Re-enactment and factual discourse in a Biopic

Observing the story-line of “Jack Rollins” within the movie “I’m not there”

Seminar Paper 2009 29 Pages

Communications - Movies and Television



In this essay I want to focus on the integration of “factual discourse” in its different forms in a movie and the effects they are creating for the viewer. First of all it is interesting to look, where we can situate the biographical movie within fiction and historical truthfulness. I want to show that re-enactment of originals and the application of fictional facts is animating the viewer to reflect differently on the represented images. Here it is interesting to observe the story-line of Jack Rollins, including the effects of aesthetics and documentary consciousness. The movie is playing to a huge account with aesthetics, but also with the cultural knowledge of people “knowing” something about Bob Dylan and the previous documentaries “Don’t look back” (cinema verite) and “No direction home”. It is interesting to observe how the viewer can actually differentiate between factual and fictional discourse and to which degree he might believe, what is presented to him. The question can also be framed into the whole aim of the movie, which might explain the choice of certain media techniques. In which ways is factual discourse integrated in the movie “I’m not there”? Which documentary techniques underline the purpose for authenticity? How does the movie play with the concept of “documentary consciousness”? What does the re-enactment of factual discourse and material together with fictional elements achieve compared to a classical documentary?

Placing the fictional biography "I'm not there" in context

If we take Todd Hayne’s statement for granted, that it doesn’t matter in the end, if we are confronted with fiction or reality in a movie, we could already close this chapter and not think about it anymore. Still, it is very important to show, that it is worth to observe the movie “I’m not there” by the named film-maker, in order to come closer to the borderlines between fiction and reality. The movie is positioned between documentary and fiction, as it represents a factual historical story of an still existing character, but on the other hand applying fictional discourse to have all the possibilities of showing different facettes of this musician and singer, writer.. yes, a person who changed a lot, changed like the American society during the time 1941 (birth of Robert Zimmerman alias Bob Dylan) until today. Is it a biography, a biopic, a fictional movie? In the case of I’m not there, we are confronted with a two-sided concept of reality, as there is a fictional reality and a factual reality of the presented events on screen. Sometimes both are closely intervowen so, that it is hard to define, which facts are true and which are fiction. Since the 80/90ies the dichotonomy between fiction and docu was questioned and there were no “analytical boxes” for both terms any more.

In the late twentieth-century began this “creative merging” and “synthesis of documentary and fictional narrative cinema”[1] There are multiple intersections to use documentary in cinema with many techniques, rhetorical strategies aesthetic choices: authoritative voiceover narration, on-camera interviews, archival photographs and visual characteristics: handheld camera (cinema verite) are examples for documentary technique. “On the level of content, documentaries can be said to be films about real people, places and events, and their stated aim is to record or document a segment of the real world fictional narratives involve the use of invented people, places and events, even when such people and events are depicted as belonging to the real world”[2] We can distinguish between hybrid forms of how documentary and fiction are used simultaneously and can theoretically differentiate in documentary form, documentary content, fictional form, fictional content.

In a docudrama we look at the “dramatization” and “reenactment” as creative tools[3] which allow a different authenticity on historical situations. Re-enactment as a recreation of actual people and events allow to observe the vivid conflict and drama of the real subject, and are closer to techniques of narrative fictions. The intent of the docudrama is not to record 1:1 the factuality of history.[4] The movie “I’m not there” is titled as a fiction movie, still one cannot speak of an exclusively fictionalized biography, as Haynes is in fact taking into account very detailed and exact documents and moreover, he uses material and words how Dylan actually had or would have said it.[5] What is the intention of making fiction movie so close - but not the same - to the factual events, characters and places? The technique of re-enactment is applied in the movie I’m not there. The similarity between the presented characters to the real or historical people is indeed very close. I want to show how the audience reacts to such a form of representation and how it is striking boundaries between fiction and reality. Here I will go to a more philosophical and cultural way of explaining the sense of imaginative and real.

The various filming techniques, framework and story-lines in "I'm not there"

As John Corner notes, the inter-generic mixing allows new possibilities within documentary work. The use of amibious forms of recording create different levels of fidelity and hence have an impact on the truthfulness of a movie[6]. One thing that catches in the movie “I’m not there” is this merging of differing filming techniques and sound effects. As the main character in the movie is represented through six different actors, there are special atmospheres created in each story-line. The movie has been influenced “by the many lives of Bob Dylan - seen in the first sequence and is the only time the name of the famous American musician is mentioned. It shows us, that factual material must have been used in order to produce the movie, but that it is more an inspiration than detailed reliable source. The stories are embedded in a broader frame, seeming to “peel” step by step into the story, hence moving from documentarist observation into the more or less fictionalized stories[7]. In the beginning the viewer is looking at the scene from the perspective of the main character walking on stage with the technique of a handheld camera like in cinema verite. It captures the perspective of a musician before his concert, you can hear the audience screaming, two people guiding him on stage. The viewer is quasi integrated into the movie by seeing everything from the perspective of the main character. Then everything becomes unclear and you can see someone starting his motorbike. The movie title plays with “I’m he” “I’m he” “I’m her” “not her” “not here” and finally “I’m not there”. Then the story is introduces showing the dead main character during autopsy in a black-white sequence together with the narrator’s voice­over: ”There he lay: poet, prophet, outlaw, fake, star of electricity”. Here it is interesting that they already use “fake” and past tense for the description. Arthur Rimbaud gives his comment “a song is something that walks be itself ’. Then it leads to a documentarist view on the underground, showing random people, underlined by a Bob Dylan song, in the technique of cinema verite. Coming out of the underground we are still shown random people but it is clear that the scences now are “made up” as the people are directed towards the camera. After a short now coloured view on some fields we can observe Billy-the-Kid waking up. The Bob Dylan song is still playing and with the last accords the story seems to begin while Woody Guthrie is jumping on a train.

The stories Woody Guthrie and Billy-the-Kid, which seem to represent the beginning and the end of the musician’s life, apply Western movie techniques, the green and earthy colours reinforce the connection to nature and strong self-reflection. The story­line of Jude Quinn is like a photographed story, black-and-white filming techniques applied like with Poet Arthur Rimbaud. The story of Robbie Clarke and his wife is represented through colourless images of seventies-filming and integrates factual material from the Vietnam war. The story-line of Jack Rollins is the one which is very rich of merging factual discourse in fiction and will be observed more detailed.[8]

Hence we can state, that authenticity is generated through the filming techniques. They are not necessarily documentarist, but have a strong connection to the narratives. The narratives are connected by flashbacks, voice-over, one time the voice is the narrator, one time it’s one character reflecting on himself. Bob Dylans music is used in the soundtrack predominantly, but there are also covered versions by other musicians (like Calexico) in the six story-lines. The beginning showing the “death” is interesting, as it evokes a contradiction for the audience, because Bob Dylan is actually still alife. In the ending-scene, we can see the “real” Bob Dylan playing on a concert with his mouthharp focusing first the people, then his face, which is a true observation from a verite-view[9]. As such this last aspect is actually the only “true” documentary-view, that we can find in the whole movie. But, as we have learned now in our course on “Documentary and Fiction”, the boundaries can blurr widely when it comes to the docu-genre. As such it is indeed interesting to observe a “true story” put into “fiction” using an intervoweness of “fictional and factual discourse”. The whole concept of the movie “I’m not there” does not reflect a typical Hollywood biopic, but a very high multidimensional film, using obviously faked-factual discourse, invented reality and documentary techniques. And this creates the striking, confusing, which can be observed now. What can the aesthetics in the movie I’m not there create compared to common documentaries? What aim does the movie focus on with these differing techniques?

The story-line of Jack Rollins introducing the "troubadour of conscience"

Any form of art has the intention to bring us to another level of perceiving the reality by providing strange, absurd description about an object and not just allowing the habits and automate reactions. As Shklovsky writes: “An image is not a permanent referent for those mutable complexities of life which are revealed through it. Its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object - it creates a “vision ” of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it.[10] In the story-line of Jack Rollins, we are introduced a biographical person by using re-enacted factual material. As such, there is a completely “new” and even contradictory Bob Dylan revealing in front of our eyes, which for sure has similarities with the real one, but within the whole movie is just “the one” inside the movie that we can refer to. This might sound a little confusing. But what we can actually see is, that Todd Haynes is trying to introduce us this character with little information beforehand, and then revealing more and more facts about this fictional character, still not talking about, who this person actually is. Still it is like a cycling process, because you never have the feeling to actually approach this character. But as Shklovsky says, the observer is the one, who is given the sense to it by himself. By putting the story of the young Bob Dylan out as if being a documentary, the viewer is confronted with an (in my opinion) unexpected approach within the movie I’m not there. As such it is worth to find out, what documentary creates, but then, more specific, within a fictional movie, more specific, within a biography about a person that is alife at this moment. Grierson already stated that the engagement of documentary with the real is something superior as it is empathically dramatic and imaginative. The positive about this “creative treatment of actuality” is that documentary adds an “intimacy of knowledge” The dramatization can be achieved by putting the scenes together in a certain order or by re-enacting historical events, interviews. (12). In “I’m not there” exactly these techniques are applied: “Bale’s scenes are shot in 16-millimeter black and white, using old Kodak film stock, in a move for authenticity — Haynes even wanted the film in the film to look as if it were from the ’60s” (Manthos Tzorbatzakis[11] ). In the Jack Rollins story is a great variety of interviews, re-enacted life-concerts where he is playing folk music, journalists discussing about him, photographs which resemble exactly the originals of Bob Dylan, still re-enacted by the actor Christian Bale.

Hence truthfulness through recorded historical events in the story-line of Jack Rollins is not achieved, but more interestingly a “fictional truthfulness” is aimed to be produced by telling a story about a fictional person through the re-enactment and re-covering of original documents. And the way the material is put together is evoking on one hand the feeling of the “sensation” the media gives to this popular musician, on the other hand always trying to reveal, who this person actually is. This produces the feeling of a criminal story, where every detail seems to contribute to this process of revelation. When the story tries to deal with the issue of Bob Dylan discovering christianity the viewer is more and more put into the position of not really knowing if the interviews are actually true or not. This might challenge the viewer to a high degree...

This story-line is introduced as a black-and-white shot documentary about Greenwich village and its attraction to young folk musicians. The narrator seems like typical for American docus at that time, in the background we hear “If I had a hammer” by .Several people playing the guitar are shown on the material. Then a girl from the 60/70 era is interviewed about her personal opinion on folk music. The camera format drives into colour. The people in the back seem to mock themselves about the presence of a camera while the young girl is talking very over-emphasized about folk music. It is obvious that this is not a factual material, as the interviewees seem to exaggerate within their statements (too much to be true), still the filming technique wants to underline that it was being shot at that time. Then we jump back into black-and-white and see more or less famous folk musicians. After that it becomes dark and out of the dark we are introduced the silhouette of the face of Jack Rollins. Then the narrator turns into a woman who introduces Jack Rollins as the “promise of a new generation” showing a concert poster and a photo with the fictious character. Now we see one interview with a woman, who later turns out as “Alice Fabian - Folksinger and activist” and one with a couple the guy turning out Morris Bernstein - producer about their fascination about “him”. Still the “real” Jack Rollins hasn’t been shown yet. But then we can actually see a folk-concert of “Jack Rollins” playing Bob Dylans “Times are a-changing” like he would have played it, but not with the original sound of a Bob Dylan song. The sound as such is re-enacted or so to say covered.


[1] Rhodes, Gary / Springer, John (Ed.) (2006): Docufictions. Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. Springer. North Carolina. p.3-5

[2] cited from Rhodes/Springer (2006): 4

[3] Fetveit: 19

[4] Rhodes/Springer 2006: 217

[5] narrative biography: based on factual documents, talks and scenes the author invents a story on the individual, fictionalized biography: less emphasize on original documents (Baur Nina, 2003)

[6] The Art of Record

[7] Sartres, a coevel of Bob Dylan, writes in his anti-autobiography “the quest for authencity is like the peeling of an onion, or perhaps that it can only be a quest, for each attempt to come into contact with the real self in only the shedding of another layer of falsehood (232).

[8] 8 http://www.filmzentrale.com/rezis/imnotthereek.htm (Ekkehard Knörer, film critics)

[9] shot by the documentarist D.A. Pennebaker in 1966

[10] citation: Art as Device (1917). Victor Shklovsky

[11] http://www.musicsnews.com/articles/1846/1/This-Is-Not-a-Bob-Dvlan-Movie/Page1.html [30.11.09]


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ISBN (Book)
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University of Copenhagen – Film- und Medienwissenschaft
reenactment re-enactment factual discourse biopic Bob Dylan Dylan identity personality pop music documentary fiction film media I'm not there



Title: Re-enactment and factual discourse in a Biopic