Tangled up in clues

Times Staff Writer

Help! I’ve followed a rabbit named Todd Haynes down a fantastic aperture, and now I’m having trouble pulling myself out. I’m talking, of course, about “I’m Not There,” the filmmaker’s fantasia about Bob Dylan. As an avowed Haynes nut (I even own an old bootleg copy of his Barbie-filled tragedy, “The Karen Carpenter Story”) and aspiring Dylan know-it-all (I wrote the text panels for the 2004 museum exhibit “Bob Dylan’s American Journey”), I’d been waiting a long time to see what he’d do with the Mystery Tramp.

A first viewing revealed that there’s one obvious way to enjoy “I’m Not There,” which opens in L.A. on Nov. 21, and that’s to chase the references. The movie is a homage to 1960s art films, a meditation on mediated identity, and a lovechild of pop and the avant-garde. But it’s also a game. The extraordinary detail of Haynes’ re-creation and manipulation of Saint Bob’s cosmology begs for Dylan fans to connect the dots.

Though Haynes has said in interviews that he hopes Dylan freaks won’t get caught up in those bio-mythical details, I must respectfully say that such a request is ridiculous. Only a so-called Dylanologist could have made this film, and Haynes can’t deny us the pleasure of noting every shirt that matches one worn in a vintage film clip, and every quote lifted from a press conference from 1965.


There’s a serious side to all this allusion. “I’m Not There” crystallizes a particular viewpoint that’s dominated Dylan talk for more than a decade. It’s the Trickster take, in which the singer-songwriter’s gift for theft and chameleonic behavior is played up so strongly that he no longer seems like an individual at all, but a harmonica-slinging humanoid archive of American mythology.

This take on Dylan is a rich one. For one thing, it’s helped revive interest in many lost touchstones of American music and literature; for another, it’s helped Dylan avoid getting stuck in a web of baby boomer self-love. Haynes makes the most of the Trickster take by placing each of his six Dylanesque figures in a memory-rich landscape that intersects and goes beyond the songwriter’s own.

With this approach, Haynes also serves his own generation. At 46, Haynes is on the cusp between the baby boom and Generation X; he was a toddler when Dylan stood behind the Rev. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. For post-countercultural bohemians such as Haynes, the idea of Dylan as “the voice of a generation” is as questionable as the notion that history only belongs to the baby boomers. The fluid, playful but powerful Trickster Dylan makes much more sense. (The view that he’s just a guy who struggles with his own limitations, like any other artist, is out of fashion with everyone -- but shows up beautifully in this film, in the segment featuring Heath Ledger as a Dylanesque divorce.)

This Dylan also inspired the “I’m Not There” soundtrack, which features an indie-rock all-star team taking on the old prophet with verve and occasional genius. Eddie Vedder sings the opening salvo, a barrelhouse version of “All Along the Watchtower,” backed by a band that includes members of Sonic Youth and Wilco. These and the other bastards of Dylan who appear on the soundtrack’s 36 tracks take plenty of liberties with the classics and obscurities they cover. For former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus, that iconoclastic spirit actually inspires faithful imitation, while others, such as Sufjan Stevens, reshape the songs to suit their own style.

The music heard throughout the film works another sleight of hand. Dylan’s own renditions blend in with others; Malkmus, Mason Jennings and John Doe provide the vocals to which Cate Blanchett (as Jude Quinn) and Christian Bale (as Jack Rollins) lip-sync. These shuffled renditions reinforce the sense of Dylan as a transformer whose voice emanates beyond his own body.

“I’m Not There” meditates upon artistic self-creation in the media age, and the gap between our lived experience and the stories we tell about it. But a Dylan nerd isn’t going to ponder those big issues upon first viewing. That fan will be too busy following the clues, playing Haynes’ scavenger hunt. Without spoiling the film’s texture, here are some nods I caught.


The dialogue: Haynes has stated that some of Jude Quinn’s lines come from actual interviews and press conferences with Dylan. A slow afternoon and mad Google skills would undoubtedly reveal many more than I’ve traced. The curious can start by reading Nat Hentoff’s 1966 Playboy magazine interview. A link is active on the website of the Village Voice, Hentoff’s longtime home.

Several other quotes, including at least one uttered by Ben Whishaw as the Rimbaudian Dylan, come from a 1965 interview Dylan did with Nora Ephron and Susan Edmison. And one of Blanchett’s more wicked asides -- “Love and sex are things that really hang everybody up” -- is from the late Robert Shelton’s 1986 insider biography “No Direction Home.”

The clothes: As everyone knows by now, Blanchett’s Jude Quinn character is a Dylan clone, right down to the polka-dot shirt he wore in 1965. But all the other Dylans have their talismans. My favorite subtle gestures are the aviator shades Dylan rocked in during the 1970s, worn with aplomb by Heath Ledger as Robbie, and the snakeskin boots Dylan still often sports, which we see in a flash on Jack Rollins during his Christian period. And the whole Richard Gere sequence isn’t just a nod to Dylan’s love for western wear; it looks like outtakes from Dylan’s own strange foray into cinema, 2003’s “Masked and Anonymous.”

The women: Julianne Moore stands in for Joan Baez, Michelle Williams for Edie Sedgwick and Yolanda Ross for Mary Alice Artes, the woman who brought Bob to Jesus in the late 1970s. But most striking is Charlotte Gainsbourg. Her graceful performance as the fictional Claire recalls both Suze Rotolo, the New York girlfriend who led Dylan to Rimbaud and radical politics in the early 1960s, and Sara Lownds Dylan, who married him in 1965, bore him four children and went through a painfully famous divorce in the Point Dume mansion much like the one Gainsbourg wanders through in the film.

The admirers: Allen Ginsberg makes a quick appearance, played by David Cross. The rabbinical blessing he offers Quinn -- it begins, “Perhaps you sold out to God” -- actually comes from a 1965 account of Ginsberg attending a Dylan concert in Berkeley, written by Ralph Gleason and cited in historian Alice Echols’ book “Shaky Ground: The Sixties and its Aftershocks.”

Also in the Quinn sequence, Black Panther Huey P. Newton is seen exhorting his comrade Bobby Seale to listen to Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” insisting the song is really about black empowerment. That happened too -- not in a massage parlor, as in the film, but at the Haight-Ashbury home of Panthers lawyer Beverly Axelrod. Seale’s 1970 memoir, “Seize the Time,” mentions the incident.


The mythology: “I’m Not There” makes hay of two disputed moments in Dylan’s early career. In the first, a Pete Seeger doppelganger wielding an ax threatens to cut the power feeding Quinn’s amplifiers at a folk festival; the second involves a folkie yelling “Judas” at the singer as he performs in London, and the crowd nearly rioting. In truth, Seeger denies touching any weaponry when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; “I said, ‘If I had an ax, I’d cut the cable,’ ” he told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes three decades later.

And that “Judas” moment? It’s audible on a widely circulated bootleg that was finally made officially available in 1998. Although a tiny ruckus ensues, the moment passes soon enough.

There’s much more fun to be had investigating “I’m Not There,” but I’ll leave that to others with big Dylan libraries and time on their hands. Instead, I think I’ll go see the movie again. I’m curious about what it will say to me once I’ve made it beyond the rabbit hole.