Stuck Inside of a Movie Theater with the Indie Blues Again
By Fernando F. Croce

Temperamentally and artistically, Bob Dylan is the opposite of The Beatles, so there was hope that Todd Haynes' conceptually intriguing I'm Not There would be the very opposite of Julie Taymor's horrid Across the Universe. Alas, they're different breeds of the same monster: Haynes is dryly analytical while Taymor is vapidly kitschy, yet both filmmakers succeed in making torture out of music. The arc is show-biz biography, the way Far From Heaven latched onto the Sirk melodrama -- Ray and Walk the Line are the most recent examples, but an elliptical motorcycle accident suggests Lawrence of Arabia as the film's template in its search for an enigma. Dylan once described himself as a "song-and-dance man," not so much a facetious quip as an offhand acknowledgement of the original entertainer inside the iconic poses (protester, musical pathfinder, reluctant superstar, poet) -- Bob Dylan vs. "Bob Dylan." Haynes wants this slippery creature dissected, Dylan is the picture's He Who Must Not Be Named spread across a variety of quotes, personas, and actors. The most easily recognizable are Christian Bale as the '60s troubadour hugging his guitar on national TV, and Cate Blanchett's hey-hey-man mimicry of the rumbled, boorish sharpshooter in Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. The other, increasingly esoteric incarnations include a boxcar-riding black kid called Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), Heath Ledger as a reclusive actor "all alone with Nixon," the snippy ghost of Rimbaud (Ben Wishaw), and the graying Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) hiding out in the hamlet of Riddle. A grab-bag of borrowed tics (Godardian gunshot-intertitles, Swinging London shot like Fellini's Rome) connects them, sort of.

The thorny relationship between societal expectations and personal identity is Haynes' constant theme, and musical performers have fascinated him as early as Superstar, his portrait of Karen Carpenter enacted by the Toys "R" Us stock company. In its bursting-suitcase format and focus on the essential role of art in a radical personality, I'm Not There is close to Velvet Goldmine -- both movies in a way see their subjects as betrayers of the subversive potential of their music, yet while Velvet Goldmine, like the best of Haynes' work, grounded his intellectual postulations in emotion and sensuality, I'm Not There is bloodless. When Gere's fatigued outlaw gazes at the Old West landscape and Haynes cuts to Vietnam-era napalm bombing on Ledger's telly, the link isn't questioning, just dull and arch; stand-ins for Joan Baez, Edie Sedgwick, Allen Ginsberg, and Sara Dylan pass by, Dylan's switch to electric rock is envisioned as a frontal attack on his audience, the wishy-washy verdict ultimately settles for "contradictions... and chaos." Often as bad as a Mary Harron biopic, the movie doesn't really cross the line into the intolerable until Blanchett's hopped-up smartass performs "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the pleasure of hearing it again is thoroughly thrashed by Haynes' club-footed "interpretation" of it. (Any film that makes me yearn for Ken Russell is eeevil.) More than anything, the sequence reveals that Haynes is intrigued by the artist but doesn't hear the music. This is his most arid work yet: Where is the defiant, sensuous expansiveness of Dylan's songs? Once the wind machine is finally turned off and a concluding close-up of the real singer is located amid the debris, resonance is simply not there. I'd trade Haynes' six faux-Dylans for Van Sant's one faux-Cobain, and I'd trade them all for a few bars of "Tomorrow Is a Long Time."

*

The Mist is a refreshing bummer. The set-up, with Thomas Jane and Andre Braugher sparring stiffly, promises another sampling of the ebony-and-ivory marshmallows that have become director Frank Darabont's condescending specialty (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). Thankfully, the Stephen King novel he decided to adapt this time is one of scratchy horror rather than soothing, phony humanism, and the honey-dipped camerawork that in The Majestic made the characters look like wax fruit becomes here a blunt anxiety-detector, punctuated with handheld zooms. The fog of the title turns a tiny New England town into a malevolent void, a local supermarket becomes a fragile sanctuary from the evil outside (unwisely revealed as unfinished-looking CGI critters) while threatening to implode from the sway of an Old Testament prophetess (Marcia Gay Harden). A slimy, spiky tentacle reaches inside for meat, a military officer wrapped in caustic goo rasps "It's all our fault" before dissolving into an image from John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness -- this is the Darabont who wrote the screenplay for the 1988 remake of The Blob, not the insipid Oscar-baiter beloved to IMDb voters. ("You don't have much faith in society, do you," someone asks. "None whatsoever.") King and Darabont may have gotten flabby since their early splatter days, but the film shows they can still tap into trenchant pulp nightmares of societal breakdown and man-made monsters. In a season of bogus sunshine like Bella and August Rush, it's a mist that blows in like a breeze.

*

What Shall We Do with Our Old? D.W. Griffith asked that in 1911, The Savages posits an answer: Send them off to a retirement community, and have the camera set for a punchline when they drop dead mid-manicure. So much for progress. Tamara Jenkins' film is, in any case, less about the elderly than about a pair of siblings (Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who use their father's (a superb Philip Bosco) descent into shit-smearing dementia to bitch and moan about how miserable their lives are. Watching the workshop-like interaction between Linney (never more drab or mannered) and Hoffman (revisiting Before the Devil Knows You're Dead daddy-issues territory with diminishing results) is an utterly depleting experience: As with Blanchett's vortex of shades, cigarettes, and hipster-ostrich skittering in I'm Not There, one rummages vainly through tics in search of genuine emotion. Morose dysfunction, bland filmmaking, references to Brecht plus the obligatory utterance of "bourgeois" -- no points for guessing this is the year's official Sundance "sleeper."


Reviewed December 9, 2007.

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