Successful and unsuccessful excess in "I'm Not There" and "Youth Without Youth".
It's probably an unhip way to discuss one of the century's greatest musicians, but I would guess most people have one favorite Bob Dylan song. When we talk about great filmmakers or great painters, those in the know generally don't like to limit themselves to a single work. It's seen as reductive or simplistic, as if a true connoisseur wouldn't answer such a ridiculous question. To play it safe, you at least name an album, because the album, of course, is really the complete work of art. For those who "know" about music, the songs alone are just pieces in the larger canvas. But if you were forced to answer, even the snobbiest music fan would pinpoint that one favorite tune, be it "Blowin in the Wind" or "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". It's hard to know why certain songs connect deeply, even if we know intellectually that they aren't the best of what's out there. Whether it be the first time we heard it, or that its subject matter is intensely personal, or even there's just something about a particular riff that we find particularly pleasurable -- there's generally one that rises above the rest for whatever that reason may be.
I think I have a unusual Bob Dylan favorite: It's "She Belongs to Me" from Bringing It All Back Home. For years, I've listened to this song and have never been able to figure out why it appeals so much to me. Is it because I relate to the woman in the story, and think that she is somehow a reflection of myself? Have I known someone in my past that reminds of this character, and I enjoy the uncanny resemblance? I'm not sure, but what I do know is that Dylan singing about the "Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks" holds a magical fascination -- like I know everything about what the song means, understand the situation deeply, and it works metaphorically and captures an experience in my own life that is totally familiar. So many Dylan songs have this effect -- a turn of phrase that sounds so simple resonates deeply, and captures a feeling that's hard to describe, but totally visceral.
What works so well in a great Bob Dylan song reflects, for me, why Todd Haynes's I'm Not There is such a misfire. For those who haven't seen it or heard (it seems impossible since the media has been saturated with information about the film) the movie's central gimmick is six different actors play characters all of whom embody different aspects of Dylan's personality. It almost feels cliche to write about it at this point, but the idea is that Haynes is trying to decipher Dylan by coming at him from a number of different angles, and reaching the conclusion that he's all of these things and none of these things simultaneously -- he's "not there".
Yet it was hard to watch this film without thinking that the central star of the exercise is not Dylan, but rather Todd Haynes. The entire movie has an eerie mood of narcissism -- a filmmaker trying to be clever and dazzle us with intellect, simultaneously asking us to applause the "deepness" but yet preserving the feeling of an exclusive club that is only enjoyed by Haynes and his collaborators in the project . Even the title ("Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan") feels like a graduate student whose ideas are just too profound for us regular people to understand. The film resists its audience at every turn -- speaking down from the mount of the intelligentsia. For me, this is what defines a self-indulgent movie -- it seems to have no affection for its audience, too wrapped up in trying to prove a point or posture artistically. (Examples of this posing show up throughout the movie: Aside from the central 6 character device, there's the use of quick cuts to unrelated images, self-conscious references to other classic films such as A Hard Day's Night and 8 1/2, cutesy insider Dylan references, and, most embarrassingly, the use of circus performers and zoo animals who randomly show up in frames, just to name a few.) Most of all, it has no sense of humor about itself -- because, as we all know, Great Art like this must be taken seriously. The film is about as un-Dylan as it gets -- and it seems a shame that a guy whose songs are so human and universal had the film of his life made by a director who seemed only out for himself, who doesn't care to connect with people. Frankly, it didn't need to be this complicated: If you want to understand Dylan the man, listen to a few episodes of his weekly radio show and you'll get a good feel for what he is about -- Haynes's "suppositions" be damned.
It's a funny thing about self-indulgence, trying to figure out why it's sometimes off-putting and othertimes fascinating. Just a few days before seeing I'm Not There, I attended a screening of Francis Ford Coppola's new movie, Youth Without Youth. It doesn't get more heady than this. Coppola's film deals with the origin of language and the nature of time and of personality, a mystery about spirituality, and a kind of mad jaunt into the depths of human experience. It's daring and ballsy and completely unrelenting. It's not user-friendly and demands a lot from the audience. Most of all, it reflects a filmmaker who is diving headfirst into philosophical ideas about humanity from the dawn of time, and not caring whether it will earn a penny at the box office or please art house audiences who have grown accustomed to feeling very safe in an "independent" movie. (On a side note, I recently learned that to get nominated for an independent spirit award, your budget has to be under 25 million -- just in case anyone had any question about whether or not the term "independent" has been rendered completely meaningless.) Coppola employs similar techniques and structure -- cross-cutting between time and location, having actors play multiple parts, and a stylistic aesthetic that's constantly dazzling -- that force the audience to engage with the movie and stay alert. He's provoking you and showing off at the same time -- and it's exciting and vibrant.
So why is Coppola's self-indulgence and bravado inspiring, while Haynes's is simply cloying? I suppose the answer lies in what the artist is trying to achieve. For all its bluster, I'm Not There is still a biopic -- prettied up to be more that it is, not really communicating anything that interesting, unique or profound -- it feels like the work of a sycophant. For me, if you're going to tread down the road of excess, it better be in service of some radical and challenging ideas. I'm willing to follow Coppola because he's searching for answers that are deep and spiritual, and there's a sense of humility in his mission, whereas Haynes seems sure of his thesis, and by God is he going to prove it, because he's done his homework. At the end of both movies, you sense the director has had his hand down your throat -- but Coppola leaves something for your soul to ponder while Haynes goes off to ponder his.
Getting Reel is a biweekly commentary about movies and the world.