Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

This is not strictly speaking a music video, but a scene from a film set to Bob Dylan’s song ‘Ballad of Thin Man’. It appears in Todd Hayne’s highly creative 2007 biopic I’m not there about Bob Dylan. Six different actors play six different characters, representing Dylan at different stages of his life and career. None of these characters actually bear Dylan’s name.

Cate Blanchett plays the character ‘Jude Quinn’ – a 1960s folk singer – who abandons his folk roots for electric rock music which his fans see as a betrayal. Blanchett is thoroughly convincing and engaging as Bob Dylan and gets the gestures and attitude just right. Todd Haynes remarks: “I know a lot of people would have preferred to just watch the Cate Blanchett Dylan the whole way through.” I have to admit that I’m one of those people. I found the other performances and segments of the film somewhat less interesting.

‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ also happens to be my favourite Dylan song (I’m not otherwise a fan). The version for the film is sung by Stephen Malkmus and is very close to the original. The underrated Bruce Greenwood also offers a fine performance as a BBC journalist, Keenan Jones. Incidentally, Bruce Greenwood appeared in two very watchable science fiction series in the 1990s – Nowhere Man and Sleepwalkers – both disappointingly cancelled after one season. Nowhere Man, included liberal “hommages” to Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

But to return to the video. There is quite a bit of historical information concerning various incidents in Dylan’s career packed into the visuals. At one point, there is an allusion to members of the Black Panther party playing the song in an endless loop, convinced the lyrics addressed racism. There have in fact been numerous interpretations of what the lyrics might mean, but perhaps the most obvious reading is that they are reflective of that famous trope of the 1960s: the ‘generation gap’, between an older conservative generation and a younger, rebellious, more socially conscious generation. There’s also a fair serving of another sixties trope – a particular form of surrealist imagery. This is rendered and updated very nicely in the film with Greenwood providing a subtle and layered performance in the midst of this.

In short, the performances, imagery, the distancing monochrome and sarcastic strength of the music and lyrics make this wonderful sequence eminently suitable for repeat viewing.

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