Like a Rolling Zone

Zushe ben Avraham — put down that G-string of a guitar, comb your hair straight and stop that mumbling.

And while you're at it, buy some popcorn for a picture that shows not just that "The Times They Are a-Changin' " but that the movies are, too.

"I'm Not There" is here, up there on screen right now, as nonlinear a film as you'll find in a mainstream theater — it's as if someone put a finger up to see which way the wind was blowin' and discovered it's a dervish of directions.

The straight-to-the-heart "I'm Not There" explores, in a roundabout way, the sinfully rich song-filled saga of Zushe ben Avraham-cum-Robert Allen Zimmerman-cum-Bob Dylan, the troubled troubadour knocking down doors of an unhinged society all the while knockin' at heaven's door.

Just who knew there would be six different angels awaiting him when he did?

Todd Haynes' high-spirited surreal cinematic fete of the singer/composer/ poet/actor/author and magna-cum-mumbler stars a sextet of stars stealing the soul of the 66-year-old collector of social insecurities, giving them ids in as idiosyncratic a film as Hollywood has seen in some time.

It's like a rolling zone — zigging, zagging time frames unruly as weed and high above the crowds.

Sure, there may be some who can't wait to get their hands on Haynes for what they see as sacrilege of their sacrosanct singer/ star. But bet the guitar, Dylan — who, says Haynes, has not seen the film yet — won't be one of them.

The Minnesota prince of pieces of styles and stiletto-size songs — never one to be pigeonholed — won't be flipping anyone the bird here. After all, how can Dylan, an iconoclast, eye an artist with a case of creative chaos as anything but a colleague in controlled cacophony?

Symbolizing different aspects of his rolling stone of a song catalogue over a 50-year span, "I'm Not There" and its six actors –including a young black train-travelin' Dylan-in-training (Marcus Carl Franklin) who goes by the name Woody Guthrie — is a folk song/tale of fantasy.

And fantastic it is.

Haynes, whose hit list includes a Barbie doll film biography of "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," as well as "Velvet Goldmine" and the more conventional "Far From Heaven," is never far from losing his audience here in "I'm Not There." But the timing is a'changing as the film revels in, rather than portrays, Dylan, revealing his role in music as it rolls along.

Musical biog in six-part disharmony? "Between his protest period, his Christian period — his conversion to Christianity — it's all driven by this desire for moral clarity," says the director/co-writer.

As with Dylan's deluge of numbers advocating peace, upping the ante as an anti-war wordsmith, "he wanted to have the answer and provide it with music."

Questions remain: What the film does show is Dylan's dabbling in Christianity, albeit it does not explore his commitment to Judaism. And while Haynes acknowledges Dylan "creates himself [in] places where he goes," sometimes Dylan seems directionless.

Music man as myth? Professor Harold Hill with harmonica?

"He lives in the moment of performance."

And if fans think he created an electric shock with his plugged-in performance at Newport in '65, the 66-year-old had even more zaps to zing them with.

In an interview for the Los Angeles Times in late 1980, writer Robert Hilburn got the Dylan crossing over: "Bob Dylan has finally confirmed … what he's been saying in his music for 18 months: He's a born-again Christian. Dylan said he accepted Jesus Christ in his heart in 1978 after 'a vision and feeling' during which the room moved."

Did the earth move for his fans? Or was he screwing with their minds and souls? Was that "Slow Train Coming" steaming down a trinity track of treason for his Jewish followers?

It was a shot of love heard 'round the world, but not one that echoed for any length of time. Shortly after, Dylan was proclaiming his commitment to Orthodoxy, reportedly doing the dayenus at High Holiday gatherings and even being called for an aliyah.

Beaming from the bimah? There was no doubt that was one kvelling Jewish father watching his son have his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall. Indeed, was the singer wailing himself?

How come then this unorthodox film doesn't delve into his Orthodox commitments?

"There's plenty that the film doesn't get into," concedes Haynes. "That element [of his life] didn't deal with his work; that belongs more to his private life."

Certainly, Dylan's professed a catholic attitude since. While his "flirtation" with Lubavitch had many of its leaders aflutter — indeed, at the time, one Lubavitch official visited me at the office, excited to impart "impending news" soon about Dylan (which never came) — Mr. Tambourine Man changed his tune once more, going from daydream believer to Nightmare on Hester Street.

Lay some tefillin on him? Lay off the Jewishness. Ten years ago, Dylan reported to Newsweek: "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light' — that's my religion.

"I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that … I believe the songs."

Believe it: Indeed, he subsequently told The New York Times the news of the week: "Dylan says he now subscribed to no organized religion," wrote Jon Pareles.

Without parallel, Dylan is one diddlin' dude. And what comes out of "I'm Not There" is the incessant change he adheres to religiously. Dilly-dallyin' Dylan? Billy the kidder? "He lives to perform his work," notes Haynes.

And if "I'm Not There" is a jumble of jarring jagged scenes for some fans, well, then, so is Dylan. A title taken from an outtake of Dylan's "The Basement Tapes," "I'm Not There" is where he's at.

After all, admits Haynes of the cinematic sideshow tracking the uncornered carnival barker Bob in a circuitous circus, "There is no way of cheating Dylan out of his own weirdness."



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