In the next month, every film critic with a byline or blog will recap the past year in movies and pick ten films as 2007's finest. More likely than not, these lists will serve as springboards for an endless series of harangues on the declining quality of cinema. (Do we really need to be reminded that "Killer of Sheep" -- a movie made 30 years ago -- was the best film released this year? So what? Setting that masterpiece aside, I've seen at least twelve new films in 2007 I'd classify as great.) American cinema is usually a specific punching bag -- especially for writers discerning enough to give credit to the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang. On that front, the scolding has already begun; the New York Times's Manohla Dargis (as smart a critic as they come) complained recently of the "moribund academicism" of current American film -- a strange charge indeed in a year that brought us such exhilarating offerings as "Zodiac," "Death Proof," "No Country for Old Men," and "Ratatouille." Enter the prodigiously talented Todd Haynes, that sneaky semiotician, with a parade of six non-Bob Dylans (one black, one female, natch) in "I'm Not There," his thrilling explosion of the biopic. Academic? You can bet your "Marx-Engels Reader" on it. Moribund? Not on your life. Haynes's film, overambitious though it may be, is something of a wonder, a challenging concept movie with grace, energy, and style to spare, and proof enough that American cinema can still be vital and rousing.
The real Bob Dylan, whoever he is (let's call him Robert Allen Zimmerman for argument's sake), has always publicly been more of an idea than a real person, concealed beneath layers of mythology. In "I'm Not There," Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman take this mythology as a structuring conceit: Here, Dylan is a young African-American boy named Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), who, like his namesake, carries a guitar case labeled "This Machine Kills Fascists"; he is also Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), a Western-style outlaw trying to save Riddle, Missouri, from being demolished to make room for a freeway; he's the androgynous rock star Jude (Cate Blanchett) who turned his back on his fans and on the idea that music can make a difference; he's the philandering movie star Robbie (Heath Ledger); he's the Rimbaud-style poet (Ben Whishaw); he's the born-again pastor (Christian Bale).
"I'm Not There" sees Dylan as a reflection of, as well as a reaction to, the times through which he lived, and also as a walking anachronism. In taking the Dylan mythology as its starting point, the film becomes more about our need for that mythology -- why Dylan mattered then, why he matters today--than an attempt to either reify or deconstruct the Dylan myth.
Like Haynes's last two films, "Far From Heaven" and "Velvet Goldmine," "I'm Not There" is a semiotic exercise masquerading as a period piece. Rather than simply re-creating its own version of the past without quotation marks, it manipulates images, costumes, music, and a kaleidoscopic assemblage of cinematic references and styles to evoke and interpret a cultural moment. This heady stylistic pastiche is nevertheless grounded by fleeting moments of sincerity. An older woman urges Woody to write music about his own time with subtle moral conviction. Jude is violently confronted by a fan who feels betrayed by an idol. Robbie's wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is first enchanted by his budding genius, then alienated by his philandering and the misogynist claptrap he spews over wine with friends.
"I'm Not There" is sometimes too intellectually tidy (Rimbaud) or frustratingly diffuse (Billy the Kid), yet often remarkably adept (Woody Guthrie). Despite the built-in structural challenges, editor Jay Rabinowitz gives each segment adequate time to breathe by downplaying the crosscutting, and there's a tremendous level of craftsmanship on display throughout, from the expert cinematography by Ed Lachman to the standout performances from Blanchett, Gainsbourg, and Ledger. Some viewers are likely to pour over "I'm Not There," performing studious exegesis, deciphering and perhaps denouncing Haynes's version of the Dylan myth, but that misses the point. This is a movie, not a riddle or dissertation, and an invigorating one at that -- a thrilling jolt of pure cinema, clearly the product of an inquisitive mind and a genuine heart.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and manager of education programs at the Museum of the Moving Image.]