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The problem of nostalgia in Todd Haynes's "I'm Not There"

Ryan Hardy

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008

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I’m Not There is the most recent effort by American director Todd Haynes, who in his relatively short career has progressed from his notorious early effort, Superstar, through a celebrated period as an icon of the New Queer Cinema, and onto mainstream Hollywood success with the Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven and now I’m Not There. Having previously tackled David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, with I’m Not There Haynes turns his lens on one of the most iconic American musicians of the 20th century, Bob Dylan.

Haynes was clearly aware of the challenges involved in encapsulating the life and work of Dylan into a single film, and accordingly I’m Not There is divided into six interspersed sections involving six different actors playing characters based, in different ways, on the life and music of Bob Dylan. The film’s casting choices were somewhat controversial, especially the inclusion of Australian actress Cate Blanchett and the young black actor Marcus Carl Franklin in the role of Bob Dylan.

Despite such concerns, the choice of six diverse and talented actors allows Haynes to take a very wide view of both Dylan and his times. Each segment follows a different period of time, with some overlap. The “Woody Guthrie” segment, starring Franklin, is set in 1959 and the “Billy The Kid” (Richard Gere) segment appears to be set even earlier than that. Three segments, which for me are the most important, deal primarily with the 1960s, those of “Jude Quinn” (Blanchett), “Robbie Clark” (Heath Ledger) and “Jack Rollins” (Christian Bale). The sixth and least prominent segment, featuring British actor Ben Whishaw as “Arthur Rimbaud,” functions as a narrative device and lacks an obvious temporality.

I’m Not There is an excellent film. All six leads are very strong, and Cate Blanchett in particular is outstanding. As a director, Haynes confirms his mastery of technique and his deeply satisfying attention to detail. He meticulously and effectively recreates several iconic moments from Dylan’s life and ensures a wonderful visual diversity in the film. From the stark black and white of the “Jude Quinn” segments, echoing both D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back and Fellini’s , to the lush nature photography of “Woody Guthrie” and “Billy the Kid,” I’m Not There is a genuinely beautiful film. But it is a beautiful film with a problem: nostalgia.

To some extent this problem must have been unavoidable, as I’m Not There is set primarily in the recent past and is fairly obviously a celebration of Dylan’s life and music. It would be slightly obtuse to suggest that Haynes falls victim to nostalgia simply by making a film like this. Nostalgia is not simply a fondness for a past epoch, it also reflects a negative attitude towards the present. And Haynes’s view of the present does seem essentially negative.

This is shown by the fact that the film’s three major narrative strands, although presented in a non-linear way, all seem to follow an essentially downward trajectory. After his triumphal arrival in England, Jude Quinn eventually dies in a random motorcycle accident. Jack Rollins, once “Folk’s Troubadour of Conscience” flees into obscurity and re-emerges, in the seventies, as a preacher of a terrifyingly apocalyptic brand of Christianity. Robbie Clark, whose storybook courtship with the exotic Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) coincides with his rise to stardom ends up a rough-looking divorced adulterer. As with Quinn and Rollins, Clark finds his nadir in the seventies. The other three characters, less overtly based on Dylan, meet more ambiguous fates.

The future for Haynes’s sixties characters is dark. Due to a complex but fundamentally positive depiction of the sixties, the film is not, overall, a dark film. Across its varying storylines, I’m Not There presents a dazzling, seductive impression of America in the sixties. Haynes captures it all, from Jude Quinn’s Carnaby Street suits to actual documentary footage of the Greenwich Village folk scene and the Vietnam War. Haynes solidifies this impression with the inclusion of other sixties icons, such as the Beatles and Allen Ginsberg, as well as thinly-disguised caricatures like “Alice Fabian” (obviously Joan Baez, played for great comedic effect by Julianne Moore).

Yet beyond the fashion and beyond even the music, politics are central to Haynes’s vision of the sixties. Even when played for laughs, as in a bizarre scene depicting Black Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton debating Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” the heavily-politicized atmosphere of the sixties pervades I’m Not There. And it is politics that seem central to Haynes’s apparent nostalgia for the era he depicts. Like many people—young and old— Haynes seems to feel keenly the lack of “revolutionary” politics today, seemingly so common in the sixties. The Black Panthers, the anti-war and civil rights movements and the rise of women’s liberation are all depicted in I‘m Not There as defining the spirit of those times.

Although Haynes finds much to cheer in the sixties, he is alert to both the contradictions of these movements— whether in the middle-class naiveté of the young folk enthusiasts or Robbie Clark’s puerile misogyny butting against his wife’s moderate feminism He also shows the inherently conservative nature of the nostalgic impulse. Haynes tackles this issue head on early in the Jack Rollins narrative, through fictitious folk promoter Morris Bernstein (Peter Friedman): “There was a certain tendency in the folk music for nostalgia about the Depression, and the radicalism that came out of it.” By identifying the folly of nostalgizing a relatively dark period in American history, Haynes demonstrates that he is aware he may be charged with doing the same thing, albeit with a period marked by political upheaval and imperialist war rather than economic crisis and social dislocation. Unfortunately, by evincing a fundamentally positive view of the sixties and a bleak view of the present Haynes does indeed fall into the trap of nostalgia.

The fundamental yet entirely understandable problem is that that given the choice between the tumult of the sixties and the grim malaise of the present, Haynes, like many others, would happily return to the former. In the face of our current era’s seemingly limited possibilities for meaningful progress, it might be only natural to retreat into an imagined version of the past. It would be difficult indeed to argue that present conditions suggest more revolutionary possibility than those of the sixties, and the threat of nostalgia should not deny the possibility of drawing a distinction between the two eras in the hopes of unearthing some contemporary hope. But Haynes does not and perhaps cannot make this leap, and so we are left with the bleak fates met by Clark, Quinn and Rollins; if their future is our present, then, for Haynes, it’s no future at all.

But it would be unfair to leave Haynes mired in the past; I’m Not There hints at some sort of future possibility. Following Quinn’s death, Haynes closes with the fate of “Billy The Kid,” a character who inhabits a timeless setting that is definitely not the sixties. As Billy rides a train away from his rural hideout he discovers the dusty guitar case of Woody Guthrie, emblazoned with the slogan “this machine kills fascists.” As he dusts it off, he delivers the final lines of the film: “It’s like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what can happen.” |P

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