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Another Kind of River
(A Note on Bob Dylan and the Cinema)

  Dylan


Everyone since the Greeks knows that the insolence of beauty carries a very high price. And that is exactly what happened to the stars of the ‘60s. Every woman wanted to sleep with Bob Dylan. But Bob got himself a family. He wanted to live out his musical career at home in peace, after the crazy agitation of his early years in the business. In fact, he did lose some of his talent. But his goal was not to be the most charismatic guy on the planet. It was to be the greatest singer-songwriter in the world.
                            - Nick Kent, 2006 (1)


It must be terrifying to work with Bob Dylan. In the first volume of his Chronicles, (2) Dylan presents an unapologetic portrait of himself as a creature of mood: the songs, as recorded, never quite have the sound he had in his head; determinations to leave this or that track (like the classic “Blind Willie McTell” recorded in 1983) off the official version of an album are reached purely via the whimsical sense that it “didn’t fit” or “didn’t feel right” (thus enraging and perplexing his fans); certain key life decisions are made according to sudden but absolute hunches, inexplicable changes of feeling or intuition. In a typical piece of Dylan mythology, he once declared that his first marriage was over because he learnt a new painting technique that changed his entire life-view, and “no one knew what I was talking about anymore.” (Little wonder.) Similarly, in Chronicles he describes walking out of a rehearsal session with The Grateful Dead without telling anybody, and with no intention of ever returning, since he feels uninspired, dried up, wasted; later, in a bar, he happens to witness a jazz singer whose manner and approach in performance affords him an indirect revelation about how he, too, must proceed – so then he goes back to the session “as if nothing had happened”. (3) No one with whom Dylan collaborated, in the years and incidents covered by Chronicles, could have had the slightest idea of all these seismic shifts and changes, breakdowns and epiphanies, going on within him.

 

The public trace we have of the man and his career – the records, concerts, interviews, writings, photos and so on – is the scattered, unreliable fallout of these successive internal moods. It is positively Spinoza-ist: a life lived entirely according to affects, omens, signs, hunches. (4) Ecstasy and dread alike are hitched to this unpredictable parade of signs. Sometimes, something spooky, something uncannily prophetic attaches itself to these emanations of an artist’s mood, in the case of Dylan as much as for Jean-Luc Godard or Leonard Cohen: re-read, for example, the apocalyptic pages devoted to New Orleans in Chronicles in the light of the Katrina disaster.

 

Apocalypse is almost always tied to signs of weather in Dylan’s music. But so, for that, matter, is happiness (like in “New Morning”). It is remarkable how many of his songs, particularly in recent years, begin with an evocation of the weather: the rising water, the dark clouds, the filthy rain, the sun through the trees. Actually, this habit or method, picked up no doubt from traditions of blues and folk, is pretty much there from the very start of the ‘60s: “Down the streets the dogs are barking / And the day is a-gettin’ dark … “ – and this in a song that culminates in the most non-psychological of gloomy gestalts, “We’re both just one too many mornings / and a thousand miles behind.” This, too, carries a hint of contemporary continental philosophy, knowingly or not: the human being is the intensive sum of his or her affects, many of them arising externally, in the flux of the world and its states; that is how the German filmmaker Harun Farocki describes the characters in Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (1990), as “participating in the unruliness of the summer.” (5) The weather is plenty unruly in Dylan.

 

Bob Dylan is often thought of as a narrative songwriter, a storyteller; but that is far from the truth. Nothing could be less narrative than the ten songs on Modern Times (2006). In many respects, Dylan has held firm since the mid ‘70s to the cubistic method (precisely the one he picked up in his painting class) that he introduced and cultivated on Blood on the Tracks (1975): lyrics approach a subject or theme – often cryptically buried at the centre – from a succession of different times, places and viewpoints. Although less obviously a narrative mosaic than “Tangled Up in Blue”, the song “Sugar Baby” from ‘Love and Theft’ (2001) is just as enigmatic, and follows exactly the same compositional method: every couplet forms a perfect non sequiter in relation to what precedes and follows it (which rarely stops people quoting entire verses as if they make perfectly continuous sense). The story element ends up disappearing entirely in this process; what we are left with, as in a late-period Godard film, is a succession of images, allusions, descriptions.

 

Sometimes the ‘plot’ stops dead at the initial situation of a man walking or arriving in a particular place, a particular confluence of mood-affects. “Nettie Moore” on Modern Times is a striking example of Dylan’s non-narrative art. If you do not happen to know (as I did not, at the outset) that the recurring chorus reference to the person named in the title is a quotation from a famous old tune about a woman sold into slavery, you would be hard put piecing together the discontinuous succession of events into any kind of unity – beyond, that is, the unity of (melancholic) mood imposed by the song as a whole, by the chords, the arrangement, and the rhythm of Dylan’s vocal phrasing (he has long been fond of asserting that the meaning is always to be found in the rhythm).

 

II.

These aspects (among others) of Dylan’s art and personality pose acute problems for anyone hoping to make a biopic, whether documentary or fiction, about the singer’s life and times. There is, firstly, the frightful coherence – a classically narrative coherence – imposed, almost by definition, in the very thinking of such a project: birth, origin, maturation, fame, fall, reflection … But how do you cohere a life-story if a life is to be conceived (après Deleuze) as an immanence, as a flux of affects and events not (strictly) bound to a developmental, biological system? Martin Scorsese’s documentary treatment of Dylan’s life comes up hard against the unsuitability of the hackneyed ‘journey’ model – a man ‘coming into’ his essential destiny, or finding his way back to his origin … The very title No Direction Home (which was also previously used by Dylan’s biographer Robert Shelton) evokes uncertainty or a loss of bearings – locating the artist right inside his most turbulent period of rapid aesthetic change, from the early to the mid ‘60s – but it is, finally, still too sentimental. And in the doco itself, Dylan scrambles the premise of such a template placed upon him: “I was born a long way from home”, he declares enigmatically.

 

It is intriguing to speculate about the degree of fit between Dylan as a subject and the character-psychology of Scorsese’s standard (anti-) heroes. Whatever the unknowable, private truth of the matter, Dylan presents himself – in Chronicles, the No Direction Home interview segments, and in many other places down the decades – as essentially a man without roots, without family, without ties of any sort. From the beginning of his orientation towards music, this “musical expeditionary” (as he calls himself in Scorsese’s film) simply moved forward, taking and discarding whatever (and whomever) he needed along the way. “I had nothing to go back to”, he comments firmly in No Direction Home. It is precisely this mood or aura which was so brilliantly conveyed by the inspired cinéma-vérité method (no spatial-temporal orientations, no explanatory voice-over, no shape to the progression of fragmented glimpses) in D. A. Pennebaker’s immortal tour-portrait Don’t Look Back (1967) – a better and truer title à propos Dylan, in my opinion, than No Direction Home.

 

Likewise, Dylan’s tenacious habit of clouding his personal, family life in mystery – Chronicles names not a single wife or child in his history – speaks not only to his need for privacy but also to this created persona as the Man Without a Past, Kaurismäki-style, without baggage, eternally travelling light. If there is something undeniably solipsistic (and also a little cold) in this elaborate self-begetting, it is also in line with a certain American Condition of the post-Beat hero which Scorsese, too, draws upon: whether Travis Bickle the psycho-killer (in Taxi Driver, 1976), Ace Rothstein the ace gambler (in Casino, 1996) or Richard Prince the high-wire hanger-on (in another doco, American Boy, 1978), we are presented with classic Heroes Without Roots, moving straight ahead into fame, notoriety or riches with their compulsive-obsessive determination on one task, one skill, one goal.

 

On the other hand, there is a complex dialectic between forgetting and remembering – less in personal than in cultural or aesthetic terms – in Dylan’s art. In recent years, exegetes of a literary bent have dug up quotations from a vast range of sources in Dylan’s lyrics. The Wall Street Journal briefly imagined it had a scandalous exposé on its hands when it reported on the number of lines that Dylan had filched (with minor rewriting) for ‘Love and Theft’ from – of all things – Junichi Saga’s lurid autobiography Confessions of a Yakuza (not just tough-guy declarations like “I’m not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded”, but even intimate details, rendered completely opaque by Dylan, such as “I don’t know how it looked to other people, but I never even slept with her – not once”). (6) Such borrowing, as most Dylanological commentators realise, hardly requires a fancy postmodern justification: it is fully part of the blues, folk, jazz, rock and pop traditions that Dylan installs himself within. (In an interview reprinted in a special Dylan issue of Uncut a few years back, he describes his process of writing a song by ‘meditating’ on another, previous song within a particular tradition, singing it over and over to himself for days as he goes about his business, until a new form of it mutates.)

 

And yet, with all this remembering, comes an equally willed forgetting, an oblivion; in an especially striking passage of Chronicles – fully psychoanalytic in its tone and implications – Dylan recounts how he immersed himself in hundreds of books and documents in both the houses of friends and in libraries, but without taking any copies or notes with him: “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone. Figured I could send a truck back for it later.” (7)

 

Dylan’s relation to popular music (in all its forms), as well as literature and cinema, might best be described as a kind of immersion which allows, over many years, impressions, phrases, snatches of narrative to emerge unbidden in his mind – part of the flux of affects that he masters while composing. And also in the more collective, improvisatory mode of recording: it is well-known that, from his first albums, Dylan has written and rewritten works in the studio – sometimes only ever performing them the one or several times it takes to get them down on tape, whether the backing band has the chords and changes fully down or not – and in No Direction Home he describes such a process as a spontaneous enigma: “The mystery of being in a recording studio did something to me, and those are the songs that came out.” It is not such a stretch to describe Scorsese’s cinema (like Leos Carax’s or Emir Kusturica’s) in very similar terms: as the outpourings of a memory and a sensibility immersed in cinema history, to the point where specific citations of this or that film, scene, shot or gesture are less significant as historic ‘intertexts’ than as a kind of delirious, spontaneous process of all-purpose cinematic figuration: how would Lang or Hitchcock or Godard have filmed this fight, this car, this girl smoking a cigarette? How would Hank Williams have written and sung this line about heartbreak, about drinking the last glass on the bar, about the dawn?

 

I believe one should be careful, however, about attributing the entirety of No Direction Home to Scorsese as auteur. Many accounts suggest a relatively circumscribed role for Scorsese in this project – a shaping of pre-given fragments (clips, photos, audio recordings, the central interviews given some years earlier to Dylan’s manager) rather than a strong conceptual input of the kind that informed Scorsese’s previous Dylan-associated doco, The Last Waltz (1978). Perhaps Scorsese had a decisive part to play in centring the film so completely around the ‘lost’ Pennebaker colour footage of Dylan’s ‘electric’ tour of the UK – which sometimes seems rather too much like a good thing, in the way it overdetermines the whole.

 

But I do detect what is probably a special Scorsese touch in the use of obliquely illustrative clips from avant-garde films of the ‘60s by Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekas. The last of these, the Mekas, comes just near the end of No Direction Home – before the narration of the legendary motorcycle accident that put Dylan off the road, out of the hectic, pill-popping rock-star lifestyle, and into secluded family life – and it carries, for once, the perfect Dylanesque mood-gesture: the bad times a-comin’ signalled, called up, by a blur of inclement weather. This is, for me, the one real sign of the kind of essay that No Direction Home might have been if it were not so straitjacketed by the ‘American Masters’ TV/DVD format, and by the hagiographic inclinations of Dylan’s management.

 

III.

I mentioned Pennebaker’s lost footage. But how lost was it? Any Dylan hardcore aficionado who has browsed the infinite kingdom of available bootlegs knows about Dylan’s own Eat the Document (the reference date on this clandestine work wanders from 1966 to 1972), co-edited with his friend Howard Alk out of this footage. (8) The absence of any reference to or acknowledgment of this remarkable, truly experimental film in Scorsese’s doco (and most of the writing on it) is troubling. Eat the Document is anti-Don’t Look Back, anti-cinéma-vérité – and not just in the inspired, fragmented montage but in the shooting itself, with Dylan and cohorts staging and hamming up supposedly casual, off-stage interactions. As seen in No Direction Home, such snippets are once again restored to the status of ‘live’ documentary reportage that they were meant to parody and explode. It is a weird mutilation, a taming of one of the most intriguing moments in Dylan’s career, and especially his on-off flirtations with cinema (and cinephilia too, judging from the scattered references to his personal film culture in interviews and in Chronicles). But Eat the Document set in motion the reality/fiction games that were the driving force of his ambitious Renaldo and Clara (1978), which has steadily built up, since its release, a loyal cult-intellectual following. (9)

 

By now, it’s official: Bob Dylan is a multiple self. Long gone are the days when fans and commentators worried and argued about the splits between electric and folk Dylan, political and religious Dylan, disco and Americana Dylan, over-produced and under-produced Dylan, Dylan the Chaplinesque Clown and Dylan the spaced-out Rebel. All has been subsumed into the Grand Fiction of the Multiple Self: the curious, Altmanesque Masked and Anonymous (2003), directed by Larry Charles as an allegory of a broken-down future America, continues Dylan’s game of constantly rearranging his own tunes by redistributing his music to children, mariachi bands, ghetto blasters, Italian rappers, gospel belters … while Todd Haynes’ Dylan-approved biopic, I’m Not There, which casts multiple actors (young, old, black, white, male, female) in the lead role, originally boasted the conceptual working subtitle Suppositions on a Film Concerning Bob Dylan.

 

But we can still suppose other, imaginary films by, for or with Dylan, made by others, here or gone. Scorsese certainly qualifies as a Dylan obsessive – in pre-Internet days, he once granted the Melbourne Cinémathèque permission to screen some of his rare shorts on the strict condition that its organisers immediately send him a Dylan record released only in Australia ­– but so does Abel Ferrara, who used the Self Portrait-era “Blue Moon” to such strange and haunting effect at the top and tail of Snake Eyes (aka Dangerous Game, 1993). Godard’s taste in folk-pop-ballads has usually gone more towards Leo Ferré and Leonard Cohen, but quite recently one commentator was surprised to find, looking back at Masculin Féminin (1966), that Dylan figures there as the sole, saving link between the (male) children of Marx and the (female) children of Coca Cola, between revolutionary rhetoric and the yé-yé sound. (10) And then there’s Robert Kramer, whose late ‘90s “Letter to Bob Dylan”, in the hope of collaborating with him, went unanswered (11) – Kramer, who once remarked that “everything I’ve ever wanted to say was sung by Bob Dylan”, and whose CD player contained, on the day of his death in 1999, Time Out of Mind (1997). This was Kramer’s proposal to Big Bob:


I’d like to make a movie with you. Not a movie about you, not a documentary or a report, but the two of us, make a movie together over a period of time: pieces of this and that, scenes you imagine and I imagine, try to piece something together that is as rich and varied, as clear and vague as the trip itself has been. A movie that works like a dream or a vision, large enough to put anything we want inside it, another kind of river.


ENDNOTES

1. Interview with Kent in Fabrice Gaignault, Les égéries sixties (Paris: Fayard, 2006), p. 218 (my translation). back

2. Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004). back

3. Ibid, pp. 149-151. back

4. See my “The Avatars of the Encounter” (2006), http://cinentransit.com/rendez-vous-el-cine-encuentra-a-la-filosofia/#v back

5. Harun Farocki and Kaja Silverman, Speaking About Godard (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p. 208. back

6. Cf. for documentation of this ‘theft’, Chris Johnson, “Textual Sources to the ‘Love and Theft’ Songs”, http://dylanchords.info/41_lat/textual_sources.htm back

7. Dylan, Chronicles, p. 86. back

8. For a good account of this film and Dylan’s other cinema ventures, cf. C.P. Lee, Like a Bullet of Light: The Films of Bob Dylan (London: Helter Skelter, 2000). back

9. Supporters of Renaldo and Clara in print include the film critics David Sterritt (USA), Max Le Cain (Ireland) and Brad Stevens (UK) – whose collective tastes cover such (lateral) Dylan affinities as Beat cinema, Jacques Rivette and Abel Ferrara – as well as C.P. Lee. back

10. Nicole Brenez, in Bernard Benoliel (ed.), Le préjugé de la rampe: pour un cinéma déchaîné (Paris: Acor, 2004), p. 14. back

11. This letter appears in Rouge, no. 4 (2004), http://www.rouge.com.au/4/letter_dylan.html, with an introduction by Bobby Buechler. back


© Adrian Martin September 2006


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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