I’m not the one you want babe / I’ll only let you down.”
I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes’ recent film about Bob Dylan, is not, officially speaking at least, “about” Bob Dylan at all. But it is invested in him, dependent on his particular penchant for scrawling and erasing self-narratives, “inspired,” as the title sequence tells us, “by [his] music and many lives.” Yet Haynes, whose best work (Safe, Far From Heaven) amplifies subterfuge into dread, is a wily character: “inspired” suggests something less rigorous, less searching, than the image he gives us, of a scalpel peeling back Dylan’s layers like so many sheaves of onion. We’re here to excavate him, to dig beneath the internal organs, to find . . . what exactly? The heart, the soul, the grain of truth? Haynes and other filmmakers (Martin Scorsese and D. A. Pennebaker among them) who have tried to find such a grain repeatedly come up short, at least in the sense that their final answer is that there isn’t one. But the question might not be, as they all ask, “Would the real Bob Dylan please stand up?” The question is why, despite being unable to pin him down, does Dylan still mean so much to us?
Haynes in particular follows the iconography of Dylan like the stations of the cross: Depression-era boxcar blues and the traditional hymns of balladeers leaning on guitars for support; Village folk’s keyed-up ramblings, mumblings, numbings; Newport Jazz and the moment of electricity. What we ask for, exactly, is the same old story told anew, like a genre movie. Dylanology, perhaps like religion and genre, has nothing to do with uncovered secrets, with insights revealed by a fresh look, even if that is their stated goal. They are repetitions of a narrative, our narrative ~ a reminder that there is some stability to be found in this world, even if it is relegated to a shared nostalgia for what we’ve lost. We long for more of Jude Quinn in I’m Not There not because of Cate Blanchett’s performance but because he is the most recognizable Dylan, the one who matches the likeness on the stained glass, the one whose Passion seems closest to the “real” thing.
Even documentaries about Dylan buy into this peculiarly theatrical element, balancing the real and the fictional with an eye to tracing some through-line in his biography ~ attempting to explain what Dylan means when he says, early in Scorsese’s No Direction Home, that “time kind of obliterated the past that I grew up in.” When following a man so dedicated to obfuscating his personal history, the documentary project does not founder so much as seek other, secondary handholds, whether it be the musical intelligence of Scorsese’s picture, with clips of Hank Williams, John Jacob Niles, and Odetta, or the immediacy of Pennebaker’s, filled with the “insane lunatics” of Dylan’s lacuna. The earnestness that pokes through the facade is at times surprising: Dylan, his hair seeming to suggest that he was plugged into an electrical socket himself, looking young and doe-eyed while being interviewed by a man from the BBC’s West African service; or in silent 16mm, Chaplinesque while trying on hats, an urchin washed in by the Hudson tide without losing his Middle-American button-down shirt.
It is in these moments ~ the subtextual ones, where Dylan himself is not necessarily revealed, but the intense web of allusions that make up his work and his popularity is ~ that I’m Not There, No Direction Home, and Don’t Look Back get at just why he is, humanoid or not, an “archive of American mythology.” He survives in our minds because of the shared nostalgia he has come to represent, because he is, for those of us who see identity as infinitely malleable, the secondary handhold we need. There’s a throwaway moment at the tail end of Pennebaker’s film in which one of Dylan’s entourage, speeding away with the musician from a throng of British fans outside yet another venue’s service entrance, in yet another car so dark it seems to absorb and dim the glow of the streetlamps, calls Dylan “the vanishing American.” It is this elusiveness that reflects the elusiveness of a vanishing America, a spectral, idealistic place where the American promise and the American people still seem, from this nostalgic viewpoint at least, to work in unison. For anyone who has ever heard and responded to a Dylan song ~ and I would venture a guess that most people who come across this piece fit into that category ~ his mystique is as personal as it is political, reminding us of a time in our lives in which we believed that authenticity, or on the other hand the elasticity of identity, would win the day. But even in 1965 he was vanishing before our eyes, like the America which time had obliterated. “It looks like its dying,” he sang, speaking to that part of us which clings to our hopes but lowers our expectations, “and it’s hardly been born.”
“It seemed I’d always been chasing after something, anything that moved . . . anything that might lead me to some more lit place, some unknown land downriver.”
~Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1 (p. 108)
“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
~ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
We hear about the heartland a lot in America, especially in an election year. It’s where (so they say) hardscrabble meets hard work, where dignity and integrity form a more perfect union. It’s where, in the mind if not along the ground, civilization is rebuffed in favor of freedom in unknown lands. Narratives, ideally, are left behind when one lights out for the Territory; backstories, origins, identities become disposed to disappear. To get at Dylan, Scorsese goes straight for the roots to see how the musician himself tore them up. Hibbing, Minnesota, where, Dylan says in an interview, “our reality was fear,” was also where he found his first 78 (a single, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore”). It made him feel, he tells us, like “somebody else.” But more instructive than Dylan’s desire to elide his past, to become somebody else ~ the name change, the affection for Arthur “I is someone else” Rimbaud, his own lighting out for New York ~ is a story he recounts in Chronicles of giving Bono directions to “the birthplace of America,” which happens to be a small town in Minnesota.
Despite the desire to leave one’s past behind, it always remains; we begin to regret how quickly we decided it wasn’t worth our attention, how suddenly we tried to move on. This is as true of America as it is of Dylan: we’re obsessed with Progress, the desire to revolutionize, to radicalize, to industrialize, to Super Size. But we also can’t help fear each forward step is the wrong one, sending us on a path to apocalypse. In our national narrative we are always strong and dangerously weak at once, ready to lead the world or to crumble at any moment. Even our greatest leaders, so the advertisements tell us, were but a step away from disaster, from the crippling famine, the stock market crash, the moment of fateful bad luck. In other words, our leaders try to tell us, they’re just like us.
When the journalist Keenan Jones (Bruce Greenwood), who interviews Jude Quinn in I’m Not There, says that the musician is just a suburban boy, having uncovered the secret of Quinn’s childhood, he means to suggest that Jude is a fake.But for us such tension between breaking away and returning, between regret and nostalgia, seems perfectly natural. Quinn ~ Dylan ~ is “just folks,” distinctly in and of the American grain. His story begins where ours usually do, in a quiet house on a quiet street in a quiet town, with first-generation Americans for parents and the radio tuned to the blues and country we have always thought belonged to us. Dylan in particular is tied to this nostalgia, his folk stylings of the 1950s consciously harking back to the sorrowful ballads of the Depression, his shift to electricity reminding us of the spare beauty of a guitar and harmonica, his “protest songs” recalling a moment in the past century in which it seemed that art, in whatever form, could change the world. We all expect the times, along with the people who live in them, to change. But we fear such change, fear the world being “beyond [our] command”; we find ourselves looking to the past for safety, for comfort, for an explanation of the present.
It is in the most maligned (and misunderstood) portion of Haynes’ film, about “Billy the Kid,” that past and present join to form a kind of definition of the American purpose, of this country’s particular mystique. Billy (Richard Gere) lives in a town called Riddle, verdant with dreams ~ the vegetation practically whispers; the town square reverberates with echoes of a collective, self-effacing consciousness. But Riddle is a riddle not solely because it seems perfectly hidden, fantastical in its population of costumed whores and roaming giraffes: it is a place, too, of the American fringe, of ramblers, vagrants, circus performers, cowboys, soldiers, farmers, criminals and missionaries. It is a place, as Billy tells us, where “who a fella really was never really mattered,” where invisibility is not just a consequence of the social structure but a prerequisite for participation in it. Everyone in Riddle is invisible, even to themselves.
Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin, right), a wise boxcar hobo whose narrative suggests that of Dylan’s origins ~ as opposed to Billy, whose age and mystery suggest Dylan today ~ is also from Riddle, hiding from the present as Billy hides from the past. Between these images of an unchanging wilderness, of America as unpenetrated Territory, lies an urban expanse replete with graying bricks and diners filled with the billowing blue smoke of cigarettes, like the distance between the America of the past and the America we imagine for the future. “How long it has been” since he came to Riddle, Billy says, “I couldn’t even say. The day I arrived looks a lot like today.” Riddle, like Hibbing in Dylan’s mythology, is more a landscape of the mind than a living, breathing locale ~ an idealized site of unchanging America, its birthplace and its burial ground. When we say we’ve found “change we can believe in,” what we mean is that we’ve found a missing link to the past, a way of reversing the changes that have already occurred. The story of Riddle may be, as a group of singers in the film attest, “a swan song to America… an epic tale of blunder and despair,” but it is the despair about our current state which galvanizes us to believe in the mythology we’ve wrapped around ourselves. America, as cynical as we may have become, is a riddle, more abstract than concrete. Most of us continue to believe in democracy, in free speech, in upholding the Constitution, even if the practicalities of everyday life in this country seem eternally to come up short. As much as he satirizes American exceptionalism, Dylan’s particular earnestness ~ like our own belief in the American ideal, even if we wouldn’t phrase it the same way ~ seems to come through in his lyrics (he is ever the jester and straight man, side by side): “The country I come from / is called the Midwest / I was taught and brought up there / The laws to abide / And that the land that I live in / Has God on its side.”
“The more you live a certain way, the less it feels like freedom . . . I can change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person and when I go to sleep I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time.”
~ Billy the Kid, in I’m Not There
“Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
~ Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
I’ve written many words about America in the pages of Bright Lights, trying to explain its past, its politics and its people through the lens of contemporary film ~ an explanation I desire for myself as much as for any readers. But perhaps this is emblematic of Dylan’s fans and the filmmakers who follow him, searching for a story, a way of creating coherence and order from what Joan Didion once called “the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” We’re told in school that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but it is always implied that the beginning is the vital element. Root structures give us balance, and that is no more true than in talking about one’s homeland: saying where we come from is maybe just another way of saying who we are, or hope to be, the one element of identity that we cannot change no matter who hard we try. We can obscure it with lies, mannerisms, affectations, accents, clothes, songs, stories; but it’s always there, just beneath the surface. That’s why there’s both humor and a delicate sadness in the archival footage of a Newcastle teenager in No Direction Home, telling us with infinite disappointment and a hangdog expression that Dylan is, circa 1966, “not the same as what he was.” It’s of course ridiculous to expect someone, something, never to change, but there’s a kind of lost hope in that statement, a moment in which innocent belief is crushed. But growth is tied inextricably to roots, like the changes in an old folk song or in the collective memory: organic, evolutionary, unpredictable. Dylan’s innumerable personas may have been created on purpose, but they seem also to contain an element of chance, of riding the spirit of the times.
Scorsese, though he leaves well enough alone Dylan’s assertion that he isn’t particularly political, or politically astute, understands that history can sweep up even the most unpolitical person in its wake. Along with the song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” he gives us a montage of the Kennedy idyll: Jack playing with Caroline and John John at the pool, glisteningly attractive with his Hyannisport tan; Jackie breaking a bottle against the back end of a submarine being launched; America as sunnily disposed as it may ever have been, with its own century seeming to stretch far beyond the horizon. Repeating the words of a president who embodied youth and hope, heroism and integrity, Allen Ginsburg says in an interview about hearing “Hard Rain” for the first time that “it seemed that the torch had been passed to a new generation.” Cannily, Scorsese reminds us that the idyll came to a close too soon, the Kennedy assassination and the growing contentiousness of the Civil Rights Movement barely beyond the field of vision. Is this the end of hope? The beginning of nostalgia? Hasn’t this year’s election confirmed, with all its parallels to Camelot, that the most resonant moment for Americans today is not the end of World War II but that moment in Dallas during which we lost what we’d been waiting for?
Dylan’s own metamorphoses are, one might say, those of a man who finds himself a long way from home, from the security of moral rectitude we associate almost instinctively with America between 1945 and 1963. His constant reinvention is itself a tried-and-true way that Americans, native and transplanted, deal with adversity: to clean the slate, to light out for the Territory, to realize that while the past had its safeties it also had its fears. The title of Pennebaker’s documentary is Don’t Look Back, the opposite of nostalgia, and it follows closely the rupture of Kennedy’s death: it suggests the possibility that, by ignoring what is behind us, we might be capable of finding happiness anew. But this is just another form of nostalgia, with each fresh start meant to recapture the first moment of inspiration, of revolution, only this time to do so without mucking it up. “You tell me I’ve changed like that’s all there is to say,” Heath Ledger’s character says in I’m Not There, and he’s right in that change is a natural human reaction to the fact that the world changes, that the Beats give way to hippies give way to Nixon. History makes us small, tiny blips of change within much larger shifts. Dylan’s changes just seem seismic because of his weighty influence.
It’s apt in this context that the most quintessentially American of poets, Walt Whitman, called his finest poem “Song of Myself.” He, like Dylan, is unafraid to contradict himself, to take on an endless number of forms, and still relish the heartland, “the birthplace of America” in the myth if not in actuality. We can’t pin them down or explain them because they, like the country about which they write, are multitudinous creatures, at times so internally at odds it seems they’ll split in two (or twenty) from the tension. But in tension lies vigor, not weakness ~ a house divided as severely as our own in 1860 may indeed be destined to fall, but debate and diversity, whether within an individual or an entire nation, are the lively basis for success. There’s a moment in Don’t Look Back, throughout which Dylan is abrasive and difficult to those who question his newfound distance from the protest movement, in which we can see the tension pay off. A group of young girls get his attention by yelling up at his hotel room window, swooning when they see his silhouette, and he eventually agrees to chat with them for a minute. Here is Dylan forever young, with barely the shadow of stubble across his upper lip, taking questions about his “commercialized” new work without rudeness or offense. Instead he seems to believe in protecting innocence, in choosing his battles. The moment is disquieting because of its relative quiet, its confiding whisper ~ like he’s revealing a secret to the camera as well, finally showing the roots we thought he’d systematically destroyed.
And it is representative of why he continues to resonate. Dylan is intelligent enough to warn us of the rocky shoals ahead but warm enough to recognize that nostalgia often provides the fire which powers change. He, like us, is always waiting for something: the savior, the apocalypse, the explanation. So we prepare for the ship of the future in this country to arrive, predicting some crucible or crisis and thinking in terms like “change” or “hope.” Dylan reminds us that the hour may come in which we do indeed fail once and for all, but his recognition of such a fact is refreshing ~ if there are still people cognizant of the American purpose as something within grasp, we can retain our faith in our nation’s existence. He’s been here before. When the ship comes in for Dylan in 1963, that moment of the irrevocable, the promises and problems are the same as today, and as confounding, frightening and beautiful as ever, like the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock:
Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide.
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.