I’ve always been a fan of Todd Haynes. He seems to have a singular and sensitive vision. Watching and re-watching his 2007 film, I’m Not There, I’m struck by how he has managed to perfect such a vision in this rather unusual story. I’m Not There is loosely based on the life of Bob Dylan, although he is never actually explicitly named apart from the introductory caption. The film revolves around six different Dylan-inspired characters played by different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw).
I’m Not There is like an anti-biography. The notion of a biography is to tell the story of an individual’s life in a linear fashion. I’m Not There is the exact opposite: it is the fragmentation of a life told via micro-narratives that are loosely connected to each other. I think it would take multiple posts to unravel all these micro-narratives and their significance. But I’m not sure that’s what interests me about this film.
To a certain extent, what interests me about I’m Not There is how it builds upon Haynes’s earlier films, particularly Velvet Goldmine. Haynes’s Dylan-inspired fragmented storytelling is probably one of the truest expressions of a saying he used in Velvet Goldmine, borrowed from Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. This is precisely what I’m Not There explores: the different masks we wear, the different aspects of our personality which are all “true” in their own way.
But I actually think what interests me more about I’m Not There is its potential for invention. A film like this is so unsettled, so fragmentary, that it allows me to do what I love most in films: create. I have a habit of remembering single images from films and then constructing a narrative for them. Certain films will only let you get away with this on a small scale, whereas I’m Not There inherently compels such a form of audience construction.
This film is entirely contradictory, complex and multiple, so I can understand why some critics were baffled. But it’s precisely because it’s contradictory that I think it tells the truth. A few years ago, when I was writing the last paragraph of my thesis, I quoted this line from Gail Jones’s Dreams of Speaking: “We are all large enough – are we not? – to contain contradictions” (Gail Jones, Dreams of Speaking, Harvill Secker, 2006, p. 83). I used this line to help summarise and explain the last 249 pages of my thesis, and why I spent a few years of my life writing on what I wrote, and exploring the films that I did. I think that one of the functions of a film like I’m Not There is to show us all how large we really are.