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1.30.2008

LIKE A COMPLETE UNKNOWN

I'm Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman









“Who said I was sincere?”


The quip is your typical Bob Dylan piss-take, typically glib and evasive yet atypically dead-on about his mercurial self-mythologizing, his one-man revolt against an easy peg, his career as a slippery hoax. All his counterfeit personae get inventoried early on. “Poet. Prophet. Outlaw. Fake. Star of Electricity.” But mostly fake. Masked and anonymous, like a complete unknown. Right.

Haynes breaks Dylan down for us into six of his splinter selves, not in the hopes of pinning down the man shifting from one shape to the next but more from knowing he couldn’t. There's Christian Bale multitasking as protest folkie Jack Rollins and born-again visionary Pastor John, Heath Ledger as Robbie Clark weathering a turbulent marriage with his sad eyed lady of the lowlands Charlotte Gainsbourg and Cate Blanchett's puckish hellion Jude Quinn cutting a swath through 60s London. These three are the least obtuse. Marcus Carl Franklin's black preteen Woody riding the rails with a fascist-killing guitar, Ben Whishaw's temperamental Arthur Rimbaud under interrogation in a disembodied no-place and Richard Gere's Billy the Kid hiding away in a gaudy Felliniesque frontier town opiate, they're the purer abstractions.

But we've all met them before. The troubadour and the evangelist. The lout. The rock beast. The vagabond. The dandy.The exile. Conscience, dysfunction, narcissism, innocence, agitation, penitence. Respectively. All of them are Dylan. None of them are Dylan.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance)

The Basement Tapes outtake that gives I'm Not There its title was a ballad laden with regret:"Of course I'll not deceive her,I'm not there, I'm gone, it's all about confusion and I cry for her"  But pried loose from the song, it's become proviso, threat, kiss-off. And Haynes is staying true to its implications. It sort of bookends with the presentiment, and later the debris, of Dylan's mysterious motorbike accident as if to insinuate that all this is the life that flashed before his eyes right before he hit that tree and snapped his neck. But to go with that assumption incriminates Dylan as a co-conspirator, semi-passive but somehow in on this, here. And he isn't. If anything, the bookends foreshadow his leaving. Making him, at most, a ghost, reflected and refracted through a kind of metatexted Sixties with aspects of Godard and Fellini and Peckinpah and Richard Lester and D.A.Pennebaker and Huey Newton & Bobby Seale and Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg as prisms. Even if the likeliest place you'll find an artist is inside his art, Dylan isn't entirely there either. His catalog may run gorgeously like connective tissue between dream states here but sung by others. Echoes, mimicry, puppetry, ventriloquism, heresies, reconstruction, deconstruction, metamorphoses. 29 singers. 29 covers. 29 more shards. 29 more decoys.

The degrees of removal make plain that Haynes isn't drilling for biopic lode but also helps enable the possibility of hitting it, not by disambiguating the myths so much as pigging out on them, feeding it hormones 'til some veer into hallucination: Quinn and his band brandishing submachineguns and mowing down the crowd that booed Dylan at Newport for going electric, a cartoon whale chasing Woody after he jumps off a train into a river, circus animals wandering through the 19th century town of Riddle where Billy is known by many names. Being more Dylanhead than Dylanologist (because how much of a Dylanologist can I be having come to Dylan in hindsight, and by way of Street Legal at that?), Dylan to me's never been anything but this parade of camouflages the man hiding in plain sight couldn't possibly measure up to.  The troubadour and the evangelist. The lout. The rock beast. The vagabond. The dandy.The exile. Poet. Prophet. Outlaw. Fake. Star of Electricity. Dylan to me has never been there. And I suspect to many, too.Definitely to Haynes.

Unkempt, frivolous, heady, magnetic and daring with a not imminently crackable, if at all, semiotic density, he performs an autopsy on that absence and finds it sunk in the self-inventive urges of art and moreso, the self-inventive urges of rock and roll. And in exalting these fake Dylans, he exalts that urge, too. Doesn't matter if the one true Dylan remains missing. Haynes has eaten the document. And printed the legend.

HERE BE DRAGONS

Cloverfield
Directed by Matt Reaves

Written by Drew Godard

Produced by J. J. Abrams











Radioactive cautionary nothing. Godzilla - - - and really that entire lovable and endlessly regurgitating man-in-suit phenomenon - - - struck me as a symptom of some annihilation and renewal trauma, a culture crawling from the wreckage and ritually purging its hand-me-down collective memory of destruction at the mercy of an atomic behemoth. Godzilla was da bomb, so to speak. But that came much later, of course. More Eiji Tsuburaya voguing on Ray Harryhausen, Godzilla always had/has me at rampageporn.

Post-911 New York tussles with its own Hiroshima shadows. Relocate Godzilla and reframe the rampageporn in the default platform of the September 11 attacks - - -amateur video - - -and you’re tapping into these sticky new crannies of unease. Even stickier for the most of us who got all that catastrophe as bad news feed is this immersive, irrational quicksand of panic and turmoil and vertigo that's a cinematic mini-syntax upon itself,signifiers of a postmodern context reality. But it's not for everyone, this video verite. It's the motion sickness that gets to people, mostly. And it's a bit tricky to parse as cinema. As metatext, sure. But any horror fed through it gets no more viscous plotwise and characterwise than a campfire ghost story. Not that plot and character are the point. Rather, they're anything but. And much as the monster footage here is taped over the estranged lovers roaming their undestroyed city in happier times and in doing so, wrings some poignant frisson out of a rather blunt metaphor, it's a little off.

Cthulhu's a no-show here - - -gigantic penis with legs leaking homicidal crabs is more like it revealed in a dorky money shot that J.J. should've ditched,too. Like he ditched the reported multiple handycam POVs which is for the good of all, by dint of its found format. What the lone POV does is restrict the field of vision, amping an illusion of randomness, makes it ickier- - - here's a generation in all their collective narcissism, recording and uploading every twitch, every wank, every facet. All this compulsive shooting in the thick of bugfuck is just so them. Hazard a guess what goes through their heads as they run and shoot and run and shoot and it’s likely they’re thinking more about how bitchin' the footage would look on YouTube than their chances of making it out of the city whole. Yuppie dorks,yeah.

Cloverfield
works as one trick pony - - -skeletal and shallow as God intended. And closer to Michael Snow’s Wavelength than The Host for the way it targets a different substrata of emotional responses more to do with sensory discomfort , with the taxonomy of textures, with weird thingies you can't quite make out. The stress gains empathy and we lose the passivity that often comes with going to the movies. Blair Witch hooked me on spatial displacement , my fear of thickets, my deep love for campfire ghost stories. Cloverfield stokes my apocalyptic neuroses and Fortean hard-ons into hysteric simmer. The geek in me always found more creep and arcana in blurry photographs of cryptids but much as doozies of the sort abound here- - -a massive dimly-lit is-that-a-tail flitting between buildings, a skyscraper leaning against another like a heartbroken lover resting its weary head, a horse-drawn carriage missing its coachman wandering city streets missing its people - - - this kaiju meltdown had me at rampageporn.