Todd Haynes film Im Not There is more than just your average biopic about a famous musician. The film traces the life of folk artist Bob Dylan through the portrayals of six different characters: Jude, Arthur, Jack, Billy, and Woody. The characters reflect stages in Dylan’s life and career, without directly referencing him. The film does not follow any chronological timeline, and we seem to jump from character to character. The film depicts the different characters that make up Bob Dylan in an effort to represent who the singer is, a man who has no true one identity.
The film starts with the character of Woody, a young man who carries a guitar case with the words, “This machine kills fascists” emblazoned on it. Woody travels and lodges with different people, and does not seem to have a back story as to who he is. What we learn of Woody is of what he tells the various characters in the film, which the audience does not know to be fact or fiction. However, it is revealed that Woody has escaped from some type of home for children and is on the run, a fact he never mentions in the film. He is a travelling man who the audience is unable to get close to, because we are unable to figure out his motivation, his past, or hope for the future. Woody just is.
The character of Arthur is filmed in front of a blank white screen. He serves as a sort of narrator, and has scenes dispersed throughout the film. He is supposed to represent the author Arthur Rimbaud, who Bob Dylan idolized. During the film he rambles poetry. The blank white screen, as well as Arthur’s monologues are used to convey a sense of ambiguity that seem to hover around the different characters.
The character of Jack focuses on the folk era and born again Christian aspects of Bob Dylan’s life. In the film Jack is a folk singer who sings protest songs that seem to effect people. There is a clip of Jack being interviewed where he is hunched over his guitar, and seemingly extremely shy and introverted. However, there is a scene at a dinner where he receives an award, he is clearly drunk and brazen with the press. We are shown two different sides of one character, without knowing who the character is. The effect of his music is told through interview styled segments of people who know him. The viewer is never able to understand who Jack is because he is never given a clear picture as to what motivates his actions.
The character of Jude Quinn seems to be in a war with the press. Jude taunts the press in his interviews with his ambiguity, never really giving a straight answer to any question. The sincerity behind the music he sings comes to question with his fans and the media. This is the first time a clear antagonist is presented in the film, in the form of Keenan Jones a news reporter. Jones pursuit for the real Jude behind the sunglasses and music leads him to question Jude’s motivations and beliefs, as well as his past. Jude represents Bob Dylan’s departure from folk music into electric, a time when Dylan lost many supporters. Later in the film Jones reveals the real Jude as a young Jewish man hailing from a middle class family, and dispels the mystique surrounding Jude Quinn. This revelation to the world sends Jude into a drug induced binge. He passes out in a bathroom where his friends surround him, as he lay half conscious on the floor. The character of Allen Ginsberg says, “He’s been in so many psyches”, referring to the different characters he has become in his life.
The character of Billy represents the older more withdrawn Bob Dylan. He ironically lives in a town ironically called: Riddle. This represents the riddle that is Bob Dylan, a man who is hard to explain. In the film Billy stands up for the town of Riddle, which is on the verge of being destroyed by the character of Pat Garrett who also plays Keenan Jones. Garrett seems to recognize Billy. This is in reference to the feud between Jones and Jude. Billy stands up for the town of Riddle and seems to rekindle the sense of protest that he had lost with the Jude character. However, throughout the film we do not get a sense of who Billy is. We see his everyday routine, and his relationship with his dog. However, Billy as with the rest of the characters seems to live in a world of mystery and distance.
At the end of the film Billy has a quote that sums up the movie in a nutshell, “People are always talking about freedom, and how to live a certain way. ‘Course the more you live a certain way, the less it feels like freedom. Me? I can change during the course of a day. When I wake, I’m one person; when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. Its like you got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what’s going to happen.”
By Ashley Akunna