Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown

I'm Not There and the changing face of Bob Dylan on film

Certain cultural figures have a particular inevitability. Charles Chaplin and Elvis Presley rode technological waves, surfing to superstardom on powerful socio-economic currents. Had Chaplin never come to America, another slapstick comic would have emerged to reign over the nation's nickelodeons; Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock and roll.

No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Minnesota would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world's first and greatest rock and roll beatnik bard and then — having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning — vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.

Lerner opens The Other Side of the Mirror with ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert introducing Dylan at the 1964 festival. This artist, she tells the crowd, "grew out of a need." The times demanded him, and so did the audience. "You know him — he's yours." It may be pretty to think so, but that's a social function against which Dylan would spend decades rebelling. Not until the debacle that was Renaldo & Clara would Dylan's fans fully appreciate the monster they had wrought.

I'm Not There has one near constant: Everyone complains that Jack or Robbie or Jude or even Mr. B has changed. (Haynes too: Several observers have made the point that where Velvet Goldmine attacked its chameleon-like David Bowie character for betraying his fans, I'm Not There reveres Dylan for his existential metamorphoses.) This resentment is complicated by an aggrieved sense that Jack/Robbie/Jude should have been changing the world instead of himself — as if he actually had a choice.

I'm Not There is a unique collaboration. It's an essay that derives its intellectual force from the idea of Bob Dylan, and its emotional depth from his songs. Haynes doesn't deny his subject's insistence that his authentic self could never be explained or portrayed — and might not even exist. "I don't know who I am most of the time," little Woody confesses in the midst of his compulsive mythmaking. We don't either, although, then again, we really do.

Moments before I'm Not There ends, Haynes presents a shock close-up of the young Dylan taking a harmonica solo and then, over the credits, the sound of the inexhaustible performance that is "Like a Rolling Stone." There's a chill every time the actual voice is heard. Six characters and one ghost who, except for that brief moment, is not even there. This is the Dylan movie that Dylan himself could never make.

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