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September 26, 2005

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

I want to watch the second half of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home: Bob Dylan before making a full interpretation of it, but the documentary material Scorsese has compiled here, collecting interviews and culling from concert footage and amateur film, is pretty impressive. And until I watched this film, I'd forgotten how haunting and how powerful many of his songs actually are. Scorsese has long had a great ear for music, and that enthusiasm certainly shows in this film, which I certainly enjoyed watching, although I will acknowledge that some aspects of the film (the somewhat uncritical Dylan worship, in particular, left me feeling cold).

With that in mind, I want to reflect on some of the reviews I linked to earlier in the day. As I mentioned, David Greenberg, writing for Slate, criticizes the film for focusing almost entirely on Dylan's early career, with the effect that Dylan's later career, which features some fantastic music ("Hurricane" is a personal fave), is almost ignored. Greenberg acknowledges, of course, that what Scorsese offers is not a conventional biographical documentary, but wonders whether the film's '60s nostalgia inhibits critical thinking. It's an interesting argument, and while I share some of Greenberg's suspicions regarding nostalgia, even for the 1960s, I wonder if there isn't a way to use the film's nostalgia critically to think about the politics of cultural production.

Like Greenberg, I found myself somewhat frustrated by some of the '60s clichés used as "background" for the film. As Dylan "arrives" in Greenwich Village, we hear the eloquent John F. Kennedy calling the youth of America to national service ("Ask not what your country can do for you..."). I've heard or seen that image thousands of times, and I'm no longer sure that it can be made "new" again, but the sights and sounds that were memorable for me were the street scenes and poetry readings in Greenwich Village, as Scorsese painted a portrait of a youthful artist who was busy absorbing everything he could from Beat poetry to folk, country, and Gospel music, to James Dean and Marlon Brando movies.

In portraying Dylan as the one person capable of Putting It All Together, the film does fall into the somewhat less interesting narrative of Dylan as Genius (which isn't really news for most of us). In fact, my reading of the film should be seen as virtually antithetical to Roger Ebert's account of learning to empathize with Dylan, a reading that derives, in part, from a serious misreading of D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, in which Ebert keys on Dylan's verbal harangue against a young journalist, ignoring the film's commentary on media and the production of celebrity. But in celebrating the artistic scene out of which Dylan emerged, No Direction Home, implicitly at the very least, does reflect on the conditions of possibility that allowed Dylan to emerge as an artist, whether a maturing teen culture, the collectivity of the Greenwich Village bohemian culture, or the institutional status of the music industry. The film also shows the role the budding Civil Rights movement had on Dylan's music when he performs "Only a Pawn in the Game," a scathing critique of institutional racism (although Dylan does resist the characterization of himself as political throughout the first half of the documentary).

I realize that by placing emphasis on Scorsese's portrayal of the 1960s that I am reading the film somewhat against its intentions (or "against the grain" to use an old phrase), but I think there is some value in rethinking Dylan's reputation as someone who absorbed the disparate pieces of a fragmented culture and translated them into something else. It's a tempting reading, though a somewhat uncomfortable one, especially given David Yaffe's more critical take, which takes the film to task for a variety of sins (no mention of the sex and drugs that went along with rock and roll; the implication that Dylan's "people" carefully sanitized Dylan's image). But, following from Yaffe's criticism of the film and other forms of recent Dylan-worship, I think it's worth asking why Dylan (again) now? What cultural need (beyond profit) is the return to Dylan answering? I'm not sure I have the answer to that question--check back with me after Part 2--but I think it's a far more interesting question than merely dismissing the film for its whitewashed take on Dylan and far more satisfying than mere empathy with the genius.

Finally, welcome to all the readers who found their way here from Michael Bérubé's blog. Judging by my statistics, a lot of you are dropping by, so I'd love to know what other people are thinking about No Direction Home.

Posted by chuck at September 26, 2005 11:20 PM

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And how does it compare to Don't Look Back, one of the greatest (perhaps the greatest) music films ever...?

Posted by: Jon at September 27, 2005 12:49 AM

Oh, it's not even close to Don't Look Back. I don't think that Scorsese is that great a documentarian, and Pennebaker is clearly on target with his use of cinema verite. And Pennebaker's "argument" is far more interesting than Scorsese's.

Verite obviously wouldn't have worked for No Direction Home, but the arrangement of visual materials isn't particularly interesting.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2005 12:59 AM

The archival footage in and of itself is more interesting than what Scorsese does with it; and yet I loved it (the first half, at least, thus far), and found myself moved by not just Dylan and his music but by his place in and reaction to the society that he grew out of. I think this may well have been an effect of watching the film with my parents, who are of the same generation. I think their (overwhelming?) sense of nostalgia was quite contagious.

Agreed, it's no Don't Look Back - but it's Dylan, and lots of him at his best, and it certainly makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.

And you hit on another really good point, Chuck - Ebert totally missed the mark with Pennebaker's film, and seems to have foregone years of enjoyment of a great artist as a result.

Posted by: dvd at September 27, 2005 3:30 AM

Yes, the archival footage is amazing and much more interesting than what Scorsese does with it. I've been thinking a little about Scorsese's own nostalgic investments in this material. After all, he's about a year younger than Dylan (I checked IMDB), so they're virtual contemporaries, and Sorsese's love for 60s music (and perhaps even the era itself--note that things go bad in Goodfellas in the 70s and 80s) is extremely evident.

But beyond a few stylistic flourishes, it's hard for me to see this as a Scorsese film (perhaps its the institutional signature of PBS or, as Yaffe implies, the "Dylan people").

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2005 10:36 AM

Regarding Goodfellas it was based on a non-fiction book, so I'm not sure Scorcese was the one who chose the timeline. He may have taken some artistic license.

Regarding the choice of 1961-1965, I think Scorcese may have wanted to pick a small period and do justice to it, rather than pick a forty-year span and rapidly skim the surface of everything. Perhaps he's planning more Dylan documentaries..

Posted by: CM at September 27, 2005 4:20 PM

I guess my next question about Goodfellas would be why Scorsese chose to film something that conformed to that history. The '70s are also equated with decline in Taxi Driver and, in a different way, in his 1995 film, whose title I can't use in the comments. So, I guess my question is: why choose projects that tell history in this way?

I think you're right that Scorsese may have been more interested in "doing justice" to a brief moment in Dylan's career (and I think it works). It's worth emphasizing, of course, that Scorsese came to the project late, after many of the interviews were already recorded, so that nostalgia is clearly more pervasive than Scorsese's individual treatment of history.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2005 4:32 PM

Don't forget, too, that Scorsese directed The Last Waltz. I'm sure that's what lead to his being hired for this.

Posted by: dvd at September 27, 2005 8:01 PM

Right, forgot to mention that....

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2005 8:19 PM

I'm happened to be testing router quirks and found these documentaries on Marlon Brando and James Dean, narrated by Val Kilmer and Johnny Depp respectively. Thought you might be interested.


Re: Goodfellas, you could be right about the pattern. On the other hand, I think it was one of the first insider accounts of the mob, and Scorcese has always found that interesting too.

Posted by: CM at September 27, 2005 8:45 PM

CM, you're right about the mob and Goodfellas's backstory--and Scorsese's fascination with violence and crime in general.

Thanks for the link to the Brando and Dean docs. I'd heard about them somewhere but hadn't had the time to track them down. I may not have time to check them out before my guest lecture tomorrow, but I'm certainly interested. Fascinating choices for the narrators, too.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 27, 2005 10:36 PM

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