possibility, and in fact enact that
opening in the process of reading: the foregrounding of the reader's
processes of synthesizing juxtaposed phenomena into coherent experience
dehabituates everyday perception, so that I, at least, take a residual effect
away from the work, letting a lot more in, noting a greater variety of
particulars and connections. The gesture of expansion here is the endless
profusion of sentences (early on, in accordance with number systems),
tied in with the modeling of a depersonalized consciousness represented as

I love all these examples. What I'm saying here is simply that they all
need gestures of expansion that stick around, and that this has its
limits. Put very formalistically, what I'm Not There offers, with its own
limits, is a mode in which a tenuous whole opens onto the world as an effect
of the way the individual, coherent continuities that make it up change each
other's scale of reference by making gestures that function as "expansion
gestures" primarily outside the continuities in which they occur--when seen
from the perspectives of other continuities. A small event in one stream has
an enlarging effect in another.

I don't see the film as an end-point, but as a gorgeous presentation of a
series of tools. I want to make political art that works with the effects of
micro-level juxtaposition while also employing larger blocks, continuities
whose own juxtaposition is fruitful due to their proliferating "leaks." I'm
Not There
, while certainly not Haynes' most explicitly socially critical film
or his most obviously formally radical, gives me things to think about in this
regard that I haven't seen anywhere else. And it's a beautifully constructed,
moving, scary, sneakily disorienting work of art that also happens to contain
some of my favorite songs.


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