Arthur is a poet. Constructing bizarre rhyme schemes and metaphors, he is an undeniable force in the poetry landscape. He is also Bob Dylan. Robbie is an actor. Shallow, chauvinistic, womanizing, he struggles with his personal hangups with women and relationships. He is also Bob Dylan. Jude is a musician. She drinks, does drugs, and tries to insult and offend as many people as she can. She is also Bob Dylan. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Todd Haynes is a director who operates in two modes. There’s Haynes the classicist, creating period dramas that wouldn’t feel out of place in the fifties if not for their progressive politics (think “Carol” and “Far From Heaven”). Then, there’s Haynes the experimenter, utilizing influences from the French New Wave and Early Soviet Cinema to put forth works of art that challenge and confound. It is this Todd Haynes that has made “I’m Not There.” Eschewing conventional biopic structures, “I’m Not There” is less of a film and more of a treatise on Dylan. It’s a stream of consciousness poem, not about the life of the man, but rather of his art. It’s essentially the cinematic equivalent of a Dylan song: poetic, rambling, oblique, and, to an extent, nonsensical.
“Analyzing I’m Not There” is somewhat of a pointless task. Why would one even want to make sense of it? Taking a cerebral approach to this film is like trying to dissect a frog. You may have a better understanding of how it works, but in the process, you have killed it. No, it’s better to just let the film wash over you in all its strangeness.
I mean, what sense could you possibly make of a film that puts Dylan through the looking glass of Fellini, Lester, and Ford in equal measure? Haynes seems to implicitly understand this. In fact, I’m not sure if he even knows what his film is about, the same way that Dylan seems to create songs that are open to personal interpretation. In this dreamlike film, I am reminded of Freud’s theory of dreams. We don’t derive meaning from the dream itself but, rather, from the act of interpreting said dream. Maybe reaching the heart of “I’m Not There” is less finding what Haynes was getting at and more figuring out what it means to us.
The appeal of Dylan is the enigma he has constructed. His is a career of reinvention, of creating various personalities and living them. Haynes seems to understand this. A typical biopic taking us through the life of Dylan would have ruined the mystique and, as a result, the musician himself. “I’m Not There” doesn’t need to get across Bob Dylan the person, but rather the idea of Dylan. I find myself constantly coming back to Jude’s final line in the film: “Yeah, it’s chaos, it’s clocks, it’s watermelons, it’s everything.” The line is complete nonsense, yet it feels like there’s something underneath it. And maybe that’s enough.