Suppose you go to the pictures and Jude Law (pictured right), playing someone called Frank, says “I’ll be back” and he goes out then later on someone comes in and Kate Winslet says “Hi Frank” and he says “Hi” but it’s not Jude Law it’s Kevin Spacey. That’s a bit confusing. Then suppose it isn’t even Kevin Spacey that comes back in, it’s Uma Thurman and Kate says “Hi Frank” and Uma says “Hi.” That’s unacceptably confusing, isn’t it?
No. It isn’t. It’s acceptable. In Todd Haynes’ new movie “I’m Not There” (2007), a biopic of Bob Dylan, the artiste is played by six different actors, including Cate Blanchett, each of whom represents a facet or stage in the life of the singer. Clearly, it is now okay, at least in Haynes’ view, to risk confusing the audience by switching the lead actor from time to time, without preamble.
A few years ago this wouldn’t have washed. It suggests that audiences are, not necessarily knowingly, sufficiently relaxed with the malleability and inconstancy of identity to find the changes interesting rather than irritating. In a similar vein, the casting of Blanchett (pictured left) as one of the Dylans suggests an openness towards ideas about the ‘feminine side’ of the artist or the artist as one who exploits that side without being a weirdo.
Some of the actors are so un-Dylan like, such as Marcus Carl Franklin, a black child actor playing the character Woody, based in part on Woody Guthrie and on the young Dylan when he most admired Guthrie, that one has continually to work at situating the figure in any narrative or historical framework that might be available either in the movie or in the biographical material at large.
Oddly, it’s even more of a stretch with Richard Gere (also playing Bob). When it comes to Cate Blanchett, however, the disjunctions and the congruities move to another level. Blanchett’s impersonation of Dylan is startling. She has the body, the voice and the demeanour down to such a degree that we can, for moments at a time, believe that this is Bobby here, in this drama-documentary film, interacting with other actors, all of whom are, as we’d expect, competently dissolving our resistances.
But then you’re watching Bob, who happens to be played by the actress Cate and you’re buying the fiction while simultaneously registering its profound implausibility. You admire Cate doing it – which is an inappropriate mode of viewing if the fiction is to be sustained – while you ponder the enigma that is Bob Dylan. Todd Haynes (pictured right), as suggested earlier, appears to assume that this conflicted operation is within our capabilities. It’s not as if he were teaching us how to handle the contradictions so much as he is exploiting skills we have already acquired.
What is there within our everyday social experience that has enabled us to accept Haynes’ blunt confusions of identity? Is it just that we are used to the fact that we will meet people from time to time who ‘put on an act’? This is pretty unexceptional and would hardly be expected to precipitate a radical revision of the conventions of film drama. Is it that we have grown accustomed to acts of impersonation, generally executed by performance professionals, that are so accomplished that they verge on the uncanny? Surely achievements of this order have been commonplace throughout the history of the performing arts. Is it that Blanchett’s Dylan presents us with a (fictional) masculine surface that has a female interior in such a way that some sort of deep psychological truth is being illustrated? That’s an attractive thought but it may be too deep. As are other notions that touch on progressive issues of gender and sexuality.
A clue may reside in the film’s title: “I’m Not There”. Someone is talking to you but ‘they’ are not ‘there’. In Dylan’s case this may refer to the artiste’s exceptional and notorious reluctance to be pinned down or summed up. More generally, it may allude to our wan acceptance of the eroded, not to say blanched, status of that part of ourselves once regarded as persisting and enduring, the part that will always be there regardless of the weather, flying the flag that is only ours. Once that part is threatened then we might as well be glove puppets, we might as well get an actor in to deal with the everyday bric a brac.
If we do not actually experience this dilapidation ourselves, in our relations with our friends, it has certainly, I suggest, become readily recognisable abroad and has paved the way for the acceptance of the practice of taking in lodgers. The lodger, in this case, lives just beneath the skin and articulates appearance. His or her presence verges on the arbitrary, in the same way that it is arbitrary, at one level, that Blanchett plays Dylan. The evacuation of Dylan to make way for Blanchett is not an issue that Haynes foregrounds. It is, nevertheless, implicit in his representation of Dylan.
The idea of getting a lodger to play you is humiliating, it’s a strategy of last resort. That a man might be passably articulated by a woman lodger is, for many men, an even more humiliating prospect. Not everyone will be able to afford Cate Blanchett, for example. They will have to rely on lesser role models. These are increasingly drawn either from the ranks of professional performers or those who, having not achieved, simply imitate those who have. The result is that the lodger’s skills are drastically reduced to theatrical effects and postures: we are performed by imitators whose specialisms depend on having access to substance in order that they might imitatively reproduce it. If the substance has been evacuated to make room for the imitator then all that can be produced is a pure, unadulterated, undetailed, essential theatricality.