True, Valid Death Off a Movie Screen:
Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There

by David L. Smith
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Central Michigan University


1. Actually, Haynes takes the phrase from Greil Marcus, who applies it to the sound and spirituality of early Southern mountain ballads. See Marcus, G. 1997. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 114.

2. From Dylan’s interview with Nat Hentoff in Playboy (March 1966), in Cott, J. (ed.). 2006. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. New York: Wenner Books. 98.

3. Marcus. Invisible Republic. ix.

4. Emerson, R. W.The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Spiller, R. E. et al., eds. 1971 - . 6 vols. to date. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 4:4.

5. Studies of Dylan that represent this point of view include Day, A. 1988. Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan. New York: Basil Blackwell Inc.; Gray, M. 2000. Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan. New York: Continuum), and Stephen Scobie, S. 2003. Alias Bob Dylan Revisited. Calgary, Alberta: Red Deer Press.

6. Bob Dylan, B. 1984. liner notes for Biograph.

7. Newsweek interview with Gates, D. October 6, 1997. in Benjamin Hedin (ed.). 2004. Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 236. Billy speaks the lines in the film.

8. Haynes, in the DVD audio commentary, specifically cites Elia Kazan’s A Face In the Crowd (1957) as a model for this segment. Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941) is the model for the memory montage when Woody falls into the river.

9. Unlike Dylan, Jack goes straight from disillusionment with the folk scene to Christian preaching, eliding seventeen years of Dylan’s career. Also, once he settles into his role as preacher, he sticks with it, unlike Dylan who drifted away from explicit evangelicalism after a couple of years. Martin Scorsese’s source materials and interviews for the No Direction Home (2005) are the models for many scenes in this segment.

10. Haynes, in the audio commentary, cites Masculin féminin (1966) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966).

11. Pennebacker’s footage for Eat the Document (1972), by way of Scorsese’s reconstruction, also figures frequently in these segments.

12. Haynes, in the audio commentary, gives the genre this title, specifically citing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). “The old, weird America” is Greil Marus’ phrase for the world reflected in early folk recordings, especially as represented in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. See Marcus, Invisible Republic, 87-126.

13. Rimbaud’s influence in freeing up Dylan’s language is frequently cited. Dylan cites it himself in the 2004 Chronicles: Volume 1. New York: Simon & Schuster. 288. The historical incident behind Rimbaud’s “interrogation” here is the police inquest after he was shot by his lover, Paul Verlaine, an affair referred to in Dylan’s lyrics for “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” See Bob Dylan, B. 1985. Lyrics 1962-1985 New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 355.

14. Haynes characterizes his work as “queerist” in an interview with Cameron Lee, “Haynes ’85 Explains Dylan Film ‘I’m Not There’,” Brown Daily Herald, April 2, 2008: (accessed May 23, 2008). He is the director of Velvet Goldmine (1998), a film about the art and politics of imposture set in the glam-rock era; and the writer and director of Far From Heaven (2002), which builds on the work of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

15. See the excellent discussion of this term as it functioned in both folk culture and mid-century popular philosophy in Marqusee, M. 2003. Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Dylan’s Art. New York: The New Press. 36-42. For a vivid evocation of the aims and ideologies of the folk revival, see Cantwell, R. 1996. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

16. There were, of course, others—Alan Lomax chief among them—who argued for a more fluid notion of “living tradition,” recognizing that there is no “original form” to a folk song, and that the genres constantly interbreed. This is the stream on which Dylan drew. See Marqusee, Chimes, 21-22.

17. Much is sometimes made of a Newsweek article in 1963 that exposed Dylan’s various impostures, but in fact his disguise had already pretty well dissolved by then. As often happens in I’m Not There (e.g. in its depiction of audience reaction to Dylan “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965), Haynes opts for legend over history.

18. Watts, A. 1966. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Pantheon Books. 40.

19. This seems to be a favorite theme of Haynes’. Note, for instance, the quote from Oscar Wilde used in Velvet Goldmine: “The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second is no one yet has found out.”

20. Jude dismisses “sincerity” in the film as an inappropriate ideal: “Whoever said I was sincere?” Or in other words, why should I want to be? His model in this might well have been Emerson, who said “I am always insincere, as always knowing that there are other moods.” Emerson, Collected Works, 3:145. Likewise Emerson famously dismissed consistency as “the hobgoblin of little minds.” Emerson, Collected Works, 2:33.

21. Bob Dylan, B. 1964. The Bootleg Series, vol. 6: Live.

22. Note that Jude in the film, when asked why he has abandoned protest songs, says “all I ever do is protest.” Marqusee in Chimes makes a persuasive case for the essential continuity between Dylan’s protest phase and his work later in the 1960s.

23. Emerson, Collected Works, 2:188.

24. See Dylan’s apology for his drunken rant at the National Emergency Civil Liberties Council award ceremony in 1963, a passage from which is spoken in the film by Jack:

“it is a fierce heavy feeling
thinking something is expected of you
but you don’t know what exactly it is...
it brings forth a weird form of guilt.”

Quoted in Marqusee, Chimes, 89.

25. See Marcus’ discussion of the song in Invisible Republic, 198-204.

26. The back story for this collection of characters is Sam Peckinpah’s film, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), for which Dylan wrote the music and in which, appropriately enough, he played a character named “Alias.”

27. Emerson, Collected Works, 2:190.

28. Dylan speaks of his preference for songs composed with no motive in the Hentoff Playboy interview in Cott (ed.), Essential Interviews, 100. An excellent discussion of Dylan’s thinking on this point, which includes the quote about conscious thought and lies, is Luc Sante’s “I Is Someone Else,” The New York Review of Books, March 10, 2005: 35-38.

29. The extent to which Dylan thought of himself as defined by fate is indicated by the name he chose for the character he plays in Masked and Anonymous (2003), “Jack Fate.”

30. See Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan Behind the Shades Revisited ( New York: William Morrow, 2001), 147.

31. From “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” in Dylan, Lyrics, 72.

32. See the encyclopedic treatments of Dylan’s uses of folk and blues tradition in Grey, Song & Dance Man III. See also Dylan’s lovely account of his own working methods in an interview with Robert Hilburn from 2004, in Cott (ed.), Essential Interviews, 429-438.

33. From the Hentoff Playboy interview, in Cott (ed.), Essential Interviews, 98.

34. As Robert Cantwell writes of the experience of listening to early folk recordings, the records recover something remote “even as the nature of recording itself thrusts the performance away and into the past, opening in its absence an imaginary field in which all its sounds are immediately and urgently present.” Cantwell, When We Were Good, 197.

35. Dylan has frequently characterized the aim of his art this way. For instance, “Tangled Up in Blue” was intended to “defy time” by eliminating clear distinctions between past and present. (Heylin, Behind the Shades, 370) Blood On the Tracks as a whole, he said, was an album with “no sense of time.” (Heylin, Behind the Shades, 369) In Renaldo and Clara (1978) he set out to “stop time,” and thought he had succeeded: “We have literally stopped time in this movie.” (Scobie, Alias, 237)

36. A performance from 1964 was officially released on Biograph, 1985. See the extensive discussion of the song in Gray, Song & Dance Man III, 194-205. Gray sees the song as unique in Dylan’s output, but I believe the spiritual program it outlines can be traced throughout his career.

37. Nature resounds “like a bugle,” “like a banjo,” “like a hymn.” See Dylan, Lyrics, 120.

38. Dylan, Lyrics, 120.

39. In recent years, Dylan has continued to attribute this same kind of mystical or sustaining religious significance to traditional music: “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.... The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.” (From David Gates Newsweek interview, in Hedin (ed.), Studio A, 236.)

40. In Tanahashi, K. (ed.). 1985. Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen. San Francisco: North Point Press. 70.

41. Emerson, Collected Works. 2:190.

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