Saturday, December 01, 2007
Friday, November 30, 2007
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
There was a time when fixating on the various shifts in Dylan's personality, persona, appearance and idiosyncrasies was the exclusive province of the obsessed Super-Fan. Most people just enjoyed the guy's music. It was just the overweight, bearded guys in their basements cataloging obscure bootlegged recordings and pouring over back issues of fan newsletters with names like "My Back Pages."
But now, in 2007, these details have been examined so many times over in so many different media, I feel like everyone who's ever even heard "Highway 61 Revisited" could recite Dylan's entire biography. Born in a small mining town, boasting an early affinity for country music and the blues, he worshiped Woody Guthrie (who's famous now almost exclusively as Bob Dylan's inspiration, almost like a Folk John the Baptist to his Rock Jesus). He finds his way to the Greenwich Village folk scene, he turns on the folkies and starts playing hard-hitting rock music, he gets into a motorcycle crash, he converts to Christianity. And so forth. If you really want to hear this story, if all of this is new to you, I highly recommend you watch Martin Scorsese's brilliant documentary No Direction Home. That covers all the bases nicely.
That's not to say that there's no meaning left to squeeze from the life and work of Bob Dylan, or that Todd Haynes shouldn't bother to make a film about one of the most fascinating and iconic people alive today. It's just that his movie wants to present us with Bob Dylan the Unknowable Enigma, the Man of 100,000 Identities. And I just can't shake the feeling that I actually understand Dylan fairly well at this point. This is a mystery that has been probed with such depth and so few real tangible answers, calling the film I'm Not There is an understatement. No, Seriously, Dudes...Stop Looking...I'm Totally Not Fucking There...Got Any More Pills? strikes me as more appropriate.
There's a lot of cool scenes, good performances and interesting ideas for a movie. So many, I'm tempted not to knock Haynes' effort. If nothing else, he's produced a clever film that will spark some provocative post-theatrical conversations over coffees. I just think he sets up a central conceit to which he can't live up.
By showing us various lives based (sometimes loosely) on aspects of Dylan's personality, Haynes seems to promise that he will deliver some fresh insight into the man or his work, some perspective that we have lacked until now, viewing him as only one man. Even taking a more abstract approach - assuming that the film is more about the nature of identity itself rather than the nature of Bob Dylan's identity - doesn't make Haynes' film any more satisfying or successful. Then it just becomes a series of vignettes about some emotionally distant, surly individuals who can't seem to fit into their own lives, albeit a well-shot collection.
I've read descriptions of the films that flatly state all these characters are meant to be "Bob Dylan," which is completely inaccurate. Rather than cast several different actors as Dylan, or even sides of Dylan, as the advance word on the film indicated, Haynes has created a group of six characters who all stand in for various Dylan fixations or creations. See that word? "Creations"? That means, none of these people are actually meant to be him, which is why none of them are named "Bob Dylan." They're just angles on him, quick peeks behind the mask, because the whole reason Dylan had to invent these characters was to avoid telling us what's really going on with him.
Only two of the six characters even act out recreations of Dylan's real biography. Christian Bale plays folk singer Jack Randall, whose Dylanesque rise to fame in Greenwich Village's Cafe Wha? is retold in mockumentary fashion reminiscent of Scorsese's film from last year. And Cate Blanchett, in the film's best Dylan impression and performance, portrays burned out rock star Jude Quinn, whose misadventures in America and England are clearly modeled on Dylan's tumultuous journey from folk hero to rock star.
I think Haynes would have been much better off forgetting the meta-Dylan stuff and making a film starring Blanchett as Jude Quinn. These sequences, shot in a mesmerizing, stark black-and-white, still contain large doses of the referential post-modern silliness that mars so much of Haynes' movie, but they're also the most humane. Blanchett, perhaps by being a female being a male or perhaps because she's just a terrific actress, strongly suggests a twisted, paranoia-fueled terror behind Dylan's caustic mid-'60s attitude. Quinn's cruelty towards a socialite based on Edie Sedgwick (Michelle Williams) obviously comes from an overwhelming and amphetamine-addled frailty. (This scene, in which video snippets of Quinn in a variety of Dylan-esque poses flit by on screens in the background, turns genuinely nauseating for both Quinn and the audience, a testament to Edward Lachman's audacious and masterful cinematography.
When Haynes slows down and starts making a film about how it feels to be Bob Dylan (or like Bob Dylan), rather than how it feels to think about Bob Dylan, his film becomes much more accessible. I already know how it feels to think about Bob Dylan...
Granted, I only know that because I've thought about Bob Dylan a lot, but I'm Not There has clearly been designed with the studious Bob Dylan fan in mind. How else to explain the plethora of inside-baseball references? Some are obvious, like the recreations of Dylan album covers featuring Christian Bale or the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid connection. (Getting Kris Kristofferson to serve as narrator was a pretty cool choice, I must say.) But some are just weird and obscure, like dressing the My Morning Jacket guy up in the Rolling Thunder Revue disguise, and others are just plain groan-worthy. (Haynes actually employs the cheesy musical biopic cliche of having characters speak famous lyrics in everyday conversation. I think my friend Raj wanted to leave when someone was accused of acting "just like a woman." WHY DO THAT? IT ALWAYS SUCKS AND IS LAME!)
Beyond just constant, winking allusions to Dylan-ana, Haynes can't resist throwing in a bunch of movie nerd references as well. We get some nods to Fellini that feel kind of out of place and even a sequence featuring The Beatles and riffing on the style of Richard Lester. I understand that Haynes is focusing closely on the way Dylan was reflected through various media (film, television, print, audio recordings) as a way to get insight into the scrutiny he so desperately needed to escape and to explore the way in which layers of meaning were continually added to his work, and then his life. It makes analytical sense, something you could discuss in an undergrad film seminar that could make for a solid 20 page paper. I just didn't find it all that interesting in the movie, and much of it was overstated, obvious or out of place.
The four remaining stories all have some nice moments, but don't really connect as neatly to Bob Dylan or to one another.
Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor whose first role was inspired by the Christian Bale character (whom, you'll recall, was very closely modeled on a young Bob Dylan). In addition to the cheesy "just like a woman" line, Ledger also gets to work "I was only a pawn in their game" into the film. Hey, I know that song! Neato! The empty pursuit of fame, which makes so many promises but never delivers, turns Clark bitter and disillusioned. He descends into alcoholism, and turns away from his children and a wife that's clearly based on Dylan's wife Sara (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who always seems to be on the verge of tears in every scene of every American movie she makes).
The extremely likable young actor Marcus Carl Franklin plays an 11-year-old boy calling himself Woody who rides the rails, running from the law and playing original compositions for his supper. One woman he meets in his travels questions his decision to play throwback old fashioned roots music, insisting that he should write songs about the world around him in the present. This message seems to impact young Woody, but we're not really sure how. Will he henceforth write protest songs in order to give his art meaning? Or would discussing the issues of the day in his music just create an even more grandiose and artful persona behind which he could hide?
In the most baffling section of the film, Richard Gere plays an aged Billy the Kid, one who presumably never died by the hand of Pat Garrett. In this version, old Billy the Kid lives in a fanciful small town until a railroad company, backed by local sheriff Pat Garrett, wants to come in and ruin everything. There are many possible interpretations of this material, but at this point in the film (which is long), I had kind of lost interest in playing connect the dots.
After seeing all this, I'm not sure Dylan really is this great mass of contradictions, this unknowable enigma that can only be accurately portrayed by six actors. Perhaps we're trying to make him into that because the alternative is less inspiring. It's fun to believe in a reclusive genius with a grand vision for life on this planet, who will reveal his True Self to us just after this next album and Greatest Hits Collection. The mundane notion that he might be little more than a self-involved introvert with a history of drug problems who just happens to have an amazing natural talent for songwriting doesn't even occur to us.
But it did occur to me watching Haynes film, because his notion of Dylan as Ramblin' Powers, International Schizophrenic of Mystery feels unearned. We're still not getting genuine insights into this man. We're still only playing around with the same distractions and red herrings he's been showing off for 30 years.
Ready for the best viral video since the Dramatic Hamster? I give you the MDA Senior Management Rap!
I just have to say, mad mad props to anyone who can work the phrase "Internal Systems Integration" into a rap song, even if it is part of a celebration of meaningless corporate jargon. I mean, "Internal Systems Integration"? It's ballsy to even give that one a try. Even Del tha Funkee Homosapien would struggle with that one (though I'm sure he'd figure something out...) And he's a trained professional.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Can't say I'm loving the way the Watchmen adaptation is coming along thus far. It's such a great, great book...and they gave it to the 300 director...with a guy from "Grey's Anatomy" playing The Comedian and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. Feels underwhelming, almost by design, for such a huge, epic story that's been so hotly anticipated for so long. (I mean, there was a time Terry fucking Gilliam was considering doing this movie. And they gave it to the guy who directed that overripe homoerotic video game?)
Anyway, consider my expectations slightly raised. This just in from Warner Bros. Watchmen blog.
Put together a couple hundred thousand more frames like that, Zack Snyder, and you might actually make this work.
There's more and larger pictures here.
It wasn't a particularly good year...for city girls...
And, I don't know any more words to that song.
So, today was my 29th birthday, which is one of those birthdays where nothing good happens but a lot of depressing things happen. You get no new privileges or rights at 29. In fact, I don't really get any new rights or privileges ever again, excepting perhaps AARP membership privileges and handicapped parking privileges. But it is a none-too-subtle reminder that I'm fast approaching the age that's pretty much universally regarded as the End of Fun and Youth.
I try not to be too morose about birthdays, of course. There is the whole "free shit" concept that makes the Countdown to Mortality a bit more tolerable. And I haven't reached an age yet where things have become totally bleak. My health hasn't completely faded. I still have SOME hair, though I won't be able to say that for too many more birthdays. Essentially, there's still some promise and hope left for my life. I could still turn things around. This coming one is really the decisive decade. If I haven't made a go of things by 39, I'm in deep deep trouble.
So, facing down an ugly truth like that one, I simply had to indulge in some pointless consumerism. It's the American way, after all. Think about something unpleasant, fill the newly-created emotional void with SHOPPING! (It worked after 9/11. "The terrorists DON'T want you to buy lots of stuff, so you'd better do it or else they win!") So I bought myself an Xbox 360.
I haven't had a video game system since I bought a used PlayStation 2 and wore it out within a few months. (Apparently, even though they function as DVD players, the PS2's weren't really designed for that purpose in mind long-term, which is a pretty massive design flaw if you ask me...) Before that, I'm pretty sure I hadn't had one since the Super Nintendo. I really like video games, but I suck at them, and I found that, over time, my desire to play them for more than 15 minutes at a go has dwindled.
But ever since Mahalo focused seriously on being the best source for video game information on the Intar-Web, I've had a chance to check out a bunch of Xbox games while at work. (I don't actually get to play any games during office hours - that's what Sunday afternoons are for - but they are being played by well-trained, serious professionals at all times, all around me.)
After being vivisected at "Halo 3" a few weekends back by a few fellow guides, I've also had a chance to try out "Assassin's Creed" and "The Simpsons Game." But the real clincher for me was this past weekend, when a small group of enthusiasts gathered at Mahalo HQ to play the new "Rock Band."
Holy crap, this game is AWESOME. I decided to buy the Xbox on the spot. (Yeah, I know it's also on the PS3, but my roommate already has a PS3.) I was actually on vocals for a while, and did surprisingly well. (100% on "Wave of Mutilation," biotches.) Quite possibly the most fun "party" video game ever.
So that was Birthday Weekend 2007. Oh, plus I saw a shitload of movies that I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet, including the postmodern Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There and the ridiculous, entertaining, ridiculously entertaining Beowulf. Also, sleeping.