The Observer UK

Incredible' Rate of Polar Ice Loss Alarms Scientists

The planet's two largest ice sheets – in Greenland and Antarctica – are now being depleted at an astonishing rate of 120 cubic miles each year. That is the discovery made by scientists using data from CryoSat-2, the European probe that has been measuring the thickness of Earth's ice sheets and glaciers since it was launched by the European Space Agency in 2010.
Even more alarming, the rate of loss of ice from the two regions has more than doubled since 2009, revealing the dramatic impact that climate change is beginning to have on our world.
The researchers, based at Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research – used 200m data points across Antarctica and 14.3m across Greenland, all collected by CryoSat, to study how the ice sheets there had changed over the past three years. The satellite carries a high-precision altimeter, which sends out short radar pulses that bounce off the ice surface and then back to the satellite. By measuring the time this takes, the height of the ice beneath the spacecraft can be calculated.
It was found from the average drops in elevation that were detected by CryoSat that Greenland alone is losing about 90 cubic miles a year, while in Antarctica the annual volume loss is about 30 cubic miles. These rates of loss – described as "incredible" by one researcher – are the highest observed since altimetry satellite records began about 20 years ago, and they mean that the ice sheets' annual contribution to sea-level rise has doubled since 2009, say the researchers whose work was published in the journal Cryosphere last week.
"We have found that, since 2009, the volume loss in Greenland has increased by a factor of about two, and the West Antarctic ice sheet by a factor of three," said glaciologist Angelika Humbert, one of the study's authors. "Both the West Antarctic ice sheet and the Antarctic peninsula, in the far west, are rapidly losing volume. By contrast, East Antarctica is gaining volume, though at a moderate rate that doesn't compensate for the losses on the other side of the continent."
The researchers say they detected the biggest elevation changes caused by ice loss at the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland, which was recently found to be shifting ice into the oceans faster than any other ice-sheet glacier, and at Pine Island glacier, which like other glaciers in West Antarctica, has been thinning rapidly in recent years.
The discovery of these losses of ice is particularly striking and represents yet another blow to claims by some climate-change deniers, who argue that the rapid loss of ice in the Arctic currently being observed is being matched by a corresponding increase in Antarctica. CryoSat's measurements show that Antarctica – although considerably colder than the Arctic because of its much higher average elevation – is not gaining ice at all. Indeed, it is – overall – losing considerable volumes, and in the case of West Antarctica is doing so at an alarming rate.
This point was stressed by Mark Drinkwater, the European Space Agency's CryoSat mission scientist. "These results offer a critical new perspective on the recent impact of climate change on large ice sheets. This is particularly evident in parts of the Antarctic peninsula, where some of the more remarkable features add testimony on the impact of sustained peninsula warming at rates several times the global average."

Punks vs. Putin: How Pussy Riot Managed to Give Russia's Leader His Biggest Political Headache Yet

For two very full, very long days in Moscow, I have talked constantly to people about Pussy Riot. About how, back in February, three young women from a feminist punk-rock band sang a song in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. How they were arrested, imprisoned, refused bail, and now face up to seven years in jail. How the orders for this seem to have come right from the very top of the Russian government. And how their trial – starting tomorrow – seems certain to become a defining moment in Putin's political career.

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Obama Surges Ahead in Florida

A worldwide economic crisis can make a lot of difference to a voter. Or at least it has done to Isabelle Murawski. For the past two elections, the pensioner has reliably voted for George W Bush, casting her ballot in Florida's Broward County, one of the epicentres of the voting debacle that saw Bush win the White House in 2000.

But now Murawski is going to vote for Barack Obama. 'I am supporting Obama, I think,' she said, while strolling in Florida's warm sunshine in the coastal resort town of Hollywood. 'It's the economy first and foremost. Everyone I know is worried about their pensions.'

Murawski is not alone in switching sides in Florida. In the past few weeks the polls in this vital southern swing state have taken a remarkable turn. After long months of the Republican candidate John McCain being comfortably ahead, Obama has suddenly surged forward. Four recent polls have put Obama between four and eight points ahead in Florida. It is a hugely significant development. McCain almost certainly cannot win the keys of the White House without Florida's 27 precious electoral college votes. 'There is clearly something going on. There has been a solid swing to Obama,' said Professor Lance DeHaven-Smith, who is a political scientist at Florida State University.

The development mirrors a trend nationwide. In the face of the economic disaster gripping America, the presidential race has undergone yet another about-face. Voters have broken narrowly but firmly for Obama, and McCain has seen his support wither in the face of the crisis. Polls consistently show Obama with a solid four or five-point lead. Previously long-shot Republican states like North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia have suddenly become Democratic possibilities. In the meantime, McCain's campaign has decided to pull out of Michigan, writing off the state in favour of easier targets.

But it is Florida that all eyes have now turned to. An Obama victory there would virtually assure that America gets its first ever black President. It would also go some way to purging the dreadful scars still lingering in the Democratic psyche after the disputed 2000 election result. No Democrat can ever forget the saga of the hanging chads - the spoiled ballot papers that led to a protracted recount and a United States Supreme Court ruling which ensured that Bush won both Florida and the White House.

Now eight years of Republican rule could end in the very same state where they began. 'I think a lot of Democrats in Florida would finally feel vindicated,' said DeHaven-Smith.

The key to winning in Florida is a 132-mile stretch of busy road known as Interstate 4, or I-4. The road cuts across the heart of the state, stretching from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach. It is both the literal and metaphorical middle ground of Florida politics. It bridges the gap between the Republican core of northern Florida, which is very much a part of the conservative Deep South, and the large Democrat-leaning cities of the south-east, such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

This so-called 'I-4 corridor' is home to most of Florida's independent voters and is some of the hardest contested political turf in the whole of America. At its heart is the sprawling city of Orlando and the fierce battle that is being waged there seems to be being won by Obama. Certainly Terrence Golden, a kitchen manager at an Orlando restaurant, is backing Obama. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of transplants to the I-4 corridor who have come south seeking jobs and sunshine and was in no doubt as to where his vote was going. 'McCain is more of the same - just look at all the mess they have created already. We need a change,' he said.

Obama is hoping to capitalise on a lot more voters like Golden. So far, the effort has gone well. His campaign has spent vast amounts of cash in Florida and set up a large organisation to register new voters, especially among blacks and students. It has 350 paid staff in the state, compared with 70 working for McCain. It has outspent its rival by $8m. Obama's political ads have saturated the airwaves and surrogate campaigners, such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and General Wesley Clark, have regularly been on the stump, along with Obama himself.

It has worked. Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by some half a million. The campaign has registered 110,000 new black voters alone - they support Obama over McCain by a margin of nine to one.

'The Obama campaign has been extremely effective and aggressive in Florida. Now, turnout on election day is the key thing that could decide it. Will these new voters actually come to the polls?' said Professor Susan McManus, of the University of South Florida.

Other factors have also played into Obama's hands. Florida's large population of retired pensioners has been acutely sensitive to the recent financial crisis, worrying over pension funds and nest eggs. The state, much of which seems covered in new housing, has also been badly hit by foreclosures. In both cases, voters seem to be putting the blame squarely at the feet of the Republican party.

Obama has also made strong inroads among Florida's Hispanic population. Traditionally, the state's Spanish-speaking citizens have been Republican-friendly and dominated by Cuban-Americans with hawkish foreign policy views. However, in recent years Florida has seen a large influx of non-Cuban Hispanics, among whom Obama has been performing strongly. As a result, recent polls have Obama winning Florida's Hispanic vote by 49 to 43 per cent. A wave of Spanish-language ads will surely have helped that process.

There is little doubt that Florida's Republicans are in something of a panic about recent developments. Last week leading party officials met in the city of Tallahassee for a secret war council to discuss how to fight back. The hour-long meeting, hosted by Florida's Republican party chairman Jim Greer, was described by one official as 'tense'. That was music to the ears of the Democrats, who are now plotting to solidify their lead and turn once reliably red Florida firmly blue. 'If the Democrats win Florida, it will be like gravy for them. It will be the icing on the cake,' said McManus.

But it is clearly far too early for Obama supporters to declare a Florida victory. The remarkable 2008 election has had a staggering array of twists and turns. The only certain thing appears to be: expect the unexpected. It could all easily turn around again in the last four weeks of the campaign. Back on the streets of Hollywood, support for McCain is still very easy to find. Jack Smile owns a small jewellery and gift shop on the main street. He has run it for 13 years and is suffering in the current economic crisis.

But Smile is sticking with McCain, seeing Obama as too inexperienced and nave compared against McCain's long record in office and his Vietnam war heroics. 'Obama does not have the experience like McCain. McCain has fought for this country. He has undertaken real service,' Smile said.

Such comments serve as a reminder that McCain's campaign and core message still resonate deeply in Florida. The state has a huge population of military veterans, who represent one of McCain's core areas of demographic support. It also boasts a large Jewish population, often retired, who favour McCain for his consistently hawkish foreign policy and staunch support of Israel.

McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, the Alaskan governor, as a running mate has also been a big hit in the state, especially after her feisty and reputation-saving performance in the vice-presidential debate last week. Palin has drawn huge crowds across Florida and her folksy charm and strong religious background have been a boost to the state's evangelicals who are key to the Republicans' 'get out the vote' efforts on election day. Smile was a big fan of Palin. 'After he picked Palin, that kind of persuaded me. She talks to the people. She is very appealing,' he said.

Such a view is common in Florida, which is why no one is declaring that the battle for the state is over. 'It could easily swing back and forth again,' said McManus. McCain's camp still has formidable resources to deploy. Although outnumbered in terms of staff, it has many more campaign offices in Florida than Obama. It also raised twice as much cash in the state as Obama in August, a sure sign of strong support when people put their money where they say their vote is. Republicans also have tactical options left to them as the campaign enters its final stages.

Many experts expect the party's formidable attack machine to crank up issues around Obama's former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, in the last couple of weeks of electioneering. That could have a big effect in a southern state like Florida, where racial prejudices can still play a role at the polls, and where Wright's black nationalism is likely to scare many white voters.

'You have to think that will happen. It is an obvious card to play, and if I am thinking of it, you can bet highly paid Republican campaign advisers have thought of it too,' said Professor Aubrey Jewett, a political expert at the University of Central Florida.

There is also the looming spectre of a repeat of the debacle of 2000. Florida's voting laws and the technologies inside the voting booths have chopped and changed since that election ended up being decided in the courts. The state has moved from paper ballots to computers, and back to paper again. But few experts think the system is flawless or 100 per cent trustworthy.

Any close election in Florida, or one marred by dirty tricks, could easily end up a disaster. Indeed, both sides have already accused the other of dubious activities regarding voter registration.

'We are likely to see a lot of confusion at the polls, and in a close election that could be a real problem,' said DeHaven-Smith, raising the prospect of a possible return to the law courts after election day. That seems almost unimaginable. Certainly a strong Obama supporter like Golden does not want to think about it. He was confident of a Democratic win in the state. 'Obama, no drama!' he joked, repeating an Obama campaign slogan.

But that is likely to prove a futile hope. When the White House itself is at stake and when Florida could make or break a presidential campaign, drama is likely to be the norm, not the exception.

Gun Love in America Is Strong as Ever

Shirley Katz is not afraid to fight for her rights. Last week the schoolteacher, 44, went to court in her home town of Medford, Oregon, to protest at her working conditions. Specifically she is outraged she cannot carry a handgun into class. 'I know it is my right to carry that gun,' she said.

Katz was in court in the week that someone else took a gun to school in America. This time it was a pupil in Cleveland, Ohio. Asa Coon, 14, walked the corridors of his school, a gun in each hand, shooting two teachers and two students. Then he killed himself. Coon's attempted massacre made headlines. But a more bloody rampage, the murder of six young partygoers by Tyler Peterson, a policeman in Crandon, Wisconsin, got less attention, even in the New York Times -- America's newspaper of record -- which buried it deep inside the paper.

Guns, and the violence their possessors inflict, have never been more prevalent in America. Gun crime has risen steeply over the past three years. Despite the fact groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) consistently claim they are being victimised, there have probably never been so many guns or gun-owners in America -- although no one can be sure, as no one keeps a reliable account. One federal study estimated there were 215 million guns, with about half of all US households owning one. Such a staggering number makes America's gun culture thoroughly mainstream.

An average of almost eight people aged under 19 are shot dead in America every day. In 2005 there were more than 14,000 gun murders in the US -- with 400 of the victims children. There are 16,000 suicides by firearm and 650 fatal accidents in an average year. Since the killing of John F Kennedy in 1963, more Americans have died by American gunfire than perished on foreign battlefields in the whole of the 20th century.

Studies show that having a gun at home makes it six times more likely that an abused woman will be murdered. A gun in a US home is 22 times more likely to be used in an accidental shooting, a murder or a suicide than in self-defence against an attack. Yet despite those figures US gun culture is not retreating. It is growing. Take Katz's case in Oregon. She brought her cause to court under a state law that gives licensed gun-owners the right to bring a firearm to work: her school is her workplace. Such a debate would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Now it is the battleground. 'Who would have thought a few years ago, we would even be having this conversation? But this won't stop here,' said Professor Brian Anse Patrick of the University of Toledo in Ohio. Needless to say, last week the judge sided with Katz and she won the first round of her case.

It is a nation awash with guns, from the suburbs to the inner cities and from the Midwest's farms to Manhattan's mansions. Gun-owning groups have been so successful in their cause that it no longer even seems strange to many Americans that Katz should want to go into an English class armed. 'They have made what was once unthinkable thinkable,' said Patrick, a liberal academic. He should know. He owns a gun himself. Even the US critics of gun culture are armed.

To look at the photographs in Kyle Cassidy's book Armed America is to glimpse a surreal world. Or at least it seems that way to many non-Americans. Cassidy spent two years taking portrait shots of gun owners and their weapons across the US.

The result is a disturbing tableau of happy families, often with pets and toddlers, posing with pistols, assault rifles and the sort of heavy machine-guns usually associated with a warzone. 'By the end I had seen so many guns and I knew so much about guns that it no longer seemed unusual,' Cassidy said. He keeps his in a gun safe in his home in Philadelphia. 'This turned into a project not about guns but about a diverse group of people,' he said.

At the cutting edge of weapon culture remains the gun lobby and its most vocal advocate, the NRA. Founded in the 19th century by ex-Civil War army officers dismayed at their troops' lack of marksmanship, the NRA has transformed into the most effective lobbying group in Washington DC. It has scores of lobbyists, millions of dollars in funds and more than three million members. It is highly organised and its huge membership is highly motivated and activist. They can have a huge influence on politics.

In 2000 Vice-President Al Gore supported stricter background checks for gun-buyers and the NRA organised against him, describing the election as the most important since the Civil War. It spent $20m against Gore in an election ending in a razor's edge result. Its influence was especially felt in Gore's home state of Tennessee, which he narrowly lost to NRA gloating. 'Their vote can select the President. They don't get to pick who goes to the White House. But they can tip the balance,' said Patrick.

Democrats have learnt that lesson now. Many shy away from gun control issues, wary of taking on such a vociferous lobby group. In the 2006 mid-term elections the NRA was able to back a historically high 58 Democrats running for office. Every one of them went on to win. Such influence over the past three decades has seen the NRA fight a successful campaign against new gun laws. It has in fact loosened regulations, spreading the ability to legally carry concealed weapons across 39 states. And this has all been done in the face of a fight from anti-gun groups, backed by much of the mainstream media. 'Politicians are so afraid of the gun lobby. They run scared of it,' said Joan Burbick, author of the book Gun Show Nation

But the key question is not about the number of guns in America; it is about why people are armed. For many gun-owners, and a few sociologists, the reason lies in America's past. The frontier society, they say, was populated by gun-wielding settlers who used weapons to feed their families and ward off hostile bandits and Indians. America was thus born with a gun in its hand. Unfortunately much of this history is simply myth. The vast majority of settlers were farmers, not fighters. The task of killing Indians was left to the military and -- most effectively -- European diseases. Guns in colonial times were much rarer than often thought, not least because they were so expensive that few settlers could afford them. Indeed one study of early gun homicides showed that a musket was as likely to be used as club to beat someone to death as actually fired.

But many Americans believe the myth. The role of the gun is now enshrined in mass popular culture and has huge patriotic significance. Hence the fact that gun ownership is still a constitutional right, in case America is ever invaded and needs to form a popular militia (as hard as that event might be to imagine). It also explains why guns are so prevalent in Hollywood. Currently playing in US cinemas is the Jodie Foster film The Brave One, a classic vigilante movie of the wronged woman turning to the power of the pistol to murder the criminals who killed her boyfriend. Foster's character is played as undeniably heroic. 'There is a fascination with guns in our culture. All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,' said Cassidy.

But this worship of the gun in many ways springs from economics and social problems, not the historic frontier. It took mass production and mass marketing to really popularise firearms. The Civil War saw mass arms manufacturing explode in America, including making 200,000 Colt .44 pistols alone. It saw guns become familiar and cheaper for millions of Americans. The later 19th century saw gun companies using marketing techniques to sell their weapons, often invoking invented frontier imagery to do so. That carries on today. There are more than 2,000 gun shows each year, selling hundreds of thousands of guns. It is big business and business needs to sell more and more guns to keep itself profitable. 'They will do anything to sell guns,' said Burbick.

But there are deeper issues at work too. The gun lobby's main argument is that guns protect their owners. They deter criminals and attackers whom -- the gun lobby points out helpfully -- are often armed themselves. Some surveys estimate there are more than two million 'defensive' uses of firearms each year. But others say that this argument is a shield, using guns as a way of deflecting harder arguments about how crime is caused by economics, poverty and racism. 'The argument over guns redefines a lot of social issues as simple aspects of crime,' said Burbick. She argues that a way to make Americans feel safer from crime is not to arm them with guns but to tackle the causes of crime: urban poverty, joblessness, drug addiction and racial divisions. 'We have to take back the language of human security. To talk about solving those social issues in terms of safety, not just letting the gun lobby control that language,' she said.

It is a powerful argument. Critics of America's gun culture often point to other nations with high levels of gun ownership -- such as Canada and Switzerland -- but much lower levels of violent crime. The fact is that America itself is equally divided. Patrick lives in a quiet, rural part of Michigan just across the state line from Ohio and the town of Toledo where he works. 'I would be amazed if anyone within four miles of me did not have a gun,' he said 'But our homicide rate is zero.'

Then look at where Cassidy lives. He has an apartment in Philadelphia, a city that is just as flooded with guns as Patrick's rural idyll, but also suffers from inner-city social ills. It has a stratospheric murder rate. 'There is a murder here every day. This is something that America has to come to terms with,' he said. Yet the differences do not lie with the simple existence of guns. Both places are full of them. They lie with the root causes of crime and violence, such as poverty and drugs, that blight many big cities. Guns seem neither to be totally the problem and certainly not the solution.

However, that is a debate few in America are having. In the meantime, the gun culture is so firmly entrenched and society so full of guns that there is little prospect of it retreating. Even those who advocate much tighter laws have long accepted defeat of the ideal of creating a society where guns are rare in public life, or even completely absent. 'That notion is absurd. There is no way to de-gun America,' said Patrick.

To cap a grim week, as Katz was winning her court battle in Oregon police in Pennsylvania were giving details of a raid on the home of a teenager who was plotting to attack a school. They found seven home-made grenades and an assault rifle. His mother had bought it for him at a gun show. The boy was just 14.

American Hipsters and Hollywood Stars Invade Berlin

It's not, is it? Clint Eastwood downing a beer in the Helmut Newton Bar, John Cusack cycling along a cobbled street, Matt Damon strolling through a courtyard of fashion boutiques drawing on a cigarette? Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cultural life of the city has suddenly exploded again and is propelling it on its way to becoming the new New York.

Hollywood stars are rapidly discovering the once divided city, lured by its sizzling creativity and raw charm. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are just the latest to have bought a home -- a loft apartment in the trendy district of Mitte in the former communist East Berlin. Tom Cruise is considering the more sedate lakeside area of Wannsee. Their arrival and that of other celebrities in love with Berlin's grittiness, its disrespect for authority, the lack of paparazzi, even its lax smoking laws, is part of a wider trend -- creative Americans are discovering Berlin.

The city is increasingly said to have the edge over New York as an international centre of art and creativity that many say America's cultural capital started to lose 20 years ago, when they began scrubbing the graffiti from the subways.

"Berlin is like New York City in the 1980s," proclaimed the New York Times. "Rents are cheap, graffiti is everywhere and the air crackles with a creativity that comes only from a city in transition."

New York artists have been moving here in droves, lured by low rents and an 'anything goes' atmosphere. According to Damaso Reyes of the cultural magazine Krax: 'Gone are the days when up-and-coming painters such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg could rent a huge loft in Manhattan for just a few hundred dollars a month.'

Naturally the art dealers have followed the artists. A year ago Robert Goff opened a branch of his New York gallery Goff + Rosenthal, citing Berlin's 'energy as a city in which artists can actually afford to live'.

The creative atmosphere has snowballed, with more and more artists drawn in. David Krepfle has swapped a loft under the Manhattan Bridge for a leafy street in east Berlin. The move has enabled him to concentrate on his bold paintings rather than on worrying about the bills. Those who have left the US because of the Bush administration's foreign policy see Berlin as a land of exile.

Long-term residents of the city who cite high unemployment, empty coffers and smelly drains cannot understand the hype. But glamour is not what lures the "Amis," as Berliners refer to Americans, rather the lack of it. The makeshift nightclubs in railway stations, lofts and warehouses are an antidote to the slickness of Manhattan or LA.

It took Berlin a long time to recognise the value in its creative talent and the extent to which it drives the city whose mayor refers to it as “poor but sexy.� Some 114,000 people are employed in the creative industry, a rise of 50 per cent in a decade, and Berlin is home to a tenth of all Germany's creative professionals, many of whom filled gaps left by traditional industries.

Neither has it taken long for the Berlin buzz to seep through to Hollywood. Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, which had its heyday in the 1920s, has had admirable success in recent years in drawing in big-name producers attracted not just by government subsidies and an efficiency that enables them to produce to budget, but by Berlin's coolness.

Several major productions are currently shooting in Babelsberg, including Tom Cruise's controversial Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer, about the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, while ex-wife Nicole Kidman has just arrived to start filming the adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel, The Reader. "It used to be that producers came to us, but now it's the other way round," a member of a Babelsberg investment team says.

The love appears to be mutual. Not since the 1930s, when film directors fled Nazi Germany to find refuge in the US, have Germans been so much in demand in Hollywood. Names of the moment include Marco Kreuzpaintner, Christian Alvart, Sandra Nettelbeck and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, creator of the Stasi drama The Lives of Others

German gossip magazines, which until a few years ago had little choice but to concentrate on home-grown celebrities, now have a field day with news of who's in town. Jennifer Lopez was spotted in the riverside warehouse nightclub Spindler and Klatt, Norman Mailer was observed -- but not hassled- wandering through the streets, and Robert De Niro was seen eating schnitzel in the elegant Borchardt restaurant. Pitt and Jolie favour the swish Swiss restaurant Nola's in a converted public convenience in Mitte, while Willem Dafoe is drawn togrittier haunts like Markthalle in rebellious Kreuzberg and Jude Law likes to woo his new flame, 26-year-old model Susan Hoecke, at Shiro i Shiro.

British artists are also getting in on the picture. Helping to shape Berlin's creative landscape is the architect David Chipperfield. Berlin is waiting with bated breath for his reworking of the city's historic Museum Island, a World Heritage site, which, cultural chiefs say, will rival the Louvre. The vision is that Chipperfield's glass and steel colonnade-style construction will turn Berlin into nothing less than the "new Paris."

Is Six Actors Enough to Show the Many Sides of Bob Dylan?

In a Hollywood with a reputation for liking things safe and bankable, a bizarrely cast film about the life of one of the most controversial singers of all time, opening in just four cinemas in all of America, would seem unlikely to be at the center of the biggest Oscar buzz of the year.

Yet I'm Not There -- a biopic about Bob Dylan being released in November -- is doing exactly that. There is nothing normal about the movie, which delves into the fascinating life of the singer-songwriter and promises to be one of the strangest films of the decade.

It boasts six actors playing Dylan, including a woman and a black boy, so its opening marketing campaign was hardly likely to be conventional. But by any standards, opening in only four cinemas is remarkable. Usually that means that a studio thinks its movie might be a disaster, yet I'm Not There has generated nothing but good news.

Industry figures have been surprised by the move. 'It depends on the film. Sometimes you just start small and build on word of mouth,' said Karen Cooper, director of Manhattan's acclaimed arts cinema Film Forum, which is one of two New York cinemas that will screen the film. The other two are in Los Angeles.

The film is backed by the Weinstein Company, whose founder, Harvey Weinstein, has not been shy of touting the work, despite planning its slow release. He has admitted wanting to generate a slow burn of reaction before taking the film national.

"I'm going to play every major city in the United States with this movie," he said last week. "I'll play 100 cities at least."

It is a tactic that has worked before. When Weinstein opened Good Will Hunting he put it in just seven cinemas. That film went on to make Matt Damon and Ben Affleck famous and clocked up $140 million at the box office. It seems something similar is being tried with I'm Not There. Certainly those few who have seen the film praise its quality.

"It leaps off the screen. The director has created something here that is just so unusual," said Cooper.

Director Todd Haynes has come up with one of the most surreal biopics of a musician ever. Though the genre has had huge success recently -- with movies such as Ray and Walk the Line -- this film is on a wholly different plane.

Instead of telling the straight story of Dylan's life, Haynes has opted to split the movie into separate chunks, each one dealing symbolically with a stage of Dylan's career. In each bit of the film Dylan is played by a character who represents what he stands for rather than an actual human being.

Which is why the greatest buzz around the project centres on Dylan's portrayal by Australian actress Cate Blanchett.

"Blanchett's performance as the mid-Sixties Dylan is amazing," said Cooper. Weinstein agrees: "If Cate Blanchett doesn't get nominated [for an Oscar] I'll shoot myself."

But Blanchett, looking eerily like Dylan, shares the role with other A-listers. Richard Gere plays the Seventies Dylan as a cowboy; Christian Bale plays him as he emerges into fame in the early Sixties; Australian actor Heath Ledger plays him as his music took an overtly Christian turn; British actor Ben Whishaw plays a Dylan fused with the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud. The unknown Dylan who arrived in New York in 1961 is played by Marcus Carl Franklin, a black child actor.

"If they pull it off, then I think it will work. It seems a unique way of looking at him, and that is suitable because he is a unique artist," said Caroline Schwarz, co-director of the Bob Dylan Fan Club. Though Dylan himself gave the film his blessing, he had no input in it. Perhaps he thought that having six actors playing him was enough.

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