Showing posts with label Film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Film. Show all posts

Monday, July 01, 2019

Bob Dylan’s Eyes

The films by or about Bob Dylan are every bit as strange, unique, intimate & evasive, as he is and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story, streaming now on Netflix, is no exception, blending documentary footage Dylan had taken during the famous 1974-6 tour with more than a few fictional add-ons from the likes of Sharon Stone, Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, and studio exec (just not that studio nor that exec) Jim Gianapolus. But as somebody who has been listening to, close-reading and watching the troubadour of Hibbing for at least 57 years, the real stars of this paradocumentary are Bob Dylan’s eyes. They are luminous, blue and often (in the faux Noh white paint that turns up pretty much everywhere on Dylan, violinist Scarlet Rivera, and even for a bit Joan Baez, during the tour) green.[i] Most importantly, they are searching, making contact, commenting on the action we see and the inner workings behind the mask that are not given to us during the two-hour, twenty minutes of the film.

In 1974, Bob Dylan had largely been off the road for the previous eight years following a motorcycle accident before returning to do a series of stadium and arena-sized shows with The Band, the legendary backup quintet once known as Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks. During the interim, Dylan and the Band  had  been down in the basement making some glorious music, the group had become nearly as famous as their front man, and the stadium shows reflected this with alternating sets. It was a format that had become standard in the post-Woodstock era, one that lives on today all over the globe, from Coachella to K-Pop[ii]. But it is also the form that drove the Beatles into retirement from live performance in 1967 and its fundamental inhumanness is its basic truth. Rolling Thunder Review repeatedly returns to the fact that the smaller venues Dylan chose for the three-year traveling carnival he had created to succeed the gigs with the band ensured that it would never succeed financially.

But touring is an essential economic truth in the music business, where record companies were sucking up vast portions of any performer’s earnings long before the rise of the net and the cloud put control of the product into serious doubt. After a five-year touring career in the early 1960s and a six-month return before screaming masses of adoring ants, Dylan was searching for something different. Rolling Thunder was the result.

With the stadium shows, Dylan had begun rolling out his new strategy of reworking some of his standards, often quite dramatically, and the Rolling Thunder performances show Dylan’s passion for these new versions of what had already become familiar classics as well as more recent fare from the records released during the eight years away from touring. But what is really most notable are Dylan’s facial expressions, his directness with the audience, eyes rolling when Baez transposes a phrase, eyebrows arching, registering emotion. It’s not just that Dylan is having fun, although how often  have you seen him acknowledge that, but that he’s communicating and collaborating with his expressions in ways I had not seen during his folk and earlier rock periods and never in the course of his Never-Ending Tour that has gone on now for over 31 years.[iii] Like, say, Miles Davis (a performer whom at times reminds me of Dylan in his obsessional focus on the piece at hand), who seldom if ever interacted with audiences, Dylan often feels onstage is if he were alone with his band. Not so in these performances.

Which is what gives these shows & this film an intensity Dylan seldom approaches elsewhere.

Rolling Thunder was also Dylan’s attempt to create an alternative to the isolating realities of fame and travel that can bedevil musicians. Anyone who has seen Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley arriving for a concert with some backup band he has never met, let alone with whom he has practiced, or heard the exhaustion in the voice of a solo artist like Eric Andersen (who has a bit role in this film), or who can count the number of musicians who have died on the road, will sympathize. Dylan’s idea was to put together a small community of first-rate artists and take them all along for the ride. While the film returns repeatedly to the figure of the carnival, it’s really the pilgrimages of, say, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that echo most loudly here. The film’s second billing goes to Allen Ginsberg, labeled in the credits as (Dylan’s phrase) the Oracle of Delphi, who begins the tour as a central obsession for Dylan (“absolutely not a father figure” Bob insists as Ginsberg leads him to the grave of Jack Kerouac, footage everyone has seen before but given new poignancy by the context offered here ) but concludes it sharing roadie duties with Peter Orlovsky. Others in the mix include Patti Smith, Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell. Oddly missing from the interviews are most of the musicians who back Dylan up, particularly Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan’s close friend who served as the functional producer of much that ensued musically on the tour and who proves a reasonable successor to the great lead guitarists Dylan has had going back to the late Mike Bloomfield.

If the tour was, as everyone insists – from Gianapolus as producer to the jowly Dylan of just last year – a failure, it wasn’t financially[iv] so much as socially. The dynamics of the road are relentless – Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover from the sixties quits the tour & her absence as a grounding is noticeable[v]. What does it mean to have a roving commune in a world so hungry for roots? You can run away to join the circus, but the circus itself turns out to be a very circumscribed home. The commune movement, from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters forward, was as much a seventies’ phenomenon as a holdover from the sixties, and as the sometimes incoherent pacing of appearances from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter[vi], reflects, the failure of the revolution of ’68 left everyone not already bunkered down in the counterculture without many alternatives. The power imbalance between Dylan and everyone else is something nobody can get past – even Baez, here as elsewhere a snarky skeptic unafraid of being incorrect, concedes to it. Bob is Bob, but unlike Charlie, he doesn’t want a harem to kill for him, or – a la Baker-roshi – to ensconce him in wealth and pussy. Dylan profoundly distrusts power, but his followers are like iron filings to his magnetic presence. It’s the Gordian knot he will never cut.

Much, too much in fact, is made of the question of masks as Dylan’s only plausible defense to this conundrum, and when you hear Hurricane Carter’s snappy, upbeat chatter about how Dylan is still searching regardless of his claim to have already found some inner peace, you remember that Rolling Thunder was Dylan’s last stop before the Bible[vii]. In one sense, this is where Scorsese – Dylan’s friend since at least The Last Waltz – fails as a filmmaker. A director with some critical distance might have looked with a more jaundiced eye at the wall Dylan hits at the end of this tour, aesthetically, spiritually, intellectually. Good intentions will only get you so far. There’s a reason even Ringling Bros. gave it up in 2017, and why so many other performers have retreated to Nashville, Branson or Vegas, why the Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil don’t do the road. At 78, Dylan still performs at 100-plus venues per year, compared with the Stones who do 30 once every five years, and McCartney something comparable to that. Dylan is driven, albeit not by fame, fortune nor glory – his fumbling of the Nobel Prize should tell us that. In a sense, he’s like the secret cylons in Battlestar Gallactica, who know who they are by the song they can’t get out of their head, written as it was by Bob Dylan.

[i] It probably says hazel on his driver’s ID.

[ii] Incommensurable, I know.

[iii] The credit roll lists every show from 1974 through 2018 and we are talking thousands.

[iv] Billionaire Sir Paul McCartney and maybe the Gershwins must be the only other people to come close to Dylan in revenue from covers of their music.

[v] Their discussion of their marriages, Dylan to the “woman I love” in Sara (not always present on the tour and not visible here), Baez to Stanford anti-war activist David Harris (“the man I thought I loved”), is a level of intimacy nowhere available elsewhere in any film of Dylan I’ve ever seen.

[vi] How many of today’s audiences will recognize a dazed Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme being arrested after her attempt to shoot Ford at the Sacramento state capitol, or even know that Ford was the target of two assassination attempts in one month? If Scorsese had been making a film about the period, rather than the tour, he’d have noted the arrest of Patty Hearst and her SLA compatriots that same month, prompting one of the network news broadcasts to project its coverage over the background of the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

[vii] Where is T-Bone Burnett whose presence on the tour is sometimes credited with Dylan’s religious conversion? Or David Bromberg? Didn’t he get together with his wife, artist and Santeria practitioner Nancy Josephson, on the tour? So many great musicians Scorsese could have talked to and did not. Indeed, there would seem to be a documentary waiting to be made of Scarlet Rivera’s presence throughout. Having been “discovered” by Dylan walking down the street in New York – an event as improbable as Trungpa’s famous cab ride with Ginsberg – everyone seems terrified of her.  Next to Dylan, Ginsberg & maybe Baez, she’s the most visible person here, still making use of the musical career that apparently fell from the sky.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Oscars as always are a mixed bag, often better for the couture than for the films that grab the gold. The Green Book was not a dreadful film and it may well pass the ten-year test, making the cable movie channel rounds a decade from now. But the Driving Mr Shirley plotline, cringe-worthy ending around the Christmas tree, and Viggo Mortenson’s noble (failed) attempt to make Italians look like Vikings (or vice versa) do not a great picture make. It certainly wasn’t as original or well done as Black Panther, The Favourite or Roma, or for that matter Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Leave No Trace, none of the last three even getting a best pic nomination. Which films will still matter in, say, 20 years? That test probably brings the list of worthy 2018 films down to just three: Roma, Cold War and The Favourite. A 50-year test might include Cold War alongside Roma, but only the latter is likely still to be considered a great film a century from now.

It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, pairs Roma up with Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 debut about a young woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes to work as a domestic servant. Today, Black Girl often occupies the slot of “founding film” for African cinema, a role in US cultural history that used to belong to the racist Klan epic, Birth of a Nation[i]. Black Girl and Roma would make a great double-bill, but I suspect the latter will look more like an homage to Italian neo-realism (turning the title into a subtle, possibly delicious pun). But Black Girl isn’t even Sembène’s second or third best film.

Prizes are always crazy and yet they have real-world consequences. What makes the Oscars is the opportunity to look at the stars vamping in great outfits, and isn’t that what made Busby Berkeley a hit 80 years ago? The Pulitzer gets coverage from every news organization because it’s about them[ii], but the creative awards have been random at best, great one year, head-scratching the next. I haven’t met a young writer who could tell me the last half-dozen winners of the Yale Younger Poets award in decades but when I was in college pretty much every MFA candidate could recite them without blinking. The MacArthur may bring fortune, but seldom fame – and generally has done a better job representing art forms other than literature.  The Levinson Prize, the one literary award in the US that pre-dates the Pulitzer, is all but anonymous.[iii] Having given awards to Pearl Buck and William Golding, the currently-suspended Nobel Prize in literature is hardly in any position to serve as a model of the process. When Czeslaw Milosz won the prize in 1980, it’s unlikely that many poets in the Bay Area – with a few very notable exceptions – considered him among the five best poets in Berkeley. For his accomplishment, the University of California did give him its most coveted award, a parking spot in his own name.

What is the purpose of such competition in the arts? The oft-cited purpose of awarding excellence would come across as more real if in fact excellence even appeared to remotely be a criterion. Calling attention to the medium itself seems a more likely, and more justifiable, goal. The Oscars are an ad for the movies just as the Pulitzer is an ad for poetry. Quite a few other awards exist to argue that different configurations of judges might be at least as well-qualified to identify excellence in a given field. And prizes like the American Book Awards and Lambda prizes do a lot of good simply pointing out that there is more to literature than cisgender white males.[iv]  

But what is the value in an ad for the medium? There appears to be some evidence that sales for award-winning films get a tic upward after receiving a major prize. But a secondary award, like best director or best foreign language film? Too bad for Roma, which will have to make do with glowing reviews and great word-of-mouth, where a win might have triggered a broad release in US theaters, still a good way to see a movie. Cold War continues to be a wonderful flic, the greatest Jerzy Koziński tale Truffaut ever filmed.[v] But mostly, it’s apt to remain a secret.

[i] One could argue that this alone tells you all you need to know about the history of colonialism in each place.

[ii] Which means that the end of print journalism, already quite visible on the horizon, will render the Pulitzers moot, at least as presently constituted.

[iii] Having won one, I know.

[iv] The Nobel gave awards to Selma Lagerlöf and Rabindranath Tagore within its first 15 years, and yet its long-term record hasn’t been especially good, 100 prizes to men, just 14 to women, the majority since 1990 Even within the last three decades, nearly twice as many men as women have received the award. Prizes to writers in English outnumber any other language by more than two to one. Of non-European languages, only Chinese and Japanese have received more than one prize. Tagore was the first and last Bengali writer to receive the award, and much of his writing was in English.

[v] Even though neither had anything to do with it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Within the past year, there have been three major motion pictures built around poets and poetry – Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson,  Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, and Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a biopic of Emily Dickinson played by Cynthia Nixon. Only in the first of these is the poetry – penned by Ron Padgett but assigned in the film to a Paterson, NJ bus driver likewise named Paterson – really what the film is about. In each, the question of the writer’s relationships is central to the film’s scope and development, and to some degree one could read these films as different studies in what happens when a human being takes on this mysterious second skin as a writer of verse.

Paterson, which is about a fictional writer in the downscale industrial suburb of New York that looks nostalgically to its poetic heritage (as well as to comic Lou Costello) for a last, lingering sense of worth, is constructed around one of the sweetest relationships in recent film, between Adam Driver’s quietly brooding Paterson, a meditative-to-depressive soul who doesn’t say a lot, and his perpetually optimistic starter-of-a-million-creative-projects girlfriend, Laura (Goldshiftah Farahani), a gal who comes with her own color scheme. This may well be Adam Driver’s best film performance, and you can see and sense him writing as he overhears conversations in the course of daily life. 

The relationship in Neruda is less between the poet and his partner Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) than between Pablo and Óscar Peluchonneau, the Director General of Police Investigations charged with bringing Neruda in during one of Chile’s periodic neo-fascist periods in the 1940s. Played by Gael García Bernal as a noir cop – more a wannabe Bogart than a Broderick Crawford – Peluchonneau becomes obsessed with his target, who rouses opposition to the crackdown by refusing to escape the country, preferring instead to visit the brothels that are portrayed here more as nightclubs for intellectuals with half-naked ladies there for the fucking. Pointedly, when Carril suggests getting pregnant as a means of defying the regime, Neruda (who in “real life” had one son he didn’t see after his Dutch first wife went back to Europe) heads straight to the brothel where everyone interrupts what they’re doing to watch him read. 

A Quiet Passion is more disciplined in its treatment of its poet, but not a lot. The screen play with its consciously stilted dialog presents the role of 19th century bourgeois women as nearly as constrained as that of  The Handmaid’s Tale, which it suggests is very much the way Dickinson herself wanted it. Gradually the poet reduces her contact with men to her brother Austen, whose affair with Mabel Loomis Todd is treated entirely from the perspective of Dickinson’s negative reaction. Notably absent is her most important male relationship, with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who is not mentioned once. A viewer can be forgiven for not suspecting that Higginson and Todd were the editors who first made Dickinson famous. In standard Hollywood cliché, we see Dickinson writing with Nixon’s off-screen voice-over augmented by music to signal its quality. 

Were it not for Nixon’s superb performance playing a prickly, brittle personality who is becoming just a little crazier by the year, but who dies of Bright’s Disease before she can get to mad-woman-in-the-attic status, there wouldn’t be much to see in A Quiet Passion. Neruda is not García Bernal’s best work and there is not enough focus on Luis Gnecco’s Neruda, period. But I could watch a nine-hour version of Driver guiding his bus, going to the local tavern, straightening his mailbox, sleeping beside Laura, penning patient little poems one word at a time. Oddly enough, the fate of Driver’s poems is more of an issue in the Jarmusch film than Dickinson’s in Passion. But then, for Jarmusch, they’re real poems. And that makes all the difference. 

In each case, the film’s tension is at least in part between a figure and this other thing they are involved with beyond any relationship, as if poetry were a code for any kind of interest in a serious pursuit outside of the conjugal bed. Paterson could be making whirligigs for all it matters: his interest in the poem doesn’t compete with his love for Laura any more than her painting the shower curtains competes with hers. Neruda as played by Gnecco is self-important, far more readily a politician than a poet, but also an inspiration to the popular resistance. His partner’s self-abnegation is an effect of a cruelty he’s not even conscious of. But tellingly this is not a film about the poet and his partner so much as it is about Bernal’s unrequited desire for his suspect, the homoerotics of detective work. Dickinson on the other hand makes a point, repeatedly, of turning away from relationships, to the point that she stops seeing outsiders at all. You wouldn’t know from this film that two-thirds of her poetry was written before she was thirty-six, and that her final two decades were much less about her writing than the decades before.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The trailer for

The Complete Works

Justin Stephenson’s

forthcoming film

on the work of


Monday, August 04, 2014

Monday, May 26, 2014

in Vancouver, 1991

A wonderful film
by Michael de Courcy