I’m Not There forces Breihan to throw his hands in the air. Although he’s certainly right that in Haynes’ film the music enforces the Dylan mythos instead of being an end in itself, I’m not sure you can dismiss Dylan’s own propensity for allying himself with history – for wanting to merge with history. I’m Not There acknowledges, implicitly, that “Bob Dylan” is an empty cavern. That’s why five of the film’s six secret sharers balk at becoming what his critics and admirers want – and why most of his great work (especially his most recent work) attains the glazed anonymity of those blues idioms he reveres. The performance of Marcus Carl Franklin as the round-faced folkie uncorks a number of ironies, however. This version of Dylan is so full of brio – so devoted to becoming part of a folk history he already understands better than men much older and more proficient – that there’s no way we can accept his anonymity. I can think of no other reason why the audience endures the longeurs of the Richard Gere scenes than Haynes’ wanting to show how aesthetic ambition eventually collapses into a need to vanish (the pine trees in the forest where the Gere character lives project more charisma).

I’ve admitted many times that I rarely listen to “classic” Dylan (for old time’s sake I threw on Bringing It All Back Home while showering this morning, my first real listen in seven years, I think. I’ve nothing to say except I’d forgotten the fragility of “She Belongs To Me,” at once an incomplete summation and exactly as long as it needs to be). But often I’ll thrown on minor Dylan like New Morning, Planet Waves, or my beloved Empire Burlesque, the latter of which exerts an undying fascination. I love how the intimations of apocalypse, references to Madame Butterfly and the Last Supper, and those herky-jerkily enunciated attempts at witticisms are so at odds with Arthur Baker’s trendy production; while Dylan’s reminding people that a vast culture exists in which high and low intermingle, Baker’s fretting about how to turn “Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?)” into a dance chart top ten like his remix of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” I wish Todd Haynes had cast Rupert Everett or somebody as the Disco Dylan, sporting a silver sports jacket, wailing the Breakout-era Pointer Sisters number “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” as a reminder that any movie examining an artist’s mythos should look at its grisliest aspects (to be fair, Haynes shoots Christian Bale, clad in polyester, re-enacting Born Again Dylan in a pretty good rendition of Saved‘s “Pressing On”). Would that Haynes have written a scene with Antonio Banderas playing the mustachioed Dylan of “Love & Theft.”

I admire Marcello Carlin because he writes posts as if they were paid magazine articles. Then, on the couple of occasions when as an editor I solicited material from him, he delights me with submissions that suffers no loss of concentration. Since I know little about his private life, I can only guess at the horrors he endured; but I’m happy he’s got a reason to be optimistic, and hope it’s not churlish of me to admit that I hope he still writes. If not, I hope he stays in touch –he was always someone I wanted to know.

Here’s my favorite recent post, searching and complete enough to prevent me from publishing my own thoughts on what it’s one of the year’s best albums.

Kelly McDonald’s delicately shaded pathos lets the air into the vacuum chamber of the Coens’ adaptation of No Country For Old Men. By filming most of McDonald’s last scene off-camera, they actually improve on the novel; sketching a character’s loss of dignity works best on the page, without the camera’s literalizing tendencies. I also liked how McDonald and Javier Bardem’s performances matched up in their only scene together. Although he’s the executioner, he exudes what Jorge Luis Borges, in a short story titled “Death and the Compass” that’s as meticulously composed as No Country For Old Men but devastating in subtle ways that the film and book are not, called “an impersonal — almost anonymous — sadness.” Bardem and McDonald’s muted duet is more eloquent than Tommy Lee Jones’ well-delivered but literary ruminations on how the times they are a-changin’.

Lily Bart killed herself! According to a Charles McGrath story in today’s New York Times, a letter written by Edith Wharton to Dr. Francis Kinnicutt, “a well-known society doctor who specialized in the mental ailments of the well-to-do,” supposedly reveals that Wharton planned on doing away with the heroine of her second and best novel The House of Mirth after all. The coldness with which she contemplates dispatching Lily sounds just like classic Wharton (“I have a heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her”); but even if it weren’t, I don’t see why we would give the writer final word anyway. In literature, intentions rarely produce results. Besides, the ending is clear to me. As Roxanna Robinson points out: “If [Lily] doesn’t take action here, if her death occurs by chance (or if Anna Karenina had fallen under the wheels by mistake), the tragedy is drained of much of its power.”

I reviewed the audiobook here.

A dog

The appearance of Harry Dean Stanton in Alpha Dog is its most surreal moment. He has a scene in the first third in which he rasps some rutting-goat pussy talk to the Johnny Truelove character on a baseball field that warms Bruce Willis’ smirk into a smile faster than receiving his first cut of the percentages for Live Free Or Die Hard. Nick Cassavetes is such an inept director that not once does he realize that Stanton’s casual rancidness is more endearing and menacing than the Less Than Zero-inspired Natty Ice chugging of his young cast (who all look like they’re having a ball, as well they should). That goes double for casting is-it-really Alan Thicke as a horrified parent; jeez, even Richard Kelly had fun with Patrick Swayze in Donnie Darko. Too busy directing actors to revel in Larry Clark-inspired youth porn, he fails to reconcile his exploitation tendencies with his moralistic ones — Cassavetes betrays his similarities with Justin Timberlake’s Frankie, Alpha Dog’s closest thing to a moral conundrum. The profanity isn’t even convincingly profane. For fans of Swimfan pool sex, though, Cassavetes films a surprisingly restrained threesome which actually got my juices flowing thanks to Anton Yelchin, who as the victim hits all the right notes as a kid comfortable slipping between hedonism and naivete when it suits him.

As for Justin, he earns most of the plaudits heaped on him at the beginning of the year. Bravado becomes a form of sweetness; and he moves on camera with a self-mocking grace, a star who understands how dorkiness makes him more attractive.

Why Norman Mailer is immortal…

From The Armies of the Night, his essay-novel about the 1967 anti-war rallies, in which he resorts to every bit of skullduggery to get himself arrested:

…Mailer finally came to decide that his love for his wife while not at all equal or congruent to his love for America was damnably parallel. It was not inconceivable to him that if he finally came to believe his wife was not nearly so magical as he would make her, but was in fact petty, stingy, small-minded, and evilly stubborn (which is what he told her in many a quarrel) why then he would finally lose some part of his love affair with America, he would have to, because there were too many times when thinking of his country and some new one of the unspeakable barbarities it invented with every corporation day, he would decide that no it would not be an altogether awful country because otherwise how would his wife, a Southerner and an Army brat, have come out so subtle, so supple, so mysterious, so fine-skinned, so tender and wise.

It’s all there: the sentimentality about women, the hysterical analogies, the preening, the (really) subtle self-parody. Let us suggest that it’s a relief he has no real imitators.

Why Norman Mailer is immortal…

From The Armies of the Night, his essay-novel about the 1967 anti-war rallies, in which he resorts to every bit of skullduggery to get himself arrested:

…Mailer finally came to decide that his love for his wife while not at all equal or congruent to his love for America was damnably parallel. It was not inconceivable to him that if he finally came to believe his wife was not nearly so magical as he would make her, but was in fact petty, stingy, small-minded, and evilly stubborn (which is what he told her in many a quarrel) why then he would finally lose some part of his love affair with America, he would have to, because there were too many times when thinking of his country and some new one of the unspeakable barbarities it invented with every corporation day, he would decide that no it would not be an altogether awful country because otherwise how would his wife, a Southerner and an Army brat, have come out so subtle, so supple, so mysterious, so fine-skinned, so tender and wise.

It’s all there: the sentimentality about women, the hysterical analogies, the preening, the (really) subtle self-parody. Let us suggest that it’s a relief he has no real imitators.

Hilarity and hooey

Matos has a wonderful post about his experience watching The Piano Teacher. When I saw it in 2002 it spooked me in ways that movies rarely do, and for months afterwards I wondered whether Michael Haneke’s immersion in masochism obscured me from judging its merits. It reminded me of Pauline Kael’s caveats about Hitchcock’s Psycho: too well-made to dismiss entirely, yet the masterly immersion in emotional and physical violence revealed the director’s true sympathies. The crucial difference is that Hitchcock made pulp, while Haneke, at worst, made tony pulp; his aesthetic distance is so pronounced that the only people you’d imagine getting off on his fantasies would be better-than-average SNL writers with a talent for spoofing the taciturn verities of a certain kind of European art cinema (the empty parlor room theatrics of Haneke’s subsequent Cache is closer to what Haneke’s critics have in mind than The Piano Teacher).

At any rate, what I remember most from The Piano Teacher is not the sex between Isabelle Huppert and the doe-eyed hottie who has no idea what he’s awakened, but the delineation of a trope as old as The Wind and maybe The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde’s, not Albert Lewin’s): how aesthetic detachment creates a yearning for violence, self-inflicted or otherwise. For the record, I think the idea is bollocks, but it exerts a powerful fascination on artists; maybe it’s wish-fulfillment, a compensation for the drudgery of creation. Haneke’s enough of a ten-cent Freudian (and Hitchcockian) to blame Huppert’s freakiness on her maman, with whom she actually shares a bed in case we miss the point. But Annie Girardot is so intensely needy that she goes beyond repulsive caricature into archetype; a scene late in the picture between them walks so dangerously close to the line of parody that in the wrong mood I might laugh it off too (how easy to imagine Cloris Leachman and Carol Burnett in their places). That’s the…well, not pleasure, but satisfaction that this kind of French Grand Guignol provides: we’re forced to constantly examine our reactions, forced to analyze how quickly we’re inclined to lapse into irony when emotional nakedness — even stylized, didactic nakedness like Haneke’s — troubles us. As I’ve said already, seeing Haneke’s other films tempts me to dismiss TPT with all kinds of glibness (just thinking about Cache reminds me of an imaginary graduate thesis on colonialism). Which is why I can’t ever rewatch it — my sensibilities have been too influenced by David Lynch as it is.