D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back was significant on a number of levels—but perhaps most of all for the way that it made “public” the direct cinema/cinema verite style in America. Pioneered in the states by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock’s “Drew Associates” (whose 1960’s production of Primary is often considered the first major film of its style), direct cinema utilized technological developments in portable cameras and sync sound to more organically capture “reality” in an unobtrusive manner.
I just saw I’m Not There, the new ultra-artsy “biopic” about Bob Dylan. Let me just say: it’s an amazing film. Whether or not it’s an accessible film is a different story (it isn’t), but as far as a film that is stunning to watch—from first to last frame—I’m Not There is one of the best of the year.
By now you all know the gimmick: six actors of various ages, races, and genders each playing some iteration of “Dylan.” But the thing is, it isn’t a gimmick at all; in fact, it fits so perfectly with what this film is about… I can’t imagine it being right in any other way.
On one level this is a film about Bob Dylan—the complicated artist who had many “phases,” career turns, personalities, and iconic moments. Indeed, the film is as much about Dylan the man as it is about Dylan the decade: the aura and zeitgeist of the “sixties” which he so embodied.
And yet on another level the film is about identity in general. “Dylan”—or the lack of any one identifiable Dylan—is just an easy case study in what we might call the larger “identity crisis” in postmodern Western culture.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, our sense of “self” or identity was more or less static—our social roles defined, our frames localized. But as the world pushed toward modernity things became much more fractured, specialized, and our social roles diversified. Soon the “self” became “selves” that corresponded to the different hats we wore and locales we existed in—the home, the workplace, the playground, etc… Modernity eroded our certainty about pretty much everything, including the notion that “who we are” is something we can control or understand… if it exists at all. People like Freud, Jung, and Lacan emphasized the massively complicated and elusive nature of personality, and later postmodernists like Foucault (who positioned “self” as a discursive construct rather than a real entity) and Baudrillard (who called identity “the label of existence”) further deconstructed any notion that there is a Self above and beyond our “selves.”
Dylan was living at a time when all of this was very much in the air—with modernity wreaking havoc (Vietnam, Cold War, etc) and the postwar “technocracy” breeding cookie-cutter specialists and subsequently a counterculture that defined itself in terms of the multiplicity of things it wasn’t. In some ways Dylan is the pop cultural embodiment of all this socio-cultural confusion. As society was struggling to define itself amid a world spinning in so many directions, so too was Bob Dylan.
But beyond the historical context of Dylan and the 60s, this film struck me as something I could relate to on a much more personal level. I’m not sure I subscribe (at least cognitively) to the postmodern theorists and rhetorics of the indefinable self, but watching this film I couldn’t help but recognize myself in the whirlwind of existential fluidity being displayed on screen.
There is a real sadness in the film’s desperate search for the self. The questions are never asked explicitly—and indeed, fractured identity is never problematized but rather organically assumed—but nonetheless, beneath the cool exteriors of each version of Dylan lies a spiritual angst and unsettledness. It is a spirit of confusion and fragmentation that I think we all—in this hyperlinked, frenetic world—can relate to. Who am I really? Am I the guy on TV? On stage? The character written about in the press? Or more germane to the non-celebrities among us today: Am I my Facebook profile? My blog persona? Or is that all a “separate” self from who I am with my closest friends and loved ones? Are all these individuated selves just some version of the same thing? And if so, does what I think I am really matter when everyone I ever meet sees me through different eyes?
The feeling that you get watching I’m Not There is the same hollow, perplexing feeling that the title implies: that in everything I’m seeing, experiencing, saying, performing, there is one thing that is conspicuously absent: myself. It is the feeling of being removed from yourself and simply observing from afar, akin to that dream experience of observing yourself as a character is some narrative that you are simultaneously experiencing first-person. It’s a feeling that reminds me of video games and avatars—playing “myself” in both a first and third person sense.
This is all very confusing and perhaps counterproductive, but there is an undeniable exhilaration to it as well. Being able to step back and analyze the breathtakingly complex nature of humanity—indeed, even within the one human being that is yourself—provides a fittingly diverse array of emotions. If that’s something you are not afraid to experience, go see I’m Not There.