Saturday, June 28, 2014

I'm Not There: Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan Movie: From the Archives

I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
W/ Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw
Cincinnati CityBeat; 2007

Grade:  A-

By Steven Rosen

Music biopics tend to be prosaic in form – a chronological recounting of a pop star’s life, highlighting the push-and-pull between personal tragedies and artistic triumphs. Usually, such films get their energy and achieve their success through the acting and music – Ray and Walk the Line being the most notable recent examples. Their narratives are clichéd.

But I’m Not There is only loosely modeled on, yet nevertheless profoundly about, Bob Dylan’s life. It is different. Director and co-writer (with Oren Moverman) Todd Haynes has structured a freewheelin’ film (with Dylan’s permission) based on the associative imagery and mystique that a great Dylan song creates when heard by a fan. You’ll like this film if you ever craned toward a radio trying to decipher and construe lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone,” or wonder about the man behind that drawling, seductive, alluring – and radically singular – voice. And who hasn’t?

Six very different actors – including Cate Blanchett (photo above) in a turn worthy of an Oscar nomination – play Dylan-inspired characters (the name “Bob Dylan” is never mentioned). Although there is ample crosscutting to keep each one’s story moving forward simultaneously, their worlds are presented like different movies with different moods. Sometimes those separate stories are shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman with different film stock, or in black-and-white rather than color.

Haynes, who also made Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, has a degree in art and semiotics – perfect for a filmmaker steeped in the resonance and historic meaning of metaphor and symbolism. But he’s not an overly intellectualized cineaste trapped inside his own head. He likes to have fun; he can be an incredibly provocative “jokerman,” to quote from a Dylan song. 

In Dylan, he has a perfect subject, too – an artist who has manipulated and controlled his own mystique-cloaked persona to the point his “periods” are almost as important to us as the solstice and equinox were to the ancients.

I’m Not There is encoded with references to Dylan’s life and art, as well as to the filmmakers whose avant-garde approach to commercial movies – Jean-Luc Godard, Fellini, Richard Lester, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Altman – did so much in Haynes’ view to free pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Just like Dylan. In one incredible short span, Haynes references Fellini’s 8 ½, Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and, delightfully, the Teletubbies! In one of his boldest moves, inspired by a close reading of Greil Marcus’ writings on Dylan, Haynes connects the rifle shot-like opening of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the way Godard used rifle shot-like editing to shake up devotees of the French New Wave.

Blanchett plays the doomed Jude, closely based on the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s black-and-white Don’t Look Back – a folk singer transforming into a blissed-out electric rock star during a mid-1960s London tour. Here, her Jude is alternately amused by and outraged by a British press that believes he has sold out.

Richard Gere is Billy, an aging outlaw who confronts the sheriff Pat Garrett in a circus town on the Western frontier. (Dylan had a small but influential, to him, role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.) Christian Bale is Jack, the folk/protest singer who took Greenwich Village by storm in the early 1960s and then dropped out to become Pastor John, a leader of a small evangelical church.

Ben Whishaw is Arthur Rimbaud, the mysterious French poet who inspired Dylan. Heath Ledger is Robbie, a Hollywood actor who once played Jack in a movie and is now breaking up with artist wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

And in a remarkable performance, African-American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin plays young Woody in late-1950s America, who runs away from home and hops a train trying to relive the adventures and lifestyle of idol Woody Guthrie. Gregarious and outspoken, he wins friends among hobos and – after he falls into a river and escapes a shark – a wealthy, middle-class family right out of Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Franklin’s joyous duet with Richie Havens on “Tombstone Blues” is a highlight.

Of these stories, only Robbie and Claire’s feels flat. It’s hard to take the time to authentically depict romantic heartbreak in a film moving as fast as this one. And Robbie seems pretty far removed from Dylan.

What unifies everything, ultimately, is the thrilling use of Dylan’s songs by music supervisors Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar both on the soundtrack and as performed on screen. That begins with “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” during an opening montage of 1960s life in Greenwich Village, and ends with Antony and the Johnsons’ tender reading of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” during the closing credits.

The title, itself, comes from a haunting, simmering Basement Tape outtake previously unreleased but made legendary by Marcus in his book Invisible Republic. The film contains two versions – Dylan’s original and a new one by Sonic Youth.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Overlooked Performances: Royale Watkins in 'My Dinner With Jimi'

(Deeper Into Movies begins an occasional feature singling out overlooked fine performances in movies you may or may not know about, but are worth seeing if you savor the art of acting.)

My Dinner With Jimi

(Rhino; 90 minutes)

(First published at
 Royale Watkins gives a charismatic, sexy and endearing performance as Jimi Hendrix in this wryly comic, sweet-natured reverse-Don’tLook Back remembrance of a trip to Swinging London by California posters the Turtles in 1967, at the height of their “Happy Together”/”She’d Rather Be With Me" fame.
 On their arrival, the night before Sgt. Pepper is released, wide-eyed Turtles singer Howard Kaylan (a very effective Justin Henry, child star of Kramer vs. Kramer) meets the Beatles, Graham Nash, Donovan, Brian Jones and Hendrix at a nightclub. More fan than rock star, chubby and poorly dressed and not especially hip, Kaylan is both an outsider and – because he has a pop hit – an insider in this rarified world. 
John Lennon (Brian Groh) is drunk and cruel, Jones (Jay Michael Ferguson) proves a gentlemanly fan of Southern California pop, Hendrix – not yet known in the U.S. – imparts wisdom during an alcohol-fueled dinner.
Made in 2003 on a restrictive budget by Bill Fishman (Tapeheads), with a screenplay by Kaylan that relies too heavily on narration, it transcends its limitations and feels real because of superb casting and acting.It casts a spell.
 Special features: Commentary by Kaylan and producer Harold Bronson, short film about the Turtles’ British trip.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Merits of Movies That Mess With Your Head: From the Archives

By Steven Rosen

(This story first ran in 2006, but I'm not sure where -- SR)

Robert McKee, the screenwriting lecturer and author of “Story,” believes that three distinct styles of movie narrative occupy a pyramid of importance – classical design, minimalism and anti-structure.

The first is by far the most popular, with its single protagonist, external conflict and closed, tightly wrapped-up endings. Minimalist comes next – challenging narratives with multiple protagonists, inner conflicts and sometimes-ambiguous open endings. And then there’s anti-structure – films not afraid to call attention to themselves as films first, stories second. David Lynch, for instance.

“When you go down the triangle, you’re eliminating the audience,” McKee said during a Los Angeles seminar this year. “Absolute forms of minimalism and anti-structure just don’t seem like life to them. What you’re left with are cineaste intellectuals who like to have their worlds twisted every now and then.”

Well, maybe. But there sure seem to be a lot of movies out this fall – big-budget, high-profile Hollywood productions as well as smaller art films – that toy with or completely embrace these “audience-eliminating” styles. A few examples:

Ø  Babel: Making abrupt, unannounced switches in chronological order, this film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga very loosely connects three downbeat stories set in Morocco, Mexico and Japan, each featuring characters with much inner angst.
Ø  Bobby: Writer-director Emilio Estevez interweaves and in some cases leaves unresolved the stories of 22 characters staying at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was fatally assassinated there in 1968.
Ø  Déjà Vu: This Jerry Bruckheimer/Tony Scott drama starts as a conventionally plotted thriller about a terrorist, but veers off into complicated layers of parallel construction as the hero – and the film – travels through space and time to save a dead woman’s life.
Ø  Happy Feet: This animated feature from “Mad Max” director George Miller – already unusual in featuring penguins who sing and dance yet otherwise live in the Antarctic like actual penguins – breaks a Fourth Wall when they come into contact with realistically rendered humans who are amazed that penguins can tap dance.
Ø  The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky moves between three time periods – the 16th Century world of a Spanish conquistador, the present world of a novelist, and the future world of a space traveler.
Ø  Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus: Rather than a conventional biopic about the photographer attracted to outsiders, Steven Shainberg’s film turns into a weird “Alice-in-Wonderlandish” blending of realism and fantasy in which Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) is attracted to a semi-mythical hair-covered “freak” living upstairs.
Ø  Inland Empire: David Lynch’s three-hour opus is beyond description, as it moves randomly between an L.A. actress (Laura Dern) losing control of her identity to hookers dancing to Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” to rabbits in clothes, living in an apartment, whose every word is accompanied by a sitcom laugh track.
Ø  Stranger than Fiction: Writer Zach Helm’s film, directed by Marc Forster, stars Will Ferrell as an IRS agent who discovers he is actually the character in a novel being written by Emma Thompson. Worse, he thinks the film’s voice-over narration is coming from inside his head.

So what gives? It seems to be the impact of several outside external sources: Heralded self-referencing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”); the Oscar-winning success Paul Haggis’ ensemble drama “Crash”; the impact of hit television dramas influenced by “Hill Street Blues;” and the ongoing pressure for auteurist directors and writers to establish credentials by offering something new.

“We’ve run out of new content,” says Howard Suber, a longtime professor of story structure at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television and author of “The Power of Film.” “It’s hard to think of any subject, any kind of story, where somebody could say, ‘No film has ever talked about what this film talks about.’ That leaves, if there are aspirations to be an artistic filmmaker, experiments with style.”

This seems to have been a motivation for Shainberg and his writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, on “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.” In a way, it’s stylistically an anti-biopic – similar in inspiration to the way writer Kaufman in 2002’s “Adaptation” turned Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief,” about an orchid collector, into a weird meta-struggle between Kaufman and his twin brother (both played by Nicolas Cage) to adopt Orlean’s book.

Another such “anti-biopic” may appear in 2007 – Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan” – in which seven actors, including Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere, play Bob Dylan at different career stages.

“Why is this happening? I could give you a meta-answer,” Shainberg says. “It’s about how much media there is. It’s about how much information we get about everyone and how just portraying it straight really isn’t interesting anymore.”

That explains the motivation. But why is the audience receptive – or, at least, not in open revolt – to such experimentation? Because film is a very good medium for it. It’s especially good for directors who want to visually play with the logical order of time and space. “One of the things film does better than any other medium is cut back and forth between time and space,” Suber says.

Filmmakers historically have been more conservative about narrative experiments. Directors and writers felt they inherited a tradition going back to Greek theater of basic stories around a major problem of a central character, with all else secondary. Successful variations were few, like Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” because audiences tended to view open-ended multi-character stories as dramatically flat or too complicated to follow.

Now the approach is hot. It is identified with directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”) Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”). Coming up is Karen Moncrieff’s “The Dead Girl,” featuring Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt and Brittany Murphy as women affected in different ways by a serial killer.

Suber says ensemble-cast television dramas with ongoing “multithreaded” plots, especially the groundbreaking “Hill Street Blues” of the 1980s and later “ER,” changed the audience. “It took the audience a long time to deal with what was initially confusing,” he says. “But once they learned, they had learned storytelling that was infinitely more complicated.”

And films are eager to take advantage of that.

(Photo is of David Lynch)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tom Snyder Interviews Punk and New Wave Stars on DVD

DVD Review

“The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk & New Wave”
(Shout Factory)
Grade: B-

By Steven Rosen
(This first ran in 2006)

Tom Snyder was one heck of a strange television talk-show host. His questions to guests frequently turned into long-winded monologues and he loved nothing more than to try to crack up his (off-camera) crew with adlibs and in-jokes. Today, he comes across as preening – especially when his dark eyebrows and longish hair are framed in tight close-up. 

But on his NBC late-night show, broadcast from 1973-1982, he did often let punks and New Wavers play and then talk freely. This two-disc set makes you fast-forward through entire programs just to get to the musicians, but it’s worth it. Elvis Costello is a delightful charmer, Iggy Pop proves to be both an intellectual and a crazed wild man – simultaneously. 

The late Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics makes terrible music but is sexy and funny. Patti Smith, who talks but doesn’t sing, poignantly, shyly discusses her vulnerabilities and views on life and death. One can watch Snyder falling in love with her on-screen. 

Only a sneering, insulting John Lydon promoting his P.I.L. is a jerk – but then, you’d expect that of him.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Classic Movies Enliven a Historic Theater in Lexington, Ky.

Big Screen Summer Classics

Lexington’s historic Kentucky Theatre keeps classic movies alive

BY STEVEN ROSEN · JUNE 4TH, 2014 · SUMMER GUIDE Cincinnati citybeat.
screen shot 2014-06-04 at 10.10.54 am copyTo Catch a Thief - Paramount Pictures
Larry Thomas, a longtime local film buff and lover of great old movie theaters, speaks for many Cincinnatians when he says, “I try at least once a week to consciously think to curse the names of all those who had a hand in murdering the Albee. What a waste!”

It’s indeed hard to believe Cincinnati didn’t save even one of its many downtown movie palaces built early in the 20th century, especially the showcase 3,500-seat Albee Theatre on Fountain Square. It was demolished in 1977.  
However, many other cities moved to protect, restore and revitalize their classic theaters, seeing them as quintessential parts of the big-city experience. Luckily, today we can still get that experience by going some 100 miles south to Lexington, Ky. Thomas has played an important role in that.

The grand, 800-seat downtown Kentucky Theatre — built in 1922 and now owned by Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government — recently underwent an interior renovation. A nonprofit group raised $800,000 for digital projection and a refurbished auditorium with new seats and lighting. (The theater closed as a private business in 1987 after a fire; it reopened in 1992 as a government-owned facility.)

The Kentucky today can be appreciated just for its architecture — the lovely domed, stained-glass windows, the original marble floor in the lobby, the 1940s-era neon-accented marquee. But it also lures because of its inventive, informed programming supervised by Thomas. 

Thomas owned downtown Cincinnati’s The Movies repertory cinema in the 1980s and now works for WVXU as an editorial consultant but also books the Kentucky for its management team. It’s his favorite of the cluster of theaters he books, and the best part of the job for him occurs in summer when he arranges the Summer Classics series. The classic films he chooses screen Wednesdays at 1:30 and 7:15 p.m. now through Sept. 3. 

On June 4, the Kentucky presents a new, digitally restored version of 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, David Lean’s sweepingly romantic three-hour-plus adaptation of the Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.
Subsequent classics set for the Kentucky’s big screen are: Orson Welles’ 1947 The Lady From Shanghai (June 11); Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (June 18); Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (June 25); Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (July 2); Mary Poppins (July 9); the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (July 16); Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity (July 23); Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (July 30); the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (Aug. 6); Preston Sturges’ screwball-comedy classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Aug. 13); James Stewart in Harvey (Aug. 20); This Is Spinal Tap (Aug. 27); and Fellini’s masterful  (Sept. 3). All seats are $6.

This is the 11th year for Summer Classics, and the series has a large, devoted following. 

“I don’t remember who had the original idea, but that first year was beyond my wildest imaginations for getting people in,” Thomas says. “I thought, ‘Holy Cow, we must have struck a nerve,’ because people were coming by the bucketful.”

Thomas believes Summer Classics has developed its keen following by convincing an audience that new, digitally restored (and digitally projected) prints — shown on a giant screen — make the theatrical presentations genuine cultural events.  

That’s especially true when such new prints get issued for a classic film’s anniversary — as is happening this year for the 50th anniversary of the black-pitched antiwar comedy Dr. Strangelove and The Beatles’ ebullient A Hard Day’s Night; and for the 30th of Stop Making Sense, among others.

Thomas also believes this is a golden era for seeing classics in a preserved movie palace ... if a city was wise enough to save one.

“The audience at the Kentucky is definitely more hip than a multiplex audience,” Thomas says. “They know the directors, they know the classics and they know about digital restoration.”
“For so many years all you could get were worn prints — spliced, scratched and with defective soundtracks,” he says. “Any time you could get hold of a new 35-millimeter [film] print of something, it was a big deal. Now with digital prints, they’re stunning.”

(The historic Victoria Theatre in Dayton, primarily a live-event venue, still uses 35-mm prints for its summer Cool Films series.)

There are other reasons to visit the Kentucky this summer. There is a lovely 350-seat second auditorium that was once a separate, adjacent theater called the State, where first-run art/indie/upscale movies are normally presented.

And since 2011, Lexington has had a Harry Dean Stanton Festival honoring the Kentucky-born character actor. This year, Stanton is coming with Michelle Phillips for a closing-night screening of their 1973 gangster-film Dillinger at the Kentucky Theatre 7 p.m. June 15. Tickets are $7. The Kentucky also is screening Repo Man at midnight June 13 as part of the fest (

Also, for three Wednesday nights in September, a nonprofit group called sQecial media presents the Rosa Goddard Film Festival for foreign films at the Kentucky. The films are Alain Resnais’ 1961 Last Year at Marienbad (Sept. 10); Czech director Jaromil Jires’ 1970Valerie & Her Week of Wonders (Sept. 17); and French director Agnes Varda’s 1970 Cleo From 5 to 7 (Sept. 24).

The KENTUCKY THEATRE is located at 214 Main St. in downtown Lexington. For more information, call 859-231-6997 or