Monday, November 17, 2008

Dont Look Back

D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back is supposed to be a seminal film. I didn't find it to be. It was certainly an intimate look at Bob Dylan during his tumultuous early years. But almost too much like Dylan's music and lyrics, the film lacked a sense of direction, a sense of purpose. It was all put out there for everyone to judge, but I don't think enough of the story was shown for anyone to make any sort of interesting conclusions.

The film shows equal amounts concert performances and backstage action. The performances are captivating; the power Dylan holds with a single guitar and his words over thousands of people is remarkable. The backstage action is less remarkable -- there are the expected squabbles, the self-isolating superstar, the posse, the bad-haircut manager, the ignored girlfriend.

But through all of this, you only get a few moments where you see the disaffected Bob Dylan, the youth who sought fame through his music, who obtained it, and who didn't know what the hell to do with it. His music of this period might portray a folk poet who is outspoken with his lyrics, yet softspoken with his delivery. But offstage, he's a jittery mess: aimless, confused, seeking respite from all the attention yet still thriving on that attention.

A few scenes stuck out in my mind. There was a drawn-out section where Joan Baez was playing guitar and singing. She was sitting right behind Dylan, who was at a desk with a typewriter. I thought that she was singing rather loudly, but Dylan didn't seem to pay attention. Frankly, it would have bothered me if someone was doing that while I was trying to write, but Dylan would have a pregnant pause, then start pecking away at the keys again. I think this was a telling moment -- one that showed their relationship almost outright: Baez was so close to things, but Dylan couldn't pay attention, absorbed in his own world of things.

Another fiery moment comes when someone breaks a glass during one of Dylan's performances (I think the glass might have been onstage or somewhere where he could see it). After the show, Dylan is going off on some dude, just yelling and yelling about how he didn't want someone to get hurt by the glass. He seemed really highstrung, but he never seemed to get out of hand -- only pushing people slightly on the shoulder and calling people "cats." Ahh, the sixties.

There was a moment in a hotel room where one of Dylan's entourage plays a song and sings for everyone. There's a hush, and Dylan says "That's a great song." He proceeds to take the guitar and essentially try to show up the guy. It's a toss-up of who wins this showdown, but everyone in the film quietly acknowledges Dylan's presence throughout both backstage performances.

And the scene that stuck out to me the most came where Dylan was lecturing a reporter from Time on how absurd magazine journalism was. On how, if he wanted to know the state of things, he would never look towards Time or Newsweek because the people who write for them are cowards. How he would just look around at the world. And if those magazines would just print something real and true to life, Dylan would respect them more. (When asked what sort of real thing should be shown, Dylan is caught off guard and mentions something about a "tramp vomiting.") He says that he's not a folk singer, but when asked why not, he refuses to explain it to the reporter because he knows the reporter wouldn't understand. He says that he knows everything about the reporter and understands him completely just by looking at him, and the reporter would never fully understand Dylan no matter how long he tried. He says that nothing the reporter says or writes will affect Dylan, and he surmises that nothing he says can affect the reporter.

Yet throughout the whole film, you see a Dylan buried in newspapers, reading quotes outloud, and playing off his reactions as being mock offended. "Give the anarchist a cigarette!" But it really does touch him and you can tell. He's a young, fresh-faced artist with still no signs of wear, but every quote he reads, and every piece of information he eagerly receives about his competitor, Donovan, he soaks up and it becomes a part of him. It's absorbed into his world, and it starts to take a toll. No wonder he went electric right after this (you get a little hint of this when Dylan talks to some guys he meets on tour -- they're in an electric guitar band): he likes being the center of the media's attention, and being antagonistic.

This film has obvious influences on others, and what first springs to mind is Jeff Tweedy's Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest. The difference here is that Tweedy talks directly to the camera as if someone is interviewing him, but with Dylan, it really is a fly-on-the-wall approach, although you have to wonder how much of what happened was the result of knowing that he was on camera. It's not a bad film, especially if you're interested in Dylan lore (this is definitely a staple of that lore). But if you're not a fan of the music, you probably won't be a fan of the movie. Well, who knows. This was sort of like reality television forty years before. Maybe that'll appeal to people.

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