2 weeks ago
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.