Sunday, December 9, 2007

I'm Not There

To get my lazy self back in blogging gear, I promised myself I would review the new Todd Haynes movie I'm Not There in this space, since being a Bob Dylan biopic it would presumably benefit from a musicological take. Went to see it with friends last night, and I have one major point to make:

Who knew that David Cross was born to play Allen Ginsberg?

I haven't seen the recent Julie Taymor film Across the Universe. (Update: My former roommate has!) But I suspect that these two movies will be thought of in the same breath, as exercises in reappraising baby boomer music and mythology--Beatles for Taymor, Dylan for Haynes. Similarly, you could also read I'm Not There as one of a series of recent films that are unusually musicological. Ray, Walk the Line, and Dreamgirls were all movies that felt like the creators had taken History of Rock and Roll in college, and understood some of the larger historical and social themes of music history, and cared about historical detail. Todd Haynes zeroed in on all of things that I talk about when I teach Dylan in class. That said, it was a bit much to recreate the Newport Folk Festival with Dylan and his band holding machine guns instead of electric guitars. Subtle, Todd, subtle.

Still, I'm hung up on the boomer nostalgia thing. I know it's an easy target, but I think I had higher hopes for this movie. Full disclosure: I am not a Dylan fan. I don't really dislike him either, except when it is useful for annoying the Dylan fan I'm marrying in a few weeks. But considering that the greatest movie of Haynes's career was a biopic of Karen Carpenter acted out with Barbie Dolls (now, my god, available on YouTube!), I was expecting something a bit more critical. Yes, Bob Dylan has had many personae, and his ability to continually transform himself ranks him up there with Madonna in putting the very concepts of "truth" and "sincerity" up for debate. The movie gets that across, and that's great.

But what doesn't get challenged in I'm Not There is the music. Dylan's music is presented in a multitude of ways: lip-synched by a range of actors, covered by others, and the originals non-diagetically on the soundtrack. Make no mistake, it's great music. Jim James's cover of Goin' to Acapulco, in the "Billy the Kid" storyline, is amazing. And it's certainly nothing new to see Dylan's songs treated as these practically-Platonic ideal objects that retain their power and beauty in anyone's hands, or in any context.

But that's the myth that Haynes doesn't address. Carrie B, as I like to call her, calls this the "clandestine mysticism" of a certain musicological approach that treats music as a mysterious, almost divine, repository of social relations. We can decode it, figure out how it works upon us technically, but we'll never really understand where it comes from. That seems to be Haynes's argument: Dylan is an ever-shifting subject, but his music contains essential truths that never change. And in Haynes hands, we don't even really get the de-coding--fans, critics, and other musicologists are pretty consistently made fun of when they try to explain the music. That's silly, Haynes says, just listen to the music and you'll understand.

And that, my friends, is silly. Dylan doesn't work for everyone, anymore than Beethoven does, or the Beatles. (Hmm, Beethoven, the Beatles, and Bob.) It works on a lot of people, sure, but it doesn't take a musicologist to want to ask how it does so, and on what terms and conditions. Because if baby boomers gave us Bob Dylan, they also gave us Jim Jones--and it's always best to ask what's in the Kool-Aid.


cpo said...

I'm a musicologist, but even if I wasn't Dylan would give me the creeps. Some of the music I really, really like, but the idea of watching a move of him/about him ever again. I would rather see Daddy Day Care 2. Twice.

Just wanted to share that with the world. I enjoyed your post on the matter. Watching Dylan movies so others don't have to.

Nick said...

I don't think the movie said much of anything either: Haynes never manages more than a fairly poor caricature of the music, most of which already holds a delicate balance between subtlety and ridiculousness. I feel like the ideal audience would consist of people who have listened to and enjoy a couple of Dylan's albums, but haven't thought much about them or gotten more or read anything about his life. If you don't like him, or already got what Haynes is trying to say from other sources, most of it is going to be either boring or unflattering and stupid. I kind of wonder how much Haynes himself likes Dylan.

On the plus side: who knew that Cate Blanchett is a genius? That last shot, when she's in the car looking at the camera and breaks character purely by the way her smile changes. Really cool.

On another, unrelated, plus side: No Country For Old Men.

Joel A. Nichols said...

you write: We can decode it, figure out how it works upon us technically, but we'll never really understand where it comes from. That seems to be Haynes's argument: Dylan is an ever-shifting subject, but his music contains essential truths that never change

do we need to find out where it comes from? what's the point in that? i like your statement of what you take to be Haynes's central argument, but I don't know about the essential truths. It seemed more like we're supposed to think that there can't ever be any essential truths. That's why he dramatized the songs as/for the roles of the Dylans who weren't played by Blanchett--they were all narrative projections that run parallel to Dylan the man/myth/image rather than "stories" that are supposed to be taken as concrete.

i can see the Dylan nostalgia crowd (nice Kool-Aid snark, btw) echoing this idea that there are "essential truths," but I wouldn't say that Haynes was doing it per se. Or maybe making this jerkoff to Dylan is Haynes doing just that....I guess I could see that interpretation, but think his narrative structure is telling a different story. Especially since the cynicism of the Blanchett characterization so undercuts the nostalgia.

If only we could ask the folksinger/folk historian played by Julianne Moore what she thinks.