U.S. and Them: I’m Not There and American Surrealism

By Jerry White

im-not-there-todd-haynes.jpgI’m Not There, 2007

“All the authorities who write about what it [folk music] is and what it should be… when they say keep it simple, [that it] should be easily understood – folk music is the only music where it isn’t simple. It’s weird. I’ve never written anything hard to understand, not in my head anyway, and nothing as far out as some of the old songs.” – Bob Dylan, quoted in Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes [1]

“Traditional music, it’s too unreal to die. It doesn’t need to be protected.” – Cate Blanchett, playing Bob Dylan, in I’m Not There

When I’m writing about a film, I frequently put the DVD on the monitor in my office, to have it on in the background. Part of this is so that I can quickly find the sequence I am writing about at any given moment, and part of this is so that I can always have the film’s sounds, its rhythms, in the back of my head as I try to make sense of it. This time, though, as I set to writing about Todd Haynes’ 2006 Bob Dylan “Joycean biopic” I’m Not There, [2] it’s Rani Singh’s 2006 concert film The Harry Smith Project Live that’s playing in the background.

im-not-there-todd-haynes-2.jpgI’m Not There, 2007

The reason for this is that Harry Smith’s 6-record Anthology of American Folk Music underwrites Haynes’ film, as it underwrote Bob Dylan’s music. It is a sort of secret backbone for the film (although Haynes has been pretty casual about the degree to which the Anthology has influenced him, on which more momentarily), a cultural object whose complexity, instability and sheer oddness is entirely of a piece with he fragmented and yet sometimes ecstatically lucid portrait of Bob Dylan’s music and worldview that is I’m Not There. The film I have on in the background in very different; it’s a collection of performances of various songs from the Anthology (Elvis Costello, Beck, and Steve Earle are among the musicians), a very straightforward concert film. But in addition to keeping the music in my head, it serves as a reminder of the very contemporary relevance of the Anthology.

Released in 1952 by Folkways Records, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is his anti-anthropological attempt to survey the scene of pre-war American folk, comprised entirely of his collection of 45s. The great American music critic Greil Marcus has written extensively on the Anthology>, and perhaps most eloquently in his book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. That book is ostensibly about songs that Dylan and a few collaborators had recorded in secret, never intending to release them, but Marcus finds that the Anthology served as their intellectual, and perhaps spiritual backbone. “Smith’s definition of ‘American Folk Music’ would have satisfied no one else,” Marcus wrote. “He ignored all field recordings. Library of Congress Archives, anything validated only by scholarship. He wanted music to which people really had responded: records that were put on sale that somebody thought were worth paying for. ” [3] And some well-known performers were included here, such as Robert Johnson or The Carter Family. This apparent rejection of scholarship and embrace of at least some market forces, though, should not obscure the degree to which this is a work of archaeology, of deeply non-conformist recovery. Indeed, Marcus’ overall argument about the Anthology is that overall it portrays American life as deeply strange, and Americans as deeply uneasy about their surroundings, and their connection to the land. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” is how Robert Frost put it in 1942. Frost’s fellow modernist Harry Smith understood that too, but the younger, wilder man had a sense of it that was edgier, scarier.

Indeed, the Carter Family notwithstanding, there’s some pretty strange stuff in the Anthology. “I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground” definitely takes that prize (and it’s performed by Dylan collaborator Bob Neuwirth, along with Eliza Carthy, in the Harry Smith Project concert). “I wish I was a Mole in the Ground,” here sung by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, is described in Smith’s liner notes as follows: The narrator’s wish to be a mole in the ground and a lizard in the spring are quite surrealistic in their symbolism.” Presumably he is referring to lyrics like “Wish I was a lizard in the spring / Yes I wish I was a lizard in the spring / If I was a lizard in the spring, I’d hear my darlin’ sing / I wish I was a lizard in the spring."

im-not-there-todd-haynes-3.jpgI’m Not There, 2007

This passage does strongly resist any attempt at literal sense-making, despite the simple clarity of the imagery; it’s instead a lot closer to the legible incomprehensibility that defines dream-state perception and that was so important to the surrealists. But other passages make startlingly clear sense: “Oh I don’t like a railroad man / No I don’t like a railroad man / A railroad man, he’ll kill you when he can / Drink up your blood like wine.” This world of the Anthology is not only unstable and incomprehensible; it is, from time to time, shockingly, sensationally violent, populated not only by spooning lizards in the spring, but railroad men drinking blood like wine. Summing up the familiarity Dylan had with this world, Marcus writes that “the Anthology of American Folk Music was Bob Dylan’s first true map of a Republic that was still a hunch to him.” [4]

And there’s no question that Haynes was aware of this dimension of Dylan’s work, and of Marcus’ Harry-Smith-inflected writing on it. Haynes made this clear during a public interview that Marcus conducted at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival, on the occasion of I’m Not There’s North American premiere. You can see short excerpts of that at telluridefilmfestival.org, although in that clip there’s no sense of the connection that Haynes repeatedly expressed with both the Anthology and with Marcus during their discussion. Maybe he was just flattering his interviewer, but during Haynes’ Telluride encounter he frequently made reference to Marcus’ writings on Dylan (both Invisible Republic and his more recent book Like A Rolling Stone [5]), and to the Anthology. And lest I seem yank-o-centric in this fine British journal, Seth O’Hagan has recalled in The Observer that “on a road trip from New York to Portland to begin writing his 2002 film, Far From Heaven, Haynes bought Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music box set. ‘It was,’ he says, ‘like all the pieces of this incredible jigsaw were coming together.’” [6]

Needless to say, this connection is borne out by I’m Not There itself, and in spades. The sequences that are the clearest product of this Anthology-inflected world are the first and last episodes of the film, where Dylan is visualised as the young, black folk singer named Woody Guthrie (played by Marcus Carl Franklin), and then as Billy the Kid (played by Richard Gere). Smith’s surreal vision of folk culture is front and centre here, and that surrealism’s connection to the musician that Dylan was always struggling to become feels extraordinarily, sometimes ecstatically lucid in these sharp, vivid images from Haynes and precise, technically demanding performances from Franklin and Gere.

im-not-there-todd-haynes-4.jpgI’m Not There, 2007

The kid who calls himself Woody is singing Dylan songs (most famously Tombstone Blues, which Franklin performs with Richie Havens) but you’d hardly know it. As a singer he is decidedly low-rent, since we are introduced to him in a boxcar as he talks of singing hillbilly songs and blues he picked up in Chicago. We then see images of his recollections of singing at a carnival -freak show and getting popcorn thrown at him by the seething, drunken audience before he’s literally tossed into the mud outside the tent (the freak-show imagery recurs when he hallucinates after being tossed out of a boxcar into the water below). His appeal to an upper-class white couple who take him in is precisely his status as a desperately poor and thus intensely authentic curiosity (he sings Dylan’s 1963 song “When the Ship Comes In” in their parlour); they see him as a little pet. The idyll is shattered when the phone rings and it is the juvenile prison in Minnesota looking for their escaped charge. Woody may self-consciously share the name of the famous folkie he idolises, but he is visualised here as a fugitive delinquent, a homeless teen, trouble.

The small town where the Billy the Kid character arrives in has a similarly depressed, genuinely marginalised edge to it. We are introduced to the town via some stunning landscape shots, images that feel taken right out of an Andrew Wyeth painting. But once Billy the Kid arrives in an actual town it becomes clear that we are firmly in hillbilly territory, complete with barefoot urchins and ramshackle hovels. When Haynes returns to this Dylan embodiment later in the film, one of the first images of the town Haynes presents is a long shot of with some obviously dirt-poor townspeople and a giraffe wandering around a small field, with nobody taking notice of it. The next important image is a tableau of a brass band performing an incredibly mournful version of Dylan’s “Going to Acapulco”; on the left is the lead singer with a 1920s-style big floppy hat and his face painted white, and on the right is an upright coffin with a young woman in a white dress, her face also painted a ghostly white.

The self-conscious surrealism here, a surrealism that is just as unmistakably rooted in the rural-est of the rural USA, is vintage Harry Smith, evincing a sense of the landscape that is simultaneously rooted within every American, and yet is also deeply, frighteningly foreign. The town is ruled over by an ancient, bearded, wheelchair-bound despot who wants to evacuate everyone, and when he makes the announcement, Billy the Kid is wearing a ghostly, clear-plastic mask. When he removes it to confront the old man, Haynes’ camera slowly pans around, revealing one member of the crowd whose face is painted white; when he cuts back to Billy we see he’s standing next to a man with a white judicial wig and black face makeup. This preponderance of masks, of jokers, of figures whose disguises recall a long-forgotten and yet ever-present old-world heritage, is just as clearly connected to the world of the Anthology as that bandstand funeral service, or of Woody trying to defend himself from violent hobos in a boxcar

im-not-there-todd-haynes-5.jpgI’m Not There, 2007

During the performance of “Going to Acapulco,” one of the tracking shots through the town reveals young kids wearing masks as they play in the dirt, and a “Halowe’en shop” that is open all year round. There’s a good way to describe Harry Smith’s America: where Halloween is all year round. The basic conceit of the film – that Bob Dylan is always in disguise, sometimes as a black kid, sometimes as Arthur Rimbaud, sometimes as a Christian singer performing at a bingo hall, sometimes as Cate Blanchett – follows this logic: identity, indeed being itself, is fluid, and can change at any moment. Towards the end of the film, Dylan (at this point played by Cate Blanchett) has an exchange with a chat-show host (seen as a montage of images of her in a car and he in a studio somewhere) where Dylan says “You’d think that these traditional music people would gather that mystery is a traditional fact, you know, seeing that they’re all so full of mystery.” “And contradictions,” the host replies. “Yeah, contradictions.” “And chaos.” “Yes, chaos, clocks, watermelons. It’s everything.” This folksy riff on de Lautremont’s famous definition of surrealism as “the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella” could serve as a summary of the film’s sense of traditional music: it’s the music of clocks, chaos, and watermelons.

That this sense of unpredictable combination, an unpredictability that is at the very heart of the intense and sometimes frightening mystery of the American experience, should actually be most visible in Haynes’ two most ostensibly “folksy” embodiments of Dylan – a boxcar-hopping bluesman (well, blueskid) and Billy the Kid – may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t be. In America, it’s folk music that has always told the tale of the country’s unsettledness, of its mystery, of its unfamiliarity to its inhabitants. What Greil Marcus is really arguing in Invisible Republic is that Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is surrealism in an American voice, with all of surrealism’s concerns intact (dream logic, the violence of the unconscious, the familiar or “authentic” made strange). At last that has found its perfect cinematic companion, an American biopic that is deeply committed to a surrealist worldview as the one that really explains the country and its greatest artists.


[1] Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (New York: Owl Books: 1997), p.113. This has been subsequently re-issued as The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (New York: Picador, 2001).
[2] Larry Gross called I’m Not There “a Finnegans-Wake-like meditation on Sixties film culture.” That strikes me as a near-perfect description of the film’s structure. See his “The Lives of Others,” Film Comment (September-October 2007), p.40.
[3] Invisible Republic, p.103.
[4] Invisible Republic, p.88.
[5] Greil Marcus, Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (New York: PublicAffairs, 2006).
[6] Seth O’Hagan, “Who Does Bob Think He Is?,” The Observer, 11 November 2007.

Jerry White writes and lectures on film in Canada and is a regular contributor to Vertigo.