12/20/2007 02:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I'm Not There

I'm Not There is glossy and slick: a tribute to Bob Dylan's own slickness in constructing his celebrity identities out of a pastiche of Americana narratives. Todd Haynes' experiment in this compellingly narcotic film reminded me of the semiotics class we took together at Brown, on "Parody and Pastiche". Back then, we discussed Baudrillard and Lyotard, and enthused about postmodern concepts of identity as "construction." The key film for the course was Welles' "F for Fake": which is real, which is fake, the voice-over asked while the camera zoomed in on a dubious (or was it?) Picasso.

How inspiring this class must have been, I thought, to see its precepts executed so exactly in a two-hour plus film, 20 years later. I remembered Todd as the earnest red-haired student perched forward in his chair, with taut intensity and bright eyes and upraised nodding chin: the most memorable person in the class. His student film at the time -- using Barbie Dolls to reconstruct the Karen Carpenter story (another victim to identity fashioning) -- was a creative splurge into the decomposition of traditional narrative, a lesson we had all been taught.

Now he has taken the interest in American self-fashioning in the celebrity world to another level.

Or has he? Our amateur devotion to postmodernism was exciting at the time, but aren't these times a-changing? Quite frankly, despite the intrigue, I was bored. Yes, Dylan is not there, but this one-liner did not get me very far. Was there a political or cultural subtext to the not-there-ness -- or rather just a lot of fun with narrative tricks? The narrative tricks were loud and clear: sets that groaned with their own fabrication (fake Western streets, Americana railroad rides); forced shifts from black-and-white to color; the lead singer played by several different actors (pace Luis Bunuel who did the same 30 years ago in That Obscure Object of Desire, and Todd Solondz who revived the trick more meaningfully five years ago in Palindromes). The most original technique (already seen in Far from Heaven): the actors who perform like mannered dolls, in costumes and exaggerated hand-gestures, in playful parody of the l960s.

Yet while the theorists who so influenced Haynes -- Baudrillard and Lyotard -- connected their analysis of the commercial proliferation of images to a critique of capitalism and use value, Haynes connects his playful deconstruction of Dylan to nothing, absolutely nothing. The only pleasure or interest I took in the film was in Cate Blanchett's superb and gorgeous performance and of course a few of the songs. The pastiche idea seemed like it had been on the backburner too long, while America stood still.

I asked Todd about his semiotic influence at the press conference in Venice, and he responded with enthusiasm for how important Bob Dylan was as an icon. Yet the film gives no value to this importance, nor any insight into this importance. We have Americana clichés about family, glamour, traveling, success -- and at the end Bob Dylan's own lips on the harmonica, which remind us that, contrary to the film's own message, an expressive artist is there.

My companion at the screening, a fellow journalist, clapped furiously at the film's finish. "Genius, pure genius!" he exclaimed. Why? "Because Bob Dylan was all construction, and this film shows he was all construction." "Is there anything more to Dylan than that?" I responded, unconvinced by the payoff. "No," my companion said. "He was a huckster."

Take away this idea of the huckster -- this depolicitized echo of theories bandied loosely on a college campus -- what does this film offer except a series of glamour shots and insular concepts of what it means to be American, as well as reductions of the1960s (war included) to "image"? It is unfortunate, because Haynes' previous films -- such as Safe and Far From Heaven -- did use postmodern ideas to create films that had worth and poignancy (as well as impressive filmic aesthetics) beyond their own self-referentiality.

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