BOB DYLAN: FRAT-RAT OR ANARCHIST?
A Look Back at *Don't Look Back*.
"But what is to be done if the direct and sole vocation of every intelligent man is babble, that is, the intentional pouring of water through a sieve?" (1)
"[R]ock is blunt, rude , and popular. Rock disdains polite or correct diction and rejects refined theorizing about society and politics. 'We are the white crap that talks back,' say the Fall. In describing themselves, they describe all rockers. Everything Horace abominated in the profane mob finds its glorification in rock - noise, passion, profanity, populism." (2)
A friend of mine once said, "What comes out of your mouth is shit. What flows out your ass is almost pure in its simplicity, its conciseness, its inevitability. Your words testify to your sickness, your bowel movements proclaim your health."
At the time, i was somewhat offended. Now, after several times having viewed *Don't Look Back* (3) (DLB), a documentary film chronicling Bob Dylan's acoustic tour of England in the spring of 1965, i wonder if i can't at least provisionally see the point my friend - through treacherous words - was trying to make. Dylan, more than being the subject/object of truthseeking documentary dissection, dominates the landscape of the film like a billboard advertising linguistic distrust; the only time he seems to really drop his guard - or change it - is when he is not engaging in reciprocal interaction (e.g. conversation); i.e., particularly, when he is onstage performing his songs (his bowel movements).
The Bob Dylan singing and playing on a stage seems to me a different character from the Bob Dylan playing throughout the various non-musical scenes of the film; moreover, as a singer he to a larger extent characterizes what the film itself should perhaps embody - what Samuel Fuller has described <as> cinema : "Film is like a battleground. Yes... Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word... <emotion>." (4) I hope to resolve by the end of this paper whether or not DLB, for this spectator, could in any way be seen as implicated in such a battle, as part of a war between words and sensations.
What is the nature of the methodology through which documentary cinema, following the death of God the narrator, seeks to substantiate its ability to - like a polished mirror - truthfully reflect the world?
The immediate giveaway, paradoxically, is a conspicuous <lack> of any discernible polish: adornment, embellishment, any form of beautification of the image is anathema; such qualities are seen as indicative of manipulation, manufacture, falsity; i wonder, also, if a basic distrust of money is not involved here - if you have enough of it, you might simply buy exactly the kind of truth you want documented.
Gritty and grainy black-and-white footage, shot on the run, leaving a trail of overdue bills, is the veritable stamp of authenticity. Pauline Kael offers the following assessment:
"Cinema verite is a fast way of shooting made possible by the development... of lightweight cameras and sound-recording equipment. Two men (or even one man) can walk (or run) with the camera and the synchronized tape recorder. This has liberated camera reporting, but, technically, the results are not all that might be hoped for. The sound is generally poor or inaudible, the images are dark... the footage tends to be visually monotonous, with a lot of arbitrary motion as the cameraman whizzes around focusing on pointless details, because he loses or cannot find what is interesting in a situation. Good editing can clean it up, of course... [the cameramen] can later give the footage shape or reduce it to the moments of revelation. Such moments can seems like personal discoveries for the audience...
"There is an element of fakery in cinema verite...[:] The celebrity subject may - indeed, almost certainly does - control the reporter who uses the camera; then [it all] becomes just another form of corrupt journalism..." (5)
Another film critic, Andrew Sarris, chimes in:
"The Leacock-Pennebaker school of documentary holds that a film-maker should not impose his point of view on his material <a priori>. As the material emerges, its truth emerges with it. This entails a passive role for the camera. The truth exists; the camera must capture it...
"I don't trust the Leacock-Pennebaker school of documentary. Ugliness and awkwardness are subtly transformed from technical necessities to truth-seeming mannerisms. When Leacock came up to Montreal in 1963 with *Jane* and *The Chair*, the National Film Board people were skeptical about the crudities in the films. It wasn't the usual underground problem of money, but something more insidious, an attempt to con an audience into thinking that something is more real when it is awkward, or rather that awkwardness is truth...
"[However, the] camera can capture only that truth that chooses to exhibit itself. If there were nothing of the exhibitionist in Dylan, the camera would register a blank..." (6)
These comments, apart from drawing attention to the National Film Board of Canada's uncanny ability to re-channel skepticism into Challenge for Change policy, serve to outline some of the concerns adhering to the practice of cinema verite, as well as to anchor Pennebaker's DLB firmly within this tradition. All the stylistic mannerisms are present: Handheld camera; energetic panning and zooming; wildly heterogeneous recordings of location sound; images awash in grain and shadow: "The cameraman... seems to have left his lightmeter and his sun-gun in New York." (7)
Importantly, the film also exemplifies the verite document's reliance on its (celebrity) subject; i.e., how the free-floating space in front of the camera lens is appropriated and articulated by the persona - or, alternatively, the artist - Bob Dylan. Or perhaps the more accurate statement is that the critical reaction to the film exhibits the presence of such a perceived reliance in the eyes of the viewing audience: "What makes Dylan electrifying," says Sarris, "is that his art is connected to the wholeness of his personality"; the filmmaker, moreover, apparently has nothing to do with this: "Jean-Luc Godard put it well when he said that Leacock was interesting when he dealt with Kennedy in *Primary* and boring when he dealt with Crump in *The Chair*... *Don't Look Back* makes me want to fill in on Dylan's recordings, but not Pennebaker's movies." (8)
Donal J. Henahan of the *New York Times* also suggests, by implication, that Pennebaker is not really the artist in control of the film: "... [I]t is Bob Dylan we came to see, and it is ultimately frustrating to discern so little of the man beneath the bushy hair, the dark glasses and the leather jacket. Even in what appear to be candid shots, the performer's public face is turned to the camera." (9)
This specific cinema verite filmmaker's assumed ambition, then - to expose the backstage behavior of his subject, and in so doing reveal the saturated, thick truth of Bob Dylan the Man (as opposed to just Bob Dylan the Performer) - would seem futile. Unless, of course, the truth is this: Bob Dylan is, in fact, <always> performing. He never relaxes his front; instead, he simply switches between different ones. This would at least partly explain his notorious disdain of reporters: he is loath to be strapped to any particular chair. What's more, there is some indication that such a reluctance might be a general character trait, and not just a practical tool to be employed in public acts of dodging; witness the following passage, written by Stephen Scobie in connection with his discussion of another (though very different) documentary film starring (and directed by) Bob Dylan, *Renaldo and Clara* (10):
"After a brief cutaway to the band on stage, the sequence resumes in scene 97 with Clara [Sara Dylan, Bob's wife] and The Woman in White [Joan Baez, Bob's former lover] comparing notes. 'He never gives straight answers,' says Clara, accurately enough. 'Evasiveness is all in the mind,' protests Renaldo [Bob]. To which both women reply in unison, 'Horseshit.' 'Has he always been like that?' Clara asks, and The Woman in White replies, 'For the ten years I've known him.' 'Has he ever given you a straight answer?' 'Not to my recollection.' (11)
All right, then; accepting that my earlier distinction, as far as DLB - between Bob Dylan singing and playing on a stage, and Bob Dylan playing throughout the various other scenes of the film - may not hold; accepting that Pennebaker - not necessarily through any merit of his own - does offer some insight into his subject's character, I will now attempt to examine some possible aspects of this character's life. My guiding line of inquiry will be as follows:
Who is this Bob Dylan, anyway? And now really, what's it to me?
PLEASED TO MEET YOU
"If you have not telephoned, you are trespassing." These were the words on a sign greeting photographer Daniel Kramer as he was approaching the Woodstock, New York home of Albert Grossman for his first-ever meeting with Bob Dylan. The year was 1964; "Everything was bright and still on this warm August morning," recalls Kramer. "It was a perfect place to separate from the world." (12)
I am interested in his articulation of this meeting, as well as in the elaboration of the later development of their relationship, to the extent that his account offers some information about what Dylan's character was like in the eight or so months prior to the tour that Pennebaker covers in DLB. The latter part of this period also constitutes the germinating phase of (one of) Dylan's lamented shifts in performance style - from a "folky" acoustic guitar strumming to an electrified rock wail; DLB contains references throughout to how his latest radio track, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," (13), is doing on the English charts, as well as some first intimations of fan confusion about the raucous, ostensibly radically new sound in evidence; moreover, the film, which was released <after> Dylan's now canonized trio of electrified rock albums, actually opens with a kind of one-take video of "Subterranean..." (an almost full-figure Dylan is staring into the camera and throwing down, more or less in sync, big cue cards containing, more or less, the lyrics to the song), which, being a paradoxical and open invitation to ignore the film's title, can perhaps be seen as a celebration of Dylan's defiance in breaking with his "folk" persona (and, by extension, in his subsequent discard of his eventually celebrated rock persona in favor of a non-smoking, sweet-voiced country troubadour). Some more on this later.
Kramer elaborates Dylan's attitude in the following manner:
"People are usually eager to place themselves at the disposal of the photographer in order to make the pictures as effective as possible. They want to know how they can be helpful... They are willing to construct artificial situations. Dylan did not do this... He... never seemed to acknowledge my presence. This set the pace. Apparently he was not going to do anything especially for the camera.
"...Dylan is a restless man. It is difficult to pin him down... It was also obvious that he didn't like to be photographed. He said that photography was a waste of his time and that he didn't want to pose... I wanted him to cooperate so I could document who he was and what he was doing, and, I hoped, the pictures would eventually find their way to the public. He let me know he understood this and that he was willing to cooperate, but that he wanted the pictures to come from the things he did and not from things we would arrange for him to do. So I suggested photographing him doing the things which seemed most natural for him - working, writing music, or playing the guitar.
"Dylan... told me that the pictures I wanted wouldn't work out, since he is always alone when he writes, and that it would be silly to make a picture of him posing at the typewriter. As for the guitar, he almost never played except when performing..." (14)
Already, then, there is a tension in Dylan between the unease at being in any way solidified, defined, pinned down - the threatening power of the camera - and the seductive power inherent in controlling the content of the actual image. This power is both expressive and economic in character: nothing sells like a well-constructed image; if your image is loose and mysterious enough to sustain intrigue, you might even survive the fate of the average 15-minute fad persona.
Dylan seems to me endowed with an awareness of the magnetism of mystery. He certainly handled Kramer masterfully, insisting on documentary accuracy while, in fact, systematically controlling every aspect of the photographed situation. The result on the part of the photographer seems to be a certain faith in some naturally present essence of character, a belief that overshadows a fundamental awareness of this character's expression as <construct>:
"Pictures are always occurring and coming together in the natural environment and course of events. If the photographer can anticipate the actions and reactions of his subject and the subject's movements, he can bring together all of the elements before him to form his pictures. When pictures are made this way, they are often better than the posed variety. Certainly they are more truthful. Except for the making of album cover pictures [e.g., the cover of *Bringing It All Back Home*] and one rare studio sitting, all the pictures I took of Dylan were made using this method of anticipation... it made the pictures a little more meaningful. Once we began to communicate and he realized that I was not out to alter him but was searching for interesting and significant pictures, he worked along more easily, allowing himself to enter into a number of situations that could lend interest to the photographs..." (15)
The photographer's (unacknowledged) conundrum here is one also facing the cinema verite filmmaker: once an effort is made to render things more meaningful, interesting, and significant, the process at work is no longer a straightforward recording of "reality," but rather one involving - at the very least - the kind of interpretation and translation that a painter might employ when doing a portrait.
What i want to stress is how favorable the above slippage in perspective can be to a shrewd subject - especially one aided by the added business acumen of Albert Grossman. Nine months after his great unease at being put in front of a camera lens, Dylan is touring England, accompanied day and night by an entire documentary motion picture crew shooting a film partly financed by his own manager. As mentioned earlier, the problematics adhering to DLB as a <verite> document are ultimately seen as taking a backseat to Dylan's central (sincere) persona ("...as uncertain as any gray pundit... a hero to some, a sellout to others and a vaguely unsettling enigma to most people over 30" (16)).
In other words, he is still mastering a situation in which he enjoys, all at once, freedom, power, and - in the eyes of the audience - the approval stamp of authenticity. Kramer wraps it up succinctly:
"As I drove back to New York, I thought about the five hours I had spent with Dylan. They seemed to reveal some essential part of his personality. It was evident that he was a man who set his own marks and did not allow himself to be manipulated. He acted from his own convictions and took a stand. He knew what he wanted to do and what he wanted to produce... He presents himself as he presents his work. He doesn't sell - it is up to you to meet it and extract from it." (17)
IT WAS EVIDENT THAT HE WAS A MAN
Time, now, to extract some images of Bob Dylan. There are four or so scenes in DLB which i find particularly pertinent to the preoccupations of this paper.
One of them, taking place at night in Dylan's hotel room, starts with a close-up of Joan Baez singing Dylan's "Percy's Song." The sound of a typewriter overlaps her playing; she is looking frame left. There is a cut to a close-up of Albert Grossman, who is looking frame right. The camera then pans right, while zooming out, to reveal Dylan seated at his desk with his back to the other people in the room, typing. Here, then, a kind of triangle - or, if you will, an abstracted pyramid - is established, with (the enigmatic) Dylan positioned at the apex. The form of this pyramid is echoed, and its subtle hierarchy thus reinforced, when the scene as described so far continues with a cut to another close-up of Baez, which then develops into a pull-back followed by a pan left to a left-profile view of Dylan. A girl is seated at the wall in the background, silently watching Baez play. After another pan and zoom, this time back onto Baez' face, the girl exits frame right. In the succeeding wide shot, a reframing has taken place: Dylan is now seen at a three-quarter angle, almost facing the camera; Baez is seated behind him; and, finally, in a mirror behind her again, the exited girl is still present, keeping the basic triangular pattern intact.
From my viewing of this series of shots, the insistence on Dylan as an authority figure is inexorable. This authority may be grounded in some personal aura of artistic ineffability, but it is certainly greatly enhanced by the curiously dramaturgical tricks of Pennebaker's trade: not only is Dylan established as the diegetic center of (natural) attention - the audience is also offered the dramatic curve starting at his back and building slowly to the revelation of his contemplative visage. I beg to differ with Pauline Kael's assessment of this scene - "Sequences that in a Hollywood movie would have been greeted with snickers - like Bob Dylan in the throes of composition - got by because of the rough look" (18) - and would like to suggest instead that it gets by precisely <because> of its affinity with Hollywood mythmaking: its dramatic construction becomes a potent (if, arguably, profoundly fragile) force of persuasion (and this is, perhaps unfortunately, only slightly less true with the knowledge of Dylan's earlier assertion vis-a-vis Kramer: that he is always alone when he writes, and that it would be silly to make a picture of him posing at the typewriter).
This could indicate, then, that Pennebaker may not be as powerless or hopeless as the critics as well as my own previous statement would have it. However, i must point out that his power here does not coincide with any success in exposing the myth, the face behind the mysterious mask: his treatment of Dylan is not much different (if rougher in look) than the kind that is afforded any Hollywood lead man. Dylan's star image is everything; he's just playing to a different (hipper) audience.
Another correlation with dramatic structuration is found in the way sound functions in the described scene to further anchor the authoritative point of reference: Even when Dylan himself is not seen on-screen, we hear his song being sung, as if it were transcribed or transposed directly from the ubiquitous hammering of his typewriter onto Joan Baez' vocal cords. Consider the possible effect of this in light of the following lines, concerning a famous car scene in a certified Hollywood film noir classic, *The Big Sleep*:
"...[T]he privilege conceded within one code (presence in the image) is overthrown in another (presence in the [sound] belonging to each shot). We have already noted that while Marlowe alone speaks in shot 3 where he is alone in the image, Marlowe and Vivian both talk in shot 4 which shows Vivian alone, an opposition which is continued in shots 5 and 6. The shots which follow accentuate this imbalance in accordance with a progression which is at the same time inverse, similar, and different to that of the image- presence progression. For Marlowe alone speaks in shots 8 and 9, which show the two characters alternately, and while he does not speak in shot 11, where Vivian marks her privilege in the image, she - far from speaking - is quite silent." (19)
Ultimately, then, it can be seen that Baez - who is frequently pictured and constantly heard in the present scene - is really quite silent; she is, in fact, not really <there>, other than as a means to further signify Dylan. Moreover, this seems to be her lot throughout the entirety of DLB; along with other women, she takes on the gender function later manifested in a number of "buddy films" of the late 1960s and early '70s - roles in which, as Virginia Woolf described it many decades ago, "[w]omen have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." (20)
Dylan is the active center to which everything and everybody is referred; in the discourse surrounding the film, Baez's function as an appendage (a hero's trophy?) is propagated: for Donal Henahan of the *New York Times*, "[t]he sequences that focus on Miss Baez provide the film some of its loveliest moments, letting one see her sad, somewhat weary but still Madonna-like beauty in flashes of repose and repartee" (21) (the repartee in question involves her being the butt of - arguably quite innocuous - sexual jokes like Bobby Neuwirth's "She's got one of those see- through blouses that you don't even wanna!"). E. C., in *Film Quarterly*, takes pleasure in Baez's brief appearance(s) and feels that "her beauty is not entirely concealed by washed-out photography." (22) And, finally, Andrew Sarris, who is actually <not> impressed by Baez, bases this dismissal on his view that "[s]he takes the sting out of everything she sings with her very professional charm..." (23): in other words, should her shallow presence (Wilfrid Sheed describes her as "the ultimate camp-follower" (24)) fail to confer additional respect and validation onto Dylan, it carries the contrary potential of watering down his impact.
Leaving aside the possibility that DLB may in fact have captured an "accurate" reflection of the operative dynamic characterizing the relationship between Baez and Dylan - and, moreover, that Baez might indeed have been quite aware of this dynamic but, for reasons of her own, actively resigned herself to it (which would perhaps explain some of the sadness in her "beauty") - the film's aesthetic formulations, and the critical articulations responding to them, strike me as (unwittingly) appealing to the protective practice of male bonding: i find it significant in this respect that Pauline Kael never mentions Baez at all. Pennebaker's reliance on traditional narrative techniques undermine the purportedly radical approach of his genre, and tend to distract from Dylan's credibility as a potentially confounding rebel.
The boy's club mentality permeates DLB; it is tempting to indulge for a few moments the view that macho posturing could possibly serve as a lightning-rod deflecting men's forbidden affection for other men. (25) To begin with an extension of my earlier parallel, the real Lauren Bacall to Dylan's Bogart may in fact not be Baez, but Donovan - he is referred to in the film as "the <other> folk singer"; a designation which, incidentally, apart from being funny, further marginalizes the presence of Baez, who, inarguably, is also a folk singer (the comment of a British reporter to Baez upon the entourage's arrival in England pretty much sums it up: "Streuth! Forgive me, I didn't recognize you...").
A slightly condescending but nevertheless affectionately playful attitude marks the tension set up between Dylan and Donovan as not-so- equal competitors; not truly equal, because even if Dylan is obviously enjoying both himself and Donovan when the two finally meet, the shooting and editing of the event again ensures the star's overarching authority.
The Donovan sequence, again taking place in Dylan's hotel room, consists of two parts; i will come back to the first of them a little later. The second part takes the form of a scene in which the two singers perform one of their songs for each other. It starts on a wide shot (knees up) of Donovan, strumming a sweet tune, featuring an irresistible chorus that makes Dylan cackle with delight. After a head-and-shoulders reaction shot from one of the other people present in the room (an aging beatnik-type more faded than burnt out), the entire second half of the song is heard over a wide shot of Dylan listening.
After the due applause, it's time for Dylan to reciprocate. On a wide shot of him grabbing his guitar, Donovan says, "I wanna hear 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' [from *Bringing It All Back Home*]." Dylan replies, "You wanna hear that, huh?" The following zoom-in to a close-up of Donovan draws attention to his sincere interest in the new directions Dylan's work is going. Then the camera pans to rest on a close-up of Dylan as he hammers and wails out the first verse of the song. This is followed by some reaction shots of the attentive listeners: a close-up of Donovan's face; a return visit of the head-and-shoulders beatnick (this second time around i notice that he's sitting at Dylan's desk, with the typewriter behind him); more Donovan. Dylan again fills the screen for the end of the performance; then, finally, as a coda, we get another look at a smiling, but thoughtful, Donovan.
The same effect of privileging Dylan is taking place here that was the case in the scene with Baez. We are never allowed to get close to Donovan as a <performer> - the wide framing, the lack of closure in the sense that we see him start the song, but not finish it, keeps us at a distance; it usurps any lasting control he might establish over the viewer's sympathies.
Conversely, when Dylan sings, the formal structuring works to coerce emotional involvement, not least by way of the realization that even Donovan - Dylan's "rival," "the other folk singer" (now a rapt <devotee>) - can't help but admire him: In the face of such talent, mere frivolous enjoyment is insufficient - we are not only delighted, we are positively awed.
Entertaining as i do the foolish notion that any serious academic paper should be open to fateful accidents, the reader will be presented with one or two sets of portentous circumstances in the course of the remaining sections.
First, however, i would like to flesh out my masculinist Bob Dylan simulacrum by shifting some - though by no means all - attention away from Pennebaker's machinations and onto the body of Dylan himself; more specifically, i want to look closer at some of his interactive behavior.
At one point, we are thrown in medias res into an escalating - and by now infamous - confrontation between Dylan and a would-be (student) journalist, taking place in the backstage caverns of yet another concert venue. Singlehandedly facing Dylan and his posse, the unfortunate interloper comes off like a slightly daft poodle yapping at a pack of snarling Dobermans. The entire scene revolves around the painfully obvious contrast between the defensive interviewer and the mercilessly charging Dylan; and, just to be clear on this point, i suggest the contrast is one between what it means to be a man and the horror of falling somewhat short of the realization of this duty.
The interviewer is seated against the wall. He is saddled with pimples and a rather dull and unadventurous haircut; the bridge of his nose bravely supports thick-rimmed glasses, and he wears a decently conservative suit jacket. Dylan, on the other hand, is prancing cockily about the room underneath his untamed crow's nest halo, dressed in black, wearing his guitar and, eventually, a cigarette. I'm reminded of his statement to Kramer that he almost never plays his guitar except when he is performing: this, then, is perhaps one of those almost never occasions.
Not that the scene does not have an element of performance to it; we are treated to a bravado exercise of Dylan's ruthlessly sharp mind, an exercise that aspires to the enjoyment of his supportive cast. The first line heard is Dylan saying, "Do you think it would bother me one bit if you dislike me?" His attitude is antagonistic, and ostensibly the direct consequence of the (already stymied) interviewer's dissatisfaction with not being treated respectfully as an equal. Such a showing of vulnerability seems to be his single but fatal mistake; his naivete is manifested throughout by his sincere grappling with whatever Dylan throws at him, an openmindedness that is definitely not reciprocated: Dylan, like a seasoned improv actor, takes everything the poor fellow says and spits it back out in the manner most likely to keep their conflict alive, to keep his presumptuous opponent scrambling hopelessly in his effort to catch up with what's up.
For the viewer, the sense of Dylan's predatory aggression is heightened by the way the frame foregrounds him: Standing as he is, he generally dominates the entire left half of the screen - the interviewer, on the right, is on a lower plane, sharing his space with a wall, the door, and another one of those pretty girls watching silently from the back. Frequently the view is over Dylan's shoulder, as we are viscerally invited to vicariously bear down on the seated prey. This framing is at various points self-reflexively doubled in a mirror on the wall.
Then, of course, there is the guitar - a weapon Dylan belligerently wields to unnerve the interviewer as he desperately searches for the right words of appeasement.
INTERVIEWER: When you meet somebody, what's [intrusive guitar
picking] your attitude towards them?
DYLAN: I don't like them! No! [general hoots and hollers; some swaggering]
It's hard to satisfy the demand for manly dignity under such circumstances. And there is more:
INTERVIEWER: I'm a science student.
DYLAN: Now let's hear that again. A what student?
INTERVIEWER: If I go to interview Alan [some British musician, also hanging out with the entourage] and his mob, they couldn't care less for me.
DYLAN: I mean, haven't you ever stopped to wonder why? [laughter] There's gotta be some reason, doesn't there?
Leaving aside the old adage "Never give a sucker an even break," one would like to believe that Dylan might be practicing some form of devil's advocacy, perhaps in an effort to graciously enlighten the guy; even if this were the case , the process involved is not one of mutual acceptance - it's more like an initiation rite, on par with having to imbibe thirty-six beers, shotgun style, before trophy-hunting for girls' panties. Such faith is disabled, however, by the obvious fact that Dylan is very much amusing both himself and the others present at his guest's expense. There is also apocryphal evidence that this is indeed not a special performance, but an activity he enjoyed regularly - evidence I acquired years ago reading some book in the library of a small town in Norway, and unfortunately have no way of referencing (I believe it revolved around Sue Rotolo, a girlfriend of Dylan's from his New York heydays of the early sixties; just trust me on this one): According to the narrator, a favorite pastime of Dylan and his pal Neuwirth was to go to this bar in the Village and pick out some poor schlep to publicly humiliate; they were positively notorious.
To be fair, in the present scene, Dylan eventually does show a flash of a more humane side, when he slows down and appears to give the science student a chance to redeem himself:
DYLAN: Don't you ever just keep quiet?
INTERVIEWER: The one thing that gets me about you and Alan is that you're knocking from the minute I come in.
DYLAN: I just don't think you know when you're liked, that's all. If we wanna knock you, you know... We could be putting you on.
This outstretched hand, however, is really just offering another catch (number 22): the interviewer's insecurity, for which he has been relentlessly ribbed, is by now so exacerbated that he has no way of recognizing a friendly gesture. The punishment is swift and callous:
DYLAN: Do you always try to satisfy everybody?
DYLAN: Do you ever once in a while try?
What we have here is basically a bar fight: You're gonna get bullied into trouble by the bigger man, and you can't win.
Taking that as my segueway, i return now to the first part of the previously discussed Donovan sequence. Here the viewer is treated to more of the doggedly confrontational Dylan, with this difference: the despite-it-all, guilty pleasure of observing his keen mind at work is no longer a component consideration. I am fleetingly reminded again, however, of the suggestion that fights and brawls, along with contact sports and strenuous forays down frothing rapids in tightly packed canoes, may very well be a way for men to get physically close to each other without having to admit it to anyone, including ourselves.
The scene, then, unfolding during a party in Dylan's hotel room, starts with a shot of Donovan's face; his time not yet come, he is immediately abandoned in favor of a more pressing drama: Somebody has chucked a glass out the window and presumably either hit or scared witless some unsuspecting pedestrian. Representatives of the management are at the door, demanding justice; Albert Grossman, with his great flair for business, tells them to fuck off. Dylan, on the other hand - slightly pissed, pissed off, righteously indignant, and no doubt concerned with being a king in control of his own castle - sympathizes with the offended envoys. He demands a confession, immediately seizing on one of the uninitiated local guests as the person most likely to be in the know:
DYLAN: Who threw that glass in the street? Who did it? Man, you better tell me cause if somebody don't tell me who did it you're all gonna get the fuck out of here and never come back. Now who did it? I don't <care> who did it, man, I just wanna <know> who did it... 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10; you got him here?
Apart from proffering an interesting distinction, this somewhat adolescent and a tad embarrassing tirade carries the seeds of irony - it is later revealed that it was actually one of Dylan's "own people" who committed the uncouth act (specifically, our old friend the faded beatnik), and the matter is consequently settled in all amicability.
Before this happens, though, a highly significant exchange takes place between Dylan and the initially suspected culprit. The man in question is no science student; he has the air of being a hipster like the rest of the crowd, and is not easily intimidated. Also, in the present confrontation, he appears to be the more discerning of the combatants:
DYLAN: I know a thousand cats who look just like you and talk
just like you.
CULPRIT: Oh, fuck off. You're a big noise. You know?
DYLAN: I know it, man. I know I'm a big noise.
CULPRIT: I know you know.
DYLAN: I'm a bigger noise than you, man.
CULPRIT: I'm a small noise.
CULPRIT: [with pointed emphasis] I'm a small cat.
DYLAN: That's right.
Which pretty well caps this entire section of my argument: Dylan is the authoritative speaker of the word, the aggressive wielder of the weapon: he not only looks, walks, and talks like a tomcat he owns the alley.
Witness the workings of accident:
DYLAN: [to the small cat] You're anything you say you are, man. If you say you're small, I believe it. I believe you, man.
Pennebaker harbors much enthusiasm for these words. Talking to Robert Shelton, the author of Dylan's official biography, he cites the above statement and exclaims, "What a marvelous thing to say! It's the fundamental existentialist concept. And Dylan's doing it, not like Norman Mailer, writing about it; that's what the film is about, so it couldn't be left out." (26)
(Apparently, the inclusion of the latter confrontation had been a bone of possible contention; in the end, having Dylan look bad gloriously fighting another battle he couldn't possibly lose must have been considered a small price to pay for the preservation of fundamental existentialist concepts.)
What i find more applicable in Pennebaker's comment is its level of ambiguity - i'm not sure whether the film is supposed to celebrate the existentialist ethic as such, or if it is rather a showcase for Bob Dylan actually doing something that Norman Mailer is only capable of writing about. Mailer, of course, is another tomcat; Kate Millet, writing among other things on the mysteries of masculinity, describes the author himself as a "prisoner of the virility cult," (27) and one of his archetypal and recurring characters as possessing, in Mailer's own phrase, "the cruelty to be a man." (28) She goes on to elaborate Mailer's hipster attitude in the following terms:
"Confusing the simply antisocial with the revolutionary, Mailer develops an aesthetic of Hip whose chief temperamental characteristic is a malign <machismo>, still dear to those in the New Left who have fallen under Mailer's spell in adolescence or continue to confuse Che Guevara with the brassy cliche of the Westerns." (29) In addition to the obvious hipster correlation, i ask the reader to consider the prevalence of an outlaw, Western mythology in the work of Bob Dylan: he might look like Robert Ford, but he feels just like Jesse James.
Leaving Millet, further uncanny occurrences soon thicken the plot. This paper's citations from Pauline Kael are taken from a review concerning itself primarily not with DLB, but with another film entitled *Wild 90*. This production is an improvisational, fictitious construct, directed as well as not-written by Norman Mailer, who also stars. It was shot in familiar fashion by D. A. Pennebaker, following his work on DLB. Kael comments: "It is one of the ultimate fantasies to star in a <cinema- verite> movie, to show the world 'the truth' about yourself. Norman Mailer not only took Pennebaker, he took the Dylan look - fluffy halo and all..." (30)
I have more: Preceding the cited section of Wilfrid Sheed's book in which he discusses DLB is an entire chapter devoted to Mailer. (31) He describes him alternately as "a man whose favorite metaphor is his fists"; as an actor who "has used the names Pope and King; but transparently, the one he was groping for shyly was God"; and, finally, as "[a]n opportunist... Prove to him that there's anything wrong with that. In personal style... Mailer is not a primitive... but a conscious follower of tradition. His old crony, Seymour Krim, recently accused him of introducing crassness and success-worship to American letters." In a parallel fashion, Dylan can be seen as having brought crassness and success-worship to folk music; or, similarly but conversely, American letters to crass rock music.
To add it up: People writing about Bob Dylan are often fascinated by Norman Mailer; people interested in filming Bob Dylan as a hip counterculture representative are also drawn to Norman Mailer; Norman Mailer has been associated with prisoners of traditional masculine sexual politics. Lean Mean Hipster Poets, Man-Size the lot of them, conquering a world in which women are "groupies seduced by the masculine Beats, 'who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lakes...' [Allen Ginsberg]" (32) It <is> a delightful scenario, in a certain respect; there's a lot of pantheistic pleasure to be had by all; but as the bard Ginsberg ("who crawled alone from the wreckage of the Beat Generation" (33)) hints at, you might only have experienced a partial, distorted and self-(other-)denying enjoyment of the story so far - you, the illegitimate progeny of Walt Whitman and his leaves of grass.
"The pantheist," writes Robert Pattison, "has a natural affection for grass." (34) Legend has it that Bob Dylan - perhaps inbetween camera loads sometime during the tour in question? - introduced the Beatles to the wonders of marijuana.
If the viewer cares to take a second look, that certain bum with a cane, serving as part of the backdrop for Dylan's unceremonious flinging of cue- cards at the opening of DLB, is actually Allen Ginsberg.
Take it to court, if you dare.
THE ANARCHY OF PERPLEXED FLESH
Denouement: We are in a car with Dylan and Grossman and a couple of other faces, speeding away from the grand finale of DLB - our star's first- ever performance at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall.
There's a rare kind of mood in this scene, a flash of nakedness not set up by deliberate stripping: Dylan comments that he feels like he's been through something. Grossman assures him, almost tenderly, that he has. Then, somebody mentions an item in one of the London papers - a piece of news which does not elicit the usual type of dismissal ("I'm glad I'm not me"). For once, the 24-year-old upstart doesn't protest - in fact, he appears to be genuinely thrown for a loop. Their latest label for him has to be repeated aloud a couple of times for it to sink in: "Anarchist."
Bob Dylan, at this period of his career - starting with *Bringing It All Back Home* in early 1965 and ending, after the release of *Highway 61 Revisited* and *Blonde on Blonde*, with a motorcycle accident in the fall of the following year - was definitely a man with contrary attitudes, a rock and roll rebel: about to "abandon... the coffee house scene and plug... in [his] guitar," (35) fueled by an uncanny burst of creative energy and a lot of "medicine," he would, by the time he ended a world tour (backed by the Band) with a return visit to Royal Albert Hall in May, 1966, not only have successfully challenged the British Invasion of rock hoodlums but practically upstaged them by bringing to the field what could perhaps be called a greater amount of insidious refinery and sophistication. "[Dylan] is certainly not a great musician," claims Andrew Sarris, "and it can be argued that he is not a great performer. The value of his lyrics ['a verbal antimacassar on Dylan's threadbare guitar-playing' (36)] as literature is still debatable, as are the facile shock effects of electronic noise for its own sake [which, Robert Pattison would insist, are part of the heart and soul of rock'n'roll]... What makes Dylan modern or even ahead of his time is the lack of coquettishness in his despair. What makes him truly admirable is the absence of self-ridicule in his arrogance." (37)
(On the latter subject - somebody somewhere has quoted Dylan as saying he could write Jagger/Richards' "Brown Sugar" with one hand tied behind his back.)
So he's noisy, and supremely contemptuous - but an anarchist?
The folky crowd he used to be in with abhorred him when he fell out of his bunk one morning and decided to dress up in different duds; their righteous rage can perhaps be forgiven, since this was the very first manifestation of Dylan's recurring commitment to "the sin... of pantheism...[:] its refusal to be drawn into the debilitating conflicts between antagonists each possessed of a partial truth." (38) This is the commitment that is so exasperating to intellectualizing journalists and anybody else who might have reasons for at least temporarily pinning him down; like wife or girlfriends. It is a commitment that could easily crawl into bed with anarchism: "Any established ideology," writes Pattison, "has much to fear from pantheism. [It] is a garbage-pail philosophy, indiscriminately mixing scraps of everything. Fine distinctions between right and wrong, high and low, true and false, the worthy and unworthy, disappear in pantheism's tolerant and eclectic one that refuses to scorn any particular of the many" (39); "You're anything you say you are, man."
This political aspect, though, is merely a side effect - Dylan has in various formulations insisted that he's basically a song-and-dance-man: like Whitman, he is content to "celebrate... the noise of the universe," (40) to sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. His protestations have been successful - the passionate young souls of the world have long since stopped looking to him for answers. I still remember the general shaking of my friends' heads on the day following his performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" on David Letterman's tenth anniversary show; they had found him pathetic and awkward, and just try telling them from personally experienced concert appearances that <no>, you don't <understand>, he <moves> in a very bizarre way to begin with. Really.
It's no use. He has succeeded; nobody bothers him with questions anymore, and his orthodox constituency keeps the money flowing into his church coffers. As far as this crowd is concerned, he gets away with anything: when he sings "Girl from the North Country" to conclude his 30th anniversary Bobfest concert, and his voice is (believe it or not, uncharacteristically) unable to sustain the high notes, the performance is later hailed as "lovely" and "understated." (41) (It is peculiar that nobody is pointing out how much more sophisticated a musician he has become over the past few years, as evidenced both here and, particularly, on his last two albums of acoustic standards. Can't these myopic critics even catch a glimpse of his going for the same synergy that Hendrix achieved with his divine combination of homely voice and cocky axe?)
He's got it made, or so it would seem. The picture, however, has been doctored with; the shadows aren't right: nothing succeeds like success, true - but there's no success like failure, and failure is no success at all.
Dylan is a ruse. He's scared. Bergson's eternal duration keeps him awake at night; Whitman's leaves of grass are inhuman poltergeists haunting his windows. His pantheism is impure - he protests too much: Dylan has failed - he, of all people, desires meaning.
"The pantheist himself [again, this masculine subject!] often recoils from the vulgar consequences of his creed and seeks to escape them by a retreat into what philosophers call monism, which holds that though the universe is made up of infinite and equal events, our attention should be directed to the single mystery that unifies them. This mystery is usually called God. By emphasizing the single principle that unites infinity, the monist achieves a kind of transcendence, a single standard beyond common experience that can be used as the basis of judgment and discrimination. Monism is the refined version of pantheism, and before the era of vulgar Romanticism, pantheists from Parmenides to Spinoza took refuge in it." (42)
Witness Dylan's recurring religious imagery, and, in particular, how it reached its apex with the 1979 album *Slow Train Coming*, which is, more than anything else - let's call a spade a spade - an exercise in Bible thumping. It offers a little bit of <something> else, however: the specter of a second ruse.
Like Parmenides and Spinoza, Dylan is seeking refuge - he is hiding. Underneath that veneer of slippery existentialism and aloof monism squirms a vulnerably vulgar Romantic lover, unable to renounce the flesh but mortally afraid of the stakes involved: You don't own love - love owns you. Pretending your love is transcendental is a nice dodge, but it only goes so far. At one point or another, you have to indulge your physical sensibilities.
Dylan, a man having penned many a fine love song, finds refuge for such indulgence in performance - not in his private, "backstage" life, but <on>stage. Performing, he is the supreme monologist, separated, untouchable and invincible, free to indulge the vagaries of his every emotion: because, hey, after all, should anyone ask, it's just music, man. I'm no science student; it's just a song and dance.
One could perhaps say that Dylan is performing less in performance, that he lives his life on stage; in a manner, this has in fact been said: In a fairly recent interview - wherein, incidentally, she describes herself as possessing the status of "honorary male" in his universe - Joni Mitchell claims the reason behind Dylan's neverending touring is that he's "not very good with people." (43) Leave it to a perceptive singer-songwriter to collapse this entire paper into a single line.
If D. A. Pennebaker with *Don't Look Back* sincerely wanted to enhance Dylan's image as a subversive existentialist, he ultimately did his subject a disfavor by anchoring him securely within traditional formal representations. On the other hand, if he wanted to open up an exploration of Dylan <qua> performer, his ambition must be seen as more happily realized (even by default). Judged on the basis of statements he has given regarding his most recent verite endeavor, dealing with the Clinton presidential campaign [*The War Room* (1993), co-directed by Christine Hegedus], any lingering ambivalence might fundamentally stem from his being drawn in equal measure to politicians and rockers: "It's not that strange, really. They're all the same - performers. With my kind of technique, I' limited to those kinds of people." (44) For once, there is finally consensus between filmmaker and critics.
In the end, then, just like he planned it, it all comes down to Bob Dylan. And he's not telling. I hope to have demonstrated that he is by no means a political rogue, but rather an accomplished performer shrewd enough to know the limits of language while at the same time making effective and sometimes noisy use of it to secure a place for himself in the world without ever letting his guard down. Achilles is in the alleyway, and if he could just get over his desire to want somebody else there, he'd be home free. His own kingdom is threatened by the anarchy of flesh.
Now all that remains for me to figure out is whether my continued enjoyment of Dylan's music could possibly result from abject admiration for a ruthless strategist - or, and this would be the more promising alternative, if it actually speaks to some wellspring of proper pantheistic pleasure floating around somewhere beneath my epidermis.
I'm afraid the judgmental severity of my discursive tone might betray a basic lack of confidence.
(1) Fyodor Dostoevsky, *Notes from Underground and The Grand
Inquisitor*. [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1960]; 17.
(2) Robert Pattison, *The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism*. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987]; 10-11.
(3) D. A. Pennebaker, *Don't Look Back*. [Leacock-Pennebaker, 1967.]
(4) in Jean-Luc Godard, *Pierrot le Fou*. [Rome-Paris Films/Dino de Laurentiis, 1965.]
(5) Pauline Kael, *Going Steady*. [Boston: Little, Brown, 1970]; 12-14.
(6) Andrew Sarris, *Confessions of a Cultist*. [New York: Simon and Schuster,1970]; 312, 313.
(7) *Film Quarterly*, 20:4 [Summer, 1967]; 78.
(8) Sarris, op. cit.
(9) *New York Times*, Sept. 7, 1967; 50:2.
(10) The footage was shot in 1976, during a second leg of the extravagant Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and, after extensive editing by Dylan, released as a 4-hour film towards the end of the following year.
(11) Stephen Scobie, *Alias Bob Dylan*. [Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1991]; 114.
(12) Daniel Kramer, *Bob Dylan*. [New Jersey: Castle Books, 1967]; 13.
(13) from *Bringing It All Back Home*. [Columbia Records; March, 1965.]
(14) Kramer, op.cit.; 13-14.
(15) Ibid.; 18.
(16) *Newsweek*, Sept. 20, 1965; 90.
(17) Kramer, op.cit.; 17-18.
(18) Kael, op.cit.; 15.
(19) Raymond Bellour, "The Obvious and the Code," in Philip Rosen, ed., *Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology*. [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986]; 97-98.
(20) Virginia Woolf, *A Room of One's Own* [London: Grafton, 1977]; 41. <Originally published in 1929 by The Hogarth Press Ltd..>
(23) Sarris, op.cit.; 312.
(24) Wilfrid Sheed, *The Morning After: Selected Essays and Reviews*. [New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971]; 207.
(25) see Joan Mellen, *BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film*, esp. chapters 7 and 8. [New York: Pantheon, 1977.]
(26) Robert Shelton, *No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan*. [London: Penguin, 1987]; 299.
(27) Kate Millet, *Sexual Politics*. [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970]; 314, 315.
(28) Norman Mailer, *The Deer Park*. [New York: Putnam, 1955]; 198.
(29) Millet, op.cit.; 317.
(30) Kael, op.cit.; 15.
(31) Sheed, op.cit.; 9-17.
(32) Leerom Medovoi, "Mapping the Rebel Image: Postmodernism and the Masculinist Politics of Rock in the U. S. A.," in *Cultural Critique* 20 [Winter 1991-1992] <153-188>; 168.
(33) Sheed, op.cit.; 10.
(34) Pattison, op.cit.; 26.
(35) see Medovoi, op.cit.; 173.
(36) Pattison, op.cit.; ix.
(37) Sarris, op.cit.; 312.
(38) Pattison, op.cit.; 27.
(39) Ibid.; 23.
(40) Ibid.; 19.
(41) David Wild, in liner notes to *Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration*. [Columbia/Sony Entertainment, 1993.]
(42) Pattison, op.cit.; 24.
(43) see *Rolling Stone*, Oct. 15, 1992; 167-169.
(44) *The Gazette*, Montreal, Feb. 26, 1994; E10.
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