I'm Not There: Bob Dylan and The Spirit
I first watched I’m Not There at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville. It’s a film based on the many lives of Bob Dylan, who is played by six different characters, including Kate Blanchett. It’s not your average movie fare, to say the least. It sparked several thoughts the first time I watched it. And on the flight back from Kuwait, I watched it again.
I’m not enough of a Dylan expert to feel qualified to evaluate the movie, but here is what it made me think.
Chaos is Key. The universe exists on the edge of order and chaos. The artist is the one who travels farther over the edge than anyone else, and brings part of his experience back. The revolutionary is the one who brings the chaos back with him. When Bob Dylan went electric at the height of his folk popularity, he found a way to introduce chaos into his world. From listening to him, it seems that this was his intention. Chaos is both destructive and constructive: it tears down the forms of the old, so that something new and unexpected may result.
There is no “End”. We deceive ourselves into seeing ourselves heading towards a climax. Perhaps that is the only way we can see things; but once there, we discover that our climax was only a local maximum on the road of history. The movie (perhaps unwittingly) made this point through several false endings, both in the individual characters’ lives, and in the movie as a whole. One character dodges a bullet and escapes to the hills, to live a reclusive life as a vanished legend. We’ve seen this story before; he goes out in a blaze of glory, but secretly he survives and vanishes into a cloud of dust. And his story is supposed to be over.
But life is not a fairy tale, and no matter how much legend we’ve created for ourselves, life must go on, and our character (no matter how much he tells himself otherwise) will continue to adventure and travel and run from the law.
Many in America saw their world coming to an end in the 1960s. Everything was falling out of whack: between hippies and war, assassinations and corruption, the world seemed like it was falling apart.
But life goes on, and so after the cultural apocalypse of the 60s and 70s, you have the 80s and 90s.
Humans are so used to expecting an end. Living in a world without end requires new ways of approaching life.
Jesus was an artist. The second time I watched the movie, I was struck by something that particularly hits home to me as a musician.
In one scene, the Bob Dylan character is fed up with the world, and goes out causing mayhem with poet Allen Ginsberg. In a park, they find a statue of Jesus on the cross, and begin hurling insults at it. But the insults are tinged with sarcasm: “Come down, boy, or you might get hurt up there!” and “Play your early stuff!”
The unspoken truth is that they are not actually mocking Jesus; they are seeing themselves in his place. Just like them, Jesus was a radical who was often simultaneously lauded, rejected and misunderstood by his own people. Just like them, Jesus was an artist, a poet - and the public didn’t always understand the demands of his art.
</div>The bane of the performing musician is the guy in the back of the audience who yells “Freebird!” It’s a joke, a stereotype - but it’s true - the audience doesn’t want art, they want to hear what they know, what they’ve heard before. The audience doesn’t want to hear The Rolling Stones playing their new songs; the crowds yell:
“Play your early stuff!”<div class="Ih2E3d">
Jesus found himself in this scenario again and again. He healed people, and people loved him. He fed people, and thousands followed him. “Multiply more loaves!”, they would yell. “Play your early stuff!”
</div>But Jesus the artist wanted to move on. Jesus wanted to transcend what he had already created, what he had already done. He wanted to do things bigger and deeper and wider than he had done before. He had a bigger vision in mind. But the crowds didn’t see it.
Jesus tells them that the real bread is his body, the real drink is his blood. And the people leave. “Why doesn’t he just stick to the good stuff?”, they probably asked. “We know what we want to see! Why this new teaching? Why these new songs? Why not some more food miracles?”
“Play your early stuff!”
Art has its own desires. It desires to transcend what has come before, to move to a higher level, to draw the audience into a deeper engagement and understanding.
And so art has a pain attached to it. Especially when your art is your love for all mankind.