Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Meet the new Bob: A new film accompanies DA Pennebaker's classic Dylan documentary Dont Look Back

Scene one: In a room at the Savoy Hotel, in Spring 1965, Bob Dylan meets the British press. The singer holds a giant lightbulb. “What’s the lightbulb for?” a reporter asks, not unreasonably. “I usually carry a lightbulb,” Dylan replies, deadpan.
Scene two: Bob Dylan and his tour manager Bob Neuwirth arrive at the Royal Albert Hall, for a concert with the Beatles. The auditorium makes an immediate impression, and they gaze around in wonder. In a Spinal Tap moment, Neuwirth speaks: “Queen Victoria built it for her dude.”
Thirty years after it was first release, DA Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain still surprises. The opening sequence, in which Dylan flips cue-cards with phrases from Subterranean Homesick Blues, was inspired by the films on French Scopitone jukeboxes, but came 16 years before the launch of MTV. As a piece of filmmaking, it is a landmark. If the film now carries echoes of Spinal Tap, that’s because it drew the template for rock documentary. Pennebaker was amongst the first filmmakers to use a hand-held camera, and his jerky imagery was thought to be so amateurish that no mainstream distributor would touch it. The film was shown first in a porn cinema, where they were more used to that kind of camerawork.
Watching it now is to see pop culture being born. It was Pennebaker’s good fortune to be in the room at a moment of great significance. (“You could never go back to Cole Porter,” he notes on the commentary.) Dylan was on the cusp: this was his final solo acoustic tour, though he is clearly planning his next move. One scene has him staring wistfully at a shop window full of electric guitars. But the street scenes of a rainy Britain are drab – there is hardly any traffic, and no pop radio, apart from the pirate Radio Caroline.
There’s a sense, too, of the generation gap. Dylan’s fans are smart teenagers. The journalists who are sent to document the whirlwind are squares in suits, asking questions of varying degrees of irrelevance, and receiving gnomic replies for their troubles. Reading a newspaper story about the tour, Dylan remarks, “I’m glad I’m not myself.”
Dont Look Back is about the charisma of Dylan and the circus surrounding him. But for his new film, 65 Revisited, Pennebaker re-examined the footage he had discarded, and discovered the reason for all the hoopla – the music. In the original film, the songs were cut short, to preserve the sense of dramatic flow. Here, he lets the music run, and when you see Dylan sing To Ramona or It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue it’s obvious what the fuss was about. What you see isn’t a protest singer – it’s a romantic balladeer of considerable intensity. The music continues offstage. Pennebaker catches Dylan playing piano, and dueting with Joan Baez on old folk songs. Onstage, doing It’s Alright Ma, It Ain’t Me Babe or She Belongs To Me, the ferocity of the performances is breathtaking. .
Pennebaker was understandably reluctant to return to his discarded footage, and while 65 Revisited has a less coherent narrative than Dont Look Back, it is a fine film. Of the non-musical moments, the best is a peculiar scene inside a Newcastle department store – a real Grace Brothers affair – where Bob tries on a double-breasted suit, and is invited to choose from a selection of psychedelic ties. He opts for the pink one. His manager, Albert Grossman, looks on, impressed. “We can eat in the hotel now,” he growls.
[First published in UNCUT magazine.]

What is the new material?
“We started to call it Outtake, because it was a whole lot of outtakes from Dont Look Back, which I got into a little bit grudgingly. I was dragging my feet because I thought ‘I’ve made a film, here I don’t want to do it again. But when I started looking at it, and particularly listening to it, it got very interesting for me. What I found was that when I did the first film I cut off a lot of the music. I didn’t want it to be a musical film. I wanted it to be about Dylan and not the music. I figured if you wanted the music you could go buy the record. Well when I started watching his performances – particularly of the throwaway songs; the love songs which people didn’t take very seriously, as opposed to the folk songs or the protest songs – as I listened to them in their entirety I felt like I might have made a mistake. I began to see something that I kinda missed, just because I was so tight and inside that group – I hadn’t realised the effect that he was having on people came from listening to all those songs in their entirety. That’s kind of what he put out there. It was revolutionary – it was amazing, and it brought me up with a start. The film is an appraisal of what I missed – of how dumb I was. It's not Dont Look Back because Dont Look Back Was about Byron and not Shelley, you know?
It shows Dylan’s romantic side.“At the time, everyone was busy saying: ‘He’s no damn poet, so don’t get mixed up’. I thought: he may not be a poet in the accepted sense, but he thinks in lines that are, to me, kind of poetic. He leaves out words, or jumps over words, in a way that takes more than just an attitude or street training. It’s something that he understands. Looking back on the whole thing, he was somebody that put something out that people understood right away was important. Looking at it now, those are some of the most important songs he ever sung. When I hear them now – Don’t Think Twice and whatnot – boy, I tell you they really get to me.
Dylan has changed his opinion about Dont Look Back hasn’t he?
“Well, listen. What Dylan says at breakfast he’s gonna deny at lunch. You’re dealing with a person born in June, the double-head. That’s the way he is. I’m always interested his reaction to things, but I always take it with a grain of salt, Like, once he said to me, ‘All words that rhyme mean the same thing’. I thought, well, that’s interesting. I better tell that to Robert Graves, it might interest him. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it just makes you hang in to see what else he might say.”
You had great access to him. Did you think he was developing a persona?
“I didn’t know too much about him. I knew that he was interesting to me and I wasn’t sure why. I never interviewed him – I never thought I’d find anything that way. I just watched him. But I was pretty tight with him. I was part of that little group.
“I don’t think he had any idea that I was making a film. The camera was not very impressive looking. It was home made and not very big. A lot of times I was all by myself with it, so it didn’t seem like what he must have thought movies were. Whatever I was doing was funny and foolish and that was OK.”
Was he self-conscious with the camera?
“Sometimes. Like anybody, he knew what a camera did. But I don’t care what people do in front of a camera. It’s the action that I’m following and not the self-absorption. That could put you off – but if it's there, continually – on its own merits you’re bound to put it aside and not judge the action by whether or not he’s aware of it or he’s putting something down on you. If he is, that’s his business. I don’t look on that as anti-filmic. The idea of anybody that’s doing something interesting in the world, sitting in the corner watching them – it’s worth doing, because you learn something.”
Where did the idea for the lyric signs come from?
“That was Dylan’s idea. When I first met him down at this bar in the Village, he said ‘Do you think it’s a good idea if I write out the words to the song?’ - his new song was Subterranean Homesick Blues – I said, it’s a great idea. So we got a whole bunch of cardboards and carried them around with us for the whole trip.
Was your new film affected by the Scorsese documentary: the spine of that was your material.“Yeah. It was mostly stuff I shot. I was happy to see someone re-use it. It was never going to be my film. The arrangement I had with Dylan was I would shoot it but it would be his film. Dont Look Back was my film, he called Dont Look Back “Pennebaker by Dylan”. The Scorsese thing was good. It hinged on a lot on the interviews that Jeff did with Dylan, but it was entertaining. There’s other stuff that isn’t in it that will surface one day.”
Are you surprised by how mythic Dylan has become?
“Sorta. If you’d fled with Byron to Switzerland and Italy, when he was getting thrown out over his divorce, you wouldn’t have imagined that you were watching anything of earth-shaking consequence, except another tired old Brit on the run. Dylan, even though he was just in his thirties, he initiated a kind of Byronic thing that has prevailed down to now. The idea of the artist as ‘fuck you’ is now a savage cry from every gallery, and it was not that way before. Artists didn’t have any rights to the game at all.”
What happened to the film Something is Happening?
“Scorsese used that in his film. Dylan had said ‘I’m going to make a film and I want you to shoot it’. So I said ‘cool’. Dylan didn’t know anything about directing and I didn’t either. So between us we were like a couple of thumbs pointing in the wrong direction. But it still was interesting because he drew people like flies – they would come in through the windows and that set things in motion. And I could only make the film that I knew how to make. He didn’t want to make Dont Look Back, but there wasn’t anything else really. Scorsese saw at least how to put it together.”

Jindabyne: All Is Not Well In Tidy Town

The opening scenes of Jindabyne suggest a horror film, or more precisely, the suburban dread of (mainstream period) David Lynch. A girl is driving across country, singing along to a song on the radio. She is watched, and then chased, by a man in a truck, who pulls ahead of her and blocks the road. The action then cuts to Jindabyne –a “tidy town” on the sign outside the civic limits – where everyday life is proceeding, unaffected by the fact that something dreadful has just happened. Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) is teaching his boy to fish, and telling him about the town that exists beneath the lake, and how he once heard the bell of the submerged church ringing from under the surface. At home, with sheep bleating in the background, Stewart’s wife Claire (a glacial Laura Linney) is fixing the sprinkler in the garden, when she suddenly vomits. All is not well in tidy town.
But, although director Ray Lawrence’s last film, Lantana, had an opening that almost quoted Twin Peaks, and his subject is the dread that lurks beneath suburban good manners, the parallel with Lynch is misleading. Lynch believes in disquiet for its own sake. Lawrence wants to unravel its tendrils, and to dissect the logic of midlife dread. Both directors are fascinated by evil, but the shit that happens in Lawrence’s world is more realistic than supernatural.
Jindabyne is based on So Much Water So Close to Home, the short story by Raymond Carver which also found its way into Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. The story concerns a wife who cannot comprehend her husband’s decision to keep fishing after discovering the drowned body of a girl in the water. Carver’s story is spare in its detail. Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian add the architecture of a small town and, by making the drowned girl an Aborigine and placing the action in New South Wales, bring a distinctly Australian twist to tale which threatens to overpower it.
The film is dominated by disappointment. The imagery of death is everywhere. From the first scenes, Stewart is established as a man in denial. The yellowing cuttings on the wall of his garage show him to be a former rally champion, but he is now reduced to inspecting his hair in the mirror, looking for grey. His mother, Vanessa (Betty Lucas) a domineering Irishwoman whose presence irks Claire, takes one look at his dye job and tells him: “That hair makes you look like the kind of man who visits prostitutes.”
All the characters have secrets, and all seem imprisoned by them. Claire, who is pregnant, seems gripped by fear at the prospect. The unwelcome presence of Betty is caused, we understand, by some kind of breakdown in Claire’s past, and the two women are engaged in an unceasing power-struggle. Claire and Stewart’s young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), meanwhile, is friends with Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro), whose morbid curiosity leads her to sacrifice the school guinea pig, and to enquire, on witnessing Claire’s morning sickness: “Are you going to die?”
So oppressive is this environment, that it is hardly surprising that the men have devised a means of escape. Every year, they hike into the woods for a fishing excursion, with no women allowed. Cigars are smoked, jokes told. “Three beautiful women walk into a bar,” says one. “A black, a brunette and a lesbian.” Another replies: “What colour hair has the lesbian got?”
On the first night, Stewart discovers the naked body of the girl floating in the water. After some discussion, the men decide to tether the body to the bank, and report it on their return. In the context – they are in an isolated spot, out of range for mobile phones – this doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, though Billy (Simon Stone), the youngest member of the group, urges them to cut short their excursion. To soothe their guilt, the men agree a cover story, saying that a sprained ankle prevented them from returning immediately. Even Billy is unaware of the seriousness of what they have done. Phoning home the next morning, he reports: “We found a body. I caught the most amazing fish, though.”
What follows is an examination of the different ways men and women react to tragedy. Stewart is stoical, and bemused by the fuss. Claire is traumatised, telling him that the girl needed his help. “She was beyond help,” Stewart replies. “There was nothing anyone could do for her.”
Would they have reacted differently if the body had been male, or white? Why does Claire become so obsessively involved, raising money for the funeral of the dead girl?
The conclusion is less satisfactory than the terse parable which precedes it, but it is fitting, at least, that the term for an aboriginal funeral is a “sorry business”.