Sunday, February 3, 2008

Existential Excellence

I didn't know anything about Bob Dylan before seeing I'm Not There. I mean, I was familiar with some of his more popular songs, and I vaguely had the impression that he was an arrogant jerk. On the way to the theater, though, my trusted cinematic companion convinced me that, in fact, Bob Dylan isn't full of himself at all. Certain fans have built him up to be some sort of god, but he has never claimed he is anything more than just an average human being. He has been misunderstood a lot, and the movie deals with that very profoundly. I was guilty of it myself. People constantly place all of these expectations on him. There's a great line from the film: "You only want me to say what you want me to say." I'm happy my companion dismissed the Bob Dylan-as-arrogant argument before I saw the film. I feel like I approached it with more of an open mind as far as his life and personality. After all, he didn't ask Todd Haynes to make a movie about him.

I'm sure glad he did, though. What an extraordinary piece of filmmaking! I think my scarce prior knowledge of Bob Dylan aided my viewing experience. This is just a personal thing - I'm not saying it's better to know nothing going in to it. With my thoughts of him being a conceited asshole neutralized and nothing else for me to draw upon, it was like I was a blank canvas, and I was eager for Todd Haynes to paint his masterpiece. I was receptive to whatever he wanted to throw at me, and I always knew I was in capable hands. Really messed up hands at times, but always capable. I wanted to learn more about Dylan from a thoughtful artist. I know everything in the movie isn't factual, and I certainly don't want to canonize Haynes like people do with Dylan, but I believe Haynes captures Bob Dylan's essence like no one else could. And his essence, what he stands for and his spirit and who he is deep down as a person, is what's important. I related to the film so much because that's what's important in all of us. This is a film all about Bob Dylan, but at the same time, it's not about him at all.

I'm not going to pretend like I understand everything in this film. I don't. Not at all. This is one of the most challenging films I've ever seen, but it's also one of the most rewarding and stimulating. I love movies that make me think. I want to see I'm Not There again and again. It's like a wonderful puzzle. I guarantee that you will discover new things on each subsequent viewing of this film. I don't want to get into the plot, because it's useless to talk about the plot. I don't even think there is one. Basically, Marcus Carl Franklin, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw, and Richard Gere all portray different personas and aspects of Bob Dylan's life. The ingenious thing is that none of them are named Bob Dylan.

Yes, Heath Ledger was absolutely my entry point to this film. I wasn't particularly interested in it when it first came out, and I sort of forgot about it. I honestly didn't think I'd like it. Since he died, I have been wanting to see all of his work, and my companion thankfully talked me into seeing I'm Not There so I could witness one of his last performances on the big screen. They really should re-release this film. It's a beautiful tribute to Heath Ledger. And I think people would want to see it now who might not have wanted to otherwise. Like me. Since Heath Ledger's death has affected me so, so deeply, I think it opened me up emotionally to the film and made me more emotionally receptive to it. My heart and soul were in it from the first frame. I bawled my eyes out almost every time I saw him. It was a very moving experience. But I'd kind of like to leave my discussion of him until later in this review. I need to prepare myself for it.

The filmmaking is technically outstanding. Each actor gets his or her own customized cinematography. To combine so many different styles, each as breathtaking as the next, so effortlessly - it's just unprecedented. I've never seen anything quite like this film. There are so many great individual shots and compositions. Each frame could basically be like an abstract painting or photo. It's pure art. I can't even fathom a mind that could conceive these images. Todd Haynes is a genius. Every image is so confident and uncompromised. It's cinematic experimentation like nothing else out there. I think that's a comment on Bob Dylan's life and career. Since Dylan was so experimental, this is Haynes' homage to that spirit of creativity and constant evolution. People looking for a conventional movie should stay away from I'm Not There. They're not going to get one. But I think the same can be said about Bob Dylan. People looking for a conventional artist aren't going to find one. I think that's brilliant.

The music is, of course, fantastic. I naturally want to buy every single one of Bob Dylan's albums now. The sound design is exquisite, and the editing is flawless. The directing is practically peerless. I mean, it IS peerless in the sense that no one else could have made this film in exactly this way. Todd Haynes is a revelation. I had only seen Far From Heaven before. I loved it, but I never knew he was capable of something like I'm Not There. I've seen few achievements like this in my life. I know I'm gushing, but I feel very passionately about it.

The acting is just incomparable. There's tremendous supporting (as in supporting the supporting characters, because none of the main characters are leads) work from Michelle Williams (never more luminous), David Cross (hysterical), and Charlotte Gainsbourg (miraculous) as Heath Ledger's movie wife. Richard Gere is really great, but no one ever talks about his performance. It's probably because his character is the most bizarre in this weird menagerie of creations. His is definitely the part that left me the most baffled, and also the one that I am most intrigued to learn more about when I see it again. Marcus Carl Franklin, only 11 years old, is amazing. He's absolutely charming and riveting. Ben Whishaw is wonderful in very limited scenes. Christian Bale is just one of the best actors in the business today. He's always awesome, so I feel like he might get taken for granted. He shouldn't. I personally cherish him. He really gets all of Bob Dylan's mannerisms down, and his performance when his character is singing at a church is one of the best singing performances in the whole film.

Cate Blanchett is a force of nature. She's phenomenal. I think this is her best work yet. She has to win the Oscar, or I quit the Oscars. No, that's not true, but you get the point. It's so fascinating that the woman is the one who looks the most like Bob Dylan. She has been hyped up so much for this film, and she doesn't disappoint. She's tragic, angry, funny, electric, and captivating. Cate Blanchett is also one of the top actors working today. I don't think she can do any wrong. Unbelievable stuff.

Heath Ledger is just astonishing in I'm Not There. He gets one of the heftier parts, too. His character is the heart of the film. It just makes it that much more poignant. I can't say how I would have reacted to the film had he not died. I'm not really into speculating like that. What's the point? He did die. It is what it is, and I can only judge it and form my reaction in that context. I know, 100%, that the situation being what it is (I don't even like to say it) made it easier for me to connect with the film on a deeper and more emotional level. I know that. It also makes it even more profound, special, and touching.

I was ready for this film. I was ready to grieve over Heath Ledger, officially, and I did. It put me in a very unique, receptive, spiritual place. I was so in touch with my emotions, and I saw the film in a miraculous way because of it. The whole film was like a symphony written only for me. When the first image of Heath Ledger flashed across the screen within the first minute, the tears started flowing. I saw his name, and I cried and cried. During his first extended sequence, I was crying so hard that I don't remember much of what was said. I was literally shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. And every time I saw him, I got misty-eyed. I was so sad, but I was also savoring the brilliance of his performance. I was in full-on appreciation mode, like my eyes were devouring his beautiful face and committing his every move and sound to memory.

During his last scenes of the film, I started bawling again. I sensed it was ending, and I sensed how special these scenes were. You really couldn't ask for a better tribute. Everything seems so painfully and yet so gloriously fitting. His character is the only one who's married, and he has daughters. Sigh. It's all extremely profound and poignant. For one of his last films (and the last that's not a fantasy vehicle), what a way to be remembered. It's heartbreaking to watch, but it's also uplifting. He would want it to be that way. I treasure his performance in I'm Not There. I'm still in mourning, but it was almost cathartic. I will never forget Heath Ledger, and I will never forget this experience. Even the title is haunting - he's not there anymore. As far as I'm concerned, he always will be.

I'm Not There is a mind-boggling intermingling of phases, styles, personalities, music, thoughts, and feelings. It is a very post-modern, almost existentialist rumination on life. In that way, it is very life-affirming. It's all about change, personal expression, creativity, being yourself, and not conforming. I'm Not There is an inspiring film. I feel like I saw it at the exact right point in my life to make a maximum impact. I am in a very transitional period, and I really relate to everything about figuring out who you are and sticking with it, but also knowing when to let go and change (for yourself, not for someone else). Real life is complex and scary, and this film hit me with an immediacy that left me breathless. It gave me remarkable insight into myself. I want to just go and meditate on it for a couple days. It was that powerful for me. I feel like it was made just for me and also only for everyone. I hope that makes sense - I'm still in Haynes-Dylan-philosophical mode. I loved every bit of it. I thank Todd Haynes from the bottom of my heart for making this film.

I'm Not There is an exhilarating cinematic experience. I don't think I'll ever experience it quite like I did the first time, but that's not a bad thing. I think my love and appreciation for the film can only grow as I understand it more. A film that is this impeccably crafted, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally resonant is extremely rare. It has everything. It completely subverted all my expectations. For instance, I didn't even think this had a chance of making my top 20 list for 2007.

But, life is wonderful and surprising sometimes. I'm Not There is the best film of 2007.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

No comments: