Chaos, Clocks, Juxtapositions
It's the Gere scenes, which have taken a critical shellacking, that are in many ways the most impressive, because they offer welcome evidence of Haynes's inventiveness, often curtailed and boxed in by his internalized conceptual neatness. This episode is set in the elegiacally languid key of Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), crossed with Greil Marcus's writings on Dylan and The Basement Tapes and, perhaps, Constance Rourke's 1931 cultural study American Humor (a Marcus favorite). It peaks with a remarkable scene that is the best thing Haynes has ever done, a funeral for a little girl propped up in her open coffin in a gazebo in a carnivalesque town called (a bit too archly) Riddle, the mood around her balanced between wonder, sobriety and a potential surge of spiritual ecstasy. Jim James, the lead singer from My Morning Jacket, solemnly breaks into an unearthly rendition of "Goin' to Acapulco," backed by indie band Calexico. On The Basement Tapes, the song sounds like a near-throwaway, a trial run for the album's "Tears of Rage." Yet this incandescent version initiates a spell of time-stopping beauty that pushes Haynes's film up to a higher plane.
What is impressive, if not majestic, about I'm Not There is the way its constituent parts talk to one another (in that sense, it represents a vastly improved version of Poison's narrative triptych). With multiple aesthetic registers at his disposal rather than just one or two, Haynes is able to create nuances of feeling through simple juxtaposition. And I'm Not There is above all a film of juxtapositions--of assorted versions of the American landscape, based in various ideas of openness and freedom; of frozen celebrity images-as-prisons; of faces and emotional registers, all of which converge to create a polyphonic effect that is most unusual in movies. Blanchett's helpless monster is contrasted with Bale's flinty, austere folk singer and Ledger's dreamy, lost movie star, and all three gain in poignancy and mystery. Gainsbourg's solitude, set against the droning of TV reports from the cataclysmic '60s, rhymes with Gere's melancholy wandering. Moreover, Haynes achieves a lovely atemporality that is completely in sync with the spirit of Dylan's thinking and his music, and that reaches its culminating moment when Gere's Billy jumps a freight train and finds the guitar left behind by Franklin's Woody at some unfixed point in the poetic future-past.
I'm Not There's ringing affirmation of the freedom to make yourself over stands in opposition to Haynes's earlier ballads of oppression and psychic destruction. It's as if all those Dylan avatars were whispering from the other side of the cultural mirror to Karen Carpenter, Julianne Moore's afflicted heroines and even the conflicted rock stars of Velvet Goldmine: "Don't worry about being authentic or inauthentic, real or false, whether you're in time or out of it--make it up as you go along." Amid all the shifting registers and juxtapositions, the one constant is the liberated and liberating presence of Dylan, manifested in his public afterimages and words, spoken and sung, sometimes by the man himself and sometimes by multiple actors and singers. Many Dylan lines from various interviews across the years are put in the mouths of the assorted avatars, including his (in-)famous response to Nora Ephron's question about the degree of chaos in his music: "It's chaos, clocks, watermelons. It's everything." His language is happily uncoupled from all-purpose journalistic adjectives like "enigmatic" and "opaque," and a genuinely poetic voice (his, but also ours), individual yet anonymous, unashamedly impressionistic, happily riding the flux of experience and the appetites of the imagination, becomes dominant while the voices of rationalistic conformity are consigned to the deep background.
I think this is Haynes's best film by a mile, but it does share a limitation with the earlier work. The particulars will be familiar to viewers with a little American poetry and a lot of Dylan's music (not to mention his autobiography, interviews and Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home) under their belts, but perhaps less familiar to everyone else. After all, the dilemma of pastiche is that the viewer has to share in the emotional resonance found by the artist in the appropriated parts, unless it is communicated with the joyful verve of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 or the immense contemplative gravity of Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma. Haynes's expressive gifts are just as tentative as ever, and he still clings to his appropriated "sources" for dear life, like a child hugging a tree during a thunderstorm. When all is said and done, though, his "unclassifiable Dylan movie" is something to be reckoned with, an unapologetic affirmation of poetic reconstitution and a welcome riposte to this extraordinarily low moment in commercially driven groupthink.