Monday, April 15, 2013

Looking Back at Don't Look Back

Last night Roberta and I watched Don’t Look Back. I hadn’t seen it in a few years. The movie still has tremendous energy, though now it’s a different energy, not the revolutionary energy that galvanized me when I first saw the movie in 1967, that revolution had long ago fizzled out, but the dynamic flux of a singular event caught on film in a manner so raw and natural that it doesn’t seem so much modified by time as intensified by time. The movie hasn’t lost any of its freshness or pizzazz. It’s not like looking at something that occurred decades ago where everything is quaintly dated and irrelevant but looking at something in a parallel universe where the events are occurring simultaneously, a bit like the time disruptions in Chris Mark’s La Jetée, and still have the thrill of consequence.  
I get that sense from the way Dylan is marketed in general. It’s not uncommon to enter a music store and see an array of Dylan’s image as it is morphed and mutated over the years, beginning with the tousle-haired fresh-faced Dylan of Greenwich Village when he was first starting out and modeling himself on Woody Guthrie to the saggy-faced pencil-mustachioed Dylan in his mid-60s to early 70s with his louche carnival huckster foxiness, one part hustler, one part desperado. There is no sense of linear progression to these images, they all seem to be occurring at once, as if time didn’t matter, as if time were a malleable, unstable element in the cosmic roulette wheel. Wherever that little ball randomly plunks is the Dylan you’re going to get. They’re all the same man, or are they? Even Dylan is mystified by his transformations.
The movie kicks off with the energetic “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” defiant, witty, provocative, Dylan holding the lyrics to the song on cards he lets drop as the song progresses. He is standing in an alley of what appears to be lower Manhattan; off to the left margin a bearded and rabbinical Allen Ginsberg stands under a rig of rickety scaffolding in a heavy overcoat engaged in conversation with Bob Neuwirth, who walks jauntily on screen as the song ends and the conversation ceases and Neuwirth and Ginsberg each go their own way. Dylan himself looks frail and androgynous but also curiously diamond-hard and indomitable. You wouldn’t want to mess with him. He is wearing a pale, long-sleeved shirt, black vest and a pair of slacks. His hair is thick and wild, exploding from his head as if from too much amphetamine, or sheer excitement. It’s an odd 19th century look, a nod to Whitman and post-civil war America.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is the only electric number in the movie’s songs. The other songs, most of them from the very early stretch of Dylan’s career and rooted deeply in folk tradition and the intensely original poetry that was the core inspiration for these songs, are performed solo on stage in black leather jacket, harmonica and acoustic guitar. This is Dylan just as he was beginning to morph into the Warhol Factory cosmopolitan Dylan of Blonde on Blonde with its uncannily vivid imagery and intense amphetamine surrealism. He had already begun to play with a band and electric guitars but for this concert he was willing to appear as the Dylan people had grown to recognize and beleaguered him with labels such as prophet and protest singer. This is apparent during the scene in which some very young girls with the heavy accents of northern England question him about his new way of performing and Dylan responds with with goodnatured, non-condescending wit and tells them, “You know, I have to give some work to my friends, you know. I mean, you don’t mind that, right?”
What amazes me throughout this movie is Dylan’s frailty coupled with his abrasiveness, his confrontational style. His movements seem odd and out of balance, are heavily concentrated in some self-conscious manner that causes him to move awkwardly and affectedly when he's without his guitar, coupled with his diminutive size and overall delicacy. It did not seem at all strange to see Cate Blanchett play this phase of Dylan’s career in I’m Not There, he was truly that androgynous, that good looking in a dark, defiant, electrifying Jean Harlow kind of way. There is a mystique to it. It’s exotic and freakish and thrilling to watch, though it amazes me he doesn’t get the crap kicked out of him, considering his open mockery and disdain for a lot of the people he encounters outside his immediate group.

There’s the famous scene in which he goes ballistic over some broken glass in the street outside his hotel and gets into an argument with a drunken man roughly his own age. The rage appears real, and you’ve got to wonder if he isn’t exploding out of the tension of a grueling performance schedule and the demands of a very sudden and colossal fame. The other point of interest in this scene (besides Donovan; in fact, contrasting heavily with Donovan) is the old folk singer Derroll Adams, who looks down and out, a true hobo, rider of the rails, the real deal. Adams willingly takes a backseat to Dylan’s punkish pole star, sits on the floor and settles back against the wall in the crowded hotel room and comes across as genuinely humble and raggedly authentic and not a little drunk. He had, in fact, taken Donovan under his wing and seems better aligned with Donovan’s evident innocence than Dylan’s edgy surrealism. Perhaps in actuality he wasn’t all that destitute, but you can see the aging man needs dental work and new clothes and wonder how he’s managing to get by. He seems to be eking out an existence and earning just enough money from busking and doing gigs in the hubbub of England’s pubs to feed himself and buy a little booze. And you realize this is the true fate of someone who takes up a guitar and sings songs for a living. It is a fate far closer to the life of a poet, struggling to get by outside the sheltering walls and income of academia. This would have been Dylan’s, and Donovan’s, fate had not the weird moment in time that was the 60s made it possible to reach a giant, highly enthusiastic audience in at least two continents, if not all of the western world.
The question that always goes through my mind and grows larger as I age each time I see this movie is: what happened to this guy, this particular Bob Dylan, the iconic Bob Dylan? Where’d he go? The body of songs Dylan composed up until Nashville Skyline is stunning. The poetry is incandescent. The songs on John Wesley Harding are not as intense or nearly as expansive but they’re still intellectually appealing, simple yet enigmatic in the way William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are deceptively simple parables about social injustice, hypocrisy, oppression, and the moral fiber of the universe. The music and lyrics since then are spotty. There will be, occasionally, a work of genius like “Blind Willie McTell” circa the 80s or “Not Dark Yet” from the late 90s, but by and large, take the music away and the lyrics on their own are often quite bland and cliché-ridden.
I’m fascinated by an interview Dylan gave to Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes in 2004, in which he admits that he can’t write the same quality of poetic intensity now as he did back in the day. “Those songs seem almost magically written,” he confesses. “There’s a magic to that….and it’s not the Siegfried and Roy kind of magic, it’s a different kind of penetrating magic, and I did it at one time.” “And you don’t think you can do it today?” Bradley asks. Dylan mumbles no. “I can do other things now, but I can’t do that.”
I don’t know what he means, exactly, by “other things,” but although his more recent songs lack the lyrical ferocity of his early years there is still something often very quirky and fascinating about them. The lines taken individually are sometimes flat as can be, neutral in tone, bland and prosaic as a bag of nails or a cotton swab, but the way the songs are structured they can compass a very broad and evocative range, evoking a terrain not unlike a short story by Larry Brown or Raymond Carver. For example, in Duquesne Whistle, are the lines “Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blown’? / Blowin’ like the sky’s gonna blow apart /  You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going / You’re like a time-bomb in my heart.” It isn’t great poetry, but taken as a song, these lines are pretty damn interesting. They have a timeless quality; they could be a song from the late 19th century. But they’re also modern, quietly eccentric. Nobody really talks this anymore, and the very name Duquesne, with its French sounding syllables, seems to reference a time and place more akin to William Merritt Chase than Oprah Winfrey or Jon Stewart. But the outrageousness of a sky blowing apart, as an image of goofy urgency, romantic crisis in a cockeyed mode, suggests a milieu of colorful distortion like the work of Red Grooms.
So no, the Dylan of Don’t Look Back didn’t disappear entirely. But he did get old. Old in a funny way. There is still that unmistakable gleam in his eye. The often cocky, arrogant prick of Don’t Look Back, openly mocking and insulting people, is now the strange old man police officer Kristie Buble had sitting in the backseat of her cruiser one rainy New Jersey afternoon in August, 2009, picked up for vagrancy, for being an old man in the rain, an eccentric looking old guy wandering around in somebody’s front yard. He gave her his name as Bob Dylan, but this was far from the iconic Bob Dylan we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing, the man with the penetrating eyes and hair exploding out of his head. And he wasn’t carrying any ID. She took the guy in black, soaking wet sweatpants, floppy rubber rain boots and two separate raincoats, one with a hood pulled over his head, to be a crazy homeless man. A complete unknown. With no direction, or home. 

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