Keep Your Eyes Wide: Dylan on Film at 70

Bob Dylan is 70 today. To mark the occasion, four Mostly Film contributors write about Dylan’s many faces on film and wonder whether any of them is his own.

Niall Anderson on “Dont Look Back”

There are probably worse introductions to Bob Dylan than Dont Look Back, but alas it was mine, so I find it hard to believe. Before I saw DA Pennebaker’s film I only knew the inescapable Dylan: the strumalong homilies, a famous line here or there, the placard-flashing promo for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and the fact that he was considered a genius. I was seventeen and I don’t know what I expected genius to be. I mostly expected it to be obvious. Not necessarily direct or easy, but in some way lividly apparent. I didn’t expect this.

Dont Look Back put me off Dylan for years. An impressionistic documentary jumble about Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, it is in every way a bad trip. A grumpy, underslept man capers humourlessly in period hotel rooms. He responds to questions without answering them. He is truculent towards people who don’t know who he is and outright vicious to those who do. Every so often he goes on a stage and bawls. The performances range from the dutiful to the aggressively bad. He plays electric guitar, which really seems to piss people off. All of this is captured by Pennebaker in a deranging series of styles, with scenes spliced together for maximum tonal contrast. The squares must be freaked out at all costs.

I’ve seen Dont Look Back maybe half a dozen times since I first watched it. I’ve softened on Dylan greatly since then (I found better introductions), but I’ve never warmed to the film. Part of this is its lame beatnik extremism – its dated fearlessness – but mostly it’s the way it pigeonholes Dylan, the way it lionises him without seeming to understand him. The way it displays, in other words, exactly the tendency that Dylan abuses people for in the film.

To listen to the legend of Dont Look Back is to get drawn into the idea of a portrait of an artist in triumph. To follow its narrative uncritically gets you to the same place: the more flak Dylan takes from journalists and the public the more it provokes him to greatness. But to watch any scene in isolation gives a very different impression. This is someone who doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Dylan’s attitude in interviews and conversation is not defiant so much as inflexibly negative: whatever you say, he will refuse it. This is consistency rather than integrity, but Pennebaker is happy to present one as the other.

I wonder if part of the reason for the longevity of Dont Look Back is that while was shot in 1965, it wasn’t released till 1967. In the intervening period, Dylan had disappeared from public life, incapacitated temporarily by a motorcycle accident, and otherwise disinclined to tour. When he returned it was with the brief and mysterious “John Wesley Harding” – sonically a world away from the amphetamine rock that Dont Look Back showcases. Pennebaker’s film therefore filled a gap in the market, effectively becoming the fourth gospel of Dylan, after “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde”.

The canonisation of Dont Look Back thus seems to me less about any competence as a documentary than it is about its subject and its willful collaboration with him in the creation of a myth. ‘How did you start?’ a journalist asks Dylan, at which point Pennebaker cuts to a scene of Dylan singing a song in front of a truckload of black field-workers. There is no irony to this edit, and Pennebaker doesn’t seem bothered that the haystack-haired speedfreak who carries the rest of the film is about as far from expressing proletarian sympathy as it’s possible to get.

By contrast to this grotesque and deliberate mythmaking, the few successes of Dont Look Back seem to me entirely inadvertent. For better or worse, it is the only personal record we have of what would become Dylan’s working method for almost the rest of his career: improvisational, hasty, willing to risk ridicule for the sake of vividness, betting on persistence rather than consistency. In Dont Look Back, Dylan actually seems to be living this working method: he is callously riffing with his talent in every scene. Some of these riffs are memorable, but to make something lasting you have to start joining them together. Dylan did this, but he did it away from Pennebaker’s camera. The kindest thing you can say about Dont Look Back is that it gives us a little glimpse into Dylan’s workshop, but the door is closed before we can see what actually goes on in there.

Philip Concannon on “No Direction Home”

The Bob Dylan we see in No Direction Home is an artist in a constant state of evolution. We see him shifting into new directions and developing in unexpected ways whenever the media threaten to pin him down to a particular style, and we see the backlash that resulted from fans and fellow artists who thought they knew who Bob Dylan was. In truth, nobody knows who Bob Dylan is apart from the man himself, and that’s the way he likes it. It may have been a surprise to see this reticent artist – who we witness throughout the movie deflecting journalists’ questions with sarcastic responses – opening himself up to a four-hour cinematic interrogation, but he did do it on his terms. All of the interviews in the film were conducted by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, who then took that material and gave it to Martin Scorsese, whose job it was to turn it into a movie.

The movie that Scorsese has crafted from the interviews provided by Rosen and the extraordinary treasure trove of archive footage he had access to is a fascinating piece of work. Scorsese focuses on the period between 1961 and 1966, a particularly turbulent one for Dylan, and in doing so he has made a film that feels of a piece with some of his greatest films; it is another story of a man alone, determinedly following his own path for good or ill. We watch as the Woody Guthrie-influenced Dylan begins his folk career before rejecting that style in favour of a more electric sound, a move that caused a storm at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when the audience jeered and fellow performer Pete Seeger threatened to cut the amplifier cords with an axe. The film builds towards Dylan’s notorious 1966 tour, when an aggrieved audience member shouted ‘Judas!’ at the now bedraggled-looking singer (he was only 25 years old, but he didn’t look it).

All of this is fascinating to watch, having been assembled with great skill and intelligence by Scorsese and his editor David Tedeschi, and it is paced perfectly across its considerable running time. There are superb sequences, such as one that highlights how the young Dylan picked up mannerisms and inflections of older singers he hung around with, and another that shows a group of English teenagers complaining after attending one of his 1966 gigs (‘He spends too much time on that wretched harmonica.’). There are also some incisive contributions from friends and collaborators, notably Joan Baez, who felt betrayed by Dylan when he withdrew from the political sphere and rejected her during the British tour. But what about Dylan? He might freely discuss his work and his influences but there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of deep introspection in his comments and there’s little in the way of personal revelation (he talks about rock and roll, but sex and drugs are off-limits). No Direction Home is an absorbing portrait of a changing artist in changing times, but how much does it really tell us about the man behind the image? Only Bob knows.

Blake Backlash on “Masked and Anonymous”

Masked and Anonymous has a confused plot and is crudely directed – but it still deserves attention. Even if you can’t bear to sit through the film, it’s worth looking at the opening credits. A teasingly familiar guitar riff floats over the BBC Films logo. Before we’ve had time to wonder how much licence payer’s money Bob got, we’re watching a volcano erupt and listening to “My Back Pages”. But this uplifting version of the Dylan song is being sung in Japanese, rather wonderfully, by the Magokoro Brothers. The footage of the volcano is followed by an innerving series of shots of floods, fires and wars. We may twig that this visual montage is sketching out the degraded, post-disaster future in which the film is set. But at the same time we know that these images of violence and calamity come from real news footage. Taken together, music and visuals are a splicing of the familiar and strange, which is both exhilarating and unsettling.

The film never perhaps lives up to the promise of those opening moments – yet it succeeds in wrong-footing the audience throughout. The script moves from folksy humour to opaque philosophical musing, so we are never quite sure how seriously we are supposed to be taking it. I’m pretty sure these moments with Val Kilmer are supposed to be (mostly) funny but it’s hard to be certain.

There’s nothing new in Dylan not quite letting on how seriously he wants to be taken. It’s part of the repertoire of tricks he uses to keep people guessing. Indeed some would argue that his talent for keeping people guessing exceeds his talents as a lyricist, musician or singer. So those who are indifferent to Dylan might conclude that Masked and Anonymous finds him hiding behind obfuscation once again. The film ‘fesses up to this to some extent. As well as the implications of the uncertain and unknowable in the title, the film anticipates I’m Not There in the way it plays with Dylan’s identity. Just as the non-English language versions of Dylan standards on the soundtrack seem to be, at one and the same time, Dylan and Not Dylan, many of the characters seem to Bob and Not Bob. Dylan himself plays Jack Fate, a rock star who’s not so much washed up as spat out. But the jaded journalist Tom Friend, played by Jeff Bridges, is often costumed in get-ups redolent of various iconic looks Dylan has adopted over the years. Even Luke Wilson’s Bobby Cupid (and yeah, get these character names) has something of the early 60s folksinger Bob about him. Talk about I’m Not There – it’s tempting to suggest the two films could swap titles and still make just as much (or more) sense.

Still, you can’t spend that much time trying to hide without showing something of yourself – and not just how slight you look next to John Goodman. Masked and Anonymous shows us a Dylan that isn’t comfortable with crying, but enjoys delivering a deadpan joke. In more serious moments we glimpse a man whose discomfort about his status seems born not just out of scepticism about image, but also out of deep self-doubt, maybe even moments of self-loathing. But the moments that seem most true are the times Dylan plays with his band to create some riveting versions of Dylan’s songs. So in the end, the Dylan that makes the makes the strongest impression is a man most at ease talking through (or hiding inside) the varied ways he can shape and twist his own songs.

Ron Swanson on “I’m Not There”

When Todd Haynes, on the back of the critically acclaimed Far From Heaven announced plans to make a film about Bob Dylan, it seemed like a good bet to be an awards-contending, box-office slaying hit in the vein of Walk the Line, the recently released biopic of Dylan’s friend, Johnny Cash.

That, though, probably wouldn’t have fit Dylan, and it certainly didn’t fit Haynes, whose films have never appeared to be made for a mass audience. In I’m Not There, we’re left with six different actors playing different elements of Dylan’s persona and the film never attempts to delve into his personality. Instead, we see him as an actor, a folk singer, a poet, an electric guitar-playing singer, as Woody Guthrie and as Billy the Kid.

With no insight as to how these six ‘characters’ entwine into one, what you’re left with is a formal exercise, either into filmmaking – and there are several obvious influences in Haynes’s film, from Godard to Fellini to Peckinpah – or into the work of Dylan, himself. Either way, what’s missing from the film is what makes his music so appealing, wit, depth or heart.

What you’re left with is an austere, high-minded parlour trick, whose wit is hidden by its desire to sustain the mystique of its subject. It does make you wonder why they bothered. Dylan remains an onscreen enigma, and the only thing that Dylan fans may get a particular kick out of is Kris Kristofferson’s narration. Not only is he Bob’s friend, but they co-starred in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Haynes’s failure is not to be sneered at – Dylan’s a difficult man to get a handle on. Martin Scorsese managed fairly well in his documentary No Direction Home, but it’s almost impossible to portray a legendary character who has only ever bared his soul in song. In fact, it’s only in the use of his music in other people’s feature films, which busy themselves with subjects aside from Dylan that his character, and the things we love about him, ever really comes to the fore.

One such instant is in the soundtrack for the Curtis Hanson minor-masterpiece Wonder Boys, for which Dylan contributed a new song – “Things Have Changed”. This was the first ‘new’ song of Dylan’s that had ever excited me, and despite not having listened to anything he’d recorded in the previous 25 years on more than one occasion, it was instantly, undeniably him.

So the movies as a whole may not have been kind to Bob, on screen anyway. If I’m honest, I doubt it keeps him up at night. After all, new movies come along each year and give exposure to his best work – his music. When I was younger, one such movie was The Hurricane. I remember being very impressed by the film, but it’s Dylan’s song that I now come back to, it contains more insight, wit and righteous anger in 8 minutes than in the 150 that the film takes to finish off the story.

Maybe that’s why Dylan will never quite be a movie man – he doesn’t need the time to make his point.

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8 thoughts on “Keep Your Eyes Wide: Dylan on Film at 70

  1. No direction home was a brilliant documentary, something I think you missed out on here is the constant foreshadowIng of Dylan going electric. Even when talking about the early demos and his interest in folk flashes of the 66 tour get shown. Also, completely disagree with what was said about Im not there. He was presented as a multiple faceted artist constantly torn in different directions and by different ideas, something he undoubtedly was. With Dylan you’re not supposed tO explore what makes him tick because it would be completely disingenuous. The man is an enigma and to present him in any other way would be false. It’s the charisma and secrecy that draws people to him. Well done cate blanchet.

    1. There are lots of ways to make an enigma. One of them is constant lying about yourself, which Dylan made a specialty of in the 60s (and continues periodically to this day).

      If Dylan’s an enigma, I think we can still comment on the extent to which he deliberately became one, and wonder why he felt he had to do it.

      1. but the film set out to explore him as an artist not as a ‘human being’. The journalist has missed the point.

  2. Great article Niall. I agree with almost everything you say, admire the way you say it, and draw opposite conclusions. (I think I’ve been here before.)

    The Dylan of Don’t Look Back is rude, prickly, insecure, putting on a front, and making it up as he goes along. But he has to make it up. He’s in uncharted territory. With the benefit of hindsight the career moves he made in the mid sixties were his stepping stones to greatness. But that’s hindsight. I think what comes across in the film is the way he puts on a front and ploughs on. That’s what the film captures. Of course that’s not necessarily Pennebaker’s talent unless right place, right time is a talent (which arguably it is).

    It’s very easy to underestimate the leap he made when he went electric just as it’s very easy to belittle the folkies who booed him or wielded their axes. Those folkies had built a world which had the acoustic, woody, aesthetic at its core. And it was a world which was admirable in many ways. And going electric was like installing a Wurlitzer at Walden Pond.

  3. Completely disagree with Niall! Don’t Look Back is a movie about artistic courage; Dylan staying true to his vision in the midst of wholesale non-understanding. To Dylan, the music was the object of the aesthetic interest, and his grumpiness and truculence is borne out of the futility of the public, journalists and others thinking they will be able to get to the bottom of him through inane and plain stupid questions; completely refusing to see where he was coming from – the roots of rhythm and blues music.

    I think also, in contradiction to what Niall says about him not knowing what he was doing, any knowledge of Dylan through his own writings or others, suggests precisely the opposite; he had a clear idea what he was doing. It was his audience and journalists who didn’t understand what he was doing. The balls of the guy carrying on in the face of so much objection, matched with the huge distance between the artist and some elements of his audience is the subject of the film and why it is such a great success. I suspect Niall is not a fan of the man or his music; it may be that any reception of the film depends on this. I think it is a great and exciting movie about artistic creation.

    1. Oh, I love a bit of Bob. There probably isn’t a winning streak in popular music as long (or as artistically deep) as the run from Bringing It All Back Home to The Basement Tapes. I’m entirely comfortable hearing Dylan called a genius – because he is one.

      But I do dislike the trend in Dylanology that would have you believe that the guy made no mistakes: that takes his every utterance – however dim; however pointlessly rude and hostile – as being a deliberate step on the path to genius. He takes a lot of flak from pseuds and idiots in Dont Look Back, but he’s also just pointlessly aggressive to people who don’t deserve it.

      Dont Look Back works as an insight into artistic creation if you swallow the mythmaking whole. All I was really trying to point out here is how much mythmaking and how many staged scenes there are in there. And I don’t think you learn a great deal about Dylan from it: except that he had good hair, a crack band, and a mean streak. On the rare occasions where the film tries to account for his creativity, you get blatant fakery: like the scene with the cotton-pickers I mentioned in the main piece.

      But, you know, I’d just like to have it on the record that I’m strongly pro-Bob. I just dislike this film.

  4. He is charming and polite to the utterly splendid and formidable female High Sherrif. “So, tell me, is it true you really write all your own songs?” In front of her he reverts to a boy his parents would be proud of. (As would we all.)

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