You can take another look at Part 1 here Otherwise, welcome to Part 2!
To begin to untangle the non-linear arrangement of the film, to borrow a phrase from Rimbaud, the “time of the assassins” are as follows: Woody lives simultaneously in 1959 and in his fantasy box-car life which exists in 1934; the documentary which claims to discover “the real Jack Rollins” catches up with him in 1999 but covers his career in the early 60s; Jude occupies the short space of 1965; Robbie lives around 1968 and re-enacts Jack’s early-60s rise to fame; Arthur is interrogated in 1966 but because his section is aesthetically based on a description of the interrogation room used to question Rimbaud after being shot by his lover Paul Verlaine, it is also 1873; and Billy, described by Haynes as “the first cowboy and the last,” is also in two eras at once, simultaneously at the end of the American Frontier in 1881 and as an aged Dylan in 1976. This might tempt one to try arrange each “life” in a kind of chronological order, even if most of the characters occupy more than one eras, but the editing structure of the film resists such an easy solution. Rather, although each character seems consciously unaware of all the others – Robbie being aware of Jack is the only real exception – the seemingly separate “lives” are stitched together and each Dylan causes, provokes, and motivates every other Dylan. The double-timeline of many of the Dylans suggests this kind of looping of each Dylan into and out of the life of the others; they are the cause and the effect of each other.
During Woody’s first scene, one of the hobos he meets on the train asks the other “What’d you say his name was?” but Woody does not answer, instead the film cuts to Arthur who begins spelling his name “A-R-T-H-“. In Haynes’s original one-page proposal of the film, Arthur is described as the film’s narrator, literally causing every storyline as “spilling out from his riddling words the following six characters – and their respective tales – emerge” (there were originally 7 Dylans, one of which was ditched before filming began). Jack’s first appearance comes directly after the lady of the house where Woody spends the night dismisses his 1930s “boxcar” persona and tells him “Live your own time, child. Sing about your own time.” And while Robbie initially appears briefly in the “documentary” about Jack (playing Jack in a biopic, an incarnation the documentary’s narrator suggests is more well-known than Jack “himself”), Robbie’s real induction in the film comes after Woody falls into a river and has a dream in which he sees Claire. To further confuse the timeline (but only if you insist it be a straight line), while it begins Robbie and Clarie’s section, the image of Claire in Woody’s dream comes near the close of the film and the end of her and Robbie’s storyline. Right before Woody’s vision of Claire, he dreams of being swallowed by a whale, an allusion to Jonas in the Bible, who is swallowed by a whale and spit out three days later. The story of Jonas and the whale is often read as a metaphor for Jesus’ resurrection and as a symbol of rebirth. After Woody is swallowed, Robbie, a “new self,” emerges. Later, when Robbie an Claire attend the premiere of the Jack Rollins biopic Grain of Sand, the film edits in three title cards which read “a view of the world / belonging to / one generation.” Each edit between titles is accompanied by the sound of a gunshot, the last of which appears to awaken Woody in the hospital, now himself “reborn” as a contemporary singer, writing about “what’s going on,” like Jack.
After Jack disappears following the disaster at the awards ceremony, in voice-over Jack laments “It’s a fierce, heavy feeling, thinking that something’s expected of you, but you don’t know exactly what it is. Brings forth a weird kind of guilt.” Jack’s desire to escape expectations materializes Jude, who immediately gets on stage with his new band and fire expectation shattering machine guns into the audience, though, as Woody would explain “not in any literlized way.” Billy is first seen appearing twice in quick edits, first during the film’s opening where he wakes up, and again during Jude’s section while Jude walks alone down a hall, Billy is seen opening a door and stepping outside. His life in the film begins in earnest after Jude is chased by his “fans” from the stage after performing Ballad of a Thin Man, and a short explanation from Alice in Jack’s documentary that one day he seemed to disappear, “like what people say about Billy the Kid – that he really just dodged a bullet and went into hiding.” In Jack’s biopic Grain of Sand, Robbie alludes to this too, telling ‘Alice’ he’s leaving, “So long, Alice.” “Jack, where are you going to go?” Robbie, as Jack (or is it Jack played by Robbie?), replies, “First place that doesn’t know my name.” In Riddle, Billy’s actual identity is a mystery to most of its inhabitants, and during Arthur’s relation of “Seven Rules for a Life in Hiding,” as Arthur describes rule four, “Never give your real name,” several townspeople in Riddle greet Billy by fake names. In turn, Billy appears to remember the relationship break-down between Robbie and Claire, as moments between the two of them are edited into Billy’s section as he stares off, and Haynes himself explains he wanted to suggest the failure of Robbie’s marriage as being in Billy’s past and part of what he wanted to hide from.
The web of interrelations between the characters is immense, and to mention only a few: Woody mentions to the hobos on the train he’s been to Riddle and appears there late in the film dressed up as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp (a semi-nod to the seventh intended Dylan that didn’t make the film). Billy stares at Woody and Arthur describes his fifth rule: “if ever told to look at yourself, never look,” and Billy suddenly lifts his gaze. Haynes calls the “Seven Rules” sequence the scene in which all the Dylans are the most tightly collected. For instance, as Arthur relates rule two – “beware of enthusiasm and of love. Each is temporary and quick to sway” – Robbie is shown smoking alone as his marriage falls apart. And Arthur would know about the evaporation of love: after all, his interrogation is partially a reference to the investigation which followed his being shot by his “lover” Verlaine. At two separate times in the film, Woody and Jude are both seen to bounce their leg nervously. Robbie and Claire buy a motorcycle Robbie can’t drive properly; and Jude is killed in a motorcycle accident that bookends the film. Just as Jack leaves the spotlight and refuses to write “finger-pointing songs,” Arthur is also accused of abandoning writing. Jude tells Allen Ginsberg upon meeting him that “what’s left” is “Oh, my salvation” and Jack later appears as a born-again Christian preacher. Jack tells Alice the difference between them is she believes she can change things and he knows no one can, and Robbie tells Claire she only believes things can change, in Robbie’s words “Because [she’s] a chick.” Another link between Jack and Robbie is Jack breaks up with Alice and disappears shortly after the death of JFK, and Robbie appears and meets Claire just after JFK is buried. While they are falling in love, Claire reads Rimbaud’s poetry to Robbie, and when she arrives at the line “‘I’ is someone else,” to illustrate the point, the film cuts to Arthur. Woody quotes Arthur in his own section when he repeats “Sighting it and hearing it and breathing it in, rubbing it all in the pores of my skin and the wind between my eyes knocking honey in my comb.”
At the close of the film, Billy finds Woody’s guitar on a train and, echoing Rimbaud, explains “I can change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.” And Arthur’s final rule brings together each of the Dylans who suffer for being artists: Jack being pigeonholed by his “finger-pointin’ songs”; Robbie’s role as Jack haunting his career; Woody’s constant fear of being discovered as fake; Jude’s show-downs with the press about the sincerity of his songs; Arthur being interrogated because he has stopped writing. “And seven? Never create anything. It will be misinterpreted. It will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life. And it will never change.”
Within such a tightly interwoven structure, time is no longer linear but relative. Each Dylan’s life does not follow neatly from the others. To recall Haynes, the main motivation for structuring the editing in this way is to give the impression that all of the lives are being lived at precisely the same moment. This is important because, as mentioned before, according to Barthes the “Author” and “genius” who creates needs linear time to exist in order to establish their own existence: “The Author, when believed in, is always conceived as the past of his own book: book and author stand automatically on a single line divided into a before and an after.” And, as we know by now, Dylan has no interest in his biography, beliefs and personality being the “secret meaning” of his songs. Dylan is not an Author, though we incessantly insist he act like one. Rather, Barthes describes another kind of creative being: the “shaman scriptor.” The shaman is not the “genius creator” the Author is made out to be, instead the shaman is simply a story-teller, as Barthes explains, a shaman is not “a person but … a mediator.” Where the “person” of the Author is “the point” and meaning of his work, the shaman’s individual identity is irrelevant and his “‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’.” Because the shaman is not the “meaning” of his performance and his life is not the cause of his art, the temporality in his art is utterly different that the linear time the Author requires: the “scriptor is born simultaneously with the text. … There is no other time than that of the enunciation.” Time for the shaman is relative, only the present moment of performing the art exists.
One of the major differences between the shaman and the author is not just the belief that the Author’s life “explains” his text but the insistence that the author be the seat of the art’s meaning, or actually that the text must have a certain “meaning” at all. This search for ‘meaning’ is where the fascism about identity is the most visible. Mistaking Dylan for an Author is what creates the frenzy among the press to push him so hard about his “intentions,” about his “real political views,” and about whether he’s really “sincere” or not. It is what created the early smugness with Critics about “deciphering” the “deep meaning” in his folk music, and the later outrage at his abandonment of those ‘meanings.’ Because the Author is a capitalist conception, their identity needs to be fixed, so they have an easily visible and stable identity and meaning: they are a brand and a brand is a promise, an expectation. Although the Dylans in I’m Not There are all compelled to perform and create, they struggle with the visibility being famous requires and desire personal invisibility. For most of them, when their performance is valued and then sought to be “understood,” there’s danger of being personally “unmasked” or “discovered.” In order to resist their identity being deciphered (if it’s even possible), they perpetually shed the past and go into hiding. The motif of trains in the film coincides with characters fleeing discovery: Woody leaves on a train after he’s called out for performing an identity he could not possibly have, and told “Live your own time”; he also leaves on a train after the couple who care for him when he’s released from the hospital receive a phone call that he escaped from an reform school in Minnesota (incidentally the only time Minnesota – Dylan’s home state – is mentioned); and Billy also skips town on a train after an aged Pat Garrett literally unmasks him, revealing him to be Billy the Kid.
When an interviewer asks Jack, now Pastor John, why he no longer speaks about his famous past and instead lives “in hiding,” Jack explains “Old things are passed away. All things are made anew. It doesn’t matter what I did before.” The next scene has Jack singing “Pressin’ On” earnestly. Jack’s reply underlines the resistance to privileging the past, a privileging which is integral to preserving the figure of the Author – since it is his past through which his work is “understood.” The desire is for the performance itself to be visible and all that matters. Although it’s a cliché to describe art as the artist’s “self-expression,” Barthes argues this is simply not possible: “Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.” In other words, no expression is ever “pure” it is only possible to “express yourself” using a language which exists outside of ourselves in which every word comes with a predetermined meaning. As Rimbaud wrote, “‘I’ is another,” and as Barthes reiterates, “I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person,'” and the “person” we imagine as the “I” cannot therein be completely contained, explained, or accounted for. Unlike the Author who claims to be the “explanation” of their text and thus it is the Author who visibly performs as “the voice of a single person,” the shaman disappears behind their performance, and it is the art itself which speaks, not the shaman as a “unique individual.”
The film suggests this desire to privilege performance in place of individual identity from the outset: the title I’m Not There is peculiar for a biopic, in a genre that trades in exploring unique individuals, the title suggests the complete absence of identity. Here, between the six Dylans none are exactly Dylan, and none are exactly not Dylan, and the name Bob Dylan is never used. When the title appears on screen it mutates to suggest the film’s fluidity of identity: it first appears as “I he”, then “I’m her”, “not her”, “not here”, before finally “I’m not there.” The opening credits similarly undercut the reflex to find the “lead” actor. Instead, the names of the 6 actors portraying Dylan are splintered together: for example, the first name to appear is Christian Bale, Christian disappears to be replaced by Cate, and appears as Cate Bale before Bale is then replaced by Blanchett. This continues through the list of the six ‘Dylan’ actors, but all the other names in the credits (including the other actors) do not do this. There are also no capital letters used in the entire credits save the ‘I’ in the title. Undercutting the desire to privilege a single identity echoes Barthes who is adamant that a text cannot be “the voice of a single person,” the unique expression of a unique identity, because there is absolutely no originality in writing. There cannot be. Instead, “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” All works of art are the stitching together of a multiplicity of other works, references and allusions. Nothing is created, only recycled and imitated, and all works are expressions of an infinite number of voices.
If the Author is displaced as the explanation and meaning of his work, meaning then becomes simply a deferral instead of some hidden “secret” to be deciphered. This is presented by an utter lack of original identity in the film as every Dylan points to every other Dylan ceaselessly. It’s no coincidence that Jack, the incarnation of Dylan’s most iconic era, is the least accessible figure in I’m Not There. He is presented mostly in photos, and “archive footage” of performances, and in the only interaction the journalist has with Jack he dismisses his earlier work, “It doesn’t matter what I did before.” At the beginning of the documentary the journalist promises “Tonight, we bring you face-to-face with the real Jack Rollins.” The documentary then cuts to “footage” of Jack singing The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll at a voter rally. This footage is a re-creation of a clip used in Dont Look Back in which a reporter sits with Dylan to tape a radio interview asks “How did it all start for you Bob, what actually started you off?” The film then cuts to Dylan at the voter rally in Mississippi, though here he sings Only a Pawn in Their Game. The editing in Dont Look Back suggests this is “what actually started” his career but it was simply footage leftover from a film Ed Emshwiller was making about the civil rights movement. Emshwiller heard Pennebaker was making a film about Dylan and sent it to him on a bit of a whim. Pennebaker had no intentions of using it until he was editing his own film, got to the reporter’s question and, in his own words, “I was totally stuck, I’d no idea what to go to, and I saw this thing sitting there from Ed … I put it on, ran it through. I never took it out.” In I’m Not There, the journalist is actually aligning “the real Jack Rollins” with a false origin. Likewise, when Jude’s “real” past is “uncovered” by Mr. Jones on Culture Beat, the evidence he shows is the high school photograph of Jack. Mr. Jones even says Jude’s “real” name is Aaron Jakob Heckleman even though Jude Quinn is the name in the yearbook.
And then there are the Dylans who are outright simulacras: Robbie is a fictional actor (played by a real actor) described as “the new James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one” playing a fictionalized version of a real person, who speaks as Jack, another fictionalized version of a real person, in a fake movie within a real movie. Woody is the fictional version of a real person’s fake persona based on a real person, Woody even visits a fictionalized version of that real person. Arthur is another fictional version of a historical person, in the interview he even gives Arthur Rimbaud’s real birthday, and is present as a version of another real person. And Billy is the fictional version of the mythological iteration of a historical person who is also standing in for Bob Dylan. Oh, but they are really ALL the same person, who isn’t necessarily Bob Dylan: Robert Sullivan, a writer for New York Times Magazine, explains “Todd Haynes’s film about Dylan is as much about Todd Haynes as it is about Dylan (or maybe even more).” But then… it’s not really about Todd Haynes either. Haynes himself admits “I don’t think there’s anything in this script that’s actually my own.” Each section aesthetically draws from different genres of film: for example Billy’s section is inspired by the “hippie Westerns” of the 60s like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Jude’s section refers heavily to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back. Most notably, as Larry Gross points out, “In I’m Not There the director uses Dylan partly to conduct a conversation with Jean-Luc Godard. This is suggested from the outset: I’m Not There opens and closes with off-screen gunshots much like those that begin and end Masculin Féminin, Godard’s most concerted effort to intervene in Sixties youth culture in its pop-music aspect.”
Gross also makes note of “the film’s commitment to devices from the Godard playbook: pastiche, allusion, quotation.” The irony of this is pastiche (mixing of different styles, techniques and motifs from other sources), allusion and quotation are all strategies to refer to other works, and while heavily used by Godard, were certainly not invented by him. The intertitles shown during the Grain of Sand film premiere which read “A view of the world / belonging to / one generation” accompanied by gunshots is also borrowed from Godard, as is Robbie’s line: “the movie disappointed her. The more they tried to make it youthful, the more the images on screen seemed out of date. It wasn’t the film they had dreamed, they film they had imagined and discussed, the film they each wanted to live.” Godard, in turn, borrowed this line from Georges Perec’s 1965 novel Things: A Story of the Sixties. As James Morrison puts it, “Haynes has built an original style out of simulation” (though “original” should really be swapped out for “distinctive”) much the way Dylan built his style out of imitating his influences. Gross also pinpoints another commonality between Haynes and Godard: “the use of actors to construct allegorical or phantasmatic images of people rather than plausibly represent or incarnate them, the utilization of stars not purely to recruit audiences but to inspire reflection on the multiplicity of identity and the illusion of a coherent self.” This is precisely why Haynes cast Richard Gere in the role of Billy: Haynes explains he explicitly wanted a movie star, someone who “carried within him a miniature history of American cinema, in that, his own history on film was part of this character.” Haynes actively wants to complicate the pursuit of absolute, original and “authentic” identity and meaning. Is it Billy the Kid? Richard Gere or Bill in Days of Heaven? Paul Newman from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Todd Haynes? Bob Dylan? Even resting on Bob Dylan is complicated, like Haynes, he’s always been someone else.
Not unlike Haynes who uses quotation and pastiche routinely, Dylan’s “distinctive” identity is a mishmash of his own influences: as if to illustrate the point, Dylan’s first album self-titled “Bob Dylan” and a later album entitled ‘Self-Portrait’ both contain mostly covers. Music journalist, cultural critic, and Bob Dylan fan Greil Marcus described ‘Self-Portrait’ in his Rolling Stone Magazine review as “a cover up, not a revelation.” There is also a very funny Saturday Night Live skit from 1980 which pokes fun at this tendency in Dylan and suggests he either stole or was taught everything “unique” about himself from Woody Guthrie. Picking up on this in Dylan, in I’m Not There all of the songs diegetically performed (that is, performed within the world of the film, versus the soundtrack which the characters do not hear) are covers, and only the soundtrack features Dylan singing. In addition, the presence of Arthur seems straightforward but is not: Rimbaud pre-dates Dylan, and Dylan was profoundly influenced by Rimbaud’s work and life. This linear logic would hold Rimbaud as a kind of point of origin for Dylan, but like Godard for Haynes, Rimbaud was never definitively Rimbaud: as he said himself “‘I’ is another.” A line Haynes calls the alternate, or subtitle, to I’m Not There. Further, in his poem entitled “Childhood” from Illuminations, Rimbaud offers a description of himself, which sounds like it came right out of a Dylan song, as a constantly shifting identity: “I am the saint, at prayer on the terrace… / I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair… / I am the walker on the great highway… / I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” Fittingly, metamorphosis is a recurring theme in Rimbaud’s poetry. This endless chain of shifting selves, of one’s identity being the culmination of other identities, which is the culmination of still others, a kind of deferral without end or origin, reveals the figure of the Author to be completely false.
The Author and their biography or personality cannot be the source of meaning in a text, because the Author is not a “single” or original voice. Rather, as Barthes puts it, in any form of writing meaning is “ceaselessly [evaporated].” There is no “ultimate meaning” prepackaged and branded into a text which is then passively received by the reader/viewer/listener. Yet this remains the dominant approach to appraising art. As Richard Howard points out, this is epidemic in criticism of Rimbaud. In a book review for the New York Times of a biography titled Rimbaud written by Graham Robb, Howard laments “Still another biography about the poet who stopped writing before he was 20! Over a century after his death, the procession of biographers, translators, critics and hagiographers continues. It would seem that no definitive identification can be made (Rimbaud the symbolist, the surrealist, the Bolshevik, Rimbaud the bourgeois, the crook, the pervert, Rimbaud the prophet, the superman, the mystic, Rimbaud the Catholic, the cabalist, the atheist, etc.); the latest ‘proved’ avatar is forever recycled as evidence – faulty or secure – on which to base the next.” This sounds hauntingly like the approach often lavished on Dylan’s work as well, just a fraction of the titles I’m Not There gives Dylan being “poet, prophet, jokerman, thief, star of electricity, troubadour of conscience, voice of a generation, unwashed phenomenon, fake…” Like Howard, Michael Riffaterre echoes the concern of placing too much emphasis on the artist’s self, in reference to Rimbaud he explains: “the image of the poet has hidden the poetry and warped its interpretation.” Riffaterre explains that too often critics attempt to “explain away textual difficulties as autobiographical allusions, when they actually stem from the semiotic make-up of verbal symbols.” Rimbaud was French but often used English words in his poems simply because he liked their sound and appearance without any concern for their “dictionary” meaning – he often used words which by definition confuses but in enunciation alone are beautifully placed.
For Barthes, the obsession with finding the identity of the Author in their work is to “impose a limit on that text, to furnish is with a final signified, to close the writing.” As Barthes suggests, to “impose” the identity of the “author” as the ultimate meaning of their work is to miss their work completely. This impulse is the fascistic desire to “know” the artist’s identity, to have “certainty” about their work’s meaning, it is an impulse to “close the writing” and “impose a limit.” Fascism about identity does not allow for vagueness, openness, or shape-shifting. But, in the shaman, personality, biography and thus meaning is evaporated. It is this fascism which leads the critics of I’m Not There to feel frustrated over the status of “truth” in the film, it is what feeds the desire for a linear, “biopic” re-creation of Dylan’s life. But this would be to overlook Dylan completely. The irony of the repetition in the film’s criticism that “you need to be an expert” about Dylan and a “deep, deep [fan]” in order to “make much sense out of this strange film” is that to ‘understand’ the film, and Dylan, is to recognize the total irrelevance of the biographical details which blanket the film. Worrying too much about ‘finding’ Dylan in I’m Not There (psst, the title is a hint) is the fascistic insistence that locating Dylan is the ‘secret key’ to what the film means.
Catching all of the references to Dylan in I’m Not There is a fun game, but it’s ultimately meaningless. To believe otherwise is to believe that Dylan’s personality is the be-all-end-all meaning of his work and the film. But you don’t have to take my word for it, Dylan himself said in a 2001 interview: “These so-called connoisseurs of Bob Dylan music, I don’t feel they know a thing or have any inkling of who I am or what I’m about. It’s ludicrous, humorous and sad that such people have spent so much of their time thinking about who? Me? Get a life please… you’re wasting your own.” Here Dylan is perhaps more harsh than required to make the point, but it comes after a lifetime of, as he puts it, “just being pressed and hammered and expected to answer questions,” to constantly explain himself when he knows his self (whoever that is) is not the answer. And as for the film, Haynes makes the same point a little more softly: “The film really asks you to take a sort of journey and go on an adventure, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know everything about Dylan and you’re not getting all the references to the film. It was really meant to be like a trip, like a dream.”
Wanting Dylan’s life, politics, and personality to be the “secret key” to I’m Not There is frustrated by the film itself. In an early scene, after failing a performance in a carnival and thrown into a mud puddle, Woody is helped to his feet by an avatar of the professional wrestler Gorgeous George. This is a reference to an encounter Dylan had with Gorgeous George when he was first starting out. In I’m Not There, Gorgeous George hands Woody a piece of paper that reads: “Gorgeous George says: Secrets are for keeping!” Later, near the end of the film, Homer breaks Billy out of his jail cell and reassures: “Your secret’s safe with me.” To which Billy replies “God save secrets!” Both Woody’s and Billy’s secrets pertain to their identity: Woody’s secret is his imitation of Guthrie and stands in for Dylan’s own “imaginary” past; Billy is secretly Billy the Kid still hiding from Pat Garrett who enjoys his life in Riddle because there he is “invisible, even to [himself].” Dylan himself is partial to keeping secrets: “I have a habit I picked up someplace along the way. Whatever works for me, not to give that away so easily, you know.” The desire to “save” secrets is perhaps, to some extent, inspired by an understanding that revealing secrets, here figured as revealing “identity,” is painful. When Jude is exposed on Culture Beat by Mr. Jones he passes out and all of his friends are sure he is dead; when Pat Garrett recognizes Billy he’s arrested; and for Woody and the other Dylans, each identity “revealing” moment requires an escape, or as Haynes describes, “the film is sad because it’s a series of restless farewells.”
And yet, secrets in the film are never really revealed either. Jude’s “secret” identity is that he is Jack. Mr. Jones’s incessantly presses Jude to explain his contradictions and admit he “[feels] deeply” the “standard emotions: pain, remorse, love.” But secrets in I’m Not There are empty, there is no actual content, Jude does not ‘feel deeply’ as Mr. Jones insists he must, he has “none of those feelings.” Secrets are a performance: in the words of Bob Dylan, “All the great performers that I’d seen who I wanted to be like were those kinds of performers, they all had one thing in common: It was in their eyes. There was something in their eyes that would say: ‘I know something you don’t know.’ And I wanted to be that kind of performer.” A “secret” is something you can perform, but not create or possess. There is no secret key to be figure out, as Barthes reiterates, the shaman “[refuses] to assign a ‘secret,’ an ultimate meaning … everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.” After all, the closest to revealing the “secret” of his identity, which turns out to be no secret at all: “An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s ‘at’ somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in the state of becoming, you know? And, as long as you can stay in that realm, you’ll sort of be all right.” But there is something about the figure of the Author, something about the concept that an artist’s life and beliefs are the heart of their work that we resist giving up. There is a Mr. Jones lurking in all of us, uncomfortable with contradictions, transformation, and meaninglessness. As Jude astutely surmises after being barraged by question from the press about why he no longer ‘protests’: “All these people, you know, sitting around being offended by their own meaninglessness.”
Pioneered by French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structuralism is a theory which emerged from Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of how a single myth was repeated and re-imagined by different cultures from the tip of South America, to Central and North America and right through to the Arctic Circle (the four-volume work is titled ‘Mythologiques’ if you are so inclined). The theory holds that by studying and, essentially, healing the contradictions in every version of the myth, it could be deciphered and understood. As film theorist Charles Eckert puts it, structuralism tries to “read the riddle at the centre of the myth.” The riddle at the centre of I’m Not There is aptly named Riddle Township, the location of Billy’s section. Easily the most enigmatic storyline of the six, it was also routinely panned by critics as puzzling or outright irrelevant, even amongst those who liked the film. It is also the most important section: the storyline in Riddle is as close to a ‘secret key’ to the film as any, pointing to the meaning of meaninglessness. Greil Marcus appraised I’m Not There this way: “The film is confusing only if one demands that a dream explain itself – and if one refuses the implacable logic on which dreams float.” Riddle is, without doubt, the most dream-like section and the least tied to reality. Aside from casting the mythological Billy the Kid as its centrepiece, Riddle is given a Wizard of Oz-like construction. Like Oz, Billy’s section double-casts many of the actors who appear elsewhere in the film, most notably Pat Garrett is played by Bruce Greenwood who also appears as Mr. Jones. Oz, of course, is a kind of dream-land Dorothy wakes-up from.
Likewise, Billy appears twice in the film before his storyline actually begins, first while the opening credits are still rolling and is seen in a quick intercut waking up before Woody’s story begins. Sigmund Freud calls dreams “the royal road to the unconscious;” Riddle is constructed as the dream-world of the film, because, as Haynes explains “the film needed an unconscious.” Haynes elaborates, though, that Riddle is not just the unconscious, dream-state of Dylan: “Dylan has always drawn from American folklore and roots music traditions to continue to nourish his creative life and future. And so Billy’s story is an expression of that Dylan, a Dylan that exists more in the mind and maybe more in the unconscious of our own history as a culture.” Riddle is more like Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, which unlike the ‘personal unconscious’ which Jung describes as being “of a thoroughly personal nature,” there also “exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes.” The content of the collective unconscious includes knowledge of fear, danger, love, hate, good, evil, morality, religion and God, to name a few. It is a kind of “reservoir of the experiences” of humanity. It also contains the patterns and symbols repeatedly found in myths.
Near the close of the film Jude expresses his regret that “people actually think I have some kind of, uh, fantastic imagination.” As he repeats the kind of images typical of Dylan’s music, “all these songs about, you know, roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans are turning into angels,” the film intercuts flashes of Riddle. Jude, who insists to Mr. Jones that he does not “[feel] deeply” and his music is not the product of his personal agendas, is Barthes’s shaman who likewise “no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions.” Instead, the shaman quotes “an immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt.” Riddle, as the collective unconscious and reservoir of all myths, experiences, and expressions, is this “immense dictionary.” An artist channels their work, they create nothing. After all, Dylan has never claimed to be the author of anything. In a 2004 interview, Ed Bradley asks Dylan if it’s true Blowin’ in the Wind was written in ten minutes, to which Dylan replies “Probably.” Bradley then asks “Where did that come from?” As usual, Dylan is reluctant to take responsibility for it: “It just came. It came from, uh, right out of that well-spring of creativity I would think, you know. … I don’t know how I got to write those songs. … Those early songs were almost magically written: ‘Darkness at the break of noon / Shadows even the silver spoon / The hand-made blade, the child’s balloon’ … Well, try to sit down and write something like that. There’s a magic to that, and it’s not, uh, Siegfried and Roy kinda magic.” Dylan has no intention while writing and so he doesn’t have an explanation for his work either, as he tells a reporter in Dont Look Back, “I’ve got nothing to say about these things I write, I just write ’em. I don’t want to say anything about ’em. I don’t write ’em for any reason, there’s no great message.” And as Robbie reiterates in I’m Not There, channeling Jack, “Hell, I don’t pick what I sing. It picks me.”
It is almost as if his music is too powerful to have come from Dylan alone. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Neil Young describes overhearing a man in his car blasting and singing along to Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone: “I could hear Bob’s voice, and … [I thought] this is the essence, you know, of his feeling and everything, that moment when he was delivering that song, and I went ‘Wow, that is so powerful.’ You know, you can’t keep that, that comes and goes through you. … You can’t strive to be that. There’s no way you own it.” Contrary to the Author who needs a clear, visible, and non-contradictory identity because this is held as the “explanation” of his/her work, because the shaman channels their performance, “who” they are is irrelevant. As folk singer Liam Clancy says of Dylan: “In old Irish mythology, they talk about the shape-changers. He changed voices. He changes images. It wasn’t necessary for him to be a definitive person. He was a receiver. He was possessed. And he articulated what the rest of us wanted to say but couldn’t say.” This is echoed in the film by Alice who says “It was as if he was giving voice to ideas that I wanted to express but didn’t know how.” And in a re-creation of Dylan’s awkward appearance on The Steve Allen Show, the host asks Jack why he thinks young people identify with his music, to which Jack ‘explains’: “I don’t know, I, I guess, I got a lot of thoughts inside of me and, uh, most people they, they, keep them all inside. I guess it’s for them that I do what I do.”
This sense of articulating, or translating, shared feelings and perceptions is at the essence of the shaman’s role of channeling as opposed to creating: the realization of those emotions and beliefs in a song are recognized on some deeper level. This is exactly how Joan Baez describes Dylan’s appeal: “There are no veils, curtains, doors, walls, anything between what pours out of Bob’s hand onto the page and what is somehow available to the core of people who are believers in him.” It is also something folk singer Dave Van Ronk has always seen in Dylan’s music: “It’s almost enough to make you believe in Jung’s notion of collective unconscious. That if there is an American collective unconscious, if you can believe in something like that, that Bobby had somehow tapped into it. And there were always these sometimes very faint resonances.” Dylan’s friend and idol Allen Ginsberg likewise identifies the power of Dylan’s music as coming from this source, referring to the lyrics of A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall which read “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”: “It’s sort of this biblical prophecy. Poetry is words that are empowered that make your hair stand on end, that you recognize as being some form of subjective truth that has an objective reality to it, because somebody’s realized it. Then you call it poetry later.”
None of the songs, the early “political” ones or otherwise, came from Dylan’s “fantastic imagination,” but from beyond it. And so the constant barrage or questions about his ‘message’ and ‘meaning’ never made much sense to him. As he puts it, “The roots of our American culture, our popular culture, are weirder, and more deranged, and more imaginative than anything I could come up with. It’s part of your own DNA, and you’re blaming me.” The ‘secret key’ does not, then, lay with the “Author” as s/he doesn’t exist. The only ‘key’ Riddle points to with any clarity is, well, the riddle itself. Jude reiterates that his music is not ‘invented’ but rather a repeated pattern, he explains “What I’m talking about is traditional music, right, which is to say it’s mathematical music, it’s based on hexagons.” Thus, traditional music is not invested with ‘meaning,’ or a secret, but rather mystery: “You’d think that these traditional music people would, would gather that mystery, you know, is a traditional fact, you know, seeing as [the songs are] all so full of mystery.” The film then cuts to Mr. Jones on the set of Culture Beat, apparently having a physically impossible, but dream-like conversation with Jude, and Mr. Jones adds, “And contradictions.” Jude replies, “Yeah, contradictions.” Mr. Jones again ventures to add “And chaos.” Jude sums it up, “Yes, it’s chaos, clocks, and watermelons – you know, it’s – it’s everything.”
Jude also explains that what people consider ‘folk’ music or “political songs” are “already dead.” In the study of myths, Charles Eckert explains that the “most crucial” and “essential nature of myth” is “an obsessive repetitive conceptualizing of a dilemma or contradiction.” Contradiction cannot exist in an overtly political song, because, by definition, political statements are the expression of a clear position and opinion. Eckert emphasizes that “polarization” (or contradiction) is “basic to all processes of thought and language, as a form of clarification and ordering of the world.” To express a political position is to have “ordered” the world around you, the fascistic impulse to separate good from bad, beautiful from ugly, left from right, I from not I or I from you, and on and on. But as Eckert explains, “once a myth is penetrated and understood, it dies.” Political songs have meaning inscribed in them from the outset and so are “already dead.” On the other hand, ‘meaning’ *must* be hidden from the shaman, which explains why Dylan never had the answers, Eckert again, “If [the myth’s] content were not hidden from the narrators, they would have no reason to obsessively reshape it, retell it, and accord it such significance in their lives.” In the film Robbie suggests that political “meaning” is illusory and taking a position is simply self-deception, as he tells his friend “There are no politics,” only “sign language.” Mystery, contradictions, and meaninglessness in traditional music and art are signs of its life, its aliveness. Separation is death.
When Dylan “went electric” his so-called “biggest fans” were not just angry he had embraced a more commercial genre of music, but were outraged by a sense of abandonment. He was their voice and he abandoned their cause. Mr. Jones asks Jude if he left folk music out of disillusionment that it had “failed to achieve its goals with the Negro cause or the cause of peace.” There was a sense they needed Dylan to continue their crusades, a sense that at least partially still exists, as Joan Baez jokes in No Direction Home, “Thirty-some years, whenever I go to a march or a sit-in, or a lie-in, or a be-in, or a jail-in, people’d say ‘Is Bob coming?’ I’d say, ‘He never comes, you moron!’ You know, ‘When are you going to get it? Never did, probably never will.'”
In Irwin Silber’s ‘Open Letter to Bob Dylan’ expressing what he claims is “concern,” though it reads more like disgust, Silber suggests Dylan simply no longer wants to be “[challenged] … to face everyone else’s reality.” But these claims of desertion never wholly made sense to Dylan who described Silber’s letter this way: “It was an angry letter. I like Irwin, but I couldn’t relate to it.” And to his ‘folk-fans’ he said “If they can’t understand my songs they’re missing something. If they can’t understand green clocks, wet chairs, purple lamps or hostile statues, they’re missing something too.” Part of what they, and Silber, “miss” by not appreciating the increasing ‘mystery’ in his songs is, as Jude tells a reporter who asks him if he has left protesting: “All I ever do is protest.” This is hinted by the presence of Arthur, as while Rimbaud’s poetry is “so full of mystery” as Jude would say, Albert Camus famously called him “the poet of revolt, and the greatest.” As for Dylan, Joan Baez concedes “he couldn’t have written songs like the ones he wrote if he didn’t feel generally, I think, sort of, for the underdog.” And Baez’s insight that “he didn’t want to have to be the guy people were going to go to,” suggests the depth of Dylan’s resistance to authority, skirting even the possibility of becoming one himself – in I’m Not There Alice points out that this is exactly what Jack was running from by ‘turning away’ from folk music: “folk music, he said, was, um – fat people. He said it made him feel like the Establishment, you know, and he always fought the Establishment.”
By more fully embracing mystery over ‘meaning,’ Dylan becomes the ultimate anti-authoritative figure: Barthes holds the shaman “is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse … reason, science, law” [emphasis mine]. And mystery is a folk tradition, it was always present in his music, and does not need Dylan to survive. As Jude makes clear, “traditional music it’s just, uh – it’s too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected.” Those images and patterns exist eternally in the collective unconscious from which Dylan draws: abandonment is not possible, he simply used those images in a less overtly political way. Of Silber’s ‘Open Letter,’ Dylan surmised “Silber scolded me in his letter … as if he alone and a few others had the keys to the real world.” As if expressing political allegiances are the penultimate purpose of life and art, but Dylan has always made the case for mystery being a more palpable reality. Politics are certainly not reality, they are always “already dead,” rather, as Arthur reveals: “The only truly natural things are dreams, which nature cannot touch with decay.” Besides, believing political agendas are the highest aspiration of art is not only an epic failure of the imagination, but also the heart. But mysterious, traditional music is “not going to die:” it is too alive, too meaningless, and is not chained to an Author but channeled through many shamans and is constantly evolving. Or Arthur makes clear from the film’s beginning: “A song is something that walks by itself.”
Like so many of the Dylans in the film, Riddle also occupies a double-timeline. While Haynes describes Billy’s section as symbolic of Dylan going “back into the roots of American music and its history,” Riddle also exists in the future Haynes describes as “the imaginary destination of the Dylans.” Likewise, Billy begins and ends the film: he “wakes up” during the film’s opening sequence and this instigates Woody’s story; then in Billy’s last scene he escapes Riddle in a boxcar and discovers Woody’s guitar, labelled “This machine kills fascists!” Just as the characters’ timelines circle back on each other, Billy says “I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. … It’s like you got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what could happen.” This collapsing of time into “the same room” mirrors the elliptical editing structure which also suggests all of the Dylans are living “at the same time.” For Barthes this is the essential characteristic of the shaman scriptor. As the Author is a linear concept, the ‘past’ of the work they then create, “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text.” [emphasis mine] This is because a shaman does not create, but performs that which is an exclusively present phenomenon. As Barthes explains “there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.” Dylan himself identifies with Barthes’s ‘eternal here and now‘: “I just don’t feel like I had a past and, you know, I couldn’t relate to anything other than what I was doing at the present time.” Dylan also experiences the relationship with his influences in a ‘here and now’ timeframe: referring to hearing Woody Guthrie’s music for the first time, Dylan offers “These songs sounded archaic to most people. I don’t know why they didn’t sound archaic to me. They sounded like these songs were happening at the moment to me.”
The performance itself is also the only intention. Barthes reiterates Dylan’s claim “there’s no great message” describing the shaman’s “enunciation has no other content [message, meaning] … than the act by which it is uttered.” Barthes calls this privileging of the utterance “a performative” which in writing is “exclusively given in the first person and in the present tense.” Dylan describes it this way: “I wrote the songs to perform the songs. And I need to sing, like, in that language.” The “language” Dylan wishes to sing in is the actualization of “a performative,” a total expression of presence. This presence is precisely what drove Haynes’s interpretation of Dylan in I’m Not There: “To me Dylan is ultimately a performer. He’s somebody who lives in the moment for the performance he’s making, lives and dies in that moment of creation, and when it’s over, it’s dead and he needs to move on to something else that’s vital and alive in the moment, which is why he’s always now, these days, in a state of constant performance and that the songs from his canon that he reinterprets always sound completely different to us because they need to be new and in the moment and alive again for him … He’s thoroughly there at each point. He’s just no longer there when we want him to be.” The revelation of the importance of presence to Dylan is also what helped Dylan evolve from a walking imitation of Woody Guthrie and his other influences, to being more fully himself: “I wanted to watch and feel the people and the dust and the ditches and the fields and the fences, because Dickens and Dostoyevsky and Woody Guthrie were telling their own stories better than I ever could, I decided to stick to my own.”
To complete Rimbaud’s line which I quoted earlier, “Now is the time of the assassins.” Now. The sense of presence the film’s structure re-creates from the structure of a Dylan song is not simply to suggest all lives are lived at once, but that none are separate. Each Dylan in the film may represent drastically different phases in Bob Dylan’s life, but each of them are inseparably connected to the others: for each life affects, influences, and is effected in turn by all the others. Dylan has always channeled the universal and eternal reservoir of the collective unconscious where all of our psyches and experiences are identical. The film depicts the lives of Dylan as affected by and effecting the lives of Rimbaud, Guthrie, Todd Haynes, and whomever else sees the film in a never-ending chain of “me as you; you as me.” It is as Meryl Streep tells Morley Safer in a 2011 interview, appropriately by quoting someone else: “It always really bothers me when people imagine that characters that don’t look like you, or have the same accent as you do, are far from you. This great actress Cybil Thorndike said ‘I think we all have the germ of every other person inside of us.’ And I think we do.” We are all potentially each other. It is this understanding that allows Dylan to idolize JFK and still see Lee Harvey Oswald in himself, and to become “someone else” so easily. It is also by understanding that no one is separate, and that on some deeper level we are the same, that makes fascism of identity impossible. It is also why believing political agendas are the ultimate purpose of art is a total failure of the heart: belief in the separation between yourself and others makes cruelty possible. As Dylan suggests, it is a sense of connection with the audience which motivates his ‘channeling’, and is also an experience possible only in the present moment: “The ideal performances of the songs would then come on stages throughout the world. Very few could be found on any of my records. Every second, every – you know, reaching the audience is what it’s all about.”
I was lucky enough in university to have had a professor who volunteered at the National Gallery of Canada during the Voice of Fire controversy. He told us people would come into the Gallery, slide their entrance fee across the table without breaking eye contact with him and say: “Okay. Where is it” (it was really more of a statement than a question). He would direct them up the ramp into the first exhibit room. Most people would storm in there, stand in front of Voice of Fire, hurl abuse at it – something along the lines of “What the fuck is this supposed to be?” – and leave. In fact the Gallery made so much money in entrance fees that summer, mostly coming from those interested only in swearing at Voice of Fire, they were able to allow free entrance for years afterwards. Something a great many of those visitors failed to realize is that any intellectual meaning – or in this case lack of meaning – we extract from art does not arise purely from the work: it is something we walk in with. We have pre-judgements we carry about art, ourselves, others, the world and then turn around and blame the artist. It is not unlike the press and the fans who constantly push Dylan to explain himself and admit that what they see in his work was placed there on purpose – like the ill-advised fan in No Direction Home who asks Dylan about the meaning of the recurrence of motorcycle imagery in his songs and becomes very irate when Dylan tells him that he doesn’t think about it.
Even when his songs were “political” Dylan never said they were, and never explained when pressed about his “message” or position. In the interview with Ed Bradley, Bradley asks “I know, and I accept, that you don’t see yourself as the voice of that generation, but some of your songs did stop people cold, and they saw them as anthems, and they saw them as protest songs … You may not see it that way but that’s how it was for them! How do you reconcile those two things?” Dylan nods patiently and replies “My stuff [was] songs, they, they weren’t sermons. If you examine the songs, I don’t believe you’re going to find anything in there that says that I’m a spokesman for anybody or anything, really. … They must not have heard the songs.” I think if Bob Dylan could be distilled into a painting, Voice of Fire would be it. There is just something about those Gallery visitors demanding three stripes to explain themselves which is utterly absurd. Not unlike Dylan’s ‘folk-fans’ who miss the songs, approaching Voice of Fire as an ‘angry taxpayer’ leads you to miss the voice. Voice of Fire is actually an enormous piece, to give an idea:
If instead of standing in front of it and giving it hell you were to stand near its base, position yourself to allow it to overwhelm most of your sight, and keep yourself focused on the line between the red and blue stripes, you may begin to appreciate Voice of Fire. But, and this is the most important thing, you must allow yourself to be completely quiet and completely present. You must let go of trying to push it and press it and argue with it. You must allow it to speak first. Slowly the line between the red and the blue will begin to slide around, and then it will begin to wave, and if you stay there, and if you stay present, the entire red column will move – just like a flame. Barnett Newman was an intensely spiritual man and was infuriated by the American war in Vietnam. Yet, he did not see the conflict as a political problem. Instead, Newman saw the war as an extension of the loss of connection between people and the privileging of intellect over the emotions: “We have lost contact with man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relations to absolute emotions.” A shaman, like Dylan, Newman saw the value in mystery for re-establishing connections: “The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the … world of mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime.” Voice of Fire is an incredibly touching painting, but only if you’re willing to feel your connection to it.
Voice of Fire is a direct reference to Moses’ ‘burning bush’ in the Bible’s Book of Exodus wherein Moses finds a bush on fire but not affected by the flames and from it he hears God’s voice speak to him. As sound is nothing but a vibration, the painting Voice of Fire not only replicates the image of a flame but the vision of an exalted voice. Newman often incorporated a “zip” in his paintings – the zip being a vertical line – in order to create a sense of place in the viewer, a concept called ‘makom’ in Judaism which refers to the place where God is. As Newman explains, “My goal is to give the viewer a feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time, of his connections to others, who are also separate.” Newman wanted the viewer to experience total presence in order to encounter the perception of themselves as separate but also the reality of their inseparableness from others (who in turn view themselves as isolated). Albert Einstein explains it this way: “A person experiences life as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. Our task must be to free ourselves from this self-imposed prison, and through compassion, to find the reality of Oneness.”
Beyond Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious he called the realization of the ‘Self’ the ultimate aim of one’s life. The ‘Self’ in Jungian terms is the totality of the human psyche: it is not just the conscious, ego self, nor the unconscious self, or even the connection to the collective unconscious. Rather, the Self is all of these: it is the unification of every ‘self’ within us creating wholeness. The Self is transcendent, it does not aim to heal, solve, or explain contradictions in the self and world, but accepts each ‘side’ as part of the whole. It provides a broader perspective of the self, others, and the world under which all boundaries are dissolved. The Self does not perceive or experience its totality as separate from any other Self, in Jung’s words: “[By realizing the Self] they attain universality. This universality is recognizing that we are part of a universal wholeness and occurs when the mentally illusory lines of differentiation have been erased.” Yet, the Self also acknowledges the perception of separateness experienced by the ego consciousness (our day-to-day perception and thought processes). Unknowable to the conscious mind, the Self cannot be grasped intellectually. As Jung described it, “by definition it transcends our powers of comprehension.” Instead, the Self can only be experienced, encountered. One of the routes to this experience is through art which channels the contradictions and mystery which make up the Self.
Dylan’s emphasis, over and over, on performance rather than creation, underlines that art itself is experiential: it cannot be intellectually grasped by the conscious self. It is because of this that Arthur no longer calls himself a poet: “You don’t have to write anything down to be a poet. Some work in gas stations. Some shine shoes. I don’t really call myself one, ’cause I don’t like the word. Me. I’m a trapeze artist. Sighting it and hearing it and breathing it in, rubbing it all in the pores of my skin and the wind between my eyes knocking honey in my comb.” This statement, which is quoted again by Woody later on, is an example of Barthes’s “performative,” the language of intense presence – a way of communicating an experience rather than a meaning or intention. Joan Baez also emphasizes an experiential acceptance of Dylan over an intellectual one: “Bob is one of the most complex human beings I’ve ever met. I think at first I really tried to figure this guy out. No. I gave it up, and so I don’t know. I don’t know what he thought about, all I know is what he gave us.” Haynes also echoes this sentiment while responding to a question about whether the film was inspired by Dylan’s music or Dylan himself, Haynes says: “it was the music. It was always the music. Because that’s really what any of us know of Dylan, is the music. We can chase the person around the music endlessly, but the music is everything.” To experience the Self is “like a dream,” an acceptance of the strange, the contradictory, the nonsensical, with no desire to “solve” the mysteries. In fact, Jung describes someone in the dark side of the Self as “a person … with mounting excitement that he has grasped and solved the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality.” I’m Not There is structured precisely to be experienced, “like a dream,” rather than deciphered – particularly Billy’s section. Like Dylan’s music, Haynes’s “strange film” offers to inspire an experience of the spaceless, timeless Self, and undermine the identity obsessed ego consciousness which uses linear time to construct a separated self and solidify a personality: to remind us that we are not separate.
Voice of Fire, to me, is also the perfect metaphor for Dylan because fire is the definition of presence. A flame constantly changes, never stops moving and is irrevocably transformative – once you have burned an object to ash you cannot reassemble it to burn again. This is like Dylan who is intensely present during each moment but never returns or relives himself in quite the same way again. Haynes makes this observation as well, tying the transforming nature of fire to the film’s title: “I love the name ‘I’m Not There’ as a way of beckoning this idea of this person who is always moving on, is always a step ahead, and every time you try to grasp him and contain him, like a flame, he’s gone, he’s no longer there.” The transformative nature of fire may also stand for the sense of sadness in the film, the continual ‘there/gone’ pattern which creates a “series of restless farewells.” Arguably the most emotional “farewell” is the separation and divorce of Robbie and Claire, and the final image of Claire as she waves good-bye to Robbie and their children.
In his notes, Haynes wrote beside this scene a quote from the Old Testament which uses fire imagery to suggest the transient nature of life: “Short and sorrowful is our life because we were born by mere chance, and hereafter, it shall be as though we have never been, because the breath in our nostrils is smoke and reason is spark, kindled by the beating of our hearts.” The ‘breath in our nostrils is smoke as fire is a living process which replicates breath: it draws in oxygen and the breath it expels is smoke (which is partially made up of carbon dioxide – see, I half paid attention in science!). This flickering there/gone is also symbolic of the shaman’s performance, and the medium through which he channels mystery: as Haynes describes, “[Dylan’s] breath [is] a creative being.” Haynes also offers Dylan’s long bootlegged song I’m Not There (Dylan never authorized a cut until the version which appears in the film) as the ultimate example of Dylan channeling, rather than creating: “[there are parts] that are almost indecipherable verbally, where you feel like he’s making up the words right then, but it gives it this living, breathing quality.” Breath is the ultimate incarnation of presence: you cannot breathe in the past or the future, only here and now.
Mystery, opposed to the ‘deadness’ of politics, is alive because it is meaningless, and aliveness is simply breath. Dylan has always sensed this and sought to preserve the unsolved, aliveness of mystery: “I tried, I guess, in my own mind, to separate aliveness from deadness, to not let all the names and blamers boundary it all up.” Describing the eternalness of mystery in traditional music, Jude surmises, “meaninglessness is holy.” The acceptance of mystery, the transcendence of the need to “boudary it all up,” creates the state of universality, of connection which is a constantly present breathing. And so meaning, perhaps, is simply the meaninglessness of breath, life. Holy, after all, as the Holy Spirit is the breath of God. The Holy Spirit, which is often symbolized by fire, is used as an avatar for the ever-changing Dylan: I’m Not There begins with a narrator explaining “Even the Ghost was more than one person.” As one of Dylan’s producers, Bob Johnson, explains, channeling through this ‘holy breath,’ an expression of presence, is perhaps the only meaning Dylan carries: “The music actually changed by, I think, the word is freedom. Everything was changing. It wasn’t like four songs a session. There wasn’t any clock. I took all the clocks down. Nobody had a fucking clock in there. It’s just like ‘Play some music.’ ‘What about this thing?’ ‘What about this?’ I believe in giving credit where credit’s due. I don’t think Dylan had a lot to do with it. I think God, instead of touching him on the shoulder, he kicked him in the ass, really. And that’s where all that came from. He can’t help what he’s doing. I mean, he’s got the Holy Spirit about him. You can look at him and tell that.”
The final image of the film is footage of Dylan playing his harmonica from D.A. Pennebaker’s second Dylan-doc Eat the Document. It is the only time in the film that the music diegetically performed is actually Dylan, and the only appearance of Dylan himself. It is perhaps tempting to read this moment as the film finally giving up a solid image of “the real” Dylan (it is, after all, from his iconic 60s years), finally giving an origin to the film’s strange dream. But in the previous scene, as Billy speaks about the potential of being everyone else, and he sits at the boxcar’s opening playing Woody’s guitar, the camera cranes up, and away. A recurring camera move in Haynes’s work that often symbolizes the momentary escape of his characters from confining identities under which Haynes says they “really suffer:” as when Richie, in Poison, floats out of window still not deciphered by the documentary; or as Arthur, in Velvet Goldmine, on a rooftop with rock star Curt Wild, at least momentarily, accepts himself and puts away the pain and rejection being gay has brought him. But here the crane of the camera is not just escape: it is complete transcendence. Haynes calls I’m Not There his “most optimistic film” because in this final scene, the “questions of identity” which trap his other characters are here “like the circular musical twirls that Dylan’s harmonica takes … never [resolved]; they just keep turning.” It is also, as he plays the harmonica, the pure expression of his breath, of aliveness, of mystery. As Allen Ginsberg describes, “What struck me was that he was at one, or he became identical with his breath. And Dylan had become a column of air, so to speak, at certain moments where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”
As Dylan once said: “All I can do is be me. Whoever that is.” And who is that? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
Not a man of many words. This was an absolutely wonderful read
Thank you Mark, that means a lot to me!