Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Pierre Bayard is of course correct – there are many different ways to consume books. This is true for films also. Seeing a film for the second time is always a different experience than the first. But there are also different ways to see a film for a second time. The most common is to have seen it originally in a theater, then later to catch on DVD or perhaps on television (worse yet, on an airplane). I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen different parts of The Godfather. I joke with the kids that sometime on any given day The Godfather is playing somewhere on cable, in some configuration. I can turn it on, see five minutes anywhere – maybe just Robert DeNiro stealing the rug or Al Pacino walking through the Sicilian fields with his new (and doomed) infatuation, or Sofia Coppola, shot in the chest at the end of the still deeply underappreciated III, looking at Pacino, saying “Daddy” before she slumps to the steps – and feel completely satisfied, as if I’ve watched the entire trilogy once again. Indeed, one of the secret pleasures of cinema is clicking the remote through the cable spectrum seeing five minutes of this, one or two of that, just identifying each film before clicking on. Who hasn’t played that game?

Seeing a film twice in the theater is an experience I used to have fairly often as a young adult – there are films like Weekend, Blow-up, The Saragossa Manuscript, that I saw over & over when I was around 20, even Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Forbidden Planet. With both Casablanca and Forbidden Planet, anyone whom I was newly dating but who had not yet seen those films was fair game for taking to see it the instant it showed up at one of the art houses in San Francisco or Berkeley. I knew they would be grateful to be turned on to these treasures & a film like Casablanca led one almost directly to the bedroom. Monsieur Rick has been very very good to me.

In recent years, I’ve seen films in the theater twice only on rare occasions. The Matrix is one film – it totally blew me away when I first saw it on a business trip to San Francisco & I had to be sure that it really was as powerful as I thought. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. I did almost the exact same thing for Saving Private Ryan and it was as powerful the second time – Spielberg is a much better filmmaker than most critics are willing to acknowledge.

A third example, but a different kind of experience, was the first Lord of the Rings movie. Krishna had not wanted the boys to see it – they were just nine years old & Krishna is pretty militant about avoiding violent films. But they’d read the books & were dying to see it. Krishna went out of town for a few days so there was nobody around to tell us not to go. And it is a great way to spend an afternoon with nine-year-old boys, in a theater filled with other parents doing the same thing. The following week was Christmas and the family visited Krishna’s sisters down in Virginia & they’d all seen Lord of the Rings (one sister is a certified Tolkien fanatic) & were raving about how wonderful the movie was. Any controversy had to do with the absence of Tom Bombadil, not the level of combat or gore. This was good, because it got me out of the doghouse I’d constructed for myself taking the boys when I “should have known” that their mother would have disapproved. By the end of the evening, Krishna made me promise that we – the boys included – would take her to see it, which we soon did.

That was a film where the spectacle & being able to share it was a central part of the pleasure of the reiteration. It’s a well-crafted trilogy overall and I can watch two minutes of it on the telly these days in somewhat the same way as I do The Godfather. The difference here is that I often don’t remember all the scenes, and I have a much harder time telling the three films apart. It’s successful cinema, but I don’t think of it as one of the lasting masterpieces of the genre, where The Godfather is almost the perfect instance of Hollywood narrative.

One week after seeing I’m Not There, the so-called Dylan anti-biopic by Todd Haynes, with a bunch of friends, I took one of my sons to see it out in Phoenixville, an old mill town on the far side of Valley Forge that has survived the loss of its mill. Because the film was playing at 7:00, it had a decent turn out, much better than the later showing we had seen in closer-to-the-city collegiate Bryn Mawr. But it’s worth noting that my kid was the only person in the crowd under 40.

One of the obvious differences on re-seeing a film is that foreshadowing is now all marked out. The title of I’m Not There comes on as Cate Blanchett – she’s so distant you don’t realize in the first viewing that it’s her – revs up the motorcycle & drives off stage right. That very same scene is a critical moment roughly two hours & ten minutes later. Similarly, when we first see Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin, pictured above) hop onto the freight, he does so from the same field where, near the film’s end, Billy the Kid sees his wayward dog, Henry, chase after the train he too has hopped. That’s just an understated part of the same big red bow I referred to being tied together in that second scene.

Some scenes that had been difficult to follow the first time through – such as Claire’s pausing to watch the filming of Robbie Clark portraying Jack Rollins – now seem completely coherent because I know what it means & where it’s going. You can follow the dialog more closely – I realized, for example, that I misquoted the sexist comment in my review the other day. Robbie (Heath Ledger) says “I worship women. Everyone should have one.” I actually think my original mishearing was stronger and to the same point. It’s just not what actually gets said on screen.

Timing changes almost entirely. When you can’t see what’s coming next, timing is experienced as very open-ended. You feel the timing but you don’t necessarily sense it, if I can make that distinction. The second time through, pleasure in the timing comes as a result of everything hitting its position perfectly, which is to say “as you remembered it.” Yet one result is that I’m Not There feels like a much shorter picture the second time – the few scenes I had complained about dragging on first viewing turn out not to be nearly as long as I had thought. I still would have edited the run-up to the second confrontation with Mr Jones a little, but quite a bit less than I would have expected after my first viewing.

And there are the elements you simply didn’t get at all before, here most notably realizing that Canadian character actor Bruce Greenwood plays both Mr Jones and Pat Garrett. There is even an instantaneous flash of Mr Jones interspersed into the scene where Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) confronts Garrett, only to be arrested, but was I alert enough to catch the implication of that? Not the first time, I wasn’t. Similarly, I didn’t even notice Lyndon Baines Johnson quoting “Tombstone Blues” – “The sky is not yellow, it’s chicken.” I’ll wager that Haynes used the exact footage where LBJ infamously quoted another song of that era, “We Shall Overcome.”

Some of the jokes work better the second time because you click into the timing of them in anticipation of the punch line. An interviewer asks the Mighty Quinn if he/she wants to change the world and Cate Blanchett replies, leaning forward one hand cupping her ear, “Change the word?” Actually, the second time through really cements my respect – astonishment almost – at the quality of the writing in this film. A lot of it may be verbatim from existing Dylan materials, but the degree of making it fit together, including here the lyrics of whatever’s on the soundtrack at that moment, is much more tightly stitched than we get in Dylan’s own Chronicles: Volume One, let alone Tarantula.

Because of comments to my review on the blog by Andy Gricevitch – also by Luther Blissett and Levari (Lee Sternthal) – I really looked closely at the relation between the Billy the Kid / Riddle Missouri narrative and The Basement Tapes, Dylan’s period of recovery in Woodstock, NY, from the motorcycle accident & the drug detoxification it occasioned. It made me realize that, while I didn’t have the dissatisfaction with that scene many of the professional reviewers professed, part of its difficulty is that Haynes is really trying to make the material do multiple things simultaneously, and that it doesn’t quite come off.

The first is the long fallow period Dylan had from the mid-1980s up until roughly 1995, which is what I saw in having the aged Gere look even more grizzled as he wanders around Riddle hearing tales of how Pat Garrett is planning to put down a six-lane highway, forcing everyone to evacuate – there are several images of what look like deep West Virginia-style hillbillies turned into refugees. But it’s true also that Haynes borrows heavily here from the imagery on and about The Basement Tapes, both the songs and the original album cover art. Yet he’s gone to this palette before in young Woody Guthrie’s brief period with the circus – Gorgeous George, the Nebraska-born wrestler whose flamboyant style would be the template followed & elaborated on by everyone from Liberacé to Little Richard to Elvis to Elton John, and who makes an appearance in Chronicles: Volume One, is a key figure here. Plus the Riddle funeral sequence – one of the most powerful and surreal moments in the entire film – uses My Morning Jacket’s lead singer Jim James wearing the same mime’s whiteface that Dylan adopted for the Rolling Thunder tour as he sings “Going to Acapulco,” which Gricevitch is right to note is the best rendition that song’s ever received.

Haynes I think wants the Riddle material – the town is, as young Guthrie tells the hoboes on the train, a “composé” of many different places to serve multiple narrative lines simultaneously. This of course is one possible advantage of telling a story that everyone already knows. It’s only after we’ve begun this narrative thread, for example, do we get the story of Jack Rollins’ conversion to Christianity and resurrection as Father John (told in part by one sad sack member of the congregation named T-Bone¹). So I think one might see this as being at least three parallel narrative lines simultaneously – convalescence, conversion & his artistic resurrection in the mid-nineties. If Haynes ultimately gets tangled up in the threads here, it’s not for underestimating his audience. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Hollywood’s submission to the principles of marketing as a narrative practice is the tendency in American movies to have each shot or scene equal one – and only one – idea. That is not the problem in I’m Not There. It’s as rich – richer even – on a second viewing as it was on the first. I’m Not There really is one of the finest American films ever made.


¹ One version of Dylan’s conversion to evangelical Christianity credits T-Bone Burnett for bringing him to the Lord during the Rolling Thunder Tour. I’m Not There seems generally to follow the alternate version that Dylan was brought there by one of his spouses.


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