Magpie Semiotics

Thanksgiving is a hit-or-miss holiday for me -- I've had some wonderful ones with friends and family, but some of my favorite Thanksgivings have been ones where I've hung out on my own and taken a break from everything. This year was one of those, and a memorable one, because I decided to see two movies I was sure would be interesting to see together: I'm Not There and Across the Universe.

Both films are based on the work of some of the most recognizable, revered, and influential musicians of the last fifty years: Bob Dylan for I'm Not There and The Beatles for Across the Universe -- musicians who came of age and influence at roughly the same time. Both films are helmed by idiosyncratic directors: Todd Haynes and Julie Taymor. Both films have gotten wildly divergent responses from viewers.

I am far more of a Bob Dylan fan than a Beatles fan (though I did go through a bit of Beatlemania as a kid, and so most of the words to their best-known songs come immediately to mind if I hear only a few notes). I am far more of a Julie Taymor fan than Todd Haynes fan (his films often seem thoughtfully imagined, intelligently constructed, and mostly lifeless to me). I went into each movie trying to watch it as an artifact of its own, something toward which I would bring as few preconceptions as possible, for fear of being disappointed about either a director I respect or a body of music that has been important to my life. In particular, I wanted to see the movies as movies, not as movies about Dylan or the Beatles.

It proved impossible to watch I'm Not There without always thinking about Dylan. That shouldn't be surprising for a film that says it is "inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan", but still -- I had read Anthony Lane's review, and even without seeing the movie I knew there was no way anyone could enjoy it if they had such a literal, flatfooted approach as Lane did. I had thought the best way to really enjoy the movie was not to try to connect the dots between Dylan and the kaleidoscopic hallucination of his life and music that the film presents, but rather to enter into the hallucination, to let it go without reference to anything other than itself.

Easier said than done. And not necessary, either. Here's the thing you need to be able to enjoy this movie: you need to like Bob Dylan's music. If you don't, you're doomed, because that music plays almost constantly through the film. But if you like Dylan's music, you've got a chance. You then need to watch the movie the way you listen to a Dylan song, with an open mind and a willingness to not get all the references, but to enjoy their presence nonetheless. Instead of making a biopic, Todd Haynes has made the cinematic equivalent of a Dylan concert.

Dylan has often been described as a magpie (or, less charitably, a thief), and what Haynes has done is similar -- he has taken not only Dylan's life and work, but many of his influences, and from them he has built his structure out of riffs and allusions, quotations and transpositions, dreams, fantasies, rumors, myths, and the iconography of an array of cultural moments. Haynes has a semiotics habit, and he deconstructs one sign after another, sticking them all up on different posts to point the way toward something ineffable. (A town called Riddle figures prominently.)

Very little in I'm Not There is a one-to-one allusion where x = y. Instead, in the best moments, like some of the best moments of Dylan's best songs, the allusions are so many that they gain weight of their own -- the gravity of synergy, perhaps -- and so we have, for instance, scenes that reference Fellini, A Hard Day's Night, Don't Look Back, and much more. Such scenes become so overdetermined that the references don't really matter, except for a chuckle or nod, and we are left to consider that first-and-last refuge of the inveterate postmodernist: the surface.

Something else Haynes has done is show us how powerful the music is. (Not that those of us who have spent much of our lives listening to Dylan ever really needed anybody to tell us the music is powerful -- but I'm Not There provides the sort of defamiliarizing jolt that reminds us what resides within those notes and words.) Both I'm Not There and Across the Universe succeed by letting the music do the emotional work, but not (usually) in the crassly manipulative way of so many middling movies, the kind that underscore every climax with strings, treating their audiences like a kennel of Pavlovian dogs. I'm Not There busts its main character into six personas and tells a nonlinear, associational story with a panoply of film stocks and styles. That's a recipe for an intellectual adventure, not an emotionally satisfying experience, and while I don't think all art needs to be an emotionally satisfying experience, the evocation of emotion within nonlinear, associational forms is, it seems to me, a great artistic accomplishment -- one I appreciate in everyone from Joseph Cornell to David Markson, Virginia Woolf to Paul Celan.

The music in I'm Not There works as a link and a lifeline, a depth charge blowing the images and story to bits, leaving a ghost of electricity to shock us. All of the characters are more glimpses than they are full people, though some, because they fit into the cozy outlines of a more familiar biopic, fill up on our extrapolations. Scenes of loss and loneliness become immensely powerful not because we have any real dramaturgy warming us up for emotional exercise, but because the music is deployed so skillfully that it combines with the images to give us more information than we would ever have otherwise, and it provokes a reaction.

Haynes shifts cinematic tones again and again throughout the film, but the music remains that of Dylan, and even the songs that are performed by other musicians are mostly so faithful to his versions that the soundtrack eases us over bumps that should, by all rights, be more upsetting. Pastoral scenes alternate with parodies, goofy surrealism keeps close company with historical reconstructions. It shouldn't work. It does.

Across the Universe shouldn't work, either, but it does. Unlike I'm Not There, Across the Universe tells a linear story, but it is almost as out of the ordinary, because the story it tells is episodic and even occasionally epic, containing big musical numbers (with precise and sometimes wondrous choreography), psychedelic set-pieces, moments of quiet intimacy, caricatures side-by-side with characters, and a hippie-dippy love-conquers-all ending. What's not to love?

Julie Taymor is a wonderfully visual theatrical artist, but she has not yet had a movie that allowed her to express her visual talents as fully as Across the Universe does. I love both Titus and Frida for their exuberance and the depth of their designs, but Across the Universe goes even farther, giving Taymor the opportunity not only to work with two-dimensional backgrounds, extraordinary props and costumes, masks, and other elements present in her previous films, but also with giant puppets and extended scenes of bizarre fantasy (some of this is visible in a few of the film's YouTube clips, such as with Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite. I was particularly happy to see Taymor get to use puppets based on those of Bread & Puppet, with whom she studied briefly.)

The characters in Across the Universe are more developed than those of I'm Not Here, and the music serves a more familiar purpose, a purpose common to most musicals: it cuts in when the characters are in the grips of strong emotion or they need to express themselves more forcefully. Here, too, though, the songs provide a particular richness to the film, because the story is generally predictable and sometimes feels composed of outtakes from Forrest Gump, but almost every bit of it is redeemed by the imagery and the music (I don't think the brief war scenes quite come off -- they don't feel much different from the other scenes in the film, when really, to motivate much of what happens, they should hurt more).

The two films overlap in their suspicion of idealism. The folk song era is portrayed in I'm Not There through gentle parody, with the tales of the young and earnest Dylan figure told in a documentary style that calls to mind A Mighty Wind and Bob Roberts more than No Direction Home. The protagonists move farther and farther away from commitment (of all sorts), though they are chased and hounded by interviewers and authorities who try to make them bow down or take a stand. In Across the Universe, the ravages of the Vietnam war radicalize Lucy until she almost loses sight of everything, and everybody who believes fervently in a cause -- whether soldier or civilian -- gets beaten, broken, bombed. The survivors in Across the Universe are the folks who never went too far, or if they did, they turned around before too late. Via different paths, the two films seem to support an ideology of transcendental individualism: Nobody gets to change the world, but they do get to change themselves, and if enough selves change, then the world changes, too.

Because I was so taken by what the writers, directors, and designers of these two movies accomplished, I have said little about the performers, but each film is well performed and sometimes extraordinarily performed. (From I'm Not There, Marcus Carl Franklin and Cate Blanchett deserve particular accolades.) I was particularly surprised by Bono in Across the Universe -- he's a riot, and, at least until he sings, nearly unrecognizable. The young actors in the main roles all perform with great energy and commitment, making scenes that would have induced cringes of embarrassment were the actors less confident into real delights.

Delight, in fact, is what I felt after each film. I'm Not There is overall a greater accomplishment, I think, than Across the Universe -- its form is more innovative, its philosophy more nuanced -- but there's really no need for such a judgment, because both movies are more entertaining and thought-provoking than all but a few of the other films produced in the U.S. this year, and each will, I'm sure, reward rewatching. In fact, I'd be happy to see both movies again tomorrow if I had time, and it's rare that I encounter one film a year I can say that about, never mind two in one day.

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