RIORI Vol 3, Installment 82: Ron Howard’s “The Missing” (2003)

The Players…

Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, Aaron Eckhart, Eric Schweig, Jenna Boyd, Evan Rachel Wood and Val Kilmer.

The Story…

Being a single parent—needless to say such—is a tough, often thankless job. At its worst, sometimes not even a rewarding one. This can be said especially when a family is splintered.

Maggie is a frontier doctor, a healer on the fringes aiding anyone who needs her help. Her rigid patience knows no illness. But when her estranged father Sam rides into her farm—a man very mixed up about who he is and why—her patience is tasked.

Maggie is not thrilled about his out of nowhere visit. Sam abandoned her long ago, and she’s tried to provide for her family as best as he didn’t. She tries to chase him away, but he came calling from exile for a very specfic purpose.

That purpose is made known when Maggie’s eldest daughter Lily goes…missing.

The Rant…

Here’s a milestone. Well over 100 movies scanned here at RIORI and never once did a western cross my path. I think that says something, either reflecting my tastes or The Standard bows to cowboys and Indians. I often don’t.

Westerns. Never been a big fan of the genre. Sure, I enjoy a good oater now and again. I fact, I have a few select movies. The list is short because when it comes to this particular genre, I’ve had to sift through a lot of trail dust to find a gold nugget. Namely, I don’t “get” most westerns.

It’s been said that the western movie is the genre that just won’t die. Funny phrase, considering how many of such films built the backbone of summer blockbuster season from the 70s until now. Think about it. Westerns were a hip thing post-war until the early 70s until a rogue shark took the bite out of them. Ha ha and shut up. If you want to get technical, the longest running program in the history of broadcast media was Gunsmoke. A radio drama in the 40s that evolved into a TV series in the 50s. The show ran until 1975. By the math Gunsmoke was the longest running series in the history of a serialized programs. That’s over a quarter century. Granted, Gunsmoke wasn’t a movie, but its long run illustrated the appeal of the western. Even The Simpsons has yet to catch up.

So why won’t the western die? I think it’s because the genre is very homespun. It’s based on truth and imagined truth that could’ve only happened in America. Sure, other cultures have their signature histories to draw from when it comes to filmmaking. The samurai film comes to mind. India has its Bollywood. There’s the “wire-fu” police action flicks in China. The myriad war movies from countries all over the globe (a prime example: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot illustrating the exploits of a reluctant Third Reich submarine crew). All are made inherent to their own unique culture. The American western is no different. Consider this: John Wayne could not have been born in Belgium. Marion Morrison maybe, but not the Duke.

That being said, the reason the western won’t roll over and die from a rattlesnake bite is that it’s a uniquely American genre. Sure, there have been lots of western plots lifted from foreign films (eg The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful Of Dollars, etc), but the transplant is couched in a scenario that is distictly American. The gunslinger as knight, exchanging the blade at the hip for a pair of sturdy Colts in the holsters. It ain’t exactly swords n’ sorcery, but the idea hangs on myth, legend and truth. Historical escapism, if you will.

Maybe this displacement and ideation with the western is the notion of the lone hero, serving king and country. The almighty “law.” America never had knights, samurai or stormtroopers (not the Star Wars kind, you dip). Warriors who swore fealty to their masters, bound by a sense of honor to guide them. Now it’s understood that the western idealized the notion of the lone gunman, a solitary force for good against corruption trampling the common folk. If you’ve read your history (and sure as hell I didn’t), most fabled lawmen were less than savory characters. Heroes not. I mean, Bat Masterson got his name for pistol-whipping felons rather than shooting them outright (might be viewed as virtuous, but it sure had to hurt to twitching). The real Jesse James was a merciless crook, not some Robin Hood (prob’ because there was no real Robin Hood). Hell, even the virtuous Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement as a gambler. As far as cinematic entertainment goes, most of our Old West “heroes” were scoundrels and scofflaws before seeing the light. Such as it were.

Perhaps that’s the trick why the western movie won’t roll over and die. Paired with the faulty notion of honor against evil and being a (mostly) unique American concoction of history mixed with legend that holds its appeal. Probably not much different that the occasional period piece by Kurosawa. After all, a ronin works for money, not to honor the emperor. I don’t think supporting your local sheriff has much pull on presidential policy. But in the final analysis, we plop down our ducats for popcorn and trail dust. That’s that. Entertainment. Uniquely ‘Muricun. Pass the sarsaparilla and nachos.

And me? I feel the issue I take with westerns is most seem repetitive and carbon copy; the tropes are almost always front and center. Sure, cinephiles rave on about Clint’s spaghetti years, the Duke’s powerhouse, revisionist stuff like Stagecoach, The Searchers and True Grit (and to an extent, his first leading role Tall In The Saddle, the meta western). High Noon is a classic for its social commentary. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid for it’s irreverence. Unforgiven for being just plain bad ass. But people get in a twist over the classics. The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, the aforementioned Leone “Dollars Trilogy.” These are all high watermarks, if not boilerplate. And aren’t they really few and far between?

Truth be told, in the heyday of westerns a saturation point reached a fever pitch in the mid-50s until the late 60s. Blame the godly presence of the Duke and the vicarious appeal of mean ol’ Clint. We remember the good stuff fondly and forget about trash like the recent Lone Ranger debacle. Memory sees with a blurred lens.

Why I ask? Why is there such a narrow window of successes in westerns? I mean, they do happen. Even a blind squirrel blah yadda yak. Because the good sh*t regarding westerns buck the trend. Face it. What I’ve learned from watching westerns with my father from childhood into adolescence, a great many of the movies retread over one another. The tropes are dyed in steel wool. Loner cowboy, seething villain, gunplay, plots involving kidnapping/treasure/the natives being restless, etc. I feel 90 percent of westerns are a revolving door, and the only reason the genre refuses to die is because it buoyed by the above gold standards. It’s kinda like reverence for Lipps Inc’s “Funkytown.” Great song, but what else? Flash in the pan and all that it delivers. Comparing that to westerns we’d all like to hear “867-5309/Jenny” over and over again than the repetitive catalog of Counting Crows. Talk about a long December.

Hey. Even I’m not totally immune to the lure of a good, unique hoof-in-mouth. I may be a cynic, but I’m a movie fan first. Second. Sorry, my cynicism overrides all. Surprise. Now sit still or else I peel off more duct tape. Struggling will only make it hurt more.

So. The westerns I’ve truly taken to heart? I mean barring the biggies already mentioned here’s the short list and why. Mine’s a very short list. Snap out of it, and please wipe the Cheetos residue from your chest. Thank you.

Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. It’s the “greatest hits” package of westerns. Every trope, gadget and cliche litter this little gem. And I love it. The cast is awesome (Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover and a refeshingly emotive young Kevin Costner). There’s a lot of humor, sometimes winking. Lots of flashy gunplay. A despicable, heavy villain (Brian Dennehy). A rather tricky plot, too. You don’t really get the stakes until well into the second act. It’s a satisfying slice of western hodgepodge, even if you don’t dig westerns. Silverado is a post-modern western that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. I recommend it for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Red River it ain’t, but yee-ha all the same.

Peter Hyams’ Outland, a sci-fi take on High Noon. A lot of folks back in the day panned Outland as a rip-off, despite it’s timely tale of subjugated laborers with no union support as well as starring my main man Sean Connery. But it retains a certain charm, soft High Noon in outer space. Talk about frontier territory. I know, I know. The setting is a mining facility on the Jovian moon Io (mining and westerns go together like PB and J), so there’s an eye-roller. A funny one. We also have 007 as a disgruntled marshall. Marshall, not cop. Regional police force, transient. Drifter? Peter Boyle as the tyrannical general manager, always turning a blind eye to corruption (which feeds his wallet). And Connery’s O’Neill having something to prove, if not against the corrupt system then to himself. And his girl grizzled Doctor Friday in the form of Frances Sternhagen who’s tired of the sh*t afoot at Con-Am 27 who lends a hand. Sounds like a western to me. It’s best to watch this B-movie pastiche as not a SF movie but…, well, you know. Outland is revisionist, post-modern western. It has that going for it, which is nice.

Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. ‘Nuff said.

Notice none of those three movies were cut during the halcyon days of Hollywood’s Death Valley days. Silverado was released in 1985, and Outland in 1980 (the tail end of the SF boom thanks to Star Wars: A New Hope). Saddles dropped in ’74, a year effectively removed from the days when John Wayne and Clint chomping on a beadie were long gone. That’s how my mind works, even after seeing the “classics” of the genre. And I only caught High Noon for the first time on Amazon Fire last month. Good movie. Slow learner.

In the longview, seeing the classic westerns preps you for seeing the post-modern ones. They stink of a history there, be it Vaseline streaked across the the lens of memory (historic as well as cinematic). But it creaks the door open, invites curiosity. Help yourself. Westerns can be a melange of fun, revisionist history, recalling young America as lawless and on the fringes. Using too much dynamite paired against making the decision to name a lone wolf Two Socks. These touchstones are a patriotic reminder and appeal as to why the western genre just won’t die.

I’m not anti-western, but such movies and all their retreads better try real hard to reel me in. It’s too bad, but there’s a lot of dross to sift through regarding most westerns. Most folks don’t have the patience and simply look for the tin badge.

Loss leader. Based against the above criteria, it was kinda like…

Maggie (Blanchett) is a frontier doctor. A healer to the locals. From bloodletting to amputation to infected tooth extraction she does it all. Not that she’s comfortable with it, nor her small family either. She could do better. But it pays the bills, and she’s very good at her practice. Maggie feels her work is essential to keeping her fragile family together.

Mentioning fragile, one day Maggie’s estranged father Sam (Jones) wanders onto her farm with no fanfare. She’s displeased, this wastrel daring to ride into her life of career and quaint domesticity. A world away from the whirlwind of her youth that Sam invited.

An uneasy alliance is granted, with Maggie’s beau Brake (Eckhart) does the Christian thing and lets Sam crash in the barn. Under his watchful eye Sam lets Brake in on some science; he didn’t come here on some whim. The wind blew him here, to protect his lost family.

Brake hears Sam out, and figures he means well but is also full of crap. Brake feels his resolve is enough to protect his adopted family. But from what? Unsure.

Brake’s daughter Lily (Wood) can’t stop bemoaning her mixed family’s life arrest. If Maggie is such a gifted healer, why the hell are they all stuck in the middle of nowhere? The city beckons, with opportunity and away from all these diseased Indians. Lily soon has her fill and bolts. And disappears.


Sam sniffed at something, so he asks of his estranged daughter to join together and go find Lily. Because who took Lily is far worse than any infected teeth that need pulling…

I won’t lie to you (much), but I caught The Missing in its first theatrical run. It was 15 years ago, and memories get blurry. When I was sifting through potential RIORI subject matter via Box Office Mojo and The Numbers The Missing popped up. By its budget against its gross I was surprised how much of a mediocre tally the film received. It was a Ron Howard movie, after all. And Opie rarely lets an audience down.

I recalled digging The Missing. Then again I was hopelessly hooked on Valium and whiskey at the time, so my memory of the show might’ve been a bit hazy. I remembered Jones as a wannabe Apache. I didn’t remembered how I got home from the multiplex. Let’s just say I was glad my apartment didn’t have a pool in the backyard.

*takes the life jacket off*

Anyway, my fractured memory recalled The Missing being pretty good, despite what the Tomatometer claimed. And me not being a big fan of westerns, the fact the movie left a positive impression that rekindled my memory here. A woozy impression, to be sure, but also inviting enough curiosity to take a chance and watch it again. Standard be damned?

15 years can be a long time, especially without downers as a crutch. Let me address you wastrels burnt out on weed for the umpteenth time at the local midnight viewing of Rocky Horror, stuff can look at lot clearer when you wipe off your metaphorical eyes. So I bellied up, took a squeegee to my bleary, doubtful eyes and tackled The Missing for a second time. And this time I paid attention. So here’s what I saw.

It was a different kind of movie this time around. What I once saw as engaging turned out to drag. Being under-initiated with the so-called “nuances” of westerns, this time out and many moons later I found my attention wavering. To the point, it took four nights to watch The Missing, interrupted by the need to sleep. In my bed, instead of on the couch with the remote stuck to my hot little hand, Cheez-It crumbs littering the carpet. Well, okay. The crumbs were already there (my nonexistent Dustbuster broke).

As do the tropes that can stink up a decent, left-of-center western. Must sound like my sophomore, somewhat sober viewing of The Missing made for a fallen-scale, lousy viewing experience. Not at all and not really. Turned out my muddy memory was too off the mark. True, a lot of Missing was derivative, but I found it was all about the packaging. Yet again, like the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.

Missing does possess all the bored hallmarks of a typical western, the kind I bitched about. The movie’s a bit too straightforward at times, but its saving grace is that it retains its own signature. There is a lot of “displaying” here. We do have “show” but its often interrupted by too much “tell.” But when “show” comes into play, Missing can be exciting as well as harrowing. A lot of Missing is staging. Stages set for big deal ugliness (eg: Brake’s undoing, Lily’s captivity, Kilmer opening fire on Jones, etc), but it sometimes feels like it takes for-bloody-ever to get there. This is a tale of urgency overall; a teen girl REDACTED by a psycho Apache. She must be found at any cost. Provided that cost can be cashed via tracking shots. And Jones playing cowboy and Indian.

Stuff like that made Missing all gummy, slowed things down and placed the necessary urgency on pause. Watching Missing recalled the minor gripes I had with some of Howard’s other efforts; fun films that stretched, as if to allow breathing room to assure the audience that all will be well, stay in your seats. Putting aside the dark matter of Howard’s more grim features like Missing, there is always this “sunniness” that can’t be escaped. An optimism against ugly circumstances. That helped buoy the film, considering that Missing possessed the stinging crime of sluggish pacing. I often had a feeling of “get on with it” watching Missing, yet I could not but help feel a need to pay attention, no matter how much of a chore it was (pacing, remember?). That Howard optimism kept me watching, the seed planted in back that I knew things would work out, but how?

That was the hook that kept me engaged, over the boring, stereotypical western gimmicks that could either float or sink a genre film. Wait. That isn’t exactly accurate. Missing played out as a western, but at heart it was a mystery. Missed that the first time. And I liked how the mystery unfolded, better than the trite western movie gobbledygook. One had to shift their view to appreciate Missing. All the western schtick was eyewash, blurring the corners and denying the conscientious western fan…well, everything. I say again, Missing ain’t no oater. It’s a whodunnit, and for all the better.

I liked how the mystery unfolded. To be sure, the movie drags a lot, but only against western expectations. I heard once on NPR that it’s better to watch the first six Star Wars out of order so to appreciate the series better. Namely, don’t watch The Phantom Menace to Return Of The Jedi straight through. Mix the chapters up (can’t recall the order suggested. Sorry you geeks). Twitch out the already established expectations. Might let you see the Jedi vision quest in a different light. Watching The Missing is kinda like that. Once you understand all that staging is bleeding western movie and all the snores they create, drop the sandwich and get your Hercule Poirot on. Follow the clues as to why Lily was nabbed and follow the trail. Hey, Tommy Lee Jones is your wingman. Should be a cool trip.

And Jones was quite the trip. Weak and willing. Shiftless and transient. Hangdog a mile wide, almost as practice for No Country For Old Men. Whipped dog, shuffling back into his past. And that hair, either a really good wig or a dedication to the role. Whatever. We get the impression that Sam had a more fulfilling experience with his adopted Apache family that with his daughter. Little wonder why Maggie has such contempt for her absentee dad. And Jones appeared to have been doing okay. Maudlin, but okay.

Okay. So Jones is Jones. Fine. But here Cate is Cate, and very well played as such. Her Maggie is fragile without being weak. Uncertain without waffling. Driven yet quiet. Desperate in the best way to characterize Maggie. Not sweating bullets over the fate of Lily, but more like the Talking Heads’ rendition of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” (how’s that for left field?). Battling against the unsure. The stakes are dire, and Maggie is barely holding her own, but she never breaks. Just bends, usually under the reluctant sway of estranged dad Sam. She’s a strong lead with a long shadow.

The only carp I have with Maggie’s character could be laid at the feet of the scenarists. Meaning how often does she need to hammer on Sam about him being a crappy father? It borders on whining, especially in the light that Sam is trying to reach out and amend (despite his dubious motives). At the outset we get it; Sam went off the reservation. And Maggie never got over it. It’s a significant plot point, to be sure, but her nagging does a lot to undo her independent strength at the lead. Maybe there was a motive there, but I just didn’t see one. Hers is again a minor carp, but it was like a splinter in my heel. I could walk, but not very fast. It f*cked up the pacing. Sorry.

Missing made me understand why Eckhardt is a better better supporting actor that a lead. Remember him as Harvey Dent/Two-Face in The Dark Knight? Exactly and there you go. Ignoring the glowing praise I gave him as the lead in The Core (that flick’s goofiness let his on screen awkwardness shine), every other film I’ve seen with the guy as leading man was clunky and off-putting (and a lot of his flicks have showed up here a RIORI a bit too often). He’s a lot better as a sideman. His Brake (telling name) for the first act reels the desperation in. A calm voice of reason. Things go off the tracks pretty fast with Missing. It’s good to have a person to put things in perspective, even if your valorous efforts results in you ending up as smoked REDACTED. In the endgame, Eckhardt’s character set the pace for the hunt for Lily, and a fire under Maggie’s ass. Preserve the family, at all costs. Brake showed the way into the plot. Eckhardt should be hired for more roles like this, even at the cost of reeking of bacon. Watch the thing.

Even though Howard’s films can get edgy, pointed but still remain fun, Missing doesn’t pan out that way. It’s bleak, downtrodden and outright brutal at times. I know I said that the majority of Richie’s films possess a shine of optimism, that all will work out well in the end. That plays out here, too, but it’s all hazy. We know Lily will get rescued, that much is certain. This is a Ron Howard film, after all. But everything is delivered in a gauzy fog. There’s this pall cast over the movie, definitely casting curtains of the hope. Missing is a meditation on rape culture. How females are subjected and subjugated as entertainment. Granted, Lily is dragged into a market of snatch for sale, but such a plot device (book or movie) is a prevalent and popular one, and not well wedged into Howard’s oeuvre. Namely, it gets icky.

Rape culture is a vicious, pernicious plot device applied in many non-R rated flicks regarding how the male/female dynamics may play out in relation to…well, relationships. Superbad is a fine example; score booze to score babes. The convo between Jake and Farmer Ted after the party went tits-up in Sixteen Candles. All of the original Porky’s. The threat of Lily getting sold off is a major plot point for Missing, if not the plot point. Hell, she’s the MacGuffin here, which sets the story in motion. Ugly. We’re set up to believe this is a family drama, and we get some rube photographer ready and willing to take a casual snap of Chidin’s harem. Giggle, giggle. This is indeed ugly, cleverly undoing Howard’s PG-13 history. I’m not sure that even Howard was aware of the hornet’s nest he kicked. It undid the shine, made Missing creepy and left fans uncertain. I liked that, but I wasn’t sure I liked it.

The Missing is Howard’s first uncertain picture. The optimism is there, but only on the fringes. The casting was secure, as was the straightforward story. The pacing was mostly okay (when Cate didn’t sermonize). Framing was impeccable.

So why did I feel unsatisfied?

Maybe this time out I was clean, able to see the chinks in the armor. Missing was still a solid movie, with its moments and its head-scratchers. It was awkward at times, like about what was trying to be said. Was it a family drama, a rescue mission, post-modern western, a meditation on rape culture? Not sure on any fronts. Guess that’s the movie’s major flaw. It didn’t know what it was supposed to be.

Neither did I. But I liked it. Still liked it.

Pass the roofies.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, but with blinders. There’s a lot going on here if you’re observant. And if you’re not, have another. At least Eckhardt doesn’t hang around long. Not as long as Jones’ hair.

Stray Observations…

  • “I’m afraid we have just enough food for a family.” The table is set.
  • Blanchett’s facial emoting is incredible. Never overwrought.
  • “You’ll live.”
  • The blanket scene. Something about it.
  • “I don’t know her name!”
  • The production quality isn’t as “grainy” here as with most post-modern westerns. Might be a result of modern camera work.
  • “Let him go. I don’t care.”
  • Jones growls too much. At times it gets hard to understand his lines.
  • “No.”
  • As always with a Howard film, great cinematography.
  • “They are enlisted men.”
  • Dot is a junior badass.
  • “I asked you if you wanted some sage on your fish.” Oddly, this moment seemed to capture the feel of the entire film.

Next Installment…

Aaron Eckhart (sigh) is a shill. Not that time this time. He’s going to the line for big tobacco, and bid all Thank You For Smoking. Cough.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 60: Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007)


The Players…

Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw, with Kris Kristofferson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, David Cross, Julianne Moore, Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams.

The Story…

A biography of the iconic musician Bob Dylan portrayed by five different personas over the course of his early career.

That about says it, I reckon.

The Rant…

Virtually all music collectors have a Dylan story, namely the first time they laid ears on the man. Such geeks wax rhapsodic about how the man’s music both changed their lives as well as the course of modern music. Others get into your face about your Dylan-esque ignorance and right there and then give an almost mathematical deconstruction of what a musical philistine, ignoramus and overall weenie you are. All the while bolting a digital pair of Skullcandy phones to your head so Bringing It All Back Home can blast some sense into you. Thanks to wi-fi, everywhere.

Didn’t happen that way for me. My tale is much more plain. Thus:

Ain’t it fun when you happen upon a surprise? Like a wadded up fiver in your recently laundered jeans, or finding a shortcut shaving a good chunk of time off your commute, or uncovering what’s actually in the house dressing? Unlike being flogged by some mouth-breather with the complete Biograph on Edison coils, I bumbled onto Dylan by cleaning out a closet. A surprise, but not a valued one at first. I was just looking for my boots.

It was a boring snowy day. Probably a Saturday, since I wasn’t in school. Then again it might’ve been a snow day, but at any rate I was bored and stuck inside until I found those damned boots. Was going to head off into the storm to Blockbuster for a video fix. That’s right, back in the day we had to go to the store to score a fresh movie, and if you had to do that errand during winter, it required proper footwear (especially since the ‘rents refused to let your surly teenaged ass drive in such sh*t weather). Footwear I could not find.

In our house we had two hall closets, one for mom and dad’s stuff, the other for not mom and dad’s stuff. There must’ve been a recent shuffling I wasn’t aware of and found the missing boots in the grown up closet. I had to get on my hands and knees to claim my quarry, buried behind long coats, forgotten boxes of whatnot and mittens—endless mittens. I stumbled upon my dad’s old record collection in a milk crate. It wasn’t much to crow about, one milk crate. This was the early 90s, and that proto vinyl revival was percolating. I was aware of this thing, this “revival” with me the burgeoning audiophile. I had built an already righteous CD library, but to call this “new” interest in records a revival flummoxed me. There was still a healthy LP rack or two at my local music store so to claim some revo was happening on the fringes struck me as bullsh*t. But I was an insecure teen and was quick to latch onto whatever unique trend set me apart from the lemmings. That and I had fond memories of dicking around with the man’s turntable as a spit of a youth, which was most likely the real reason I began to rifle through the crate. Boots and Die Hard 2 soon forgotten.

It was an eclectic stack of wax. I recalled fumbling through them as a little kid, curious about the album cover art and who these singers were. Truth be told I was more entranced by Ella Jenkins and Pooh And The Honey Tree as twin pinnacles of musical triumph. I had no clue, nor wanted one, as to whom Chuck Mangione was. Still shouldn’t.

As a teen I was little more versed in some of the platters in my dad’s milk crate. Neil Diamond Gold, a greatest hits thing. Barbara Streisand. A lot of Barbara Streisand. Too much Streisand (always felt the woman was a better actress than singer, but that’s not saying much. That’s not saying anything). Judy Collins. John Denver. Simon and Garfunkel. The Mamas & The Papas. Peter, Paul & Mary (my dad was big into folk music back in his youth). The Rolling Stones’ Out Of Our Heads (the album featuring some little ditty called “Satisfaction.” Perhaps you’ve heard it). More Streisand. Santana (hey…). Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline and the man’s Greatest Hits, Vol 2.

At the time I was into singer/songwriters. Elton John, Billy Joel, James Taylor, U2 and the like. I’d heard of Dylan. Knew his big hits from the 60s. Casual acquaintance. I guess thanks to the aforementioned faux vinyl revival, but more likely it was just curiosity that dragged that crate out into the sunlight for the first time since whenever. Curiosity and a need to make better dinners for my family.

This will make sense. Take my hand and don’t look down.

My discovery of the forgotten LPs coincided with a sh*tty winter and a need to counteract even sh*ttier dinners. That winter was most likely the gateway drug into my culinary career. You can only boil hot dogs so many ways. Being cooped up in the house during those cold weeks, and tiring of grilled cheese with Campbell’s tomato soup (condensed for your pleasure), I took to task making actual meals with actual ingredients. That winter had a flu epidemic paired with such subzero temps so that school was closed for almost two weeks. So me stuck at home with all comics exhausted, all the Nintendo my eyes would take and my video library gone over twice (hence the fateful non-trip to the video store) I took to combating boredom via cooking. Don’t ask my why or how.

I wanted to make dinner all special like. Use the dining room rather than the breakfast nook. Actually set the table instead of the usual fork throwing. Even have some background music. I found the records, noodled with the neglected turntable to get it up and running again and reconnected the speakers that were thought broken but just needed a little tweaking. Voila. Like something out of a restaurant. Not a grilled cheese to be found.

However before my little gastronomical ploy to shake off the winter blues went into effect I had to go and actually listen to my newfound music cache. The whole dinner music thing didn’t come to be in a vacuum. In hindsight, rummaging through those records is what most likely got my head a-churnin’ to play midwinter Wolfgang Puck.

I rifled through the collection. Some gems in there, although I wasn’t sure of it at the time. Without going into the laundry list there were two artists that immediately commanded my teenaged attention. One was Santana. My dad had their first album. Well, it was more like he had his brother’s album. Goodness knows how it got in that lot, but I’m forever grateful it did. Carlos Santana is my guitar god. ‘Nuff said.

The other albums of note—surprise—were the Dylan records. The aforementioned Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and Nashville Skyline. All classics by any account, but I didn’t know that then. I was a Dylan nimbob and knew next to nothing about the man’s music save some passing aquaintence with “Blowin’ In The Wind” and/or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The second one thanks to Simon and Garfunkel, to which I thought it was their original. Like I said, nimbob.

Dad also had a well worn copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol 2. I figured it was a good enough place to start (tried Nashville Skyline first, mostly due to Dylan’s smiling face on the cover. Didn’t do it for me). A greatest hits comp is almost always a safe bet for the neophyte, which blissfully ignorant was I. So I pulled out the first record (it was a double album), plunked it onto the turntable, adjusted the needle and listened.

I was intrigued.

I didn’t outright like Dylan’s songs, but you ever happen on a surprise? Forgive the schmaltz, but my first few exposures to Dylan were akin to the scene in Mr Holland’s Opus where Richard Dreyfuss recalls the first time he heard Coltrane. Didn’t get it, so he played it again and again until he couldn’t not stop playing it. Yeah, that we me with Greatest Hits 2. I was surprised by the songs’ eclecticism. The man could barely sing, but how it sounded in context didn’t matter. I didn’t get Dylan outright, but I knew I was listening to something different, something vital. And my fave Dylan song is “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Thank Vol 2 for that.

So yeah, the backdrop for several of the dinners I threw together was Santana’s debut and Dylan’s second greatest hits comp. I was excited about spinning these records almost as much as inflicting my warped idea of burgundy beef on the ‘rents and sibs.

Their reaction to dinner was similar to my musical selections: indifference. Well, patience would be a better word. It came to pass that for me those nightly winter meals became less about gustatory satisfaction and more about assailing my family with my newfound discovery of Bob Dylan. But they did get tired of Vol 2 on endless rotation. My dad in particular, which baffled me because that was his album from back when he was my age then. No matter. It was an insular winter, and I got increasingly more intimate with the record player. Vol 2 held sway over me, but I eventually branched out to Highway 61. When I first heard “Like A Rolling Stone” all bets were off. And f*ck all anything about some alleged vinyl resurgence.

So what’s the point of all this? None really. Just a passing pertinence to this week’s flick, I’m Not There. The movie’s supposed to be about how Bob Dylan’s influence can go far beyond his music. Not sure about that. All I know about my connection to the man and his music went further than my unearthed record collection, but not so deep down I’d pummel the Dylan deprived for, well, being Dylan deprived. Nope. My possible snobbery was nil. It was all about that surprise brought about lost boots and the fire being fanned by snow and a burning need to get away from meatloaf for a time. A pretty mild way to get into one of the preeminent musicians of the 20th Century (and still going strong into the 21st).

So that’s my Dylan story. Feel free to add to it whatever legacy you wish to hear.

Or see…

Jack Rollins (Bale). He’s the newest rising star in New York’s burgeoning folk music scene. He’s not like other performers. Where interpretation is more valued than original material from such modern day troubadours, Rollins’ delivery is something…different. His songs are of a social and political nature, but how he comes across therein lies the difference. His style is raw, wounded, pleading and far from the usual rallying cry for change delivered by his peers. The man has something to say, and clearly has something on his mind. And what he has on his mind comes across as both a mirror and pointed finger. The show will go on as long as it has to. Needs to.

Woody (Franklin). Not his real name. Doesn’t need one. The identity you’re given at the outset doesn’t mean you’re that person. Woody took his name as a tribute to his musical hero, legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie. This machine kills fascists. That’s what Guthrie scrawled on his guitar, and also what Woody scrawled on his guitar case. With a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, Woody hits the road, rides the rails west, hoping to become the next big thing. He spews lies and dreams with equal aplomb. He knows exactly what his wants: to be a folk singer. But Woody doesn’t know why. Yet.

Robbie Clark (Ledger). An up and coming actor. Well, that’s not quite true. Robbie’s already established himself as your typical pretty face, screen icon. He’s wants more than that, a little more edge. Serious roles. He gets one in the shape of Grain Of Sand, a biopic encapsulating the life and times of rebel folk singer Jack Rollins. It’s the role that’ll escalate him from mere pretty face to serious actor. It’s also the role that lets Claire (Gainsbourg) into his life. She’s an artist, and fast finds her muse in Robbie. But later she finds her muse is less Robbie and more Jack. That’s not quite right. Between both of them acting seems to be the only reality they share. Image and mock truth.

Jude Quinn (Blanchett). He was the darling folk artist of the scene. But as an artist—a musician especially—one must evolve, push oneself’s creative boundaries. Which is why at a high profile New England folk fest he plugs in and cranks the amps to 11. The audience—his soon-to-be former fans—doesn’t take kindly to him going electric. They f*cking hate it, and call him out as a judas and sell-out. Quinn’s been such a guy with the hot button for so long his chasing his muse has gotten not only the folk scene but the media in general in a furor. Esteemed TV personality Keenan Jones (Greenwood) grills Quinn over a series of interviews as to what gives Jude the right to do whatever he pleases with his music. Did he ever consider his fans? Is he “selling out?” Is all this folderol nothing more than a demented PR stunt? Quinn says yes and no to all of this. Maybe more of his mystique would’ve come to light if he didn’t bite it in a motorcycle crash.

Billy McCarty (Gere). Retired from the outlaw trade. All he wants is a quiet, normal life, miles away from his callow youth and moniker. Living in Riddle, MO Billy’s become the sort of de facto guru of Riddle, in tune to the townsfolk’s wants as they are to his sketchy past. Presently however, Riddle’s in a pickle. Corrupt commissioner Pat Garrett (Greenwood) has sold over the town so a new-fangled highway can come a-tearin’ through, demolishing Riddle in the process. When Billy catches wind of his adopted family’s plight (as well as stories of suicides), against all sense Billy confronts Garrett. His face is not easily forgotten, as Garrett recognizes his old nemesis and runs the man out of town on a rail. Rails. With some help from the townsfolk, Billy hops a train and rides off to lands afar, to realign his identity once more. Good thing he found a guitar to keep himself occupied for the long trip ahead to nowhere.

Arthur Rimbaud (Whishaw). Not his real name, but they don’t have to know that. What kind of government subcommittee is this? Why was his brought in? Did he break some law? Just because he has this expansive knowledge on this Bob Dylan guy doesn’t make him a criminal. Try explaining that to these jokers. They don’t know what’s happening, do they?

Do they, Mr Jones…?

For those few who care, sorry it took so long for this installment to come to fruition. The delay was due to multiple factors. Xmas time. Insane work schedule. A visit to the dentist. Traffic. Alien invasion.  Alien dentists. Whatever works. The biggest impasse however was how intractable, dense, polyphonic and utterly weird I’m Not There turned out to be.

I loved the thing and wanted to do its prostate examination justice. Or try to. Now cough.

I know. I’ve been making a bad habit of showing my hand too often at RIORI lately. I’m also probably jinxing myself by saying this but I’ve pretty lucky with the past few installments. Had a small streak with mediocre movies that turned out to be pretty good. I’m Not There is no exception, regardless of my Dylan fandom and the pleasant memories his albums evoke. This film was engaging, weird and unique. Uniquely unique. It was also the most mutated biopic I’ve ever been audience to, and I really haven’t seen many biopics. But I’m Not There…um, is one of them. And Christ, what a corker it was.

But first and as always I gotta justify how an award-winning, critically acclaimed movie about a towering figure in folk, rock, blues and poetry (not to mention nakedly reluctantly Nobel Prize winner) earns The Standard’s stamp. It’s a kind of a pretzel logic here, and a total judgment call (as is my wont), but I think I figured out some sort of skewed way of wedging There into the questionable camp of flicks that probably shouldn’t be lurking around these neck of the woods. Might be a Marvel movie ’round the bend waiting to strike. Excelsior!

Ahem. In simpler terms, I’m gonna stretch it.

Not by active choice either. There is a sh*t-ton of ground to cover here with There, and I got all exhaustive like. Of the fairest warning, this must be the longest installment here at RIORI ever. Ever. All the Dylan asides would fill a boxcar. So if you durst tread further be warned. Beyond this point be dragons, folk music and Cate Blanchett in drag. Enjoy!


Todd Haynes isn’t what you’d call a name director. He’s a critical darling, and almost always his muse puts him into a descent of offbeat and weird projects, most of which only the critics see.  His sh*t don’t make a lotta ducats at the box office. Rentals and downloads yes, but that what creates film cultiness and not marketability. Just because the man’s CV consists of the weird and wild doesn’t make him an odd duck though. Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog and even everyone’s favorite hack Quentin Tarantino all delve into the left-of-center and quirky, most with amazing returns at the multiplex. Haynes ain’t like that. Like I said he’s not a name. Merely a curiosity, which is probably why his films are often doomed to just cult status. That or something a snooty film freak would beat your ignorant ass over the head with like so many scratchy Bob Dylan LPs.


Nope. Haynes’ name and cachet had very little to do with There becoming a hit. A modest hit, mind you and aimed at a very cagey, dedicated crowd. Face it, now matter how epic Dylan’s career has been he’s still an acquired taste (not unlike Haynes’ filmography). I recall how my freshman year roomie mocked both Dylan and my fandom with a very unflattering rendition of the man’s snarly growl. Then again all my roommate listened to was Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos and Nine Inch Nails. There’s no accounting for taste as they say.

Based on my research (which is totally biased and usually consists of smacking Wikipedia around while nursing two or nine beers), taste wasn’t much on the mind of the folks who pulverized the theaters to get a visually stimulating Dylan fix. No. Argument was that it was tragedy that brought people into seeing There, not so much the polyphonic biopic’s…whatever.

There was the first movie featuring the late, lamented Heath Ledger. True, Ledger was gone when The Dark Knight dropped, but There was kind of his Nirvana Unplugged In New York (an aside: why do esteemed entertainers’ popularity skyrocket after their untimely death? Is it a sort of last gasp—so to speak—of vicariously walking alongside an idol? Or just a jolt to the main vein realizing there’s no more  Dean, Cobain or Ledger and a need to prolong the magic? Or maybe some people are just morose). It was the official last time the fans and the curious could watch Ledger in action. A lot of critics claimed that Ledger’s passing had some sway with the film’s attendance, which may have elevated this curiosity to rake in the dough it did (beyond belief). Jaded, I know. So explain then Nirvana’s meager Sub Pop catalog (one and one-half albums) breaking their bank on April 6, 1994.

*crickets and seething*

Simply put, There wouldn’t performed as well if Heath were still alive. Cynical? Sure. Accurate? Possibly. Crass? Duh.

Now we meet our quandary. Did There fare better than it should’ve due to America’s morbid fascination with the curse of 27 or was it just a darn good film? I’m crossing my fingers, putting the cynicism aside for a nanosecond and leaning towards the latter.

Cards. Chest. Fold. Remember?

Anyway, to the matter at hand: the film. Nearly forgot the thing. Now you don’t have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate this movie, but it sure as hell helps. The minutiae There gets into is of course reflective of Dylan’s early career, so knowing a thing or three about the man helps the average joes and janes appreciate the story ever more. In truth, the bulk of the film focuses on pivotal moments that ultimately result in the man’s mythos, not the trivia that salivating Dylan-philes love to beat you over the head with. Again and again. There‘s about tentpoles supporting a very wide canvas. And a lot of that canvas was cut with a lot of holes. That’s where “creative license” comes in, therefore taking an audience through the jungle isn’t nearly as entertaining as bringing the jungle to their back stoop. With a glass of wine and a cigarette.

What I’m sayin’ is that the best part about waiting on a gift is the actual delivery, and best thing about There‘s delivery is how cagey Haynes is in constructing the narrative. I’m not talking about the alternate realties and intertwining storylines a la Dark City and/or Pulp Fiction (which is essential, as well as engaging and mad confusing at times. Often, actually). It’s how carefully the Dylan mythos skirts the “Dylan Mythos.” Like I said many times, There is not for the casually curious, but neither is it for your everyday, run-of-the-mill, raving Dylan loon. No. This movie is for people that have nary a blue f*ck about who Bob Dylan is, don’t care and found themselves in the theatre for Heath’s passing, a recommendation from a friend who digs Dylan’s albums, or the aforementioned maniacs (as you may have figured, these dicks are a key target of mine) the movie is, it’s not friendly, immediately accessible and just plain weird. Dylan sure had a mythos. He’s got a lot of nutty and equally poignant tales—real and/or imagined—to draw from, apart from him just cutting records. Haynes’ steers clear of all that, or at least covers the chapters in a hazy, gauzy quality, blurred at the corners. In simpler terms he makes the audience rub its eyes and go, “Huh? Hey…” Haynes plucks “key” moments from Dylan’s early career and warps them into this patchwork quilt as well as collage. At first glance, no matter how disarming (and that is a strange adjective to apply to this kooky, non-linear tale about a protean musician who’s had more legends than facts to ponder), There is both a challenge to laypeople and dedicated fans alike.

And now Side B.

It’s not just the staggering, wonky, disjointed, essential editing I’ve ever scene (under or over the influence). Again, it’s Haynes at work, playing with his toys and rewriting history, or maybe just chronicling it in a way that only fans will get. When I say “get” I don’t mean for a lot of dorks to nod their collective heads to and mumble, “Yeah, that was it.” No. There was designed to confuse and make you think—perhaps reconsider—about how Dylan in the collective, media consciousness twice. It’s pretty daring to direct a movie about a prominent musician that doesn’t regard the subject matter in solid form. The Bale/Franklin/Ledger/Blanchett/Gere/Whishaw amalgam is but a mirror, and what the crowd wishes to see or demands to see.

In other words, Haynes is trolling us. A very creative, smart troll, but still what’s it all trip-trapping all over the bridge for?

To mess with us in a giddy fanboy way that tickles as much as it pisses us off (not unlike Dylan’s muse). This is fun, BTW, despite the plastic, non-linear story structure. Such directing is sure as sh*t absorbing, and far less enraging than Haynes’ last foray into a musician’s “biography.” A decade prior to There Haynes inflicted Velvet Goldmine on an unwitting audience who loved Bowie and Ewan MacGregor in equal portions (and most, like me, found the whole gob pissy and needlessly obtuse). For those not in the know Velvet was a fabricated documentary/biopic covering the life and times of a Bowie-clone rocker and the rock journalist peeling back the onion of the man’s life (the scribbler was portrayed by Bale, so at least one person knew what they were in for when they set sailed on the SS Planet Waves). It was a frustrating film, even you knew nothing about the glam rock scene back in early-70s England (and had a fleeting desire to witness MacGregor as an Iggy Pop clone flap his d*ck around on stage. No, really). It had the proto-air of what There succeeded in doing: disjointed chapters depicting the life and times of an important musician through both the director’s eyes and the audiences’s on the same level.

Fortunately, There is far less oblique than Goldmine (with a lot less c*ck. Sorry, ladies). Despite its byzantine structure There is—for real—more accessible than most rock biopics. I know I was playing footsie with this concept before, but There isn’t a movie with an easy message to pin down. If there’s a message at all. I think Haynes was just having fun f*cking around with his audience offering one Dylan story and pulling a bait-and-switch. Those who went along with the ruse sat there and drank it in. The rest just missed Heath.

At its core, There is a character study, studied over by multiple characters. All Dylan, all different and yet all the same. Regardless of the settings and atmospherics (which are all period spot-on no matter what period), we’re watching the rise and sunset of a character, if not a mere characterization of a person who made a life of being endlessly creative and endlessly difficult. Small wonder why Haynes chose the device he did to tell Dylan’s tales. I mean, within the first seven years of his career, Dylan jumped many fences and crossed many lines (including ones he drew in the first place). So since, at heart, There is indeed a character study then the bulk of this winding way should rest on our cast, right? So drawing from the synopsis, let’s break the story down brick by brick.

Bale worked with Haynes before, remember? The fanboy cum rock journalist in Goldmine. Might explain why Bale was the actor most at ease with his Dylan cipher. Haynes’ work can get screwy, messing with timelines and blurring the corners between what actually happened and what should have actually happened. Bale’s laid back, slouching representation of Dylan’s early busking years comes across as both vulnerable and piss-and-vinegar. Jack Rollins is new to the City’s folk scene, but is already well adept in what being outwardly vocal is all about; having a message and somehow finding a way to force it to the surface. I swear, I think I only saw Bale life his head maybe three times over the course of his chapters. Rollins was a man retreating into his own skin and yet at the same time screaming for relevance. A semi-tragic figure, bleeding sympathy, Bale’s Rollins might’ve crashed and burned as a caricature of Dylan, but I attest to his Haynes’ training (and maybe them Batman films), the guy held up damn fine, and when Rollins’ post folkie career ended, the circle closed beautifully in a way most nabobs would only deem as tacky. Like Pete Seeger might’ve once said.

Franklin as “Woody.” He was a wild card (one of two really). It’s tough with a “serious” movie—especially a biography—to have the damn kid sit still, read his lines and follow his paces without eating up precious, expensive studio time by acting like a damned, precocious kid. This is the stuff of Ritalin’s dreams. But Franklin managed to hold his own (barely) as the ideal of Dylan’s eyes-wide-open pursuit as the next big thing in folk music before folk music was big. Anyone who knows anyone knows that Dylan was probably the biggest Woody Guthrie fanboy this side of the New York Islands. A major inspiration. Our Woody may serve as the embodiment/inspiration avatar for young, naive Dylan, but for our purposes he’s just full of sh*t. Sure, he can sing, play guitar and spin yarns about eminent fame and fortune as the next runaway kid spinning yarns about fame and fortune, but at heart Woody knows he’s full of sh*t. All he’s really trying to do is escape. Escape his crappy home and going nowhere existence. Life an imaginary life of a hobo, traveling troubadour with a message to share and a goal to reach and a life to escape.

Franklin toes the line very carefully between precocious and obnoxious. Not an easy balance. He’s supposed to represent Dylan in his salad days (that whole Guthrie adoration with the “This machine kills fascists” saw on Woody’s guitar case speaks volumes, especially since the real Guthrie had that scrawled on his actual axe. A shade more proactive). All wide-eyed and needing to shake the Zimmerman family name back in Hibbing, MN like a bad case of fleas. Franklin shines as the hobo, still sweet but painfully vulnerable. Like I intimated, Woody’s all about escaping, especially himself. Franklin impresses with his keen dichotomy of scared kid and outgoing not-there-yet adult. The kid can sing, he can play guitar and he can shoot the bull with the best/worst of them. Is he convincing? Yes, and that follows acting and mission both. The scene where “Woody” gets busted as a runaway speaks volumes alone.

The tough part about getting a kid to act as an avatar for an adult—especially a famous, vilified adult (icon)—is to get the kid to “get it.” Franklin must’ve been barely ten when he got slated as Robert Allen the wandering Woody Guthrie acolyte minstrel. The wounded confidence he dragged along was admirable, interesting. Here’s a kid who was perilously close to Culkin territory. Instead he turned cute into troubling. Sure, at some point in our youth we’d all love to run away and join the circus. Franklin’s Woody is the circus, and with precious little treacle sticking to anything. The kid’s slick and slippery, and once you think you’ve figured out his MO (which may or may not be miles from becoming a famous folk singer), he turns on you. Well, rather the writers did. But still, with Franklin as our guide young Dylan became all the more palpable. Not bad for some snot-nosed whelp.

The late Ledger. The pinion. Maybe the reason that There got more press than it may have earned. Now I’m not gonna deny that Ledger was a talented actor who over a relatively short career evolved from a pretty face to a grotesque, Oscar-winnig face. That and a shepherd having a crisis with his sexuality, having a tough time looking that face in the mirror. Yeah, so from 10 Things I Hate About You to Brokeback Mountain, Ledger sharpened his claws right quick, and became a swift and beloved cinema icon.

Which is rather appropriate, if not prescient that his portrayal of the hard-nosed—yet with a fluffy, pretty boy CV—Robbie Clark (a semi-tragic figure within his own career). Clark represents Dylan in his reluctant fame phase. Clark’s career prior to Grain Of Sand is akin to Dylan’s post-folkie route. Here we get introspection of a reluctant kind. Clark is assured in his talent, and now has a project to prove his mettle. Sure, the talent’s intact, but the youthful recklessness is not. Nothing more potent for implosion than a fragile ego paired with a need to please, even (if not especially) if only for yourself.

Ledger’s Clark/Dylan persona cleanly demonstrated not only Heath’s gradually, workaday climb from pretty face to serious actor with mass appeal still in check. Clark’s career follows the same track, mirroring Dylan’s post The Times They Are A-Changin’ albums; your fans want you to stretch (only on their terms. Refer to the Jude Quinn segment…later), to see more talent down deep. Casting Ledger as Clark was a stroke of brilliance, and not just for his rugged, postmodern James Dean, self-effacing (at first) performance. The guy had quite a bit to draw from and plunk at the table.

The Clark chapter had many parallels not only with Dylan’s nascent fame, but also Ledger’s career in microcosm. Wouldn’t be surprised if There‘s casting director enlisted Ledger not just for his acting chops but also the slow burn tumult of his private life. And when you’re a big deal star—being it movie or music—it gets harder and harder to keep one apart from the other, even though there is always spillage. Good thing social media didn’t exist when Dylan was just on his feet. Would’ve been burned at the stake for the stunt he pulled at Newport (again, Quinn segment…still later).

And it’s virtually impossible if you’re a fan of either artist to sniff out the trouble waiting around the corner with Clark. There are indeed parallels (perhaps too many to be close for comfort) with not only Dylan’s life at that point but Ledger’s also. Granted each chapter of There is following a continuum, just not in a linear progression. We bounce back and forth between Robbie’s life along with the rest of the players, but thanks to/blame the timing, what starts Robbie’s story as an innocent courting of Claire devolves into so much fragility and alienation that ultimately undoes the relationship.

Gainesbourg was a find, despite being established. I know nothing about the beginning, flowering, decaying, undoing of Dylan’s marriage to his wife, Sara (bet it wasn’t fun), but Gainesbourg’s Claire was great channeling the almost cliched willowy artiste trying to make her mark in The Big City. Clark by extension was too. Sure, everything starts all puppies dogs and ice cream like, but with the lure of stardom comes the fractures. Who do you truly value? Your loved ones? Your agent? You? One can only wonder again with the casting director’s choice that Ledger’s very public, very ugly separation from Michelle Williams might’ve had a hand in getting him the part, as well as stoking the fire of a greedy, fan audience. Maybe, then again Ledger’s and William’s couple hood had unraveled during the filming of Brokeback Mountain. You know, the high profile gay love pic which had Ledger play against Williams as his disassociated wife (and was it a coinkydink that Williams floated around this merry-go-round)? Synchronicity. That real life/behind the scenes/reflective narrative seems a tad too juicy to be coincidence.

Which is why we can thank Claire. Gainsbrough really was a find. Although There somewhat descends into the rock and roll cliche of fame and hard-living paired against ignoring personal relationships and loved ones (that and our avatar quickly becomes mister good time charlie too fast, too soon), Claire keeps it aloft and in perspective. C’mon, even if you’re not a Dylan scholar, you’re well-versed in the whole rise and fall of fame bullsh*t ride. Even with the angular There, you see it coming light-years away. Claire’s eventual brittleness after the time with Robbie—the rising star, raising a family, her stagnant art career, etc—is us, the audience, witnessing promise and power quickly but still politely descend into dysfunction. All the while Gainsbrough is our charioteer. Sure, the whole Clark chapter is Ledger’s all the way, but you need to have a vital foil to balance (or tip) the scales. Our Claire is Patti Smith minus the balls, recording career and a demand to fully grasp the collapse of everything as Robbie the star becomes Robbie the actor. Such invulnerability demands a chink in the armor, so thank you Gainsbourg.

A fond farewell to Heath, who left us like too many talented people: far too soon.

And now for something completely different. The cherry on the sundae, perhaps a bigger scoop (ha!) than Ledger’s swansong: Cate Blanchett as Electric Dylan (and if that ain’t a band name scooped up by now, get on it and you’re welcome to it). Kinda seen as a gimmick at the time, even ‘tho Blanchett has always been an adventurous actress. I played the most prominent Queen in England’s history, so it’s only natural I want to play a prominent rock star (even if it means taping up my breasts)! Right, the novelty of Cate playing a man doubtless teased the crowds, if only for the humorous reasons. But beyond the winking, Cate’s “Jude Quinn” was the most Dylan of all the chronicles tackled in There.

A technical thing, and I know it’s the first one here. Probably the only one that arrested my attention in There, regardless of all the warping of space and time. For the duration of the movie, I loved the lighting techniques. At least two thirds of There was shot in rich black and white, and the argument could be made to say this gave the film a historical context. That’s odd though, considering the way-back machine set for Woody’s and Billy’s past lives are shot in vibrant color. Not sure exactly what this indicates, but I doubt it was all a creative whim.

Quinn’s chapter is Richard Lester in reverse. If you ever saw A Hard Day’s Night with the Fab Four running riot through Swingin’ London, then you get the idea. Lester is kinetic, urgent and almost breakneck in his style (check out at least one half of Superman II. At least that). There is a rhythm, a pulse, a need to get the message across ASAP with verve. With Quinn, Haynes’ style reflects Lester’s need for info dump, but everything here moves almost at a languid, if not cautionary pace. No less urgent than Lester, but there’s quite an air of bitterness, desperation and mean-spirits floating through Quinn’s world. Whatever for? Let’s meet him, shall we?

Our intro to Quinn is to he and his bandmates opening fire on an unwitting crowd at a New England folk concert. Literally as well as metaphorically. Drawing from the pissed off reaction of folkies at Dylan’s electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, to say the hippie dippies were unthrilled by Dylan’s new direction is akin to referring to the Arctic as somewhat chilly. They claimed he sold out. Pete Seeger was in agony. Cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria!

Kinda what Quinn was aiming at. Now we arrive at the “voice of a generation” chapter of Dylan’s life, and Cate jumps in with both feet. Once you get beyond he’s a she, the opposite befalls you. Quinn is Dylan in the hot seat, and under the scrutiny of the mass media, this once folkie troubadour gone unabashed rocker. Brash and outspoken, smartass and well aware he has the world in the palm of his hand, Quinn conducts himself as him, not what his vast flock deems him to be. In other words, freeing himself from the trappings (nay, moorings) of his early career.

Blanchett pours it on. Her Quinn is cocky, smarmy and bleeding edge rock star persona incarnate. The Quinn chapter is the closest thing approaching linear in There‘s execution. It’s almost as if Haynes had a real message to broadcast with Cate, whatever that message was. What I walked away with was a tale of freeing yourself from…yourself. The underpinning of the Quinn chapter is our anti-hero slinking in and out of what the media expects. Blanchett is delightful in this environment, almost unlikeable but still engaging enough that you wish to devour what comes next in his/her story, regardless of what a dick Quinn is.

And Blanchett, vagina or not, is a dick. Like the jocky guy you get shoved next to at a beer bust, Quinn cannot help but smear his accomplishments (true or otherwise) all up on you. I’m so special because others tell me that. My talent is secondary, despite the fact it got me all these lackeys. It’s quick to see that Quinn’s surgical bluster is all a ruse to keeping what was once just that. Blanchett is both cocky and dodgy as Quinn. An anti-hero vibe. You want to like this guy, even as a casual fan, but Cate’s so obtuse, so snotty, so much like Brian Slade from Haynes’ Goldmine, he wants—needs—everyone to question his MO. After enjoying watching Cate shuck and jive, being unpredictable was the true motive. That and Quinn evading his modest, very uncool past. Cate was Dylan as far as I was concerned for There. She won an award after all. Not all judges are stodgy. Well, maybe Judge Judy, but she probably never owned a copy of Self Portrait. Nor should you. Moving on!

The “Billy the Kid” segment of There was the most left field, even more so than Woody’s adventures. You’d be hard-pressed as a Dylan fan to not catch the connection to the man’s soundtrack for the the movie Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid here, and maybe moreover the aftermath of Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle accident. That’s the guts of this chapter, and what an odd one it is, almost totally removed from the rest of the movie “proper.”

Richard Gere (surprisingly well-casted) appears as Billy “The Kid” McCarty, though do to his age no one calls him a kid anymore, let alone anything from his mischievous past. No. Billy is a recluse, stationed in nowhere and a local benefactor to everyone, still he’s just trying to escape and shed some skin.

Story goes that Dylan cracked up his ride and suffered some nasty injuries riding around in his adopted hometown of Woodstock, NY. Since the aftermath of the accident was so hush-hush, people got to figuring the whole schmeer was just a stunt to get Dylan out of the limelight for a time. Plunking our next to last chapter avatar in the Old West works well based on this urban legend. And Gere surprised me as Billy. He’s always had a laid back demeanor, teetering on reserved. From American Gigilo to Pretty Woman to even The Mothman Prophecies, Gere is a cool character and often rather far from losing his composure even when he’s being malevolent (think Internal Affairs).

His Billy was the only noble character in this game of pawns. Gere may have played the recluse, but his performance was sterling as the retired outlaw. He hasn’t quite recovered from the life, still has flashbacks about his former life and times. He does however a (newly found) serene nature about him after getting away from it all. The motorcycle analogy is wafer thin here—especially if one considers the “riding a horse” metaphor—but it works. It works as long as Gere keeps a gentle distance from his surroundings and just tries to stay in the background. Until his hand is forced.

Yeah, this is indeed a naked metaphor for Dylan’s life and times in long ago Woodstock. The reputation, the constant spotlight, the need to escape. Hell even the injuries are metaphor. In hindsight, the Billy chapter might be the most obvious parallel to Dylan’s life, even more than the on the nose take with Quinn. Ignoring the Wild West environ, Dylan as Billy brings the past/present Dylan into focus with the last episode (or at most the denouement) of the man’s early career. He had his whirlwind in a small length of time, and the legend is secure no matter what comes next. Like Billy the Kid.

Lastly and finally of this major character study via wild, disjointed biography we have Arthur as Rimbaud as what young Dylan pursued as Whishaw. Not much to say here really. Ben’s appearances felt more like bookmarks than part of the story proper (whatever it was). He’s the voice of the anti-establishment, the rebellious youth culture of the 60s and ultimately the foil of the real life Dylan. Whishaw’s delivery is punky, snotty and presages the middle finger Quinn gives the world later down the pike. What does the old men in grey suits know? Mr Jones and alla dat. Ben’s attitude is what justifies his appearance here. The wiry, “you don’t get it” bravado oozes from him like smoke (all those cigarettes help somewhat), and his almost desperate laments echo Dylan’s protest songs. Just because his brief interludes seem throwaway, it doesn’t lessen the stories impact any less. They’re more like a moment to catch your breath while Dylan’s lyrics seep through. Hell, Whishaw’s bits were the most linear of There‘s whole winding journey. Like I said, breathe.

I know, I know. This installment devolved into less of a review and more of a term paper. Sorry and whatever. Just because I got a little (all right, very) dense with There doesn’t mean the flick was all terse and intractable. Quite the other thing. Haynes’ vision was wild and disorienting, true, but that made for no less an engaging flick. It was hard to nail down what exactly Haynes’ vision was. Was it a fantasy? A biopic? A tribute to Dylan or a ironic screed against the man, the myth and the legend? Probably all of these and none. Like I said miles ago you don’t have to be a Dylan fan to appreciate I’m Not There, but the arcana associated with the guy’s career sure would come in handy. Get you on the ball for the next dooshnozzle waving their first pressing of John Wesley Harding at your nimbob ass.

And don’t you think for a mo’ that I wasn’t aware I got the timeline for my facts got a bit screwy. So was Haynes’ whole jagged plot line, so there. It’s not that I didn’t fully care for accuracy, or twisted things to suit this installment (okay, maybe a tad), but rather writing a biopic and a review for a biopic you take a few “creative liberties” to make the data flow download easier. Otherwise both would be a long, winding, tedious display of literary upchuck which would be nothing but self aggrandizing…


Pass in your blue books.

“You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

Bob Dylan. Chronicles, Vol 1.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? An enthusiastic rent it. A first. I know, right? Sorry to get all academic, but it sure tasted better than your final in Economics 101 right? If you like Dylan, you’ll adore I’m Not There. If you aren’t, the film might goad into buying an album of his. If it did neither, you’re hopelessly wrapped up in your Melanie Martinez obsession.

Happy New Year, BTW.

Stray Observations…

  • The soundtrack is awesome, naturally.
  • “Whoever heard of a fatalistic farmer?”
  • Why’d Robbie leave the lights on?
  • Bruce Greenwood is yet another character actor that’s earning my respect, up there with Peña and Love.
  • I was too engaged in the film to keep a steady stream of notes. Might explain why the review was so uneven. Either that or the beer.
  • “Just like a woman!”

Next Installment…

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. Worst. Personal ad. Ever.