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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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August 02, 2006

NBR Movie of the Month--August

It's that time again -- time for the NBR Movie of the Month.  For August, it's an old (well, 33 year old) favorite:  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

I'm not well-versed in Westerns, but I like 'em every now and then.  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid has a lot going for it.  Recently, I saw the 2005 special edition version of the film, and I found it really enjoyable -- the two hours or so went by quick. 

I like Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid.  I think the themes are fairly interesting.  You've got the evolution of the Old West into a "modern" society.  You've got the tearing apart of relationships.  You've got the decay of humanity, even as it tries to save itself (or something).  Anyways, I hate even attempting to be intellectual about films, so I'll stop while I've only made a bit of a fool out of myself.

So what else do I like about the film?  Well, obviously I'm going to say that I like Bob Dylan's roles.  First, as Alias, Dylan puts in one of the more memorable "minor" (perhaps intentionally minor, I dunno) performances in American cinematic history.  The scene where Alias is reading off the labels in the saloon is priceless ("Beans ... lima beans ... baked beans ... beans ... salmon ...")

And Dylan's soundtrack music is great too.  The original version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" is classic.  The rest of the music also works well.  Dylan has always said that his talents as a composer are underappreciated.  He's right, and this film's soundtrack proves it.

So yeah, that's the NBR Movie of the Month for August.  While the summer is scorching hot, kick back, put Pat Garret and Billy the Kid in the DVD player, and feel fortunate you live in a time when air conditioning exists.

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July 12, 2006

NBR Movie of the Month--July 2006

Ok, so at long last, here's the NBR Movie of the Month for July.  Part of the reason I took so long was because I actually wanted to see the movie, and it didn't air until this evening.

The NBR Movie of the Month is Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home.  I'd seen that there have been some lukewarm reviews of this new documentary on one of the great American songwriters, but I figured I'd go ahead and check it out with an open mind, basically expecting a decently-produced PBS documentary.  I was about on the mark, I think.

The Washington Post criticized Ain't Got No Home for its failure to include any substantive discussion from those many recording artists whose songwriting Guthrie's work continues to influence (namely Bob Dylan).  But the film was only an hour and a half long -- there really wasn't much time for many other voices (Bruce Springsteen, for one, was featured).  And anyway, it would've taken a lot of arm twisting to get Dylan to appear -- after all, he did give his Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie in 1963.

With that said, I really did like the documentary.  I'm not a Guthrie expert (I have copies of Dust Bowl Ballads and the Moe Asch box set, and I'm in the middle of reading Bound For Glory), but from my perspective the film does a good job covering the key points of Guthrie's childhood, young adulthood, various musical periods, and bout with Huntington's Disease.  No, Dylan isn't interviewed, but we do get to hear from Guthrie's first wife and youngest daughter, along with a few of his friends and cohorts (most notably Pete Seeger).  It's a good biography, and at times an emotional portrait of an almost mythological American figure.

The film doesn't look back with overly sentimental eyes, either.  It discusses Guthrie's troubles as a father and husband, and it dispels any notions one might have of Guthrie as someone who actively took a vow of poverty.  The key to the whole thing is the music, though, and it features the music fairly prominently.  I found Pete Seeger's story on the birth of the ballad "Tom Joad" pretty interesting.  Guthrie was a mortal man, but he wrote a bunch of great songs that still are brilliant in their simplicity.  He was and remains an American Poet.

So yeah, be sure to set your VCR/DVR/Tivo to record one of the repeat performances of Ain't Got No Home on PBS.  You'll learn a little bit about a great American treasure, and you'll get to hear timeless music.

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May 31, 2006

She's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don't look back...

I know I'm a little late (hey, this blog's only a few days old, after all), but I had to throw my hat into the ring on this one:  It's cool that the 37 year-old Cate Blanchett will be playing the 25 year-old Bob Dylan in the upcoming Dylan biopic.

And with that, we've posted two links to Internet Movie Database today.

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NBR Movie of the Month--June 2006

So I have the honor of announcing the first NBR Movie of the Month, and I really couldn't wait until tomorrow to post it, so...

The NBR Movie of the Month for June 2006 is:  Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story!  I had the pleasure of stumbling upon this brilliant piece of cinematic excellence during a study break one evening a few weeks ago.  I caught it right at the beginning and was riveted by what looked like a vintage 1980's A-Team car chase featuring a coked-up teenage boy driver with long, curly hair and a model in the passenger's seat of his Corvette.  But wait, you ask, why was I riveted by a typical car chase scene?  Well, simple--this car chase scene was on VH1.

When you watch Hysteria, you'll see a fascinating recreation of Def Leppard's turbulent rise, fall, and triumph.  What really drew me in at first (beside the car chase) was how the producers were able to make the film look like a cheesy 80's movie (just like Def Leppard in real life!).  In fact, during one the commercials, I had to log onto IMDB to find out more about the movie.  Needless to say, I was shocked to learn that it was produced in 2001.

But the super-cool cheese didn't stop with the quality of production.  Nope, what clinched the deal for me was how the writers seemed to go out of their way to make each Def Leppard band member into a bigger Rock Stereotype than he is/was in real life (or maybe they're really that way, I dunno).  You have the good looking lead singer with the irrepressible work ethic.  You have the live fast-die young drummer who beats the odds by surviving a brutal car crash (which they show twice--once at the beginning, and once in the middle!) with only one arm, only to come back and remain one of the fiercest drummers in rock.  You have the drunken guitarist who gets kicked out.  You have the other drunken guitarist who battles constant self doubt, only to tragically succumb to his demons.  You have the New Guy guitarist who never feels like he fits in.  There may have been a bass player in the band, but I can't remember him for the life of me.  Maybe the producers were trying to make a point about bass players by making his big Rock Stereotype be "the remarkably forgettable bass player."  (Actually, I vaguely recall that the bass player's name was Katie, which was kind of weird.  I might be wrong, though.)

The film gets extra bonus points for having Anthony Michael Hall do a superb job playing Def Leppard's honorary sixth member and producer, Shania Twain's Husband.  The entire cast also gets props for doing a great job lip-synching to the original (I think) Def Leppard hits.

All in all, Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story is a great way to spend 90 minutes of your life.  That means a lot, coming from someone who generally hates movies and could only name one Def Leppard song before watching the film.  The fact that this masterpiece only got a rating of 5.5 out of 10 on imdb.com (plus the headline "Acceptable Rock Documentary") shows how elitist and out of touch movie fans are.

Congratulations Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story!  You're the first NBR Movie of the Month!

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