Subterranean Homesick Blues

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in the video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

If you want to lose all respect for Bob Dylan as a person, watch Dont Look Back. If not––if you prefer your legends legendary, say––don’t bother. However much you love Dylan’s music, this film shows him not as myth, but as mammal. True, times have a-changed, and he may have grown into a person you’d actually want to share a room, even a conversation, with. Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home, which features contemporary interviews with Dylan, hints at this possibility. But don’t count on it.

The Bob Dylan we see in Dont Look Back (no apostrophe, for some meaningless reason) is 23 or 24 years old. He is already famous; in fact, he is now “the voice of a generation.” Over the course of the film, we see him play music on-stage and off, ride in cars, interact with journalists and fans and, most of all, do nothing in particular in various hotel rooms and backstage lounges, surrounded by friends and hangers-on. Pennebaker uses some archival footage of Dylan playing to a group of black farmhands, and a music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which begins the film.

Dont Look Back is an early example of “cinema verité,” a style of documentary filmmaking that sought truth by documenting people in everyday situations, by showing “exactly what happens, moment by moment.” These filmmakers used handheld cameras and mobile equipment to capture their subjects, in contrast to the soundstages and fixed cameras of contemporaneous Hollywood films. Cinema verité documentaries had looser structure, stylistic editing and somewhat staged set-ups as ways to get to the “deeper truth” of the matter.

It’s strange that a film style focused on truth was used to show someone so given to artifice. At age eighteen or nineteen, Robert Allen Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, for unknown, unknowable reasons. Young Dylan quickly fashioned himself after Woody Guthrie, creating a folksy persona out of whole cloth. In reality a Jew from Minnesota, Dylan reinvented himself as an Appalachian troubador. His involvement with Joan Baez and the civil rights movement led him towards a proletarian persona, even as his manager, Albert Grossman, bid up his performance price and put him in high-class hotel suites. “You can’t print the truth,” he tells one reporter in the film. Well, Bob, you don’t exactly give them a fair chance.

To add strange to strange, Dylan approved this film’s final cut, despite (or perhaps because of) the way it belied the legend. “It’s easy enough to make a film putting someone down,” Roger Ebert pointed out, “all you have to do is slant your material. But to make a film putting YOURSELF down––and then not even to realize it!” There is no contradiction in being “a good artist and a disgusting human being,” but most famous disgusting human beings have publicists to gloss over that sort of thing. Dylan didn’t, or maybe he didn’t care enough.

No one hangs out with Dylan; they only orbit him at a greater or lesser distance. We see this in one scene where some kind of party is happening in Bob’s hotel suite. “Maggie’s Farm” plays on the stereo; one to two dozen people stand and sit around, smoking, drinking and talking. In the midst of this excitement, Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan add to their wall collage. A pretty young woman smokes a cigarette and half dances, half paces across the floor. At one point she’s standing in their path to the wall––they walk towards her, and she jumps back, almost by instinct; as they pass, she watches them intently. We can’t see their faces, but they move as though they do not see her. Certainly they don’t notice her. As they add to the collage, she stands behind them, watching.

A scene from Dont Look Back, directed by D.A. Pennebaker.

Alan Price, left, and Bob Dylan in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back

The film treats us to a few cringe-inducing sequences where Bob Dylan insults various reporters, and not even eloquently. In one horrible scene with “the science student,” Dylan torments some college kid trying to interview him backstage. His entourage laughs and snickers at the humiliating spectacle. If Bob Dylan was a jock instead of a songwriter, no viewer would tolerate this pointless cruelty. But because it’s Dylan, and the student is “pretentious,” it’s all right.

There are good parts of the film. Joan Baez is smart, charming and beautiful, even as Bobby Neuwirth insults her and Bob Dylan ignores her. Alan Price, who had just left the Animals, says a few of the film’s funniest lines in his wonderful Geordie accent. The musical performances are almost all of the first rate. And there’s one scene where an upper-class woman invites Dylan to her “mansion-house” on behalf of her mortified teenage sons, which is entertaining no matter what.

But unfortunately, much of the film seems like an extended, unintended treatise on the banality of cruelty and the power of fame. Though a prodigiously gifted songwriter and performer, Dylan does not strike the viewer as being intelligent, compassionate or otherwise above-average. His one humorous line in the film––”Give the anarchist a cigarette”––is delivered with some encouragement and terrible timing. One senses that the story, the legend, the myth of Bob Dylan was created out of necessity––but which necessity, and necessary for whom?

In one early scene, Alan Price discusses Donovan, Bob’s apparent rival, with Dylan and Joan Baez. “I like him, anyway,” Price says. “He’s not a fake. He’s all right.” What does the word “fake” mean in a film like this? Let’s spare ourselves a magniloquent answer. Donovan is a good musician and sings with authenticity. Later in the film we see him perform “To Sing For You,” and he indeed is not a fake. Neither, in an important sense, is Dylan: it is because of his musical ability that anyone watches this film at all.

This may be Dont Look Back‘s most important lesson: works of great power, poetry and depth are not made by rare creatures with feet of gold; they succeed because they touch something in you, something unknowable that may have nothing to do with you at all. Perhaps this is what truth is, at least where art is concerned. All else––and that includes the artist––is not relevant.

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