Saturday, February 17, 2007

Factory Girl

I held off on writing about this one until I had a chance to skim through the indices of some Bob Dylan books at the library and the bookstore this afternoon. I had also hoped to skim an index of a book about Edie Sedgwick, but books about her are fewer and farther between than books about Dylan. The one biography of Sedgwick that I did find does not include an index. Brilliant! Further, the Sedgwick references in books about Dylan are hit and miss - some have them and some do not. Either way, since this movie is a fictionalized “biopic” of Edie Sedgwick, strict adherence to the facts is probably not worth investigating too intensely.

Thus, the film must be taken as an entertainment, rather than a straight life story. This is problematic since a not insubstantial part of what we are asked to take as entertainment is Hayden Christensen playing a musician who is not named in the movie - and is listed simply as “Musician” in the credits - but who is clearly Bob Dylan.

Well...I should probably qualify that. It’ll be clear to people of a certain age that Christensen is playing Bob Dylan. If all you’re doing is listening to the movie, though, you’re liable to think that he’s playing Bruce Springsteen - even though Springsteen is eight years younger than Dylan and this movie takes place in the mid-1960s, when Dylan would have been in his twenties. Hayden Christensen is a horrible actor. He has two facial expressions - pissed off, and petulant; and he doesn’t sound at all like Bob Dylan, even though he tries (way too) hard. The film begins to tumble - though not from so great a height - almost from the moment the “Musician” enters the story.

It begins, though, rather nicely, with Edie Sedgwick leaving school and coming to New York to seek her fortune. Actually, since her family is rich and she is equipped with a trust fund, she already has her fortune - so what she comes to New York actually to seek is fame and all manner of ways to spend her fortune. Sienna Miller does a fine job as Edie - made the easier, I suspect, because she is a spot on match for the real Edie in the looks department. Miller plays Edie as vacuous and bubbly, a girl with a winning smile and an infectious spirit. She meets Andy Warhol and begins hanging out at the Factory, where she socializes with the Bohemian mob of sycophants Warhol has wrapped around his finger.

Guy Pearce plays Warhol with an understated care - measuring out his words and actions with a succinct delivery that suggests someone who is in complete control of what appears to be a very out of control environment. His business is the mass-production of art as an art form in and of itself - which subverts the nature of art at the same time that it lifts up and embraces art as the ultimate form of personal expression.

That Warhol is using Edie never seems to occur to her, and though she is propelled to fame by her association with the artist and her “starring roles” in his unique films, and projects the air of being close to Warhol, there is a personal boundary that Pearce’s Warhol seems to let no one penetrate. I suppose you could put this off on the fact that Warhol was gay, but as played by Pearce he seems to transcend any kind of sexuality at all. He could be an android for all we know, with his controlled voice inflections and ubiquitous sunglasses. Edie doesn’t want Warhol; she wants to be seen with him - fame by association.

Yet while Andy seems not of this world, Edie is clearly all-American - and as such she craves the personal attention and affection of someone who is “into” her. This is, however, a latent need - her domineering father sexually abused her from a young age, and she built up a boundary of her own that is not (at first) unlike Warhol’s. But the truth will out - and when she is introduced to Musician, the spark of physical attraction is immediate and plainly evident (Christensen’s lack of acting skills notwithstanding - he was involved with Miller romantically during filming, and their love scene is rumored to have been actual sexual intercourse, rather than the standard prop-laden dry humping).

At this point, Edie begins to spiral downward into increasingly hardcore drug use - and the implication is that Musician causes her to start along this harrowing path. (This is the major point of factual contention that nearly brought the release of the movie to a grinding halt - the real Bob Dylan’s people were to the point of suing the filmmakers over the idea that it was Dylan who drove Edie down the path that would eventually destroy her; and this is likely the reason that, Christensen...was credited as Musician rather than Bob Dylan.)

The film then devolves into a mélange of meltdown scenes chronicling the end of Edie Sedgwick as a relevant person in the 1960s New York counterculture. Miller is generally very good in these scenes, if a little overbearing. The Weinsteins gave the film very limited release at the very end of 2006, apparently with the hope that Miller might be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (a pipe dream of staggering proportions). Armed with this knowledge, one can see the film almost as a contrived bit of storytelling and mythmaking intended solely as a vehicle for Miller. The irony? Pearce as Warhol is far better than Miller as Edie.

And yet - there is something to be taken away from this picture, for a narrow band of the folks who might view it. That narrow band would be people who are familiar with Dylan’s work and know nothing of Edie Sedgwick - and this is a band of people that includes me.

While the truth about the relationship between Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgwick seems to be unclear, the literature does at least agree on this: that Sedgwick is likely the inspiration behind some of the tracks on Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album - particulary the tracks “Just Like A Woman” and “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat.” If this is true, then it makes a strong case for the fact that Edie left some kind of indelible mark on Dylan.

More interesting, however, is the mark she might have had on one of Dylan’s other songs - “Like A Rolling Stone.” With no knowledge of Sedgwick, one can listen to “Like A Rolling Stone” and hear a man singing about a girl whose ups and downs in life parallel those of just about every person who has ever been born and raised with anything approaching privilege in the United States.

Inject the knowledge of Sedgwick gleaned from watching this movie, however, and the track suddenly becomes a biopic of this girl in its own right. It is far too simplistic to say that Dylan wrote the song specifically about Edie; but once you learn who Edie is and how her path intersected with Dylan’s, it is all but impossible not to see her in nearly every line of the song.

Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez is much better known and chronicled than whatever might have been his relationship with Edie Sedgwick - the song “Positively 4th Street” is Dylan’s parting shot to Baez after their relationship ended, just as the Baez song “Diamonds And Rust” is her parting shot to him. But Baez got her hooks into Dylan early - shaping his career as a folk singer. Sedgwick came along later - as he was making the transition from folk star to rock star; and if whatever relationship they might have had so captivated Dylan that he was able to birth the album Blonde On Blonde and the song “Like A Rolling Stone,” well then...sitting through this movie is a small price to pay to bring one’s soul a bit closer to understanding the inspiration of probably the greatest singer-songwriter the world has ever known.

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