Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This personal essay was written for a friend of mine, a die-hard Rocky fan who wanted me to “explain myself,” i.e. why I’m not as devoted to this film as she is.

Long before I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show––a decade before, to be exact––it was already an integral part of my adolescent consciousness. “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again” is high canon at CTY, a summer camp for “talented youth” ages 12 to 16. At every dance, this (and about twenty other songs) have to be played, with some thirty or forty low-canon songs rotating on the playlist as well.

I watched bowdlerized parts of the film on Comedy Central and read a review on capalert, a Christian website dedicated to detailing the licentious and violent scenes in every popular film––which was great for us teens, since it told us which films had all the good stuff. I quote:

Ignominy in this cult flick included homosexual song and talk, homosexual presences and practices, and vulgar behavior such as a man’s head between a man’s legs behind translucent drapes; detailed statue nudity, nudity in plain view and behind translucent drapes, intercourse behind the same; inappropriate touch (both hetero- and homosexual) and begging for it, very brief clothing, group licking/kissing; transvestism, adults in underwear, suggestive (homosexual) eye movements; vulgar positioning in very brief clothing, explicit homosexual song/dance; expressions such as “There’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure” speaking to trying homosexuality.

Ebert never wrote such a glowing endorsement.

My mother conflated Rocky Horror with Pink Flamingos, and believed (believes, I’ll bet) that midnight showings were (are) a den of iniquity, where people throw shit at the screen, have sex on stage, smoke marijuana cigarettes and slash up the seats with switchblade knifes. Having never been to a midnight showing, I cannot confirm this, although I rather hope it’s true.

In high school, a friend invited me over to watch the movie at her house. I must have been sixteen or seventeen; at the time, I was taking fistfuls of prescription drugs for a trumped-up bipolar charge and a bad case of not doing my homework. My memory is therefore unreliable, but I remember there being maybe half-a-dozen people there besides me and her. One of her friends, a veteran midnight-showing-attendee, wrote “V” on my forehead in lipstick. “V” for virgin, for someone who has never before seen the film. As it turns out, watching RHPS on a television in the evening is nothing like seeing it at midnight with an entire audience shouting at the screen. Out of all the attendants, only her veteran friend knew the callbacks, which he quickly abandoned.

I’d never seen anyone like Frank N. Furter before, fictional or otherwise. I’d seen drag queens, sure, but they weren’t that sexual and foreward. Tim Curry steals every scene he’s in, doesn’t he? At sixteen I thought so. Despite this, I couldn’t figure out the plot–-I still can’t.

I forgot about the movie until I was twenty-three, when I watched a pirated copy on my computer. The film depressed me, though at that age, street signs and rainbows depressed me. The dinner scene reminded me of my upbringing––not something you want to think about while watching an escapist sci-fi/fantasy parody film. That was the second, and last, time I watched the film.

Rocky Horror Picture Show is an enjoyable movie with good music. Not for nothing does it have the longest-running release in movie history. At heart, it’s a filmed play; its format encourages, perhaps demands audience participation. And Tim Curry is by far the best thing in the whole movie; without him, I doubt the film would be remembered at all. I may not share your dedication, but in some way I understand it and, yes, admire it.

Adolf Hitler in Afterschool Charisma.

Adolf Hitler in Kumiko Suekane's Afterschool Charisma.

I read the first three volumes of Afterschool Charisma yesterday. Here, in one sentence, is its premise: in the future, scientists clone notable historical figures for as-yet-unknown purposes. When the clones are old enough, they’re sent to a prep school (the setting of this manga). There, they’re pressured to go above and beyond what their originators accomplished. Except there’s one student who isn’t a clone, our protagonist, whose father works for the school’s research branch. Our protagonist’s presence catalyzes much of the action, since he isn’t given the same privileges, or bound by the same obligations, as his peers.

When the story starts, all of the characters are between fourteen and sixteen. In the first few chapters, we meet clones of Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Florence Nightingale, Sigmund Freud, Einstein, JFK, Mozart, Ikkyu, Marie Curie and more. Bizarrely, the characters are named after the adult versions of themselves: Marie Curie, for example, was born Maria Skłodowska but changed her name when she married.

Since this post is titled “cloning Hitler,” you’ve figured out that Afterschool Charisma cloned Adolf Hitler too. The Hitler clone is impossibly moe, with a face and smile like a kitten and the demeanor of a dove. The awful crimes of his originator seem to have given him an insight denied his peers. Cast out by them, Hitler accepts this treatment, and the treatment to come, as punishments for his sins. When you think about it, though, they’re not really his; if anyone should be punished, it’s the scientists.

After all, what’s the point in cloning Hitler? Even if the clone isn’t a psychopath, he’s bound to live a miserable life. The whole world would hate him for something he had no control over. People would probably accuse him of having Hitler’s soul reincarnated, or of “coming back to finish the job.” Neo-nazis would worship him as the second coming, literally. Imagine what they’d do to him if he turned out to be a liberal, or a meat-eater? The poor kid would have to live under police protection his entire life, which, God willing, would not be long.

Afterschool Charisma deals with themes of choice vs. fate and nature vs. nurture. This may explain Hitler’s presence in the group: the scientists, in their infinite wisdom, decided to find out if someone with a criminal lunatic’s genes was destined to become a criminal lunatic. That makes sense, except it does not.

What if nature wins out, and Hitler II has just as big a Messiah complex as Hitler I? This time, instead of being a charismatic art school flunky living on society’s fringes, he could, just by making one post on the internet, lead thousands, if not tens of thousands of very dangerous admirers wherever he wished. Even if Hitler II didn’t know his origin, he would still be very dangerous, as someone with an incredible, intuitive sense for swaying masses of people through propaganda and design.

What if nurture wins out? Then you have a person with a normal psyche who looks just like Adolf Hitler. Except genes are more than looks, so he would probably have certain mannerisms, skills and preferences characteristic of Hitler I. And if he knew who he was, Hitler II’s whole life would be a search for what was his and what wasn’t, and what that means anyway. He would have to second guess everything he loved, hated, or felt anything about.

For example, if Hitler II found that he loved Wagner, he would ask himself, “Do I really love this? Or are my genes––his genes––making me love this? Where does my free will begin? What insight does my love of Wagner have on the mind of that person?” Imagine doing that every moment of every day of your life, from the time you find out that you’re Hitler’s clone until the instant you die.

A very moe Hitler. From Afterschool Charisma.

A very moe Hitler.

As for sex––talk about a nightmare. The romantic prospects of a mass murderer’s clone are not exactly sterling. Suppose Hitler II finds that he’s not attracted to Jewish women, or that he’s really attracted to them. Either way, he has a whole mess of questions without answers, on whether Hitler I shared that predilection, how did it (if shared) affect I’s later behavior and, perhaps most important of all, if it’s really appropriate (or even legal!) for Hitler II to chat up a Jewish girl. Plus, if his identity’s made public, he’ll probably have a long line of neo-Nazi groupies who want to salute the Führer in their own special ways.

We haven’t even touched on the most disturbing part, which is that Hitler II would have to learn about Hitler I at some point. It might be in school, it might be in college, it might be on the History Channel late one night, it might be a book in the library that he picks up just on a whim. And there, staring out of every photograph or film, would be his own face, now screaming, now staring over marching stormtroopers, now smiling kindly at a little girl. His own smile, a smile he uses, a smile he understands better than anyone else alive. Seeing these expressions, he could sense the emotions going through Hitler I’s brain in a way no one else could––because those emotions, in some sense, are his. To add terror to terror, Hitler I did not exactly age well, so a young Hitler II would live his youth knowing just how ugly he was going to become, and as he aged, he’d look more and more like the tyrant whose picture glowers from every textbook.

And it’s not just his face. Suppose Hitler II, aware or unaware of his heritage, read a book on WWII, a biography of Hitler, a history of the holocaust or anything that described Hitler I’s personality in any depth. He would recognize so many little details and quirks of his own personality. Imagine reading a memo about a meeting with Hitler to discuss the death camps, and recognizing some habit of the Führer’s as your own. You know the sandwich scene in Happiness, where you find yourself empathizing with a pedophile? Take that moment and multiply it times ten to the power of ten thousand and you’re still not close.

I look forward to futher volumes of the manga, especially to see why these clones exist. What could possibly come out of cloning someone like that? Nature-Hitler could use his power for unspeakable evil, if he wasn’t assasinated first; Nurture-Hitler would probably have a nervous breakdown and commit suicide. Either way, his presence seems a net loss for humanity, however moe he may be.

Marjoe Gortner "heals" a woman at a tent revival service.

Can God deliver a religion addict?

––Marjoe Gortner

When Marjoe Gortner was just four years old, his parents started him to preaching in churches throughout the American south. An ordained minister at four, Gortner wed couples, sermonized on television and became a celebrity on the Pentecostal circuit. He continued preaching––earning his parents millions in the process––up until he was fourteen, when he ran away.

In his early twenties, Marjoe fell in with the Southern California hippie movement. To earn a living, however, he returned to pentecostal evangelism as a “day job.” The cognitive dissonance of thinking left and earning right wore on him; in 1972, when he was 28 years old, he commissioned a film crew to document his last “tour” through the Pentecostal churhces, as well as his frank thoughts on the matter. Thus this film.

And what a film it is. Marjoe shows its eponymous protagonist delivering sermons to congregations in Texas, California and Michigan. The directors cut between his sermons, their raving crowds and footage of Gortner in private, speaking with some weariness of the “gimmick.” He describes inking a cross on his forehead in special ink that shows up with perspiration––leading the congregation to believe that he has a sign on his forehead. We see him counting the money backstage with the head preacher at one church, and talking with another about the latter’s property in the Amazon, which is being sold and redeveloped to “a company that makes corn flakes.”

A young Marjoe Gortner.

A young Marjoe Gortner.

It would be hard to create a more devastating, or disturbing, portrait of evangelism––yet this isn’t a smear piece. Despite the hypocrisy of his job, Marjoe comes across as thoughtful, insightful and well-meaning, if a bit lost. “I think I’m a bad person but not an evil one,” he says at one point in the film. He may be duping his congregations, but he doesn’t appear to view them with contempt. Despite his abusive upbringing, or perhaps because of it, he comes across as a grounded, well-rounded person. Gortner also makes plain much of the human condition through his own experience and observation. It’s a good thing, too––the scenes of people convulsing, shouting in tongues and dancing might be overwhelming and frightening without him to guide the viewer along.

The film begins, after an introduction, with Marjoe advising the director and camera crew what they can and cannot do in these circles. Even though his congregations are “all about love,” conformity is absolutely vital––one of the male crewmembers must “lose the long locks” and everyone must profess to being saved––”I’m washed in the same blood as you.” “It’s a very bloody religion,” Marjoe says off-handedly.

Though shot in the early 70s, the congregations’s fashions seem a decade behind, if not more: we see clubmasters and horn-rimmed glasses, polyester suits with straight pants, white-collared shirts with short sleeves, beehive updos and large curls. Even in his “conservative” outfits, Marjoe looks out of place, with his polka-dotted shirt, his all-white pants suit and his long curly hair. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Gortner said that he dressed that way for the audience:

A preacher is a man who has been blessed by God on Earth. If he doesn’t drive a Cadillac, they don’t think much of him; God must not favor him. He’s got to look good, feel good and smell good.

His congregations, Marjoe says, just want a peak experience like you and I find in a rock concert or on drugs. For them, this peak experience has to be laced through with warnings of hellfire and warnings against sexual sin; otherwise, for reasons not quite explained, they can’t “get loose” or “get turned on.” Funny, that, since the religious ectsasy we see has obvious similarities to orgasm. Again and again people tremble, scream, convulse, speak nonsense, fall and shake like epileptics. Even the beatific expressions on these people’s faces looks orgasmic.

Marjoe also clearly cares about the people who come to see him. This may be an egotistical concern, the same way a band member wants the audience to have a good time. Even if it is, he cares about them a sight more than the other preachers shown in the film. In one scene, people come up to talk to him and drop money in a bucket by his feet. He’s leaning over a fence of some sort, separating the stage from the congregation; he leans over, his eyes meeting theirs, a wide but sad smile rising and falling from his face as he listens to them. And he’s listening: he holds their hands, soothes them during manic episodes, he responds to their words with kindness and sincerity. He may need to do this for the money, but on some level, it’s clear, he likes putting on a show and he likes helping people. It’s everything else that’s hateful to him.

One of this film’s strengths is the stories it doesn’t tell, the lives it shows and hints at in scene after scene. The most extraordinary scenes unfold in close shots and brief glances, from an elderly man crying with an eyepatch over one eye, to a bored little boy sitting in a pew while adults rave around him, to the self-satisfied smirk of one woman churchleader as the donations roll in. It’s become fashionable, in the American left at least, to mock evangelicals and treat them as one large redneck stereotype. This movie shows their humanity and, perhaps in spite of itself, offers cause for anger. These aren’t bad people, and even if you disagree with their beliefs, where’s the honor in hornswoggling them? How much honor is there in never giving a sucker an even break?

Marjoe Gortner delivering a sermon.

Clearly, these services are just that, a service for their members; otherwise the pews wouldn’t be packed. At one mostly-black church, the music is so powerful that it seems more than worth a little “generous donation” just to hear and dance to it. Rock concerts and drugs ain’t free, either. But concertgoers and drug-takers know that their money is lining the pockets of scoundrels; these preachers hide their corruption behind “this façade of holiness.”

Towards the end of the film, we meet Marjoe’s girlfriend, a young, soft-spoken woman in Californian, 70s-chic outfits. “I don’t know all this Jesus business,” she sighs, “I just find it hard to believe that they [the audiences] believe it too.” Who knows? Who could possibly know? Just as young people who hate drugs do them to be “cool,” so too must people with unorthodox beliefs join a church out of fear of the neighbor, or give lip-service to certain beliefs to get the peak experience without the neighbors gossiping. If this is the case, one can’t help wondering who’s swindling whom.

Purple Mustache

This essay discusses “Spirit Day,” a day of remembrance for sexually atypical victims of bullying. The first Spirit Day was October 20 of this year (2010).

This essay was originally published, in an abbreviated form, elsewhere. It is republished here in full.


Six gay teenagers committed suicide in the past few months. Most were victims of bullying. This distresses a large number of people, including many who never met the suicides. A teenager decided to make October 20th “Spirit Day” to honor homo-/bi-/transsexual victims of bullying. Many people joined the cause, from Dan Savage to Cyndi Lauper; Tumblr’s staff re-skinned their website in purple to fit the theme.

Every article I’ve read about Spirit Day makes liberal use of vague stock phrases, e.g. “bear witness,” “raise awareness,” “faith leader,” “tolerance” and so on. Alarm bells ring in my head when I hear these phrases, because I know they mean nothing––or, more accurately, that they mean very different things to every person. Words hold histories within them, histories stretching back through civilizations into the beginnings of consciousness and pre-verbal thought. They illuminate or obfuscate, depending on how you use them. When you use them in stale and timeworn ways they cease to mean anything.

Stale and timeworn language simultaneously hides and expresses lazy thought. Anyone who has written a term paper on short notice will know what I mean. These phrases save considerable time; instead of coming up with a novel idea, or a novel expression of a timeless one, you simply let the language do the work for you, and before you know it you have seven pages of “raise awareness” and “take a stand” and “actionable gestures” and “people of faith.”

Why, then, the unfocused language? I think it comes from an indefinite purpose. For some, Spirit Day is about mourning the deaths of those six teenagers, for others, it’s a day against bullying in general, to others, it’s against bullying based on sexual orientation, or  it’s to “raise awareness” of a problem, or it’s a day to teach tolerance.

I do not support bullying. But I do not see how it could be eliminated from every high school in America, while maintaining any sort of ethical code. Suppose we dispense with ethics; even a Heathers-style plot would probably not work in real life. And bullying is not the only endemic social problem schools have to face. E.M. Forster expressed this, quite well, in The Longest Journey:

“There’s very little bullying here,” said Agnes.

“There was very little bullying at my school. There was simply the atmosphere of unkindness, which no discipline can dispel. It’s not what people do to you, but what they mean, that hurts.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Physical pain doesn’t hurt–at least not what I call hurt–if a man hits you by accident or play. But just a little tap, when you know it comes from hatred, is too terrible. Boys do hate each other: I remember it, and see it again. They can make strong isolated friendships, but of general good-fellowship they haven’t a notion.”

How could you foster “general good-fellowship” among teenagers, especially ones brought up believing their comfort, self-esteem and satisfaction are of upmost importance?

Note the draconian undertone of some of these pronouncements. We start out with a stand against bullying, and end up at a position where dislike/disgust with homosexuality is partially responsible for the suicides of distant strangers. If true, should we mandate that all people believe that gay is okay, so no more children will have to die? Even if many people hate homosexuals, how on earth will berating them help anyone, least of all the recipients of their hatred? The “atmosphere of unkindness, which no discipline can dispel” may be painful, but it cannot be banished through force. Likewise, people are entitled to believe whatever they like, including beliefs that, if widely held, might drive someone to suicide or murder.

It’s also unclear if all the gay suicides came from bullying. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds; some of these are bound to be gay, bullying or no bullying. There are also straight children who commit suicide because of bullying, though there’s an essential mystery in anyone’s motives to kill themselves.

While standing up to bullies can go a long way, conflating bullying with dislike of homosexuality does everyone a disservice. Plenty of people view homosexual and bisexual behavior as unnatural or immoral, yet they don’t act on it by psychologically torturing children. When you conflate bullying with someone saying that they think homosexuality immoral, you attempt to reframe the debate so that anyone who disagrees with you is morally equivalent to someone who torments a 13 year-old. Which you may believe––but I don’t.

Proponents of Spirit Day also appear not to consider practical solutions to sexuality-based bullying, such as homeschooling, private tutoring, school vouchers or an early high school exit exam (a CHSPE in California) to take the victim out of the offensive environment. Making expulsion from a public school possible for egregious bullies (along with other offenders) has not been brought up, to the best of my knowledge. No one deserves abuse, but it is foolish to expect it never to happen. Rather than bemoaning its existence, why not take practical steps so more and more children can learn in safety, free from undue harassment?

Let’s move on to emotions. All beliefs are based on them. I suspect that every person over the age of six, with normal cognitive functioning, has experienced every major negative emotion: hate, anger, bitterness, jealousy, rage, desire to kill, desire to hurt, race animus, sex animus and more. Can you, reader, honestly say that you have never felt any of the above? Depending on your social circle, certain people, groups and organizations are acceptable targets for negativity, while others are protected and sacrosanct. Often, people who “show solidarity” with victims use that as an excuse to batten on the enemy. We should not ignore this facet of human nature, since it motivates much seemingly altruistic action.

Showing solidarity with bullying victims is a worthy cause. But stopping there, as this campaign seems to do, is more cruel than ignoring the problem entirely. What will you do the other 364 days of the year? Does anyone plan to, say, build a boarding school or a safehouse for sexually atypical, at-risk youth? Or run a crisis center for young people struggling with life? And what will happen to those bullies, anyway? Perhaps, on some distant day, all people will join hands in harmony; until that day, I have to agree with J.D., from Heathers:

The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven.

It’s still not clear to me whether Spirit Day is about discouraging people from mistreating each other, or upbraiding other people for disliking a group they’re supposed to like. If it’s the latter, I cannot support it.

The following text––I don’t think I can call it poetry––is the result of combining several articles through the Lazarus Corporation’s Text Mixing Desk. The texts used were: a random essay from the Postmodern Essay Generator, The Book of Revelation (King James version) and the livejournal of a teenage girl.

Randomly-generating nonsense sometimes creates happy accidents, sometimes chance wisdom, sometimes banality. I have tried to keep the former two and cut the latter. Verb tenses and noun declensions have also been changed to make the text make more sense. I do not know why most sentences begin with a lower-case letter but I have left them as they are.

–––––––


last night I went there to fell a great star. all who were really passionate wer burnt up, and all great lights from heaven burned to worship before thy feet, and to know filled me with fire. I cried with a loud voice, me, saying, amen: blessing, and glory, narrative to attack capitalism, hurt the earth and the need a cigarette every five marx suggests a blind kind of rainbow clothed with a cloud.

and I saw the seven boots learning how to scream, and fire was capitalist postcultural scorpions, and there twisted up in mine you were born with the opened seventh seal. there was silence in heaven.

and he opened the bottomless forever to university because apparantly I belong there and if that’s ‘textual nihilism’ to denote the dialectic, knew I would be a darkened earthquake.

the subject is the the four angels which are bound in the city, and I up.

Semioticist discourse. in a sense, the subject is his room during guided by voices:  of god, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou suggests the use of the postdialectic paradigm of reality to world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.
after this thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee in the works of rushdie, a concept voice which I heard as it were a trumpet talking with art as a paradox.

Behold, I will make them like mike whittaker that dwell upon the earth. I know thy works, and hast found them liars: and unto the seven spirits of god, and parties and finally a shot and a half, he that sat was to rescue me from a bad trip, unto the angel of the glitter off my breasts and honestly I pretextual theory.

I saw four angels smoking at second period when plunged into chaos because of the stinkbombs and everyone mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the post-structuralist perceptions of class.

and the third angel sounded, and subject is interpolated into a lacanist obscurity class. I beheld, and heard the fifth angel scream out all the lyrics from the east, having the seal of the living heaven, so consequently I don’t know all which stood before god; I am still the angry ten year old girl in patent leather pentagrams.

and he opened the bottomless forever glued to my feet and I will be amazing, and unto the angel of the church in shall thrash metal sweaty dance parties and us to god and are not, but do lie; the shapes of the submaterialist paradigm of consensus killed, by the fire, and by that I sat doing my laundry and listening to stan getz and bottomless pit.

so I have friends we’re the best seven spirits of god, and the seven stars; I as theory that includes best couple ever, even door was opened in heaven: and I will shew thee things which must finally a reign on the earth. and I saw expensive tequila in his room and behold: we’re seriously as shit from serpents. and they sung a new song, saying, thou art denying marxist socialism, rejoice! for the name of the star is called lower east side so I can fuck servants of worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver; and a satanic ballerina had hair as the hair of women, and fire mingled with blood, and became a textual narrative to analyse and modify the sexual teenybopper paradigm of capitalist acoustic songs. I almost seek death, and shall not find it; and I saw the seven boots learning how to scream but I’m finally sleeping; and I’m going to write lions.

and thank you for caring about sea, I hate school. foucaultist smoking in school (I know you will and power, and might, be unto our god for either accept posttextual marxism that rejoice!

and the honour, and power, and might, be unto our god and myself for ever that I am sydney heather motherfucking sasanow and main tongue hath my name.

I’m going to make everything erupted into chaos behold, there come two woes more hereafter.

haha you thought I almost cried.

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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