Haynes' experimental biopic takes cues from Citizen Kane to illustrate the unknowability of the 20th century's most mythic rock star.


odd Haynes might be best understood as a melodramatist, one in frequent conversation with mid-century Hollywood auteur Douglas Sirk, but his filmography is deeply indebted to Citizen Kane (1941). Like Orson Welles’ debut feature, Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) largely unfolds in flashback as a journalist acquires pieces of his subject’s story from his past associates. Last year’s May December (2023) borrows Kane’s theme of unknowability: actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) studies the Mary Kay Letourneau-inspired Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) as research for her next role; however, the better Elizabeth gets to know Gracie, the less she understands her. Elizabeth’s eventual performance in the trashy Lifetime-style movie is as insufficient a distillation of its subject as Kane’s opening “News on the March” reel is of the eponymous character. But it’s I’m Not There (2007) that best internalizes the lessons of Welles’ masterpiece: it rejects the unified-theory-of-man idea in its structure and deploys a fragmented narrative to highlight the absurdity of looking for overdetermined explanations to both art and life.

I’m Not There’s quasi-biographical approach to Bob Dylan is similar to the one that Kane takes to William Randolph Hearst: it declines to use the name but takes obvious (even explicit) inspiration from it. But instead of giving us the version of the singer-songwriter that others knew, as Kane does with its protagonist, it presents the “many lives of Bob Dylan” as entirely different characters, each played by a different actor (a natural extension of Velvet Goldmine’s more limited use of the trick). On the one hand, this choice seems to mystify the “genius” of one of the 20th century’s most studied and significant figures, conceptualizing him not as a person like any other but as someone altogether ungraspable; on the other, it refuses to condense or attribute the entirety of a person’s life to mere circumstance or, as has become all too common, to personal trauma.

This hedge is the same one Kane takes and clarifies in its ending moments. Reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) remarks, “I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece,” only for the camera to reveal immediately thereafter that Rosebud is the name of Kane’s childhood sled, a metonym for the joyous and carefree part of life of which he was robbed. The reduction of a complex and contradictory figure like Kane/Hearst to a single incident threatens to unsatisfactorily reframe everything we have seen, reducing him to rote, frustrated caricature. The suggestion of more missing puzzle pieces is no better—it leaves us struggling to fit them together.

I’m Not There foregrounds this paradoxical state of frustration—of being damned if you buy the explanation and damned if you don’t—as it contrives moments and conversations that seek to “explain” the origin of Dylan songs. Some of these seem almost like innocent easter eggs for the Dylanologists in the audience, as when Dylan namechecks the then-unreleased, bootleg-only “See You Later Allen Ginsberg.” Others are sly but purposeful, as when a stoned “Jude Quinn” (Cate Blanchett, personifying Dylan-as-rock-star in the mid-’60s) is confronted by a lover who offers the riposte that “your kisses aren’t like his,” repeated and answered on “Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I'll Go Mine).”

But the most nonplussing reference occurs when a former fan attacks Quinn for supposedly betraying his artistic values. After the attacker slashes Jude with a knife, a woman cracks a vase over his head to knock him unconscious. “Just like a woman,” Quinn remarks. Is this a joke on the part of Haynes and screenwriter Oren Moverman? Certainly the situation in the film is entirely asynchronous with the lyrics of the 1966 song by the same name. Perhaps that contrast between the incident and the song’s more stereotypical vision of a woman is the point, a nod to Dylan’s own ironic lyrical stylings.

I’m Not There is clearly the work of dedicated Dylanologists—even its title comes from a song that, like the aforementioned “Ginsberg” track, was without an official release at the time—but these various winks and nods to the discography are unsatisfying in their attempt to trace the origin of a song to a single inciting incident. In contrast, Haynes uses Dylan’s music as both literal and abstract commentary on the narrative, like when lovestruck movie star “Robbie Clark” (Heath Ledger) and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a Suze Rotolo/Sara Lownds hybrid, run through the streets of New York, sleep together, and drive along deserted country roads to “I Want You.” Or, in a more figurative moment, when “Visions of Johanna” soundtracks the end of the Vietnam War and Claire’s parallel reevaluation of her marriage. In these sequences, the collision of Haynes’ careful stylization—the controlled and distinct color palettes (a blue tint in the former scene, a domestic, almost sickly orange in the latter), the montage that mixes historical imagery with cuts to other moments in the narrative, and the voiceover—suggest that the songs both spring from and respond to an inciting incident as well as the greater social circumstance. Yet, every time a Dylan song moves from the soundtrack to the text in the form of an implied “origin story,” it calls attention to the song rather than blending it into the film’s otherwise dense textures, and its magic dissipates.

Yet this disparity is not a shortcoming of the film. Rather, it’s an expansion of Kane’s central paradox: the incompatibility of a full, unambiguous understanding of a subject on one hand and a respect for their complexity on the other. This paradox is embedded in I’m Not There’s form, as it was in Kane’s: in both films, the fractured narrative signals a rejection of certainty; the gaps in what we can know are emphasized rather than erased. Haynes toggles between genres in I’m Not There—western, domestic drama, biopic, even experimental and documentary film—to draw our attention to the line between fact and fiction and how different storytelling modes offer their own kinds of mythologization, just as Kane’s “The March of Time” pastiche at the beginning of the the film does. The gap between the unsubtle presentation of “Just Like A Woman” and the more intuitive “Visions of Johanna” sequence merely exemplifies the paradox. One option tells us too much, and the song, like Kane’s life, is unsatisfactorily reframed; with the other, if we learn anything at all, it’s not something that can be put into words for an obituary or a hagiography.

Is there any dramatization that would demystify and satisfactorily “explain” what might have inspired a lyric as unforgettable as “the ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face,” or the unlikely mix of modernist art movements and popular rock music that characterizes “Ballad of a Thin Man”? Even if there were, Quinn’s reductive “just like a woman” quip reminds us that art is sacred only as long as its possibilities are open rather than precluded; a simple account of where it comes from is even less satisfying than the inability to explain it at all.

I'm Not There is available to stream on the Criterion Channel. It is also available to stream for free (with ads) on Amazon Prime, Tubi, and PLEX.

Forrest Cardamenis is a film critic based in Astoria, New York. He received an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU, and his writing has featured in a variety of publications, including Reverse Shot, MUBI Notebook and Filmmaker.

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