November 19, 2019

The many sides of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s Jewish identity has long been a point of conflict and controversy. His short-lived conversion to born-again Christianity dismayed many, heartened a few and confused all. But at least two commentators are certain that Jewishness and Judaism inform the core of the former Robert Zimmerman’s beliefs and music.

Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman, the director-writer and co-writer, respectively, of the new Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” which opens theatrically in wide release on Nov. 21, are convinced, after living with their project for many years, that Bob Dylan remains a Jew.

“I’m Not There” is part of a mini-floodlet of new Dylan filmed material that is hitting theaters and DVD stores this month. Also being shown for the first time are Murray Lerner’s compendium of concert footage from Dylan’s folkie days, “The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan, Newport, 1963-1965,” and an hour-long collection of outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal “Don’t Look Back,” called “65 Revisited.”

But “I’m Not There” is stirring the most controversy. As practically everyone seems to know by now, Haynes’s film divides Dylan’s life into six personae, each represented by a different actor. We see Dylan progress in fragments from a 12-year-old African American boy (the wonderfully serious Marcus Carl Franklin) through a soft-spoken poet (Ben Wishaw); an earnest folkie who eventually is reborn as a Christian preacher (Christian Bale); a troubled actor, father and husband (Heath Ledger); a snarky pop star (Cate Blanchett); and a mellowed outlaw (Richard Gere). For each of these aspects of Dylan, Haynes devises a different visual style, ranging from the black-and-white faux-cinema-vérité-cum-Fellini of the Blanchett sequences to the amber twilight of the Gere passages.

By all rights, this should feel gimmicky, even foolish. But Haynes invests each of his “Dylans” with a powerful presence that is the perfect counterpart to the music of each period in Dylan’s career, and at the same time links all the personae to a central humanity. In its own oddball way, “I’m Not There” is among the best pieces of music criticism I’ve seen or read on the subject of Bob Dylan. It is a jigsaw puzzle, with its various pieces scattered around the table by a deft, if quirky hand. It’s a film that rewards close attention and deserves repeated viewings.

The film’s one significant omission is the place of Judaism in Dylan’s life.

“That is the most secret and well-preserved of his personae,” Todd Haynes replied when asked about that gap at the New York Film Festival. “I think Dylan’s relationship to his Jewishness is much more private than any of the other roles he has played; it’s kept close to his relationship with his family life, and I don’t think we’re supposed to know more about it than that.”

“[Judaism] is the one central thing in his entire biography,” Moverman said in a telephone interview last week. “Whether it is overt or not, it is there. Even the Christian period occurred as a reaction against his Jewishness, and that lasted only three years, and the next thing you know, Dylan is doing Chabad telethon appearances.”

One could argue, I suppose, that Moverman and Haynes are biased. Moverman is an Israeli now living in Brooklyn, for whom, in his words, “being Jewish and Israeli are a huge part of my identity.” Haynes is half-Jewish by his mother, and when it was pointed out to him during an interview last week that halachically he is a Jew, he sat upright on a sofa and said with a huge grin, “And I’m damned proud of it.”

Haynes acknowledges that he didn’t have a religious upbringing. Raised in the San Fernando Valley in a largely Jewish community, he notes that “I never felt like a member of a minority group. I didn’t understand jokes about Barbra Streisand’s nose. I thought she was glamorous and sexy.”

Although he is not religious, Haynes feels he is deeply imbued with a sense of his own Jewishness.

“I identify it, and its manifestations, through an innate sense of the role of the entertainer and the comic; the origins of popular theater and the role of humorist are at their heart Jewish phenomena, and the leftist historical associations, the commitment to progressiveness that are the historical associations with Judaism in America,” he said, adding “I see that in Dylan as well. For all his desire to efface himself, he is the natural inheritor of the role of the Jewish performer. It’s there in his wit, his politics and his performances — the way he throws himself into them.”

Haynes admits he can’t identify with the performer side of Dylan: “That’s the big difference between us. As a performer he is insistent on living in the moment, and a film director’s job is about as far from that as possible. He’s not reflective in nature; I am. The job of a director, of necessity, requires all kinds of planning and preparation.”

In fact, Haynes believes that his own most Jewish trait is his inclination towards reflectiveness.

“The history of Jewish thinking is analytical and reflective,” he said.

Murray Lerner has been filming pop music performances for several decades now, and in recent years he has begun to make the results more widely available for both theatrical and home video use. His Dylan film, centered on the singer-songwriter’s appearances at the 1963 and 1965 Newport Folk Festivals, shows how each of those performances represents a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career. The first was his coronation as the “king of the protest singers,” a label Haynes makes clear Dylan loathed. The second performance was one of the most famous of Dylan’s career, the moment when he first played with an electric band, tossing aside the too-heavy crown of folksong royalty in exchange for the colorful robes of rock ‘n’ roll prophet. If you wanted to see two early Dylan performances preserved, these would be on the short list.

Lerner’s method is utter simplicity. He plants the camera where it can see the performer, usually just far enough away to show him in the larger physical context of the stage; he is sparing in his cuts to different camera angles, never imposing his own rhythmic choices on the music, and shows us audience reactions only between numbers. The result is an intense focus on the artist as creation takes place, and, in this case, the results are compelling.