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June 18, 2008

DVD Journal: "I'm Not There"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


An arty dud. Nothing so familiar as a biopic, Todd Haynes' film is like a John Ashbery poem on themes suggested by the life and music of Bob Dylan, especially Dylan's impossible-to-pin-down quality. It's about all the crazily ingrown and fancy things that Bob Dylan makes Todd Haynes' brain do.

I wasn't annoyed by the effort. Hey, I'm someone who loves "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould," "Let's Get Lost," "The Color of Pomegranates," "Be Here to Love Me," and "The Last Bolshevik" -- unusual and subjective film biographies is my middle name. I just found myself wishing that Haynes had more talent. Ashbery has music and magic in his soul. Like 'em or not (I don't, much), his poems sweep you along. By contrast, Haynes is flat-footed and, for all his sophistication, literal-minded. The film feels terribly academic, gay-conceptual / po-mo division.

Elusiveness for the sake of elusiveness, and very unentrancing.

Fast-Fowarding Score: Nothing, but then I didn't finish watching the film ...

Semi-related: I wasn't crazy about Haynes' neo-Sirk melodrama "Far From Heaven" either.



posted by Michael at June 18, 2008


I only made it through the first 45 minutes. Sometimes movies I don't like piss me off. This one didn't, but it failed to lift.

I downloaded I'm Not There after a friend talked about it at a dinner party. He seemed slightly distracted and was dressed like a schlub that evening. My friend is a hipster architect who's always wearing things I've never seen before that turn out to be fashionable. His wife owns a clothing shop. Hmm, I thought, must be in to dress schlubby now.

Two days later, he and his wife separated. Which is neither here nor there, but it's a) tragic, b) funny, and c) more interesting IMHO than this movie.

Been enjoying your capsule reviews.

Posted by: robert on June 18, 2008 4:24 AM

God help me, I could go the rest of my life without reading, hearing or seeing another utterance of the Dylan cult.

The Dylan military-industrial complex has become an insanity. The left constantly bemoans CEO salaries and perks. How about a limit on Dylan salary and perks. Jesus, how much money does the guy have... 70 billion?

The ramblin' gamblin' man stance from a guy who is as rich as a Rockefeller has become an atrocity. How irrelevant is a spokesman for the people who has a GNP larger than several African states combined?

Please, never mention Dylan again. The guy can't even sing. He's a good songwriter, but so is Willie Nelson. Willie can sing.

Every English major over the past 50 years has tried to piggy back his dismal career on Dylan. Please, please... give it a break.

We are so over-stuffed on Dylan that we need an international Dylan puke fest. Puke it up!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 18, 2008 8:19 AM

I saw this one coming and just avoided the movie.

By the way, when you let your wife dress you out of her shop, your marriage is over.

Posted by: vanderleun on June 18, 2008 9:08 AM

Robert -- "My friend is a hipster architect who's always wearing things I've never seen before that turn out to be fashionable." That's like a line out of a novel I want to read.

ST -- And what's with the whining and sneering in his voice? Don't his fans hear that? Or do they love the "I"m doing a put-on at the expense of everyone" thing? I'll take Willie (and a few dozen others) over Dylan any day too.

Vanderleun - Wisdom-words to live by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 18, 2008 10:13 AM

How much longer can 60s worship continue?

The entire culture has been in 60s spinoff mode for 40 years. How much longer can this go on?

I played with a kid band a couple of weeks ago. Even the kids are stuck forever in the 60s. I asked them why they were playing the 60s reruns and they said:

"Nobody's done anything better since."

Sadly, this is probably true.

Let's see... we had the Gay 90s, the Roaring 20s and the Hippie 60s. So, it appears that a signature decade occurs at least every 30 years. Why are we stuck in neutral? Is everything exhausted?

Does the future hold any hope of anything new ever happening again, or are we doomed to endless reruns, revivals, spinoffs, etc.?

Everything seems to have been cast in concrete somewhere around 1973. I don't think that a new idea has appeared since then. What's the cause of this? (Well, I'm talking about the arts. Technological ideas have arrived at a furious rate. Maybe we need time to catch up.)

I play in an oldies band, for money, but I have to admit I'm so fucking sick of the oldies that I could scream. Am I the only one? I hoping that when I die and go on to the next life the oldies have been erased from existence and I never have to hear them again. Every copy and master of "Born to be Wild" should be melted down and the waste should be expelled into outer space.

I appear to be in a minority. The Karaoke Queen turns on the oldies on the radio every time we get in the car.

Inevitably, I fear, we are in for a Grateful Dead Broadway show, complete with gay actor pretending to be Jerry Garcia. It will become a long playing franchise.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 18, 2008 11:28 AM

I'm 26, so I was never around during Dylan's hey-day. But when I listen to his music now, I hear a guy who could write good songs with clever lyrics, but really no more so than a handful of other great 60's and 70's era songwriters like Neil Young, Van Morrison, Lennon and McCartney, and (a bit later) Bruce Springsteen. So why is Dylan considered to be on some altogether higher plane of artistic existence than these other guys? There have been all sorts of Dylan retrospectives and "serious," artsy movies over the past decade, glorifying and cannonizing him in a way that's not done even for the Beatles (and others who, to my mind, are both more musically and/or culturally significant). I just don't get it.

Posted by: Alex on June 18, 2008 11:30 AM

Well I'm going to fly the "pro" flag: I saw it in the theater and really liked it. Yeah, it's flawed (there are few parts that drag and a few that are just...weird), but the central device of the movie (using multiple and wildly physically different) actors to play Dylan at various points in his life is a great way of getting at exactly the Dylan that ST complains about in his comment. (And for the record, this may be the first time ST and I have ever seen eye to eye on something in spirit, if not in fervor.)

Of course, I probably still have stars in my eyes over his Karen-Carpenter-via-Barbie mini-epic, _Superstar_: one of my top 20 films ever. Makes me wonder if I can ever be truly objective about him.

Similarly, I cut Tarantino a lot of slack because of _Jackie Brown_ and Burton because of _Ed Wood_. Mainly, I've never gotten what all the hoo-hah was around these two--or rather, I get it, but I don't feel it. Maybe I really am a dumbass, and the the movies I consider their magnum opuses (opii?) are just my dumbasses' window in to genius.

Posted by: the communicatrix on June 18, 2008 11:43 AM

I never thought Dylan was the next incarnation of God, nor a Judas for going electric. i also never bought the notion he was THE poet or Spokesman of a Generation. Still, since the sixties I have been - and remain - a solid fan. I saw "I'm Not There" in a funky local "art house" venue and quite enjoyed it. I thought it achieved its goal, a film that captured something of Dylan's enigmatic nature. And that was, for me anyway, a lot of fun to watch and listen to.

Perhaps ST, for all of his music world credentials, has a deep misunderstanding of the economics of the music industry if he thinks Dylan has $70 billion. This sounds like the sour grapes I hear all the time from competent artists with decent local reputations and modest sales prices bitching about the (supposed) no talent a##holes making tons of money selling art that they don't like ... which makes it, therefore, "bad art".

One aspect of Dylan that I've always appreciated, something I find many others, both fans and foes, seem to think I'm mistaken about, is his dry humor. The first time I heard "Highlands" from the "Time Out of Mind" I found myself laughing till it hurt.

Here's a snippet from an interview on the Motley Crew financial blog that has an interesting take on Dylan and his art, that to a certain extends to Todd Haynes as well:

Mac Greer: And another essay you wrote about that I really enjoyed was on competence and Bob Dylan.

Mac Greer: And another essay you wrote about that I really enjoyed was on competence and Bob Dylan.

Seth Godin: Well, you know, a lot of people want competence, and certainly people on Wall Street seem to, and competence being someone who they think is good at things. Unfortunately, competence is the enemy of greatness because people who are competent like being competent. They like doing a good enough job all the time.

Bob Dylan is serially incompetent. He got booed off the stage in the '60s. He got booed off the stage when he became a born-again Christian. He was ignored for years because he keeps taking risks, because he keeps doing things he is not good at and then getting good at them.

Mac Greer: And along those lines, Seth, I have a friend who's seen Bob Dylan multiple times and said that sometimes he's been great and sometimes it's just been awful. I've only seen him once and he was great, but it sounds like there's a hit-and-miss quality to his performing.

Seth Godin: Oh, yeah, I took my son to see him and we left halfway through because it was horrible. (Laughter.) But the point is that human beings would rather have glimpses of genius than day-to-day mediocrity.

Sounds about right to me.

Posted by: Chris White on June 18, 2008 12:46 PM

I just found myself wishing that Haynes had more talent.

Ouch. The most devastating criticism you can make of someone in the sciences is to say he's "not even wrong". The sentence above is the equivalent for the arts. You just don't recover from that kind of thing.

Posted by: patrickH on June 18, 2008 1:35 PM

"This sounds like the sour grapes I hear all the time from competent artists with decent local reputations and modest sales prices bitching about the (supposed) no talent a##holes making tons of money selling art that they don't like ... which makes it, therefore, "bad art". "

Has anybody besides me noticed that weblog cat fights have been losing their ferocity and staying power? Maybe I've lost interest.

Chris, you've given me a considerable promotion, which I appreciate. I can't even claim a "decent local reputation" or "modest sales prices." I'm just a weekend warrior. I haven't been a serious player in the commercial music world in 30 years.

I do not begrudge people who can make a decent living in music their success. God alone knows, most of the people you think are making a fortune are barely struggling to survive.

I am, however, puzzled by the leftist moaning and groaning about the incomes of executives and CEOs. The left doesn't seem to have anything against limitless income for artists. Whatever Dylan has, he certainly doesn't need any more. Do artists contribute something that business people don't?

I haven't listened to Dylan for years because I just can't bear the whining, so I haven't got a clue what he does. I've worked with musicians who have worked as his sidemen. One reported that he tried to sing along on one of Dylan's songs. Dylan stopped and said:

"There's only room for one whining Yenta in this band."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 18, 2008 3:36 PM

I don't know about other so-called "leftists" but I'm a great fan of capitalism, just not the distorted global corporate version of it we currently see in action. The pay for CEOs and executives (especially those in the "financial services" sector) comes primarily from the efforts of the hundreds or thousands of "little people" below them, the engineers and builders and sales force folks whose salaries have been, in real buying power, stagnant for decades. The cash flowing to artists comes (more or less directly) from the work that those artist do. I may be astounded and even find it slightly obscene that a baseball pitcher can command a five-year contract for $100,000,000, but, having an idea what the owners of baseball franchises tuck away in profits, I say more power to them.

People go to movies because they star Cate Blanchett or George Clooney or Todd Haynes or Steven Spielberg directs them, not because it is a product of Fox or Universal, so I don't begrudge those artists their earnings. If Bob Dylan has more cash than he "needs' it is because he's on the road giving concerts night after night and regularly adding to his "product line" ... recording new albums to add to his back catalogue that people keep purchasing. Like some of the threads around here on other aesthetic issues it is just a matter of personal taste, not right and wrong. ST finds Dylan whiny and boring, fine. My buddy thinks Dylan is a genius, fine. I'm somewhere in the middle, fine, too.

Posted by: Chris White on June 18, 2008 6:23 PM

Chris, I am in the unique position of having worked directly for the CEO of a major international publishing firm, and having played as a sideman for a couple of big name bands.

The CEO was the far better employer. No contest. As you say, that CEO had a stable full of employees. That was because he took responsibility for providing full-time long-term employment for those employees. My CEO may have been making millions, but he also paid his professional and supporting staff very well, providing them with medical insurance and vacations.

I learned to have a lot of respect for that guy. After my wife died, he invited me to play one-on-one basketball games with him once a week, just so that he could keep an eye on me and nurse me back to health.

He also worked very hard, and traveled endlessly to every post of the corporate empire at tremendous cost to his desire to be home with his family.

I watched him turn around a corporation that had been seen by many of his employees as a cash cow that existed solely to be milked. That CEO felt a keen responsibility to his shareholders to deliver a profit and to be a responsible leader, and he did his job very well.

The bands who used to call me... well, they were great guys and I loved playing with them... but they took absolutely no responsibility for me beyond paying me one or two hundred bucks for the night. I think that Dylan also operates in this fashion.

I've seen guys work for years for bands that made millions in this night by night fashion, only to be left toothless, destitute and homeless once the one night stands came to an end.

My late wife used to get very angry with me, because musicians with huge reputations would call me and ask me to get on my horse and do a gig, and I consistently refused. I preferred to get up in the morning and go to work for my CEO because he took some responsibility for me.

So, you'll excuse me if my point of view is precisely opposite. The supporting cast in the music business routinely gets paid just about zero. Big name artists, more often than not, exploit their hired hands with a vengeance.

So, no, I don't buy your social theory. I think that my old CEO's behavior is far more admirable than anything I've seen in the music biz. He felt deeply responsible for those engineers, etc., who worked for them, and he provided them with a good life. I've seen almost none of that in the music biz.

From a standpoint of doing good social work, that CEO beat every star musician I've ever known by a long shot. In an odd way, spending a lifetime watching the employees of the music biz exploited and left destitute has completely bled away my interest in "genius." I really don't give a fuck about genius any more.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 18, 2008 9:42 PM

I love Bob Dylan, but I wouldn't bother to see him now. His voice is gone; he should have stopped smoking.

I can't stand Todd Haynes. The Velvet Goldmine still hurts me, even though I couldn't sit through it. I'd never expect anything good from Todd Haynes.

Bob Dylan was a young genius who stole from everyone but produced work that changed popular music forever. Now he's an old sellout but, eh, who isn't?

"Masters of War" is still potent and topical after all these years. Give the man his due!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on June 18, 2008 9:56 PM

Hmm, I find myself thinking that I should have given Todd Haynes more credit for audacity and unusualness, maybe. "I'm Not There" certainly isn't the usual film biography and maybe that's to its credit. Still, "unusual" can be just as dead and banal as conventional, god knows, and whether something has any real life or not seems to me 'way more important than whether it's typical or atypical.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2008 10:57 AM

I'm Not There, like most of Haynes' movies, is like an idea looking for a reason to exist. He's all wind-up, no fastball, and just about everything he does remains painfully on the surface. Everyone who sees I'm Not There gets it almost immediately (before they even see it, even). But the movie goes nowhere. Haynes can't get underneath the clever conception or use it to generate any genuine emotion or feeling. It's unclear how Haynes even feels about Dylan, other than that he thinks he's a confusing guy.

I'd say the movie isn't even about Bob Dylan; it's more about Haynes' own (presumed) cleverness and his ability to tastefully drop names. Many film nerds treated the pretty obvious references to Masculin Feminin, 8 1/2, A Face in the Crowd, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Greil Marcus, and countless others as proof of the movie's depth. But I'll be damned if I can figure out how it means anything other than that Haynes has seen and read the material he's referencing. Well, I guess it also means that Dylan was part of the general '60s thing, and that he was a cultural lightning rod...but is that really insight?

What is it about film nerds and references anyway? They can be fun, maybe even meaningful, but it doesn't take a genius to name-drop another work, and too many of them can make a director look like a showboat.

Film nerds did the same with Scorsese's Dylan doc, in which he referenced several experimental '60s filmmakers. How these filmmakers related to Dylan in anything but the most basic way I'm not sure, but some commentators went on and on about it, as though Scorese was telling us something we didn't already know. Is it just an insidery club thing? Do people feel validated when they see their own expertise mirrored back at them? I guess so.

Anyway, the only Haynes film I've enjoyed is that Karen Carpenter one with the Barbie dolls. In that one Haynes was able to use the cutsie set-up to drill down into some harrowing feelings, and I ended up being genuinely moved by it. But I've found all his other stuff to be painfully flat.

Posted by: Ron on June 19, 2008 11:23 AM

Best part of the movie was the 60 seconds of David Cross playing Allen Ginsberg. Perfect casting. Otherwise, I pretty much agree with everyone here on this flick. I have enjoyed some of Haynes' other movies, particularly his first, the Karen Carpenter Story starring his Barbie collection.

Posted by: JV on June 19, 2008 12:16 PM

I think people like Shouting Thomas need to distinguish between Dylan the symbol of the sixties and the actual Dylan. I always liked how he unceremoniously dumped the left wing politics right after the civil rights movement, which is, as Steve Sailer, has said the last time liberals got anything right.

As for the whining and contempt, well, who says genius has to be likable. Listening to Willie Nelson is like hanging out with a warm hearted old friend, and I love him for it, but he's not really in Dylan's league as a songwriter. A few songs by Townes Van Zandt might come up to snuff, but even he wasn't the fount of creativity that Dylan was.

Posted by: Thursday on June 19, 2008 4:31 PM

Nope, Thursday, he wasn't, but it's nice to hear a shout out to poor old Townes Van Zandt.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on June 19, 2008 10:48 PM

Motley Crue has a financial blog? Or it was on The Motley Fool blog? I'm so confused. Doesn't matter because that dylan dude sold his soul to the devil a long time ago. Now he is part of the establishment.

Now Leonard Cohen is the man. Holed up on his Greek island drinking Chateau Latour and singing songs of love. Marty Scorsese should explore his musical genius in his next Imax production.

Lastly, my favorite Todd Hayes film is "Far From Heaven". Boy would I liked to have a 1950's wife and lived like they did in that movie. Without the gay part of course. A wife that would do all the household chores and having dinner on the table when I came home tired from work. Before womens liberation screwed things up. Things were good then (except for African Americans). A wife wouldn't leave sucessful her husband just because he dressed schubbly. Not in the 50's she wouldn't.

Posted by: Michael, Atlanta GA on June 20, 2008 11:47 PM

Dylan's stuff from 64 to 67 -- "Another Side" through "John Wesley Harding" -- has never been surpassed in rock, in certain ways never equalled. "Blood on the Tracks" from 1975 was also surpassingly great. No one else has ever so completely blended the simplicity, directness, and force of pop with the depth and complexity of poetry.

His stuff since then has been good -- occasional songs up to the Willie Nelson level -- but never equalled his great period.

Dylan is worshipped now because his greatness has been recognized. That's understandably made made a lot of people irritated with his cult. (At the extreme, you get cantankerous old conservative types like Shouting Thomas unloading their frustration with everything and everybody on Dylan, for no apparent reason besides the fact that he's successful). Plus Dylan always was a bit of an acquired taste because of his singing style.

Posted by: mq on June 21, 2008 2:53 AM

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