Advertisements

Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2016

My top 10 favorite home-video releases of 2016 (and 21 runners-up):

10. Cool Apocalypse (Smith, 2015, Emphasis Entertainment DVD)

10614204_725561084200360_3285685349821834571_n

I would be lying if I didn’t include my own first feature on this list. I love the package that Al Strutz of Emphasis Entertainment Group put together for the DVD-only release of Cool Apocalypse, which includes Pierre Kattar’s minute-long behind-the-scenes documentary and my own “director’s commentary” track in which I expound at greater length than I have anywhere else before on my influences, methods and intentions in making this little film. Thanks a million, Al!

9. The Assassin (Hou, 2015, Well Go USA Blu-ray)

assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s martial arts film about a female assassin, played by the great Shu Qi, whose personal life conflicts with her professional life when she’s ordered to kill her ex-fiance during the waning years of the Tang dynasty. This is one of the transcendent film experiences of recent years: a sword fight among ghostly birch trees and a climactic conversation on a fog-enshrouded mountaintop are among the instant-classic scenes. Cinematography of borderline-supernatural magnitude like this (courtesy of Mark Li Ping-Bing who shot on 35mm) deserves a stellar HD transfer and Well Go USA’s Blu-ray certainly delivers in that department. The disc is a little light on extras — there are just four short “featurettes,” all of which clock in at less than four minutes a piece — but we should all be grateful for any chance to see and hear Hou talk about his work.

8. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese, 2005, Paramount Blu-ray)

I don't mind being shot man but I din't dig being told about it.png

2016 was a great year for America’s greatest living artist: Bob Dylan turned 75-years-old, released an acclaimed new album of standards for the second year in a row, logged 76 more dates on his Never-Ending Tour (including a co-headlining gig at “Desert Trip,” the biggest concert event of the year) and, oh yeah, won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Martin Scorsese’s definitive doc about Dylan’s early career – up through and including his earth-shaking European tour in 1966 – also got a spiffy “10th anniversary” re-release. The original version had only been available on DVD so Paramount’s new Blu-ray is a very welcome upgrade – with the D.A. Pennebaker-shot footage from Eat the Document looking better than those of us who first saw it via crappy VHS bootlegs would have ever thought possible. Among the plentiful extras is an insightful new interview with Scorsese in which he discusses at length his editing choices — including the film’s dazzling chronology-shuffling structure.

7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1949, Warner Blu-ray)

she wore.png

For me, the second installment of John Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” doesn’t quite scale the artistic heights of the previous year’s Fort Apache but it is arguably the director’s most beautifully photographed color film and remains an essential work. Archivist Robert Harris wrote that this stunning new transfer was “taken from an IP derived from the original three-strip negatives, but so good, and with such accurate color (matched to an original nitrate), and perfect registration, that if I had to decide which way to go for the difference in cost, I’d do precisely what Warner Archive has done.” The accurate color is so crucial: the film features an expressive, boldly stylized use of color — nowhere more apparent than in the theatrical, blood-red sunset during John Wayne’s famous graveside monologue.

6. Napoleon (Gance, 1927, BFI Blu-ray)

napoleon

The way I feel about Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon is the same way a former President of Columbia Records felt about Leonard Cohen’s music: I know that it’s great but I don’t know if it’s any good. It can be hard to reconcile the film’s dubious qualities – it is unquestionably pro-militaristic, nationalistic and hagiographic – with its status as a cinematic landmark and the apotheosis of Impressionism. Whether he’s capturing schoolchildren engaged in a snowball fight or French and English soldiers fighting for literally days on end in the wettest, muddiest battlefields this side of Kurosawa, Gance has the uncanny ability to use handheld camera (rare for a silent epic) and super-fast cutting to whip viewers into an emotional frenzy. Of course, the film itself is almost beside the point now: Kevin Brownlow’s restoration, nearly 50 years in the making and 5-and-a-half hours long, cobbles together prints from all over the world to very closely approximate what the film would’ve first looked like in 1928. It’s one of the all-time great restoration stories and every movie lover should make it a point to see this version.

5. Godard: The Essential Collection (Godard, 1960-1965, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

contempt

Studio Canal UK released this sweet box-set, combining five of Jean-Luc Godard’s most popular early features (Breathless, Une Femme est une Femme, Le Mépris, Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou) to surprisingly little fanfare in February. All of the discs are stacked with welcome extras — vintage making-of docs, introductions by Colin MacCabe, interviews with Anna Karina, etc. — and feature impeccable transfers to boot (with the notable exception of Le Mépris, which has always looked problematic on home video). The real story here though is that Une Femme est une Femme and Alphaville are receiving their Blu-ray debuts and look and sound better than ever in 1080p. One is a widescreen, riotously colorful musical comedy, the other is a high-contrast, black-and-white, neo-Expressionist sci-fi/noir. But they both function as dual love letters to the cinema and to Godard’s then-wife and muse, Karina, still one of the most ravishing screen presences in all of cinema.

4. Dekalog (Kieslowski, 1988-1989, Criterion Blu-ray)

Dekalog pic1

Sell your old Facets DVDs if you still can! The mighty Criterion Collection did Krzysztof Kieslowski proud with this amazing set that combines new restorations and transfers of all 10 one-hour episodes of the director’s legendary television miniseries Dekalog with the expanded theatrical-release versions of episodes five and six (AKA A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love). While Kieslowski is probably still best known for the later “Three Colors” trilogy that saw him move to France and work with notable Euro-arthouse stars like Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, the Dekalog remains his supreme masterpiece: Each episode is set in the same housing project in Warsaw and corresponds — to varying degrees of literal-ness — to each of the Ten Commandments. The series dares to ask the question: how might these Commandments serve as the basis for ethical dilemmas in the modern world? The episodes can be watched in any order and discovering the ways in which the different stories subtly intersect (a major player in one episode may turn up for a cameo in another) is fascinating to behold. Is it television or is it cinema? Who cares? As the Criterion jacket copy states, it’s one of the 20th century’s great achievements in “visual storytelling.”

3. Early Murnau (Murnau, 1921-1925,  Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

thelastlaugh2

Aw yeah. Masters of Cinema did silent movie fans a huge favor by bundling together five of F.W. Murnau’s great early German films (The Haunted Castle, Phantom, The Grand Duke’s Finances, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe) into one stellar three-disc set. If I had to list the virtues of this Early Murnau box, it would be endless: All five films are making their Blu-ray debuts, all are based on meticulous restorations by the redoubtable F.W. Murnau Foundation, all are presented with the original German intertitles and feature optional English subtitles, there are copious extras, etc. While The Last Laugh is the (deservedly) best-known film of the bunch, what a joy it is to see an undervalued mini-masterpiece like Phantom looking so crazy and beautiful in 1080p. Murnau is a God of cinema, someone who knew how to put emotion into camera movement — in the same way that someone like William Faulkner knew how to put emotion into a string of words — and being able to witness that kind of cinematic expressiveness in the optimum quality it’s presented in here made me ecstatically happy. Now where’s The Burning Soil, damn it?!

2. Pioneers of African-American Cinema (Various, 1915-1941, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)

withinourgates2

University of Chicago professor Jacqueline Najuma Stewart curated this incredible and extensive compilation of early movies by African-American filmmakers, all of which were made far outside of the Hollywood studio system between the mid-1910s and the mid-1940s. It’s an impressive act of restoration and reclamation that stands as one of the most significant home video releases ever. Spread across five Blu-ray discs are a dozen feature films and twice that many shorts — totaling 24 hours of running time altogether. This set includes newly restored works by such relatively well-known
“race film” directors as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams as well as a wealth of exciting new discoveries by previously unknown filmmakers who immediately qualify as what Andrew Sarris once termed “Subjects for Further Research.” Chief among the latter are James and Eloyce Gist, husband and wife traveling evangelists whose surreal visual allegory Hellbound Train depicts Satan as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell.

1. The Jacques Rivette Collection (Rivette, 1971-1981, Arrow Blu-ray)

CJfFiPxUsAEkNCk

There’s no way in hell anything else was going to top this list. Jacques Rivette has always been the most underappreciated of the major New Wave directors — mainly because his work has always been the most difficult to see. This imbalance was in large part redressed with Arrow Video’s mammoth box set, which was released 11 days before Rivette’s death in January. The centerpiece is Rivette’s greatest work, the near 13-hour-long Out 1, originally made for but rejected by French television. In this epic series Rivette intercuts the stories of two theatrically troupes rehearsing different Aeschylus plays with the stories of two con artists separately investigating a secret society with its origins in Balzac. The way Rivette gradually brings these various characters together — as if pieces on a giant chessboard — is alternately hilarious, terrifying and exhilarating. Only shown a handful of times theatrically and on T.V. over the decades, this cinematic holy grail was primarily seen by cinephiles in recent years as an illegal digital download of dubious quality with “fan-made” English subtitles. This new transfer boasts nicely saturated colors and beautiful film-grain quality via a 2K restoration of the original 16mm elements overseen by cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Also included is Out 1: Spectre, a four-and-a-half hour alternate version (not a reduction) of the original that stands as a major work in its own right; Duelle and Noroit, two delightful female-centric companion films from 1976 that function as mythological noir and pirate-adventure story, respectively; and the globe-hopping thriller Merry-Go-Round, an interesting but somewhat lesser work starring Joe Dallesandro and Maria Schneider. To pore over the contents of this set is to understand why Rivette is one of the giants of the medium. The Rivette renaissance will thankfully continue in 2017 as Cohen Media Group has acquired a whopping 10 more Rivette films for distribution.

Runners-Up (Alphabetical By Title):

3 Bad Men (Ford, 1926, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
Boyhood (Linklater, 2014, Criterion Blu-ray)
Cat People (Tourneur, 1942, Criterion Blu-ray)
Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965, Criterion Blu-ray)
Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, 1971-1972, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel, 1962, Criterion Blu-ray)
Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913, Kino/Lorber Blu-ray)
The Immortal Story (Welles, 1968, Criterion Blu-ray)
In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, Criterion Blu-ray)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, 2012, Criterion Blu-ray)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971, Criterion Blu-ray)
Muriel (Resnais, 1955, Criterion Blu-ray)
Night and Fog (Resnais, 1963, Criterion Blu-ray)
On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1951, Warner Blu-ray)
Paris Belongs to Us (Rivette, 1961, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Player (Altman, 1992, Criterion Blu-ray)
The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection (Fassbinder, 1969-1978, Arrow Blu-ray)
They Were Expendable (Ford, 1945, Warner Blu-ray)
A Touch of Zen (Hu, 1971, Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Advertisements

Celluloid Flashback: Renaldo and Clara

Bob Dylan turns 73-years-old this Saturday. (Can you believe that Charlie Brown was depressed about the guy turning 30?). My Dylan/movie-themed birthday-tribute post this year — the latest in a series of four — is an analysis of the bard’s misunderstood and rarely seen 1978 masterpiece Renaldo and Clara. Happy birthday, Bob!

“(Dylan) has given himself more tight close-ups than any actor can have had in the whole history of the movies.”

— Pauline Kael on Renaldo and Clara

“It’s like a tapestry. What he did was, he shot about 110 hours of film, and he looked at it all. Then he put it all on index cards, according to some preconceptions he had when he was directing the shooting; namely themes; God, rock ‘n’ roll, art, poetry, marriage, women, sex, Bob Dylan, poets, death, maybe 18 or 20 thematic preoccupations. Then he also put on index cards all the different characters, all the scenes, the dominant colours blue or red, and certain other images that go through the movie, like the rose and the hat and American Indians, so that finally he had an index of all of that. And then he went through it all again and began composing it thematically, weaving in and out of these specific compositional references. So it’s compositional, and the idea was not to have a plot but to have a composition of those themes.”

— Allen Ginsberg on the editing of Renaldo and Clara

Renaldo-and-Clara

Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan’s four-hour cinematic magnum opus, is one of the great unseen movies of the 1970s. Shot just prior to and during Dylan’s celebrated Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the fall of 1975, and edited by Dylan and cinematographer Howard Alk throughout 1976 and 1977, this unusually ambitious American art film received a very limited theatrical release in the U.S. beginning on January 25, 1978. Unfortunately, it was not successful critically or commercially and closed after only a few weeks. A re-edited version, only two hours in length, was released later in the year and fared marginally better. Predictably, Renaldo and Clara was more successful in Europe, screening in the Director’s Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 (where it was generally well received) and winning an award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in Germany. The four-hour cut was eventually shown on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom at some point in the 1980s, perhaps only once, and has never been officially released on home video in any country in any format. All circulating copies, even on DVD, are bootleg versions sourced from VHS recordings of the European television airing and are consequently of poor image and sound quality. Nonetheless, even when viewed under these less than optimal conditions, something of the movie’s greatness still manages to come through. On a formal level, Renaldo and Clara continually cross-cuts between three distinct modes of filmmaking: the concert film, the documentary and the fictional narrative. The rest of this article will focus on each one of these modes and how Dylan interweaves them to create a unique work of cinematic poetry.

The concert sequences are undoubtedly the movie’s most accessible aspect, which is not surprising given that the Rolling Thunder Revue is widely regarded as one of Dylan’s all-time great tours (the two-hour cut supposedly focuses more heavily on this footage). In the long version there are a lot of great scenes of Dylan performing live while wearing white-face make-up (a reference to Marcel Carne’s 1945 film Children of Paradise, a Dylan favorite) — including urgent, occasionally incendiary renditions of then-new songs like “Isis,” “Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” The last of these is filmed in a single long-take close-up that probably single-handedly prompted Pauline Kael’s hyperbolic claim that Dylan gave himself more “tight close-ups” than any actor had in the “whole history of the movies.” (I know Kael prided herself on not seeing any movie more than once but surely The Passion of Joan of Arc could not have faded that much from her memory.) Kael’s dismissal of Renaldo and Clara as the ultimate vanity project is contradicted by the communal spirit of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour whose epic shows involved a large and diverse gaggle of performers (some of whom were reuniting with Dylan from his Greenwich Village club days, others of whom were more recent recruits), and this spirit is reflected in the film itself: there are terrific live performances by Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, and Rob Stoner, among others — pretty magnanimous for a man who, according to Kael, made a four-hour film “about himself.”

renaldo

The fictional narrative sequences undoubtedly pose the biggest challenge to viewers. Dylan originally hired playwright Sam Shepard to write dialogue scenes before the tour began and gave him only vague instructions about his intentions for the movie, referring Shepard instead to French art films like Children of Paradise and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Once the tour was underway, however, Shepard realized that Dylan had little interest in working with a screenplay and it appears that only a single scene in the finished film was scripted: Shepard himself, in his screen debut as an actor, appears alongside of Dylan’s wife Sara as a pair of quarreling lovebirds. In this sharply written scene, Shepard plays a rodeo rider and Mrs. Dylan plays his girlfriend or wife. The two argue about the future of their relationship. She tells him he treats her like an “amulet” and says that she would stay with him but only if he asks her the right way. She warns him he will end up living in a mobile home. He responds by saying, “I happen to like mobile homes. I think they’re a true American . . . aw, fuck it.” (Shepard ultimately received an “additional dialogue by” credit for his efforts.) The rest of the fictional scenes appear to be improvised by the performers and were shot in long takes with little or no editing. Nonetheless, a distinct theme does recur throughout these fictional scenes: nearly all of them are centered on a conflict between a man and a woman — where the conflict arises from the man’s being torn between his love for his profession and his love for the woman. Armchair psychologists and Dylanologists, make of that what you will.

In addition to Sam Shepard and Sara Dylan, some of the other musicians and actors who incarnate eternally-battling Man and Woman in the fictional scenes include: Bob Dylan, Harry Dean Stanton, Steven Soles, Rob Stoner, Ronnie Hawkins, Joan Baez, Ruth Tyrangel, Helena Kallianiotes and Ronee Blakley. Not unlike some of the films of Jacques Rivette, these scenes feature a weird but strangely poignant mish-mash of acting styles: some of the performers are naturals while others, including Dylan himself, appear distinctly uncomfortable. In the former category are singer Ronnie Hawkins, cheekily credited as “Bob Dylan” in the end titles, who displays some crack comic timing and figures prominently in three separate fictional scenes (in spite of the fact that he was not a part of the tour), as well as Ronee Blakley, fresh off of her stint in Robert Altman’s Nashville (for which she would soon receive an Oscar nomination). Blakely, emoting her ass off as a woman in a loveless marriage credited as “Mrs. Dylan,” has to share screen space with the guitarist Steven Soles who is clearly out of his depth playing “Ramon,” her husband or lover. Soles, like most inexperienced improvisers (see Mick Ronson elsewhere in this same film) merely repeats the same few lines over and over again. And yet, I would argue that the tension between the performance styles of Blakley and Soles mirrors the tension between their characters and makes this “badly written” and “badly acted” scene more effective than a more polished and professional approach ever could.

renaldo2

Renaldo and Clara‘s documentary sequences are fascinating and diverse in and of themselves: Dylan and Alk alternate between showing what various Rolling Thunder Revue musicians do during the day while not performing and showing more traditional “journalistic” documentary segments that are nonetheless somehow tangentially related to the tour. In the former category, there are scenes of Allen Ginsberg performing “Kaddish” in a nursing home, Dylan and Ginsberg visiting Jack Kerouac’s grave, Joan Baez being serenaded by an elderly gypsy woman named “Mama Frasca” inside of her “Dream Away Lodge” boarding house, and most of the musicians visiting an Indian reservation. In the latter category, there are scenes of a group of diners talking to a restaurant owner about the legacy of the 1960s, a press conference in which imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (RIP!) talks about his quest for a retrial, some amazing “man on the street” interviews, and musician David Blue playing pinball while reminiscing about the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early 1960s (these sequences, in which Blue proves himself a funny and colorful raconteur, function as a kind Greek-chorus commentary on many of the other scenes). The “Hurricane” section is the film’s most artful and powerful: footage of the shaven-headed Carter delivering kernels of wisdom (“There is no ‘no,’ there is only ‘yes’) — one understands why Dylan called the boxer “Buddha in a 10-foot cell” — are intercut with interviews of the denizens of a black neighborhood talking about Carter’s plight. This sequence frequently utilizes freeze-frames on the interviewees’ sometimes-angry faces while Dylan’s majestic song “Hurricane” fades in and out on the soundtrack.

As the Allen Ginsberg quote at the beginning of this review suggests, the whole of Renaldo and Clara is greater than the sum of its parts because the strength of the film lies in its very careful and clever editing patterns. Unfortunately, it must be noted that much of the negative reaction to the film has come from Dylan’s own fans who, after all, are practically the only ones who have even seen it. What the fans wanted was a conventional concert movie and what Dylan gave them was an art film that applied the same free-association poetic logic to its crazy-quilt editing that Dylan usually brings to his songwriting process (funny how people who have no problem with “abstract” song lyrics find the very same quality in cinema unbearable). Dylan and Alk’s editing of the film progresses not based on temporality then but on the filmmakers’ tracing certain visual and aural motifs like the ones Ginsberg noted. To give one detailed example, take the American Indian motif: early in the film Dylan and his violinist Scarlett Rivera can be seen tuning their instruments backstage before a show. On the soundtrack we hear a non-diegetic version of Dylan running through a rehearsal of Hank Williams’s “Kaw-Liga,” a song about a cigar store Indian. The song continues to play over the next scene in which a truck emblazoned with an Indian-head logo can be seen barreling down the highway (presumably alongside of Dylan’s tour bus). Over this shot, a disc jockey’s voice can be heard announcing that Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue is coming to town. The Rolling Thunder tour was named for a Native American medicine man, we soon learn, when the tour’s performers visit an Indian reservation. The reservation scene is scored to a non-diegetic version of Dylan rehearsing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” a poignant way for Dylan and Alk to link the plight of Native Americans to the civil rights struggles of African Americans. The train imagery in the lyrics to “People Get Ready” then serves as a bridge to the next scene — of the Rolling Thunder Revue performers riding a passenger train. And so on and so forth.

renaldo3

It is clear, from interviews he gave to promote the film in 1978, that Bob Dylan was proud of Renaldo and Clara. He was unusually open and honest with reporters when talking about his intentions for it and the process of making it. The negative reviews must have stung (the Village Voice had four different critics review it, all of whom panned it — and one of whom wished in print that Dylan were dead), which no doubt accounts for the film’s unavailability today. There have been rumors in recent years that Dylan’s camp has been preparing a sequel to Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Dylan-doc No Direction Home (2005) that will focus on the Rolling Thunder tours of 1975 and 1976. Since the release of such a movie would undoubtedly involve all of the extant footage shot for Renaldo and Clara receiving a new HD transfer, one can only hope that Renaldo and Clara will itself soon receive the Blu-ray release that it deserves. It will be easier to appreciate the film’s abundant riches if they can be seen and heard in great quality. But even if the masses who haven’t yet seen it end up thinking it’s a bunch of pretentious nonsense, most of them should at least be able to appreciate the awesome spectacle of Harry Dean Stanton and Joan Baez making out while singing a duet of “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”

There are numerous poor-quality video clips of Renaldo and Clara floating around the internet. Here’s one on YouTube of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing a terrific version of Never Let Me Go:


A Decalogue of the Dopest Movie References in Dylan

In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday on Friday, this year’s movie-related Dylan birthday post is the inverse of last year’s list of the best Dylan references in movies; I’d now like to highlight some of the most memorable movie references in the work of Bob Dylan (whether in song lyrics, poems or Dylan’s own films). Happy 72nd, Bob!

10. The appropriation of a joke from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera in the song “Po’ Boy”

night

In spite of its fame, true Marx brothers fans know that A Night at the Opera (1935), along with all the other films the brothers made at MGM, is inferior to the anarchic, truly batshit-crazy slapstick movies they had made earlier at Paramount (e.g., Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, etc.). The problem is that, while the brothers were always the star of the show in their Paramount films, they tended to be shunted to the side in their MGM vehicles, while some wooden young romantic leads took center stage. Still, A Night at the Opera has its share of zingers. One of the best comes when Groucho calls room service to ask, “Room service? Send up a larger room.” This joke found its way into a couplet on the wryly funny “Po’ Boy,” one of the best cuts on Dylan’s celebrated “Love and Theft” album (2001):

“Po’ boy, in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom
Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room'”

Of course, almost as funny as the room service joke itself is the notion that a hotel would be named the “Palace of Gloom.”

9. The homage to Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player in the poem “11 Outlined Epitaphs”

shoot

“there’s a movie called
Shoot the Piano Player
the last line proclaimin’
‘music, man, that’s where it’s at’
it is a religious line
outside, the chimes rung
an’ they
are still ringin'”

So ends “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” the long poetic liner notes Dylan wrote for his legendary 1963 album The Times They Are A-Changin’. Truffaut’s seminal French New Wave movie Shoot the Piano Player (1960) doesn’t end with anyone literally saying that music is “where it’s at” but that is the general impression of the scene: after the lead character, played by Charles Aznavour (long one of Dylan’s favorite singers), loses his girlfriend in a tragic shootout with gangsters, he simply returns to playing the piano — the thing he knows how to do best (and a sentiment with which the ever-touring Dylan can probably relate). Dylan seems to have been influenced by watching many foreign-language — especially French — films in Greenwich Village arthouse theaters early in his career. He would speak of being influenced by Truffaut and Godard in interviews for years to come.

8. The description of seeing Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in the memoir Chronicles: Volume One

ladolcevita

Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City in January 1961. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) opened in New York only three months later and seems to have made a particularly strong impression on the young folk singer. Dylan name-checked Anita Ekberg, one of the film’s stars, in I Shall Be Free, the last track on his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and referenced the film’s title in the song “Motorpsycho Nitemare” one year later (see entry number two on this list). When Dylan met the German singer Nico a year after that, he claimed to remember her from her bit part in the film (when she was known by her birth name, Christa Paffgen). In his intentionally — and hilariously — inaccurate 2003 memoir Chronicles Volume One, Dylan used vivid language to describe seeing Fellini’s movie for the first time:

“There was an art movie house in the Village on 12th Street that showed foreign movies — French, Italian, German. This made sense, because even Alan Lomax himself, the great folk archivist, had said somewhere that if you want to get out of America, go to Greenwich Village. I’d seen a couple of Italian Fellini movies there — one called La Strada, which means “the Street,” and another one called La Dolce Vita. It was about a guy who sells his soul and becomes a gossip hound. It looked like life in a carnival mirror.”

Dylan then intriguingly adds that he watched La Dolce Vita “intently,” unsure of whether he would ever have the chance to see it again. “Life in a carnival mirror” is exactly how many have described Dylan’s best lyrics from the 1960s.

7. The use of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance as an “opening act” in 2010.

intolerance

Dylan puzzled many longtime fans in 2010 when the early shows of his fall tour began with the opening 30 minutes of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916) being screened via digital projection. In a neat coincidence, some of the theaters Dylan was playing were old movie palaces that had originally shown Intolerance some 80-odd years earlier. What kind of message was Dylan trying to send? Some commentators speculated he was comparing 21st century America to the decadent, ancient Babylon depicted in Griffith’s film. Whatever the case, Dylan, as usual, kept mum. Midway through the tour, the projection of Intolerance stopped just as mysteriously as it had begun.

6. The appropriation of dialogue from Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy in the song Seeing the Real You at Last

bronco

Dylan has long used movie dialogue — along with lyrics from folk songs, stray lines from other works of literature, etc. — as a source for his song lyrics. In the mid-1980s especially, he was apparently spending a lot of time with classic Hollywood films on VHS, the dialogue of which found its way verbatim into his songs. This list could have been much, much longer if I had wanted to point out film dialogue appropriated solely for the 1985 album Empire Burlesque. Instead, I’ll settle for highlighting a single line from Clint Eastwood’s highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy that turned up in the song “Seeing the Real You at Last.” At one point in the movie, Eastwood’s title character, a Wild West show impresario, says, “I’m looking for a woman who can ride like Annie Oakley and shoot like Belle Starr.”

The verse in “Seeing the Real You at Last” goes:

“When I met you, baby,
You didn’t show no visible scars,
You could ride like Annie Oakley,
You could shoot like Belle Starr.”

Incidentally, the “no visible scars” line is a quote from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Almost every line in the song has been traced back to one film or another.

5. The homage to Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents in the song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)”

savage

One of the unlikeliest hits of Dylan’s career is the drunken sing-along/nonsense song “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” which originated as one of many such songs he spontaneously wrote and recorded with The Band in the legendary 1967 sessions that would form the basis of The Basement Tapes. Although nothing in the song’s lyrics corresponds very closely to anything that happens in Nicholas Ray’s underrated 1959 drama, it is generally assumed that the title is a reference to the protagonist of The Savage Innocents, an Inuit man played by actor Anthony Quinn. The song title itself would inspire yet another movie — the 1989 Jamaica-set thriller The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington as a detective.

4. The influence of Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise on the entire Rolling Thunder Revue-era

children

Along with La Dolce Vita and Shoot the Piano Player, another film that can be said to have had a major impact on Dylan’s career is Marcel Carne’s 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). It isn’t known exactly when Dylan first saw this tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century Parisian theater but a revival screening at a Greenwich Village art house (with Suze Rotolo?) seems likely. At one point in the movie, the female lead, Garance, says, “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” which would form most of the title of a well-known song from Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. But Dylan clearly must have watched it again at some point in the early to mid-1970s because the film’s biggest influence was on the recorded music, live performances and film work Dylan was involved in from 1975 – 1978. Dylan’s bittersweet love song “You’re a Big Girl Now” from 1975 features the line “Love is so simple / to quote a phrase.” The phrase being quoted is a line from Children of Paradise, spoken by Garance twice during the movie. Dylan’s live appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue tours of 1975/1976 saw him wearing “white face” make-up in what is widely regarded as an homage to Baptiste, the mime protagonist of Carne’s film. And Dylan’s own 1978 movie Renaldo and Clara, a fascinating four-hour experimental epic shot during the 1975 tour that mixes live performances with improvised fictional scenes, has several elements clearly inspired by Children of Paradise. In an interview to promote Renaldo and Clara, Dylan even cited the Carne film as the only one he knew of that could “stop time.”

3. The appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Titanic character in the song “Tempest”

titanic

Many Dylan fans were surprised when it was revealed in early 2012 that his forthcoming album, Tempest, would contain a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Even more surprising was when word leaked out that the title song included references to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack Dawson, who, in typically perverse Dylan fashion, is referred to by the actor’s name rather than the character’s name:

“Leo took his sketchbook
He was often so inclined
He closed his eyes and painted
The scenery in his mind”

Dylan fans are split on the song’s worth. Some find it overlong and monotonous while others have claimed it is one of the bard’s most extraordinary compositions. Dylan himself acknowledged the reference to DiCaprio in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Yeah, Leo. I don’t think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.” What Dylan doesn’t say is that he was essentially repaying a compliment: DiCaprio’s character anachronistically quoted Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in a line of dialogue in Titanic: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

2. The parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare”

psycho

Some of the funniest lyrics Dylan ever penned can be found in the story-song “Motorpsycho Nightmare” from 1964. The song essentially mashes-up the plot of Hitchcock’s proto-slasher film with the old joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. In the Dylan tune, a farmer grants the narrator a place to sleep for the night under the condition that he doesn’t touch the farmer’s daughter and in the morning milks a cow. In the middle of the night, the farmer’s daughter, who looks “just like Tony Perkins” (a line that rhymes, hilariously, with “I was sleepin’ like a rat / When I heard something jerkin'”), wakes up the narrator and implores him to take a shower. This leads to a slapstick fight between the narrator and the farmer, from which the narrator is lucky to escape alive. The song ends with the farmer’s daughter moving away and getting “a job in a motel” and the narrator thanking his lucky stars that he’s not “in the swamp” (the fate of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho).

1. Myriad eferences to Henry King’s The Gunfighter in the song “Brownsville Girl”

gunfighter

One of Dylan’s very best songs is the 1986 mock-heroic epic “Brownsville Girl,” written in collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard (who was also, once upon a time, implored by Dylan to watch Children of Paradise and Shoot the Piano Player when he was hired to write scenes for Renaldo and Clara). The song begins with the line “Well, there was this movie I seen one time / About a man riding ‘cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck.” The song’s narrator tells the story of an ill-fated love affair with the title character that plays out in various locations across the state of Texas but he continually interrupts this narrative with reminiscences of seeing Henry King’s 1950 western The Gunfighter. The film indeed stars Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a famous gunfighter who is shot in the back by a “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself.” Ringo, on his deathbed, lies to the local sheriff, saying that it was he (Ringo) who drew first; his rationale is that he wants the kid to know what it feels like to have gunfighters out to get him. Dylan and Shepard get a lot of comic mileage out of having their narrator, who appears to be something of a coward (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran”), identify with Peck’s noble outlaw. When Dylan became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1997, the award was presented by none other than Gregory Peck who, amusingly, made reference to the song:

For more fun with Dylan lyrics and film dialogue, check out this great site: http://dylanfilm.atspace.com/

Dylan fans should feel free to post their own favorite Dylan movie references in the comments section below.


Bob Dylan’s Duquesne Whistle and the Return of Love Stalker

Not to turn this place into a music video review joint or anything but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t post my thoughts on Duquesne Whistle, the video for Bob Dylan’s newest single, which premiered exclusively on the website of The Guardian this past Tuesday. The Nash Edgerton-directed video has come in for much criticism from Dylan fans on social networking sites and internet message boards, most of it focused on the clip’s supposed “shocking violence” (thanks a lot, Rolling Stone!), while some others have expressed bewilderment at the allegedly confounding narrative and/or irrelevance to the song’s theme.

To address these criticisms in reverse order of ridiculousness: first off, the violence in this video barely surpasses the G-rated mark. A man is hit three times in the knee with a baseball bat and then punched twice in the face, causing a bloody nose. That’s it. Journalists who have drawn comparisons to Goodfellas and Tarantino are laughably off the mark; there is way more violence to be found in any cop drama on U.S. network television any night of the week. As far as the video’s imagery not “matching up” with the theme of the song, shouldn’t this be considered a good thing? Okay, this isn’t a work of art along the lines of Vardeldur (Edgerton is, after all, a stunt man, not an acclaimed experimental filmmaker). But I thought everyone knew that the worst music videos were those that attempted to literalize a song’s lyrics. Watch or watch again Paul Schrader’s truly cringe-inducing video for Tight Connection to My Heart to see what I mean. (Just make sure to hold onto your powder blue wig!) Honestly, what the hell were people expecting? A bunch of sepia-tinted shots of old trains?

But to get down to the real meat and potatoes of this video, the content of this thing is really not that bizarre. On the contrary, it actually makes perfect sense and I can’t believe the simple and lighthearted theme has seemingly eluded everyone who has written about it so far. The video for Duquesne Whistle is a deconstruction of the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The “rom-com,” whether we’re talking about The Graduate, Say Anything, Chungking Express or Amelie, has long been predicated on the notion that its protagonists exhibit behavior that may look cute and charming in a movie (e.g., blasting a boombox outside of someone’s window, breaking into their apartment to rearrange their furniture, etc.) but that, in the real world, would come off as positively stalker-ish. Duquesne Whistle is nothing more or less than a humorous illustration of what the real world consequences of this behavior would be; thus we see an annoying hipster-stalker’s romantic shenanigans leading to him getting sprayed with mace, arrested and beaten up. Okay, so what does this any of this have to do with Bob Dylan you might ask? The video’s “love stalker” plot is intercut with shots of Dylan strutting around the streets of downtown Los Angeles, hilariously fronting a bad-ass, multi-ethnic posse, a “don’t fuck with me” look in his eye. Edgerton’s use of parallel editing invites us to see the stalker’s relationship to his crush as a metaphor for the relationship between that of a stalker-fan and the Voice of Every Generation (TM). This connection is made implicit at the video’s beginning (a glimpse of a billboard featuring John Lennon, who was, of course, shot by a “fan”) and end (Dylan and Co. stepping over the unconscious hipster-stalker without so much as batting an eye).

I should also point out that Duquesne Whistle bears an uncanny similarity to the plot and theme of the indie feature Love Stalker, which, in an amazing coincidence, will be returning to Chicago’s Portage Theater for a week-long run beginning next Friday, September 7th. Love Stalker also deconstructs the conventions of the romantic comedy genre by telling the story of Pete (co-writer/director Matt Glasson), a thirty-something player who gets a taste of his own medicine when he falls for and is subsequently dumped by Stephanie (Rachel Chapman), a beautiful relationship advice columnist. I interviewed the filmmaking team behind Love Stalker (Glasson and co-writer director Bowls MacLean) earlier this year when it made its Chicago debut as a one-off screening at the Portage. Any of my students who attend any of the upcoming Love Stalker screenings will receive TWENTY points extra credit if they write a one to two page response paper about the movie. Please note that you must save your ticket stub from the Portage and staple it to your paper in order to receive credit. Bonus points if you also compare and contrast it to Duquesne Whistle.

UPDATE: I will be introducing the 8pm screening of Love Stalker on Friday, September 7 and conducting a Q&A with the filmmakers afterwards. Come on out and buy me a green drink!

Ticket info for Love Stalker at the Portage can be found here: www.lovestalker.com

Duquesne Whistle can be viewed here: Duquesne Whistle


A Decalogue of the Dopest Dylan References in Movies

Bob Dylan turns 71 years old this Thursday. Following last year’s birthday post on Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, today I will pay a different kind of tribute related to Dylan and the movies. Below is a list of my top ten favorite Dylan references in cinema, excluding films that are actually about Dylan (e.g., Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, I’m Not There), movies in which Dylan himself appeared (e.g., Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, Masked and Anonymous) or films to which he contributed original songs (e.g., Wonder Boys, Gods and Generals, My Own Love Song). Instead, what you have is a list of great movies that just so happen to make significant references to Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite son through their soundtracks, dialogue, set design or props.

10. “Blowin’ in the Wind” playing at Emily Watson’s wedding in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves is a shamelessly manipulative but undeniably effective spiritual melodrama that probably still stands as Lars Von Trier’s finest hour. Set in rural Scotland in the 1970s, it poignantly depicts the relationship between Bess (Emily Watson), a woman from a deeply religious community and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rig worker and “outsider” who is paralyzed in an accident shortly after their wedding. Here, Von Trier eschewed the formalism of his early work, showing a greater desire to collaborate closely with actors (before his obsession with female suffering started to seem dubious) and a then-novel use of handheld cameras and grainy video textures (before such aesthetics became old hat). The film also has a superb period soundtrack featuring the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Roxy Music, et al. but Dylan fans might be especially pleased by the instrumental bagpipe version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that plays at Bess and Jan’s wedding.

9. Jeffrey Wright singing “All Along the Watchtower” in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is a brilliant film adaptation of Shakespeare’s best loved play that keeps the Bard’s original dialogue intact while updating the sets and costumes to present-day New York City. The inspired casting includes Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrud, Bill Murray as Polonius and Dylan’s old pal Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. My favorite scene features Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet delivering the famous “To be or not to be” monologue in a Blockbuster Video store. My second favorite scene sees Jeffrey Wright’s Gravedigger singing “All Along the Watchtower” in a trench. Perhaps because the lyrics to “Watchtower” already sound like they could be from a Shakespeare poem, this touch feels ineffably right.

8. Dennis Hopper reciting a lyric from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977)

Wim Wenders’ film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin. The plot concerns Ripley’s contracting of a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder, but story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization in this slow-paced, moody, atmospheric neo-noir. A good example of Wenders’ existential bent can be found towards the end when Ripley half-sings/half-talks the opening line to a gem of a song from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album: “I pity the poor immigrant who . . .” and then Ripley’s voice trails off. Any Dylan fan knows that had Ripley kept singing, the lyric would have described his character’s predicament exactly: “. . . wishes he would’ve stayed home, who uses all his power to do evil, but in the end is always left so alone.”

7. Myriad references in the films of Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has said that when he was a video store employee, long before he became a director, he aspired to be “as important for cinema as Dylan is for music and songwriting.” Since then, the two have become mutual admirers and occasional sparring partners. Some of the myriad references to Dylan in the films of Tarantino: in Reservoir Dogs, Steven Wright’s DJ introduces “Stuck in the Middle with You” as a “Dylanesque pop bubblegum favorite,” single-handedly causing the song to be misidentified as an actual Dylan number on countless mp3 download sites. (This begs the question, if Tarantino had a bigger music budget at the time, would “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” be the song forever associated with Michael Madsen torturing a uniformed police officer?) Death Proof contains two very interesting Dylan references, which is hardly surprising given that Tarantino was listening to Dylan’s then-new album Modern Times while driving to the set every day; the jukebox in the film contains no less than six Dylan songs, including “George Jackson” (which, let’s face it, is Dylan’s blaxploitation song), and the magazine rack in a convenience store scene features the 2006 Rolling Stone magazine with Dylan on the cover. In Inglourious Basterds, the title characters are all Jewish American G.I.s, one of whom boasts the name of Zimmerman(!), while elsewhere Brad Pitt attempts to end a standoff by telling a German soldier “. . . you go your way and we’ll go ours.” For his part, Dylan’s only known public comment on QT was a nice acknowledgement on his Theme Time Radio Hour radio show that Bobbi Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was prominently featured in Jackie Brown.

6. Stephen Rea as a Bob Dylan impersonator in Lance Daly’s Kisses (2008)

One of the most Dylan-centric films ever made, this delightfully dark Irish fairy tale concerns two working class pre-adolescent kids who run away from their suburban homes at Christmas and spend a long night on the mean streets of Dublin. Along the way, the kids repeatedly encounter the music of Bob Dylan (including being serenaded by a barge skipper with “Shelter from the Storm”), a series of events that climaxes with them running into an Australian Dylan impersonator whom the kids mistake for the man himself. Ironically, Stephen Rea, wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette and wryly speaking in a low-pitched voice in his un-billed cameo, comes closer to nailing the essence of the real Dylan than any of the actors in I’m Not There.

5. Teenagers smoking hash and slow dancing around a bonfire to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994)

My favorite film by formidable French helmer Olivier Assayas is this 400 Blows-esque ode to juvenile delinquency that apparently draws on the director’s own childhood experiences. The movie’s highly emotional climactic scene involves troubled teenaged lovers Gilles and Christine running away from home and attending a party where they smoke hash and slow dance around a bonfire to an incredible vinyl playlist that includes Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dare I say that the use of “Knockin'” here is even more effective than in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the film for which it was originally written)?

4. Nick Nolte painting to a live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989)

The undisputed highlight of New York Stories, an omnibus feature film comprised of shorts by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, is Life Lessons, the Scorsese segment about an abstract expressionist painter who falls in love with one of his models. And what better song for Nolte’s volatile character, Lionel Dobie, to use as the soundtrack for an intense painting session than the angry, cathartic live 1974 version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s Before the Flood album?

3. Jean-Pierre Leaud asking “Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Femninin (1966)

Jean-Luc Godard’s zeitgeist film about the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” captures the spirit of what it meant to be young in the turbulent 1960s perhaps better than any other movie. At one point, while reading a French newspaper, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character, the boyfriend of a pop singer named Madeleine, has this exchange with a friend:

“What are you reading?”
“An article on Bob Dylan.”
“Who’s he?”
“He’s a Vietnik, you know.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s an American word, a cross between ‘beatnik’ and ‘Vietnam.'”
“Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?”
“Madeleine never mentioned him? He sells 10,000 records a day!”

Dylan and Godard have spoken of their mutual admiration for each other over the years and two of Godard’s films from the 1980s (Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma and Puissance de la parole) feature Dylan’s Slow Train Coming classic “When He Returns” on their soundtracks.

2. A black and white photograph of Dylan from the mid-1960s hanging on the wall in the central location of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang’s masterpiece, one of the great final films of any director, is an almost impossibly rich, tragicomic, multigenerational family saga that also functions as a vivid snapshot of Taiwan at the dawn of the 21st century. Taipei’s unique East meets West culture is illustrated in ways both obvious (N.J., the protagonist, leaves a wedding early so that he can take his son to eat at McDonald’s) and subtle (a framed black and white photograph of Bob Dylan is prominently displayed in N.J.’s home). Since N.J. is a businessman and music lover who abandoned his youthful idealism in the late ’60’s, the latter is a very nice touch indeed.

1. A vinyl LP of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an important prop in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour Fou (1969)

L’amour Fou, Jacques Rivette’s four hour improvisational film about the construction of a play and the destruction of a marriage, is one of the high points of the entire French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays Sebastien, a theater director who cheats on his actress wife, Claire (Bulle Ogier), with another actress named Marta (Josée Destoop). In one key scene, Sebastien is in Marta’s apartment helping her sort through vinyl LPs that she could potentially re-sell in order to raise some quick cash. He holds up her copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which she declines to sell on the grounds that she still listens to it. Good girl!

Dylan fans reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorite Dylan references in the movies in the comments section below.


Odds and Ends

A new feature where I make brief observations about a bunch of different things I’ve watched recently:

Carnage (Roman Polanski, France, 2011) – Theatrical viewing. Rating: 7.3

After two kids get into a playground fight, their yuppie parents get together to have a “civilized” discussion about it. I’m conflicted about this one. The main criticisms aimed at it are that it fails to transcend its theatrical origins and that it’s not believable that the couple played by Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz would not have left the apartment belonging to the couple played by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster much sooner. Neither of those things bothered me. What I had a problem with was the very conceit of Yasmina Reza’s clever but lightweight stage play. It is obvious in the opening minutes of the film exactly where Reza/Polanski’s narrative arc is headed and it proceeds to head exactly there and nowhere else: the parents end up getting drunk and behaving less civilized than their kids, new allegiances are formed, and yadda, yadda, yadda. Still, Polanski gets a lot of mileage out of the claustrophobic location (I especially liked the offscreen barking dog and Polanski’s own cameo as the neighbor, both of which put me in the mind of his early work). The cast is also uniformly good, as one would expect, and the last shot is actually kind of sweet, putting an optimistic spin on the story in a way that the stage version never could have.

Flesh (John Ford, USA, 1932) – DVD rental

Wallace Beery, living up to his name.

Now here’s a genuine oddity: a wrestling movie directed by John Ford, starring Wallace Beery and co-written by an uncredited William Faulkner. The inspiration for Barton Fink, anyone? Knowing that Faulkner had a hand in this before I watched it, but not exactly sure how, I assumed that he was one of the two credited screenwriters writing under a pseudonym. One of the writers does, after all, boast the hilarious, curiously literary mash-up name of “Edgar Allan Woolf.” But, no, a quick check of the old imdb.com reveals Faulkner was indeed uncredited and Mr. Woolf was a very real person with an extensive list of credits, including The Wizard of Oz, to his name. The always helpful imdb also contains the fascinating nugget that Woolf died in 1948 “in a fall when he tripped over his dog’s leash and fell down a long flight of stairs.”

Flesh came in the middle of one of John Ford’s fallow periods, between his masterworks of the late silent era (3 Bad Men, Hangman’s House) but before the folksy Foxes of the early sound era (Pilgrimage, the Will Rogers comedies) that pointed the way to his mature masterpieces of the late Thirties. Ford directed Flesh for MGM in 1931 just one year after he had been fired by the very same studio for walking off the set of Arrowsmith and going on a bender. But studio boss Sam Goldwyn knew that Ford was worth it and convinced him to return to helm this unlikely melodrama. Having said all that, Flesh is surprisingly effective as a story of redemptive love. It’s the tale of a simple, good-hearted German wrestler (Beery in a role for which Ford would’ve obviously preferred Vic McLaglen) who is double-crossed by his wife and her lover who is pretending to her brother. In addition to some nice Expressionist touches, especially in the German pub atmosphere of the early scenes, Flesh also contains an ending that is, visually and narratively, shockingly similar to Bresson’s Pickpocket. The version of this that I rented – from a well-known Chicago video store, god bless ’em – was recorded on a DVD-R and has the logo of a well-known cable channel occasionally pop up in the bottom right corner of the frame. A must-see for Ford aficionados.

Naked (Mike Leigh, UK, 1993) – Blu-ray purchase

I didn’t watch Criterion’s superb Blu-ray of Mike Leigh’s best film until after the New Year but had I seen it sooner it would have unquestionably made my list of the best home video releases of 2011. What has made this pre-Y2K apocalyptic drama age so well with time, and what seems more obvious now in hindsight than when it was first released, is the extent to which it functions as a critique of the socio-economic fallout of Margaret Thatcher’s England. (Is it any coincidence that Ewen Bremner’s character is looking for an absentee girlfriend named Maggie?) Leigh’s ability to dramatize social problems and moral dilemmas within such a naturalistic framework that viewers are barely aware of his agenda is impressive in the extreme. (Contrast this with the simplistic/in-your-face/”Racism is bad” message of a Hollywood movie like Paul Haggis’ Crash.) What one suspected in the 1990s that is also confirmed today is that David Thewlis’ genius lead performance as Johnny, a howl of despair occasionally leavened by a survivalist’s razor sharp wit, ranks alongside that of Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of cinema’s greatest. And finally, Andrew Dickson’s hypnotic original musical score, dominated by harp and cello, sounds incredible on blu-ray. The cello chords in particular are beautiful and fat as rendered in Criterion’s two channel DTS-HD Master audio.

Dylan/Scorsese – Live television

The one saving grace of this year’s otherwise painful-to-endure Critic’s Choice Movie Awards was the incredible segment where a Music + Film Award was given to Martin Scorsese. The award, according to the Broadcast Film Critics Association, “honors a single filmmaker who has touched audiences through cinematic storytelling, and has heightened the impact of films through the brilliant use of source and original music.” That sounds like Marty to me.

Honoring Scorsese was none other than Bob Dylan, who performed a spare, darkly beautiful rendition of his masterpiece “Blind Willie McTell,” a legendary outtake from the 1983 album Infidels that was first released on Vol. 3 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series and later featured in Scorsese’s The Blues documentary on PBS. The song’s live chorus is rendered “I can tell ya one thing / nobody can sing / the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” It was a fitting choice not only because Dylan and Scorsese share a love of blues music but also because Dylan’s lightly coded message seemed to be that nobody can make a movie like Martin Scorsese.

Other Dylan/Scorsese connections:

– both began their artistic careers in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, Scorsese as a film student at New York University, Dylan as a singer in the neighborhood’s pass-the-basket coffeehouse folk scene.

– Scorsese’s original screenplay for Mean Streets was prefaced by a quote from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.”

– Scorsese’s 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, widely regarded as the greatest concert film of all time, climaxes with Bob Dylan’s performances of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”

– Scorsese’s terrific 1989 short film Life Lessons, a segment of the omnibus film New York Stories, features an angry, cathartic live recording of “Like a Rolling Stone,” from Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood album, on the soundtrack.

– In 2005, Martin Scorsese directed the three and a half hour documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the definitive account of Dylan’s early life and career, made with Dylan’s participation.

You can watch Dylan’s performance of “Blind Willie McTell,” a fitting tribute from one American master to another, at the Critic’s Choice Awards here:

Scorsese tribute


Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan

Bob Dylan turns 70 years old today. To commemorate, this post concerns Todd Haynes’ wild Dylan biopic I’m Not There, a film that has been an object of fascination for me since its release in 2007. Not a straightforward retelling of the musician’s career in the generic mold of other recent biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, Haynes instead concocts a fantasia where six different actors (of various ages, races and genders) portray a different aspect of the life and/or music of the ever-mercurial Dylan. Although I would rate it somewhat less highly now than when I first saw it, it still irks me that film critics and Dylan fans alike have derided the film as willfully perverse or, worse, something designed to “make no sense.” If anything, I’m Not There is a film that makes too much sense; every aesthetic decision seems rationalized on an intellectual level – usually by tracing it back to a song, album or another movie – which lends the film an academic flavor that is occasionally off-putting. Nonetheless, few American films of recent years have been as formally audacious as Haynes’ movie, and its more off-the-wall experimental aspects are arguably perfectly suited to chronicling an artist whose work has been as revolutionary as Dylan’s has been.

What follows is a rewritten version of a post I originally made on a Dylan message board in 2007 (on the indispensable website Expecting Rain). Rather than integrate these notes into a formal essay, I’m keeping them fragmentary in nature, which I hope is fitting given the kaleidoscopic nature of the film:

I’m Not There has a unique mirrored structure. It seems to me that large chunks of the beginning of the film are consciously mirrored by large chunks of the ending. I would even go so far as to say that the Jude Quinn segment (in which Cate Blanchett notoriously plays the “Dylan” of 1965/1966) is the literal center of the movie, with the narrative strands that come before and after it falling on opposite sides of the “mirror”:

– The movie begins and ends with a motorcycle crash.

– It also begins with Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor playing “Dylan” as a Woody Guthrie wannabe) hopping a train and ends with Billy (Richard Gere as “Dylan”-as-Billy-the-Kid) hopping a train.

– Near the beginning, a faux documentary segment of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale as “Dylan” the protest singer) is clearly mirrored by the faux documentary segment towards the end of Pastor John (Bale as the same character but now a born again Christian 25 years later). Haynes’ masterstroke is having Bale appear in both segments since those two seemingly disparate eras in Dylan’s career are actually unified in several interesting ways – most notably in the impression Dylan gave in interviews during those times that he actually did, for once, “have the answers” and in the way his sense of humor, usually one of his strong suits, appears to have deserted him.

– The depiction in the first half of the movie of the relationship between Robbie and Claire (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Mr. and Mrs. “Dylan”) focuses primarily on when they first met and things were good and mirrors their estrangement and divorce in the film’s second half. There are also two sex scenes between these characters, one in each half of the film (à la A History of Violence).

– My favorite symmetry might be Gorgeous George, the famous wrestler, telling Woody “Secrets are for keeping” in the beginning, which echoes Billy’s line to Homer at the end: “God save the secrets.”

Although there is obviously a lot of intercutting between the various stories, I think Haynes structured the movie somewhat like this:

1. Woody
2. Jack Rollins
3. Robbie Clark’s marriage
4. Jude Quinn
5. Robbie Clark’s divorce
6. Pastor John
7. Billy

For me, the real power of the film lies in its depictions of the characters of Woody and Billy and the implied transition from one to the other. Woody is a “fake,” trying to convince everyone who he is and what he’s done, and Billy is completely “authentic”, inhabiting a mystical folk music world of his own design. I think this speaks volumes about the irony of how people have responded to Dylan’s career over the decades; the young Dylan was a charming and talented bullshit artist while the Dylan of today is one of the last living links to authentic folk and blues music. It reminds me of something I read in a newspaper review of a Dylan concert in Nashville a few years ago. The writer said that the long-haired Dylan of 1966 was almost run out-of-town when he showed up to record Blonde on Blonde but locals embrace the Dylan of today when he returns for embodying the true spirit of country music (“he used to hang out with Johnny Cash, don’t you know?”).

A few more things I noticed:

– The hobos that Woody meets when we first see him hopping a freight train (listed as “Hobo Joe” and “Hobo Moe” in the credits) are the same hobos he says good-bye to before going to the hospital to visit the real Woody Guthrie. This slyly implies that what happens to young Woody on the road – his playing the blues with Old Man Arvin, being menaced by the scary hobos, being swallowed by the whale, charming the rich white southern family – are just more tall tales that Woody is telling Moe and Joe.

– Woody tells Mrs. Arvin that he is from Stockton, California. At the end of the movie we learn this is where the Gateway Church is also located.

– Billy the Kid wakes at three different points in the movie: once at the beginning, once towards the end when his dog is barking and his story begins proper and finally at the end when he wakes up on the train and finds the guitar.

I’m Not There features almost as many references to movies from the late ’50’s through the early ’70’s as it does to Dylan’s music.

Here is a list of notable references:

– Woody’s punning dialogue with the hobos about “composite” and “compost heap” is from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. When Woody says “It’s lonesome roads we shall walk,” he’s probably referring to the protagonist of that movie (Andy Griffith’s “Lonesome Rhodes”) as well as Dylan’s song “Paths of Victory.”

– In terms of composition and editing, the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg scenes are heavily influenced by Godard’s films of the mid-’60’s: the scene where they buy a motorcycle is reminiscent of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. The overhead shots of her cooking and cleaning are reminiscent of La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. More specifically, the shot where a camera circles around the face of a statue during the “Visions of Johanna” sequence is identical to several shots in Le Mepris. Later, Ledger’s voice over narration about Gainsbourg’s disappointment in his movie Grain of Sand is an almost exact quote from Masculin Feminin.

– In terms of style, the Richard Gere sequences are very similar to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. This is particularly true of the color scheme (earth tones) and use of the zoom lens.

– One of the movie’s best throwaway jokes is a nod to The Graduate. We see a montage of different characters addressing Richard Gere under different pseudonyms. The last one, a bellhop, calls him “Mr. Gladstone.” This is the name Dustin Hoffman used when checking into a hotel to rendezvous with Ann Bancroft.

– The Beatles being chased by a screaming mob is an obvious allusion to the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night. More obscure is a reference made to Petulia, another film by the same director Richard Lester; both movies contain shots of elderly party-goers in neck braces and wheelchairs.

– The Jude Quinn sequences are highly reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Specific visual quotations include the shot of Blanchett as a human balloon and the entire garden party sequence.

– Woody dresses up as Charlie Chaplin in the town of “Riddle.” Woody’s quoting of the song “Lo and Behold” (“This is chicken town!”) might also be a specific reference to the scene in The Gold Rush where Chaplin’s starving friend sees him as a giant chicken.

– Also in “Riddle,” the scene where a family is loading a jalopy with furniture is straight out of John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath (a favorite of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan).

– An overhead shot of people holding umbrellas on a sidewalk is a visual quote from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I still don’t know why Billy has a female dog named Henry though.


%d bloggers like this: