Among film critics, "conventional" has become almost a code word for movies written off as unhip, unimaginative or hopelessly mainstream...
Among film critics, “conventional” has become almost a code word for movies written off as unhip, unimaginative or hopelessly mainstream. And nowadays no type of movie gets saddled with the “c” word more than biopics. You hear “conventional” used to describe Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” and James Mangold’s “Walk the Line,” though both showed a real understanding of the music that, respectively, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash made, and an unwillingness to pretty up the mess those two men often made of their lives.
“Thank God it’s not ‘Walk the Line’ ” is what I’ve heard about Todd Haynes’ unclassifiable new film “I’m Not There” (which is playing the New York Film Festival and opens nationally next month) — as if even mainstream moviemaking at close to its best isn’t good enough to elicit more than a “been there, done that” yawn.
It’s not hard to understand the excitement over “I’m Not There.” Using six actors to stand in for the various personas Bob Dylan has adopted over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Haynes’ movie is one of those experiences that makes you feel like anything is possible. It causes that tingle that tells you you’re watching a movie with the potential to speak in a new language. The language Haynes’ movie speaks in is both direct and oblique, in the manner of a Dylan lyric. And it may be that the audiences (and critics) who couldn’t hear that language when Dylan and director Larry Charles attempted it in the 2003 “Masked and Anonymous” might unclog their ears this time around.
But the thrill that “I’m Not There” generates shouldn’t make us assume its approach would work with every subject. And almost as if to ward off that kind of heedless euphoria (as opposed to the genuine euphoria the movie imparts) comes another rock ‘n’ roll biopic to remind us of just how eloquent — and how devastating — a straightforward movie biography can be.
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The grip of “Control”
“Control,” the debut film by rock photographer Anton Corbijn, tells the story of Ian Curtis, lead singer for the early ’80s British band Joy Division. Joy Division was one of the bands that sprung up after a now legendary but sparsely attended Sex Pistols gig in Manchester. The founding members of the Buzzcocks and Magazine were also in the audience that night, as was local TV presenter Tony Wilson, who went on to found Factory Records, the label that would record Joy Division.
Curtis was a David Bowie and Roxy Music fan, but while his sepulchral vocals owed a debt to Bryan Ferry, there was a darker, gothic sensibility at work in Joy Division’s music, which was both ethereal and doom-laden. Sex reared its head (as it didn’t in punk) through Peter Hook’s bass lines, which sounded as if a funk musician were playing from the catacombs of a Gothic cathedral. But what got to you was Curtis’ voice, well-deep, seemingly coming from far away yet close enough to make you feel trapped in his skin.
“When routine bites hard and ambitions are low,” he sang in the band’s greatest song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” in a voice that sounded centuries old. At times the spirit of their music might have sprung entirely from the wordless dirge Fairport Convention recorded in 1967: “The Lord Is in this Place. How Dreadful Is this Place.”
Curtis, though, was only 24 when he hanged himself in 1980 on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour. As played by the astounding newcomer Sam Riley in “Control,” Curtis goes from a kid preening in front of the mirror to Bowie songs to looking like a figure out of a silent horror film, perhaps Cesare, the gaunt, hollow-eyed somnambulist from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
The elegant black-and-white photography and the careful framing of the shots might have made the movie seem almost too composed if Corbijn didn’t have such a grip on the life teeming in it. Curtis married his sweetheart Deborah when he was 19 and she was 18; only a few years later they became parents to a baby girl.
Nothing Samantha Morton has done prepares you for how heartbreaking she is as Deborah. Tucked fearfully under Ian’s shoulder while he watches thrilled and disbelieving at the Sex Pistols gig, or in the sweet, frilly dresses that look so innocent next to her husband’s dark, minimalist duds, Morton conveys a frightened young woman trying to hold onto a marriage she senses is growing beyond her. The distance between Morton’s Deborah and Riley’s Ian, his combination of callousness and helplessness toward his confused young wife, puts flesh on the title “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
“Control” mixes the exhilaration of a scene where people are finding their voice, a subject that should be bursting with exhilarating possibility, with the tragedy of someone who, having found his voice, felt as if he were hacking off pieces of his flesh when he spoke in it. It’s devastating.
The art in “I’m Not There”
“I’m Not There,” on the other hand, is the story of a performer who, at the height of the frenzy surrounding him, made others want to hack off his flesh. Of the six Dylans that inhabit “I’m Not There” (not one of them called “Bob Dylan”), the most breathtaking — in every way — is Cate Blanchett’s Jude Quinn. This is Dylan as he was in 1966, the scruffy work clothes traded in for a dandy’s threads, the hair a cream puff of curls atop that aquiline, androgynous face. This is the Dylan who, with the taste for pure antagonism that foreshadowed punk, played Europe at the height of Vietnam in front of a giant American flag, who baited the crowds that came to hear the folk troubadour with scalding electric versions of songs whose teeming surreal romanticism owed nothing to the simplistic notion of “protest music.”
When “Jude Quinn” plays the 1965 Newport Folk Festival here, Haynes includes a shot of him and his band turning to face the audience, blazing machine guns instead of guitars in their hands. The image is so perfect, it seems to have always existed in our minds. It’s the literalization of the murder you hear in the live 1966 version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” where Garth Hudson’s organ taunts everyone ready to complain that Dylan had sold out, taunts them even before the catcalls have formed on their lips.
As the young, earnest Dylan, Christian Bale is so raw-boned and sincere that he sets the stage for the anger that Blanchett’s Dylan rouses, the anger people feel at someone who declines the role of Messiah and starts speaking in riddles instead of sermons. But if Dylan’s guises have been escape routes, the movie also gets at the way in which they’ve always been about something bigger than just him, conduits back to a shared mythic past, a past always present in his music. So it makes sense to have an 11-year-old black Dylan (Marcus Carl Franklin) hopping freights and talking about the old-timey songs he’s learned. Or an older Dylan (Richard Gere) who is really Billy the Kid in hiding, turning up in a town where life itself is an Old Testament parable as imagined by Fellini and Sam Peckinpah.
Some of Haynes’ choices, like paralleling the disintegrating marriage of the family man Dylan (Heath Ledger) with the progress of the Vietnam War, have the feel of an academic conceit, a sense that has hung over even his good movies. But what’s high-flown in “I’m Not There” is matched by what’s low-down. The movie has a visionary craziness and a carny barker’s wiliness.
Haynes shifts between styles and places and characters, making intuitive, even cryptic connections instead of literal ones. He fudges the details of Dylan’s life for a stronger, freeing sense of Dylan’s art. Haynes has said he thinks this is a patriotic movie, and he’s right. The guises of one performer become a vision of the potentialities of democracy; the refusal to settle for one “Dylan” is, just as was Dylan’s turn from the limiting certainties of protest music, an affirmation of contingency and ambiguity and chance.
“I’m Not There” is not a prescription for other movies (what good movie is?). But it is a realization that sometimes a riddle can function as directly as plain speech.