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Playing Bob Dylan

In "I’m Not There," six actors play versions of Bob Dylan, each one meant to illuminate or explore some aspect or episode of his mythology — events from his life, themes from his songs, or the central challenges he posed as an artist and as an iconic figure of a tumultuous time.

  None of them is named "Bob Dylan," however: Ben Whishaw, a young British actor, is Arthur Rimbaud, talking straight to the camera as if being interrogated. Christian Bale (the current movie Batman) is Jack Rollins — an early folk-music hero of the Greenwich Village scene and writer of "finger-pointing" songs.  Heath Ledger is the actor who plays Rollins in a film, and much of the movie is given to his love affair with and later deteriorating marriage to an artist played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Marcus Carl Franklin is an 11-year old African American vagabond, possibly escaped from a reform school, ridin’ the rails with hoboes, pickin’ out boxcar songs (memorably, with the real Richie Havens) who gives his name as Woody Guthrie and, like the real Dylan, visits his namesake in the hospital where he lies gravely ill.

"Like the real Dylan" is a key phrase in each of the six episodes, as they are based only loosely on his actual life — his emergence as a writer of protest songs, his anointment as the icon of the folk movement, and his later rejection of his crown. Obsessive Dylan fans will have fun analyzing each detail exhaustively; the rest of us may be a little dazed trying to sort out the known facts from the layers of fiction and fantasy.

  The six segments weave in and out of each other, taking a full hour or more to establish enough of a narrative thread to engage the viewer in any traditional way. Until then the audience must make an effort to stick with it and engage with the visual and thematic explorations.  Not until Cate Blanchett arrives as "Jude Quinn," does the movie start to cook on all burners. Hunched and skinny in Carnaby Street finery, strung out on "medicines," Quinn represents the part of Dylan’s career during which he was (probably) booed off the stage for going electric, and fought any attempt to peg or pigeonhole him.

At one point, at the end of his rope with exhaustion and drugs, Quinn yells out to a statue of Jesus on the cross, "why don’t you play your early stuff?" Which leads right into another episode, Dylan’s born-again phase.   Oh, and then Richard Gere appears, as a Billy-the-Kid stand-in, trying to save the West, in particular his small town, which is filled with people in surreal costumes. And an ostrich. And a giraffe. His segment is shot in all browns and earthy faces, contrasting with the mod black-and-white "Jude Quinn" scenes. Each segment has a strong and fully realized visual style with completely different light and film as well as décor. It’s a tour de force of photography and art direction.

  Anyone who complains that American movies have descended into mind-numbing formula (and after spending a weekend of bad weather holed up in front of the TV, I can attest to this) should watch this film and engage with its complicated ideas and intent. Argue with it — does it succeed on all counts? Do its occasional dead spots (the couple behind me walked out, and I considered it briefly myself) fatally harm it?  Or just enjoy the rich visual stew and some of the brilliant performances.

And the soundtrack. It’s pretty good too.

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