I’m Not There is a movie about the archetypes Bob Dylan has tapped into over the course of his career. It opens by giving him five definitions: Poet, Prophet, Outlaw, Fake, Star of Electricity, and the Ghost. A first impression would have us believe that each actor will stand in for that aspect of Dylan’s life. The fact that each life is introduced in what appears to be roughly chronological order would seem to back that up – the Fake lifts details from the early travelings of young Dylan after he set out to become a musician and before he became famous, such as the Fake calling himself Woody Guthrie in reference to Dylan’s fannish interest in him, and he’s followed by the Prophet, who lifts from Dylan’s life in the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Times They Are A-Changin’ era, and so on in that fashion*. With the data we’re initially given, each definition is very simple, easy, and fun to explicate. To be a Poet to give commands and judgement calls that sound beautiful, but require the listener to unpack them in order to consider if they’re true or not. To be a Fake is to put on a costume, preferably one that is ill-fitting, and see how long you can get away with it. To be a Prophet is to impart lessons upon the world. To be a Star of Electricity is to be a husband and father with a job that pulls you from them (I wonder how Dylan felt about the most mundane aspect of his life receiving the most magical title). To be the Ghost is to be a provocateur, not because you have any malice towards the system but because you never claimed to be a part of it. To be an Outlaw is, well, pretty much what you’d think.
These are all simple definitions, but the movie gives each section enough time to explore them and convey the nuance within them. The Star of Electricity weaves together the details of several of Dylan’s romantic escapades to show the passionate emotion of an artist in love – both the unbridled love and the entitled nature of a man who is usually considered the most interesting person in the room. The funniest joke in the movie riffs on Dylan’s observation that they called him a prophet when he was just a musician, but when he came back with something to say, nobody wanted to listen. The thing is, after each initial definition is clarified, the movie still keeps swinging back to the old imagery of the past lives, even though they ought to be irrelevant. Each life has a particular unique aesthetic; the Poet is in grainy black and white that’s all shot from one angle, the Fake is soft and gentle to the point of being impressionistic, the Ghost is in a sleek, clean black and white, and the Prophet is presented like a documentary. As the movie gains lives, it also gains aesthetics to recycle, and as it goes on, it remixes itself with an increasing glee. When you create any form of art that relies in some way on the passage of time, you must have things you recycle and things you only use once before throwing away. Throw away everything, and your work has nothing to keep audiences coming back. Too much repetition, and your audience becomes bored*.
*Though the fact that NCIS has been running for sixteen years shows that this is the less dangerous option financially.
I’m Not There recycles the imagery, and to make up for that, it’s constantly creating new definitions – or possibly, it’s constantly creating new definitions and using old imagery to create a sense of stasis. “Seven Simple Rules For Life In Hiding” is the part of the film that recycles the most hysterically, flipping wildly between every life that’s passed by so far, but it’s all held together by the fact that this is the section of the film that’s about being a Famous Person. Each of the lives are reckoning with their reputations in a different way and often for different reasons. The Poet gives his seven simple rules, all of which are tinged with the irony that both Dylan and the lives we see in the film are too famous to fully be able to heed them, even if they wanted to, with images chosen to match the rules he lays out. The Star of Electricity sees his reputation corrode his family. The Outlaw enjoys the temporary anonymity living outside civilisation can afford him, even as he knows it could come crashing down any second, and becomes amused when he recognises a different version of the Fake. The Ghost is disgusted and annoyed to see a critic on television drag him through the mud for perceived hypocrisy. The Prophet is hounded by reporters. Only the original Fake seems happy as his small audience applauds, but the surrounding images and sounds create a dark pall over this moment; this too will haunt him.
Becoming famous means one loses control over one’s iconography. John Lennon has become a symbol for the abusiveness and hypocrisy of hippie men as opposed to the symbol of peace and love he would have liked to think of himself. This is something that translates to general human interaction; your average incel would like to think of himself as one of the last remnants of masculinity, while everyone else thinks of him as one of its worst failures. It makes sense that a biopic of Dylan would dive into this topic, because not only is he one of the worst sufferers of it, he has found one of the most extreme reactions. It makes sense that a movie that invents a series of identities would explore it, too. There are only two solutions. One, never become somebody of note – say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing. Two, follow the path of Dylan and his lives, and allow your identity to become as fluid as water. Be comfortable recreating your sense of self from the ground up as you reach different stages in life, and allow yourself to seem to slide between them. The movie acts as a simulation of this philosophy, and this scene shows where it can eventually go.