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December 19, 2007

I'm Not There: The Film

I'm Not There

Last night I took in I'm Not There for the second time.  It's fairly rare that I go to see any film in the theater (too expensive, never been a film guy, etc. . . .), but I guess that, this being a film about Dylan, I was particularly interested in it and ended up digging it so much the first time that I just had to go back for a second helping.

First, the caveat: Dylan fans are going to be more receptive to I'm Not There than the casual moviegoer, and I'd add that appreciation of the film is probably directly proportional to one's level of Dylan fanaticism.  I suppose I'm on the above average side of Dylan fanaticism (got copies of most of the records, three DVD's, and two books), so it follows that I really dug the film.  Basically, it's loaded with references to characters from Dylan's songs, scenes from films about Dylan, and yarns from Dylan lore, so there's enough to keep the ol' Dylanologists busy for a while, but there's also enough to keep the regular viewer interested for the 2+ hours. 

Plot summaries and the like are available in other, defter reviews, so I'll just stick to the meat.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that Cate Blanchett (as Jude Quinn, the 1965-66-ish Dylan) takes the cake, while the rest of the Dylan portrayers do a decent enough job, excepting Richard Gere (as Billy the Kid, the John Wesley Harding / Basement Tapes / Pat Garrett & Billy the Kidd Dylan), who many feel the film could do without.  After first viewing, I tended to agree with the conventional wisdom, although maybe with special recognition of the job done by Marcus Carl Franklin (as Woody Guthrie, the pseudo-rambling, hitchiking, New York City-bound, "faker" Dylan).

On reviewing, however, I'm impressed with everyone, even Gere.  I read some reviewer where the writer went on about how they could just get rid of the whole Gere part and it would be a better film, but the Gere part is what ties everything together.  Really, the whole thing struck me as very fatalistic.  Each Dylan portrayed in the film struggles as he tries to create-destroy-recreate himself in an infinite loop -- from Franklin's "faker" Woody Guthrie to Blanchett's uber-hip icon Quinn to Gere's Billy.

Toward the end of the film, Ben Whishaw's "Arthur Rimbaud" incarnation of Dylan delivers his rules for living in solitude, the most important of which is to never create anything -- because whatever one creates will never disappear and will always threaten to haunt him.  It's this notion that informs everything in the film.  Dylan strove to create music, but in order to do that in the manner he wanted to, he had to create an entirely new personal identity.  But when you create an artistic persona, it's gonna have an impact on everything around you, and it's bound to get intertwined with who you really are.  Once you're found out, the only way to mitigate the damage is to create another (and another, and another) persona, so that you can obscure the truth, but in the obscuring, maybe the truth gets lost.

In the end, it's Gere's Billy who tries to make the final creative act.  An outlaw, he disappears into the wilderness (Riddle, Mo.) and gives a different alias to each person in town.  And since no one knows who he really is, he's reduced himself to anonymity.  The problem is, everything he's ever created is still there, and he's always going to be Billy the Kid, and Billy the Kid is always going to be an outlaw.  Pat Garrett and Mr. Jones (both played by Bruce Greenwood) are always going to be after Billy and Dylan, and when Billy's skipping town in another boxcar and thinks he's escaped again, he's always going to find that his baggage is always waiting for him -- the old guitar is always going to be there.

It's in the exploration of this dynamic -- the way that the creation of the Dylan persona is intrinsically tied to the creation of the Dylan songs -- that I'm Not There is most successful.  We get to see the toll that each Dylan's choices inflict on his kids, his love interests, his friends, his enemies, his business associates, and himself. 

I guess it's in this interwoven drama that the film ultimately rises above merely being "Bob Dylan Fanboy's 115th Dream" and becomes more universally compelling.  In a sense, we're all who we make ourselves, and once we've made ourselves someone, we're never able to totally escape.  Dylan had to make the songs -- and in making them he's done a great thing for us.  At the same time, though, to make the songs the way he wanted to make them -- to make them what they are -- he had to make himself someone else, and the rub is that it is in those repeated acts of self-creation that he's done bad things to himself, whoever he is.

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December 05, 2007

The OBB? The Hawthorne OG?

The past week and a half or so has been pretty outta control.  As things begin to get under control, I've got some stuff to write about the new Dylan biopic, Bob Pollard's triumphant Southgate House show, and maybe some other stuff.

In the meantime, I'd feel like less of a human being if I didn't try and steer more people toward WFMU's Beware of the Blog, where they've recently posted an entry about Brian Wilson's rap song, "Smart Girls."  It's been years since I've heard this, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the post.  Maybe Brian Wilson is not really the bees' knees to the majority of even Beach Boys fans, but I challenge anyone to deny the brilliance of a song that contains the opening lines "My name is Brian, and I'm the man / I write hit songs with the wave of my hand."

Sure, maybe in 1990, when "Smart Girls" was written and recorded during the Sweet Insanity "sessions" (guided by the infamous Eugene Landy . . . not seen as one of Brian's best times, to say the least . . . but maybe a time that was necessary for Brian to survive to the present day . . . but anyway), Brian hadn't actually written a "hit" song for, say, two decades.  You can't deny that he's always been the man, though.  After all, he's the guy who, against all odds, was all but solely responsible for Beach Boys Love You in 1977.

I'm babbling.  What I mean to say is, sure, "Smart Girls" isn't something anyone is going to listen to repeatedly.  But it's something everyone should listen to.  It's got that classic pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys humor thing going for it, much like "Drive-In" or "Parking Lot."  Really, "Smart Girls" is a classic Beach Boys song written from a more mature standpoint . .  . whereas "Drive-In" delivers the classic line (sung so straight by Mike Love), "Don't sneak your buddies in the trunk 'cause they might get caught by the drive-in," "Smart Girls" has it's own absurdly brilliant moments:

Now some guys like the flashy types,

And some guys dig the archetypes,

I'm no different from the rest

I love hips, and legs, and breasts,

But strictly on a higher plain,

What really turns me on's her brain.

I dunno, it's obviously ridiculous, but after you hear it five or six times you stop laughing at how utterly goofy this stuff is and you start connecting with something "joyful" on a more ethereal level.  I guess all's I'm saying is, "Smart Girls" has its place in Brian Wilson's body of work.  And since Brian Wilson is one of the formost songwriters and producers of the "rock" era of American songwriting, "Smart Girls" has its place in the Great American Catalog of Musical Art.

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