Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

The 80 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs (in Honor of His 80th Birthday)

Below is a list of my 80 favorite Bob Dylan songs in honor of his 80th birthday later this month. I started compiling this list a year ago and have been continually revising it – as well as the thumbnail reviews accompanying it – ever since. During this process, many songs were on the list at one point, only to fall off and be replaced by other songs that I realized, in my heart of hearts, I loved more. This is not an attempt to be objective or acknowledge Dylan’s most important songs (there are plenty of other lists like that already). This is simply a list of what I consider to be the greatest Dylan songs based on my own personal point-of-view as a Dylan fan of 30+ years. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that functions as a countdown of the top 80, which you can stream here. Enjoy!

80. Death is Not the End (Down in the Groove, 1988)
Probably best known for Nick Cave’s cover version, this is a gospel song with a sweet melody, a killer sense of humor and backing vocals by Brooklyn hip-hop collective Full Force.

79. Song to Woody (Bob Dylan, 1962)
Dylan’s tribute to his most important formative influence also announced his arrival as a songwriter.

78. What Can I Do For You? (Saved, 1980)
The harmonica solo on this, one of Dylan’s greatest, has a pleading quality that captures the song’s devotional message as well as the lyrics do.

77. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
I’ve always loved the counterpoint between the warmth of Paul Griffin’s barroom-piano playing and the feeling of dislocation imparted by the lyrics.

76. Long and Wasted Years (Tempest, 2012)
A Rolling Stone critic astutely compared this to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in that it features a narrator who no longer has anything, looking back on a lifetime of regret.

75. Sign on the Window (New Morning, 1970)
Probably the most obscure song on this list, this is Dylan’s most sublime ode to domestic tranquility.

74. Dignity (recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions in 1989, released on Greatest Hits Vol. 3, 1994)
Who but Dylan would write a song taking “dignity” as its subject, not to mention personifying that quality as a character in a detective story?

73. Lay, Lady, Lady (Nashville Skyline, 1969)
Dylan’s sexiest song ever, sung in his “country crooner” voice.

72. Dark Eyes (Empire Burlesque, 1985)
A solo acoustic ballad with highly poetic lyrics, purportedly inspired by Dylan looking into the eyes of a prostitute in a hotel lobby, this stands out like a diamond in a coal mine on the otherwise overproduced Empire Burlesque.

71. Lenny Bruce (Shot of Love, 1981)
A surprising, deeply moving piano-driven tribute to the late comedian.

70. Forgetful Heart (Together Through Life, 2009)
Like a dark sequel to 1981’s “Heart of Mine,” Dylan addresses his heart as if it had a mind of its own.

69. Blowin’ in the Wind (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
Dylan’s most covered song ever, and arguably his most important, this was the “big bang” of the notion that folk music would serve as the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement.

68. I and I (Infidels, 1983)  
This ominous sounding, reggae-tinged blues song nods to Rastafarianism as well as Dylan’s lifelong obsession with Rimbaud’s phrase “Je est un autre.”

67. The Man in Me (New Morning, 1970)
Best known as the main-title theme of The Big Lebowski, this is one of the catchiest creations in the whole Dylan songbook.

66. I Shall Be Released (recorded in 1967 during the Basement Tapes sessions, released on Biograph, 1985)
This gospel-influenced song about a prisoner (perhaps literal, perhaps figurative) yearning for redemption is one of the highlights of the Basement Tapes sessions.

65. Forever Young (Planet Waves, 1974)
Dylan wrote this prayer-like song for one of his children and it deservedly became an instant wedding/graduation/birthday-party staple.

64. Summer Days (“Love and Theft”, 2001)
Next to his 2009 cover of “Must Be Santa,” this is probably the fastest song Dylan ever recorded (as well as one of the most fun).

63. The Times They Are a-Changin’ (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964)
The ultimate protest anthem, cutting but never preachy, this sounds as relevant today as it did upon its release 57 years ago.

62. One More Cup of Coffee (Desire, 1976)
Allen Ginsberg aptly described Dylan’s singing here as “Hebraic cantillation.”

61. Simple Twist of Fate (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
This sad story-song about a relationship fated not to work out is the broken heart of Blood on the Tracks.

60. Ring Them Bells (Oh Mercy, 1989)
An indelible, descending piano chord progression combines with lyrics that plead for compassion for the less fortunate of this world.

59. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964)
Dylan used a newspaper article about a real-life murder to form the basis of this haunting masterpiece about a tragic miscarriage of justice.

58. I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020) 
This beautiful recent song can be interpreted as addressing a lover, a higher power, or Dylan’s own fanbase.

57. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
I always felt that the groovy organ playing and snappy drumming on this rollicking number were exactly what Dylan had in mind when he described Blonde on Blonde as featuring “that thin, wild mercury sound.”

56. Born in Time (Under the Red Sky, 1990)
Dylan’s most mystical love song.

55. When He Returns (Slow Train Coming, 1979)
Jean-Luc Godard has used this song in three different movies in three different decades.

54. Tears of Rage (recorded in 1967, released on The Basement Tapes, 1975)
One of Dylan’s most multitudinous lyrics — it manages to contain the Bible, King Lear and the Declaration of Independence — set to a gorgeous melody by The Band’s Richard Manuel.

53. Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981)
The highlight of Dylan’s entire gospel period, the Blakean lyrics are best served by the minimalist acoustic-guitar-and-piano-arrangement of the demo version included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 3.

52. Things Have Changed (single, 2000)
The song that inaugurated Dylan’s great late period (which saw him bring his Never Ending Tour band into the studio for the first time and serve as his own producer), this Oscar-winning acoustic rocker is also quite danceable.

51. Sara (Desire, 1976)
One of Dylan’s most nakedly autobiographical songs, in which he looks back on a family vacation from the vantage point of estrangement from his first wife, I sometimes find this too painful to listen to.

50. Girl from the North Country (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
A simple, perfect love song.

49. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
My favorite cut from John Wesley Harding, which I’ve always loved for the sparseness of the arrangement (just one acoustic guitar, bass and drums) and the dreamy, parable-like quality of the lyrics.

48. If You See Her, Say Hello (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
Another devastating song: “She might think that I’ve forgotten her / Don’t tell her it isn’t so.”

47. It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Some lamented that Dylan had abandoned “protest music” after 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ but a track like this, featuring an astonishing, seemingly never-ending torrent of words, proved that he had merely broadened his concerns in order to protest the insanity of living in the modern world.

46. Pay in Blood (Tempest, 2012)
This Rolling Stones-esque rocker is as musically infectious as it is lyrically vicious.

45. Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) (Street-Legal, 1978)
The most underrated song on Dylan’s most underrated album (which, more than Blood on the Tracks, is his real “divorce album”), this desperate-sounding track is pop music at the end of its tether.

44. Tomorrow is a Long Time (live recording from 1963, released on Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1971)
Dylan justifiably cited Elvis Presley’s version of this as his favorite cover of any of his own songs.

43. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
A moving song about rambling through the world, this features two fantastic “electric” harmonica breaks in which the sound of Dylan’s harp was driven through a distortion box.

42. Shelter from the Storm (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
I’m obsessed with the hard-rocking live 1976 version of this song about seeking refuge in the arms of another person, featuring one of Dylan’s most impassioned vocals and his sick, but rarely displayed, slide-guitar playing.

41. Chimes of Freedom (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
A lyrical tour de force about looking at a thunderstorm and imagining that the lighting is somehow flashing in solidarity with everyone who has ever felt downtrodden or dispossessed.

40. High Water (For Charley Patton) (“Love and Theft”, 2001)
A tribute to one of the great Delta bluesman that is, perhaps perversely, not a blues itself but rather a banjo-driven folk song full of memorable apocalyptic imagery.

39. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) (Street-Legal, 1978)
The most famous song on Street-Legal, and the one Dylan has played live the most often, this minor-key ballad is dark, brooding and awesome.

38. Boots of Spanish Leather (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964)
Not many songwriters have even attempted to write an epistolary song but this is one of the greatest examples of the genre.

37. Abandoned Love (recorded during the Desire sessions in 1975, released on Biograph in 1985)
Left off the album for which it was recorded and shelved for a decade, this violin-driven love song would’ve been the crowning achievement of anyone else’s career.

36. Positively 4th Street (single, 1965)
Dylan’s ultimate “fuck you” song, this catchy 1965 single convinced Joni Mitchell that lyrics could be literature and that she could become a professional singer/songwriter herself.

35. Most of the Time (Oh Mercy, 1989)
The rhetorical genius of this song is that, by relentlessly repeating how content he feels the majority of the time, the narrator makes the listener acutely aware of how heartbroken he secretly is by what he doesn’t say (i.e., describing how he feels the rest of the time).

34. Nettie Moore (Modern Times, 2006)
So memorable for the vocal melody, which sees Dylan’s voice rise and fall with every line in the verses, and a sparse musical arrangement highlighted by George Receli’s metronomic, heartbeat-like drumming.

33. Lay Down Your Weary Tune (recorded 1963, released on Biograph, 1985)
An incredible early song about communing with nature and hearing “music” in the sounds of the natural world.

32. Highlands (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
Dylan’s second longest song ever sees him talk-singing over a blues riff: he laments his vanished youth, gives shout-outs to Neil Young and Erica Jong and, for one uproariously funny verse, has a sexy and tense flirtation with a waitress in a Boston restaurant.

31. Caribbean Wind (recorded during the Shot of Love Sessions in 1981, released on Biograph, 1985)
Dylan spent a lot of time in the Caribbean in the early 1980s, which inspired some great wordy songs, and this galloping number, with delightful “wind” sounds provided by the female backup singers, is one of the best.

30. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
An exquisite anti-love song and a farewell to the purists in the folk-revival movement all rolled up in one.

29. Black Diamond Bay (Desire, 1976)
One of the best of the long story-songs on Desire, unforgettable for its crazy “wrap-around rhymes” (“veranda…and a”) and a surprise ending that shifts from the third to the first person.

28. Mother of Muses (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
Perhaps inspired by the engraving on the back of his Nobel Prize for Literature medal, Dylan explicitly invokes his muse on this lyrically majestic, melodically intricate and tenderly sung song.

27. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
The delicacy of Dylan’s finger-picking and his emotional singing reveal an affection for the object of this song that is missing from the spiteful lyric.

26. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973)
Three simple chords and Dylan’s most unforgettable sing-along chorus have made this so famous that a lot of folks don’t even know that he wrote it.

25. Standing in the Doorway (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
The most potent song about heartache on an album chock-full of songs about heartache.

24. I Want You (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Everyone should hear this ecstatic love song and feel like it describes how they’ve felt about another human being at least once in their lives.

23. Man in the Long Black Coat (Oh Mercy, 1989)
Almost indescribably spooky and divine, like a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story set to music.

22. Workingman’s Blues #2 (Modern Times, 2006)
The way Dylan’s vocal melody confidently rolls and flows over the chords from Pachelbel’s Canon – as he poignantly pays tribute to the working class – rarely fails to bring a tear to my eye.

21. Red River Shore (recorded during the Time Out of Mind sessions in 1997, released on Tell-Tale Signs, 2008)
Jesus Christ, Bob: “Some of us turn off the lights and we laugh in the moonlight shooting by /
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark to be where the angels fly.”


20. Jokerman (Infidels, 1983)
I was a child when this came out and, although I didn’t first hear it until later, its provocative mixture of socio-political commentary and biblical imagery conjures up the early 1980s for me like no other song.

19. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
If “Blowin’ in the Wind” proved popular songs could address social issues and “Don’t Think Twice” gave birth to the singer/songwriter “confessional” genre, “Hard Rain” showed it was possible to write epic songs influenced by serious literature (in this case, Romantic, French Symbolist and Beat poetry).

18. Hurricane (Desire, 1976)
Thank God Dylan had to re-cut this with altered lyrics in order to avoid being sued for libel — the version that ended up on Desire, with its faster tempo (and Ronee Blakley’s valiant attempts to sing along on the chorus), is the definitive version of this supremely cinematic song.

17. Mr. Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Incomparably lovely for Bruce Langhorne’s subtle electric guitar playing and some of Dylan’s finest ever lyrics (the “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind” verse, in particular, is solid gold).

16. Mississippi (“Love and Theft”, 2001)
If the musical genre known as “Americana” didn’t exist, it could be recreated entirely by using only this song as a seed.

15. Changing of the Guards (Street-Legal, 1978)
Mixing imagery drawn from Tarot cards and the life of Joan of Arc, this wild song features a wailing saxophone and call-and-response vocals with a female chorus that will get your adrenaline pumping like nothing else Dylan has done.

14. Series of Dreams (recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions in 1989, released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, 1991)
The best song anyone ever wrote about dreaming, the feeling of which is accurately conveyed through the surreal lyrics and the elaborate, wall-of-sound production.

13. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
One of Dylan’s most ambitious works, the 11-minute-plus opus that closes Highway 61 Revisited weaves together a large cast of characters (from history, the Bible, literature, etc.) into a chugging, panoramic epic that single-handedly expanded the artistic possibilities of popular song.

12. Blind Willie McTell (recorded during the Infidels sessions in 1983, released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, 1991)
Dylan’s soulful piano playing, Mark Knopfler’s nimble fretwork, a melody inspired by “St. James Infirmary Blues” and lyrics that address the ghosts of slavery and the cathartic power of the blues are the ingredients of this timeless masterpiece.

11. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The principles of Cubist painting applied to narrative songwriting — where the story of a man and woman splitting up (and perhaps reconnecting) in the wake of the death of the ’60s counterculture — is told alternately in the third and first person, and is somehow more effective because of it.

10. Murder Most Foul (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
Dylan’s longest song is also his largest song. It’s less about the assassination of JFK than it is about the healing power of art in a time of collective trauma (you know, like the COVID-19 pandemic). It’s his grandest poetic statement, the centerpiece of his most unified album, the Damascus to which all of the other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways lead. To give oneself over to it for the entirety of its 17 minutes is to become hypnotized and feel time flowing forwards and backwards simultaneously. There’s nothing else like it in the history of recorded music — by Dylan or anyone else.

9. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
The greatest rock and roll song of all time, or “La Bamba” for intellectuals.

8. Tempest (Tempest, 2012)
This isn’t a song about the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a song about someone dreaming about the sinking of the Titanic, an ingenious conceit that unmoors Dylan’s long narrative song from historical reality and allows him to fill it up with crazy, Hieronymous Bosch-like visions. There is incredible variety and expressiveness in his singing, and the delightful Celtic melody always makes me want to sway a mug of beer to and fro and try to sing along.

7. Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
The lofty peak of Time Out of Mind, released after Dylan had contracted a near-fatal fungal heart infection, which colored its reception forever after. As the great literary scholar Christopher Ricks points out, this poignant and beautiful song features a narrator, like John Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” who is “half in love with easeful Death.”

6. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Tom Waits said this song made him think of “a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman’s hair.” And I think I know what he means.

5. Ain’t Talkin’ (Modern Times, 2006)
Dylan’s darkest ever song, in which a first-person narrator wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape that has seemingly been abandoned by God (“The gardener is gone”). The popular-song equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman film.

4. Brownsville Girl (Knocked Out Loaded, 1987)
Buried on Dylan’s worst ever album, Knocked Out Loaded, is one of his finest ever songs. Co-written with Sam Shepard, this is a widescreen western epic that is funny as shit (note how the backup singers continually undercut the narrator’s pomposity) while also being, somehow, inexplicably moving. My favorite line: “I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran.”

3. Visions of Johanna (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Ever wonder what it must have felt like to be stoned in a cold Greenwich Village loft circa the mid-1960s? This song will transport you. Dylan’s lyrical genius reaches its apex with the “Inside the museums” verse.

2. Idiot Wind (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
Often described as an epic “breakup song,” I’ve always felt “Idiot Wind” was much more than that. I suspect that Dylan was thinking of his hero Woody Guthrie, for instance, in the “Down the highway” verse. In any case, the pronoun change in the final chorus (from “I” to “We”) shows an impressive humility that tempers the righteous anger on display elsewhere in the song.

1. Key West (Philosopher Pirate) (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
Dylan’s very own “Over the Rainbow,” a song about which I already wrote a mini-essay here. What else can I say? This is the final song on my deathbed playlist, the one I hope to be listening to at the exact moment my soul leaves my body.


The Best of 2020: Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

This is the first in a series of year-end posts about some favorite works of art that I first encountered in 2020. It will be followed by pieces on my favorite books and films.

Bar stools at the legendary Captain Tony’s Saloon in Key West, Florida

2020 has sucked for all sorts of reasons. Observing strict COVID-19/social distancing guidelines means that I’ve spent less time with family and friends than ever before; what I assumed would be my busiest and most productive year as an artist has ended up being the exact opposite; and, as an adjunct college professor, I’ve had to re-learn my trade from the ground up as I’ve transitioned into teaching classes online exclusively. In order to maintain perspective, I’ve had to remind myself that I’ve been a lot luckier than some other folks I know: Unlike friends and colleagues who have been laid off, I’ve at least been able to work from home and continue earning a steady paycheck. Being at home more often also means that I’ve spent more time consuming art — mainly, literature, music and movies — than I have in a single calendar year in decades, maybe ever. The work of art that I’ve turned to for comfort more than any other during this tumultuous time has been “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the penultimate track from Bob Dylan’s terrific Rough and Rowdy Ways album, which was released in June. I’ve listened to this song literally hundreds of times already, often on headphones while walking around the north side of Chicago wearing a quarantine mask, and it’s never failed to be a transporting and cathartic experience.

I think it’s productive to regard “Key West” as Dylan’s own version of “Over the Rainbow,” a song originally written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for The Wizard of Oz and sung by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in response to her Auntie Em’s advice to find a place where there isn’t any trouble. Dylan, who described “Over the Rainbow” as “cosmic” in his 2004 memoir Chronicles Volume 1, makes an explicit nod to The Wizard of Oz in “Key West” when he sings, “I’ve never lived in the land of Oz / Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.” Beginning with a disturbing description of hearing the assassination of William McKinley on a pirate radio station, Dylan’s song specifically details the act of traveling to Key West, a destination the narrator posits as a mythical place free of trouble, a “paradise divine” that appears “on the horizon line.” The subject of the song is the thin line between life and death, and Dylan uses Key West, a place where he apparently spent a considerable amount of time decades ago, as a metaphor for some kind of peaceful afterlife. The lyrics and Dylan’s phrasing are perfect: There are literally dozens of magical vocal moments scattered across the song’s nine-and-a-half minutes (e.g., “…if you got something to confess,” “Bougainvillea blooming,” “…gold fringes on her wedding dress,” etc.). But what truly elevates the track to heaven’s door, to that rarefied sphere of Dylan’s greatest achievements, is the genius accordion playing of Donnie Herron, the multi-instrumentalist and stealth MVP of Dylan’s live band for the past 15 years. Herron’s accordion here becomes the aural personification of a gentle Florida breeze, warmly embodying the “healing virtues of the wind” that Dylan so memorably sings about.

“Key West” also has meaningful and substantial connections to “Murder Most Foul,” the already-notorious, 17-minute epic about American popular culture in the wake of JFK’s assassination that follows it on the album. In addition to being concerned with the murders of Presidents and the act of listening to the radio, both songs also share similar lyrics: The phrases “down in the boondocks” and “going down slow” in “Key West,” for example, cleverly become literal song titles that are quoted in “Murder Most Foul.” Conversely, some of the lines in “Murder Most Foul” (e.g., “the man who fell down dead like a rootless tree”) appear to have been composed in pointed contrast to certain lines in “Key West” (e.g., “I’ve got both my feet planted square on the ground”). But the most important connection between the songs comes in the “Key West” lyric “I heard your last request,” which seems to refer to the final, self-reflexive line of “Murder Most Foul” (after a litany of other requests: “Play ‘Murder Most Foul'”). It is as if the narrators of the songs are in dialogue with each other — the narrator of “Key West” hearing and fulfilling the dying wish of the narrator of “Murder Most Foul” (who may be JFK himself) — thus creating an eternal two-song circle within an album full of other such circles (add the Julius Caesar-themed “Crossing the Rubicon” to these two, for instance, and you have a trilogy dealing with political assassination). Making these kinds of connections has always been part of the fun of listening to Bob Dylan, of course, but the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways offer an exceptionally intricate, Joycean web in which listeners can get lost if they so choose. And I emphatically choose to do so. Such is life, such is happiness.

For those who don’t already own Rough and Rowdy Ways (and, if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?), you can listen to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” on YouTube here:

You can read more of my thoughts on Rough and Rowdy Ways here. My buddy (and Flickering Empire co-author) Adam Selzer expounds on the connections between “Key West” and “Over the Rainbow” at length here.

For the record, my top five favorite albums of the year are:

5. Emma Swift – Blonde on the Tracks
4. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
3. Run the Jewels – RTJ4
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
1. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways


The Best Films of 2020 So Far

I believe the most monumental work of art released in 2020 so far — and the one that best speaks to our turbulent times — is Bob Dylan’s astonishing new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. A work of seemingly bottomless depth, it creates a haunting liminal space where past, present and future overlap (it’s no coincidence that the first line of the first song is “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”). If you haven’t yet listened to it, I would advise spinning it a few times and giving it your full attention — as you would if reading a book or watching a movie. You can listen to the whole thing for free on YouTube here.

Having said all that, I think it’s been a pretty damn good year for cinema so far too (in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic). Below are a list of favorite films that either first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2020 or that first became available to watch via various “virtual cinemas.” I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some thoughts on other films that I haven’t yet written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. Queen of Lapa (Collatos/Monnerat, Brazil)

Queen_of_Lapa_-_Still_1“…a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

9. Fourteen (Sallitt, USA)

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“…impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

8. Joan of Arc
(Dumont, France)

jeanne
Most Joan of Arc movies, including Carl Dreyer’s celebrated silent film, feature actresses that are too old for the lead role. Otto Preminger remedied that by casting the “age appropriate” Jean Seberg when he made Saint Joan in 1957. But only Bruno Dumont would cast an actress who is far too young for the part (the great 10-year-old Lise Prudhomme), a wacky decision that pays off by conveying a sense of Joan’s “saintliness” in a way that no post-adolescent actress, no matter how talented, ever could.

7. Shakedown
(Weinraub, USA)

44096851_2160705053981437_6478280789543878656_n“…confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic.” Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, USA)

never_rarely_sometimes_always_-_publicity_still_4-_h_2020
This urgent abortion-rights drama features the same slightly moody/dreamy vibe of Eliza Hittman’s previous films but marries it to a much improved narrative sense. Both lead actresses are amazing.

5. I Wish I Knew (Jia, China)

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“…the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal ‘oral histories’ not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

4. Zombi Child (Bonello, France)

zombichild
“The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, ‘othering’ and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.” Read my full Time Out Chicago review here.

3. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca, Brazil)

bacurauI feel like this crazy-ass genre mash-up cum anti-capitalist allegory was made just for me.

2. Tommaso (Ferrara, Italy/USA)

tommaso
Abel Ferrara’s most personal movie, Willem Dafoe’s finest performance.

1. (tie) Hill of FreedomYourself and Yours (Hong, S. Korea)

hillofhong

yourselfandyours-superJumboJean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is “a girl and a gun.” Hong Sang-soo might amend that to “a man, a woman and a bottle of soju.” These two delightful features (which originally premiered in 2014 and 2016, respectively) just belatedly turned up in the U.S. thanks to Cinema Guild and Grasshopper Films and they make for one hell of a double feature: They represent Hong at his most narratively ambitious and formally playful. Watch ’em with someone you love.

Honorable mention for short films: Spike Lee’s New York New York and 3 Brothers (both of which I preferred to Da 5 Bloods), Eric Marsh’s brilliant video essay TELEPHONE FOR LIEUTENANT COLUMBO and Jean-Marie Straub’s France Against Robots.


My Top 25 Films of 2019

Here are my top 10 favorite films of the year (including only titles that premiered in Chicago theatrically in 2019) followed by a list of 15 runners-up. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and offer new thoughts on some of the others that I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy!

10. Black Mother (Khalik Allah, USA/Jamaica)

blackmother“As in the films of Pedro Costa, Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

9. Atlantics
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

ATLANTICS_Vertical_Main_RGB_US-1.jpgThe ghosts, or “djinns,” of the shipwrecked Senegalese migrant workers in Diop’s poetic first feature are specific to Islamic culture but are universal in the sense that, as in all good ghost stories, they can’t be laid to rest until the earthly wrongs done them have been avenged. At least that’s the case in this film for most of the spirits that return home to Dakar to possess their girlfriends and demand back-wages from their greedy former employer. An exception is Soulemaine, a teenager who merely wants consummation of the relationship with his true love, Ada, that he was always denied in life. A work of astonishing cinematic maturity that put me in the mind of Val Lewton, Claire Denis and Djibril Diop Mambety (Mati’s uncle), this contains potent metaphorical images that resonate on multiple levels. “The case is closed.”

8. Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA)

uncut-1-jumboThe Safdie brothers’ masterpiece to date is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. Adam Sandler cuts a Shakespearean figure as a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life is spiraling out of control — a lovable scumbag cloaked in a majestic desperation.

7. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

High-Life_New_FEATURE-1600x900-c-defaultNot unlike a sci-fi Dirty Dozen, the plot concerns a bunch of prisoners condemned to death on earth who are sent on a dangerous mission to outer space where they attempt to harness the energy from a black hole in order to save humanity. But Denis’ philosophically-inflected futuristic journey is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker in that it’s ultimately more about “inner space,” baby — specifically, confronting the abyss of the “taboo.” Juliette Binoche in the fuck box = peak cinema.

6. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

iwasathomeWhile her title may reference Ozu’s coming-of-age classic I WAS BORN, BUT… and a prologue and epilogue featuring a donkey obviously nod to Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, Schanelec ultimately generates a sense of transcendence through an employment of image and sound that is entirely her own.” Full Cine-File capsule review here.

5. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, USA/Germany)

a-hidden-life-movieUnlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel hostility towards Malick’s 21st-century output but it’s also true that his post-Thin Red Line work has evolved in a direction that doesn’t really interest me. That’s why I couldn’t have been more surprised at how deeply moved I was by his beautiful new film, the story of an ordinary Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, executed for refusing to make a loyalty oath to Hitler after being drafted during World War II. Using real letters between Jägerstätter and his wife as the narrative backbone, Malick composes luminous images, aided by a relentless use of wide-angle lenses, to achieve a sustained spiritual intensity reminiscent of Bresson and Dreyer. This is also probably the best showcase ever for actors in a Malick film.

4. CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, France)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultEveryone who saw Taika Waititi’s execrable Jojo Rabbit should be forced to watch Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin and its sequel, Coincoin and the Extra Humans, to see how a morally responsible filmmaker can use wacky comedy to show the rise of right-wing ideology in a small town and, consequently, how children can be indoctrinated into fascism.

3. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

the-image-book-1600x900-c-defaultIn spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe.” My review at Cine-File Chicago here.

2. (tie) The Irishman Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, USA)

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rollingthunderI love The Irishman like Jimmy Hoffa loves ice cream but let’s not forget that Scorsese released two great films this year (his two best of the 21st century, in my opinion). In Rolling Thunder Revue, he revisits Bob Dylan’s celebrated 1975 tour, repurposing footage from the Bard of Minnesota’s own wild, self-directed 1978 film Renaldo & Clara and turning it into a fantasia about, in poet Anne Waldman’s words, “America’s search for redemption” (most evident in the scenes involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Tuscarora Indian Reservation). An overwhelming sensorial and emotional experience. Sharon Stone deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1.jpg“Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades spent apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the most remarkable screen presence of 2019.” My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Pasolini (Ferrara, USA/Italy)
12. The Souvenir (Hogg, UK)
13. Little Women (Gerwig, USA)
14. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China)
15. Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain)

16. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross, USA)
17. Parasite (Bong, S. Korea)

18. Richard Jewell (Eastwood, USA)
19. (tie) Grass / Hotel By the River (Hong, S. Korea)
20. The Wild Pear Tree (Ceylan, Turkey)
21. Asako I & II (Hamaguchi, Japan)
22. Saint Frances (Thompson, USA) – My Time Out Chicago capsule here.
23. Varda by Agnes (Varda, France)
24. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu, China)
25. Knives and Skin (Reeder, USA) – My Cine-File Chicago interview with director Jennifer Reeder here.


The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2019. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and offer new thoughts on my favorite film of the year (which I haven’t written about elsewhere). Enjoy.

20. Hail Satan? (Lane, USA)
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“With unfettered access to the leaders of the group’s various nationwide chapters, including charismatic church founder Lucien Greaves, director Penny Lane crafts a deceptively simple work of political commentary that ultimately sympathizes with the Satanists as a group of merry pranksters who see their movement as a counterbalance to the repressiveness of other organized religions.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

19. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Talbot, USA)
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18. Infinite Football (Porumboiu, Romania)
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17. Her Smell (Perry, USA)
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16. 3 Faces (Panahi, Iran)
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15. The Nightingale (Kent, Australia)
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14. Asako I & II (Hamaguchi, Japan)
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13. Saint Frances (Thompson, USA)
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“This female-centric character study, which is shot through with compassion, insight and originality, speaks to our cultural moment in a way that other recent American movies do not.” My review for Time Out Chicago here.

12. The Wild Pear Tree (Ceylan, Turkey)
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10. (tie) Hotel By the River/Grass (Hong, S. Korea)gangbyun_hotel

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9. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross, USA)Hale-County-This-Morning-This-Evening-1600x900-c-default

8. Pasolini (Ferrara, Italy/USA) – Screens at the Siskel Center from 6/21-6/27.
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7. Black Mother (Allah, USA/Jamaica)
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“As in the films of Pedro Costa, (Khalik) Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

6. CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (Dumont, France)
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5. The Souvenir (Hogg, UK)
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4. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China)
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3. High Life (Denis, France/Germany)
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2. The Image Book (Godard, France/Switzerland)
the-image-book-1600x900-c-defaultIn spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe.” My review at Cine-File Chicago here.

1. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Scorsese, USA)
rollingthunderMartin Scorsese revisits one of Bob Dylan’s most celebrated tours, 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue, repurposing footage from the Bard of Minnesota’s own wild, self-directed 1978 film Renaldo & Clara and turning it into a fantasia about, in poet Anne Waldman’s words, “America’s search for redemption” (most evident in the scenes involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Tuscarora Indian Reservation). An overwhelming sensorial and emotional experience and, for my money, Scorsese’s best film of the 21st century. Also, no offense, but if you felt “duped” by the (hilarious) fictional elements in this, you are an idiot.


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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)


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

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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.”

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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.

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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.


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