Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan

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

What follows is a rewritten version of a post I originally made on a Dylan message board in 2007 (on the indispensable website Expecting Rain).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

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

– The movie begins and ends with a motorcycle crash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more things I noticed:

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

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

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

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

Here is a list of notable references:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D.W. Griffith: Opening Act for . . . Bob Dylan?

For most of the shows on Bob Dylan’s current U.S. tour, he’s had an unusual opening act: a lengthy excerpt of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages. Approximately thirty minutes before showtime, the first twenty minutes of Intolerance has been shown, without musical accompaniment, to the apparent bewilderment of most concertgoers. While this has been a staple of all the earlier shows on Dylan’s fall tour, he regrettably opted not to show it last night before his concert at Chicago’s historic Riviera Theatre; in a simple twist of fate, it turns out that Griffith’s film already played the Riviera 91 years ago.

Although the Riviera has been a concert hall since 1986, it was originally built as a movie theater in 1917. When Intolerance initially opened in Chicago, it screened from the holidays in 1916 through March of 1917 at the Colonial Theatre, which was the old Iroquois Theatre (and where the Oriental is now). However, Intolerance was a notorious commercial flop (like Dylan’s Street-Legal album, you could say it was ahead of its time); in an effort to recoup expenses, Griffith released a re-edited version in 1919, The Mother and the Law, which focused on only one of the film’s four narrative strands. This version played the Riviera in November of that year:

Intolerance is an important film for several reasons. When it was released in 1916 it was probably the most complex and ambitious movie ever made by anyone, outdoing Griffith’s own groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation from a year earlier (and to which it was intended to act as a sort of corrective). Intolerance tells four separate, unrelated stories that take place in four different eras of history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. The editing in the film is mind-blowing because Griffith does not present the stories consecutively. Instead, he freely intercuts back and forth between them, enticing viewers to use their imaginations to understand how the stories may be thematically linked.

Unfortunately, the commercial failure of Intolerance was one of the contributing factors to Griffith’s decline, as this 1921 notice of bankruptcy filing in the New York Times makes clear:

New York Times,
(Sat., February 19, 1921), p.15
WARK PRODUCING CORPORATION, moving pictures, at 1,476 Broadway, has filed schedules in bankruptcy, with liabilities of $298,910, unsecured claims and assets of $125,042, consisting of films, pictures, prints, &c., $65,000; accounts $13,927 and deposits in banks $47,016. Copyright on motion picture play, “Intolerance,” is given as value unknown. Among the creditors are D. W. Griffith, $84,334; D. W. Griffith, Inc. $975; D. W. G. Corp., $60,230; H. E. Aitken, $8,136, and Norman Hall, $6,610.

But the film’s posterity is ensured. It is a staple of film history classes everywhere (including mine) and its artistic influence has been incalculable; it profoundly effected everything from the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (whose directors were inspired by Griffith to use editing as the primary basis for creating and understanding movies), to German Expressionist classics like Paul Leni’s Waxworks and Fritz Lang’s Destiny, to Scandinavian art films like Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages and Carl Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book, to Hollywood parodies like Buster Keaton’s Three Ages.

Exactly why Dylan chose to treat his audience to a little pre-show Griffith is anyone’s guess but clues may be found in some recent interviews given by the Bard. In a Rolling Stone interview from last year, Dylan, a long time fan of classic American film, professed a fondness for John Ford, using language striking in its intensity:

“I like his old films,” Dylan says. “He was a man’s man, and he thought that way. He never let his guard down. Put courage and bravery, redemption and a peculiar mix of agony and ecstasy on the screen in a brilliant dramatic manner. His movies were easy to understand. I like that period of time in American films. I think America has produced the greatest films ever. No other country has ever come close. The great movies that came out of America in the studio system, which a lot of people say is the slavery system, were heroic and visionary, and inspired people in a way that no other country has ever done. If film is the ultimate art form, then you’ll need to look no further than those films. Art has the ability to transform people’s lives, and they did just that.”

This echoes something that Dylan had said earlier on his excellent but short-lived radio show Theme Time Radio Hour about Ford being one of his “favorite directors,” a statement made after playing an audio excerpt from the film version of The Grapes of Wrath.

In an interview with Robert Hilburn in 2004, Dylan spoke with reverence about famed 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster and expounded on the importance of artists being exposed to the roots of the artists they admire: “But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.” Ever the archaeologist, Dylan’s apparently recent “Ford phase” probably led him back to studying the films of Griffith, as Griffith, the “Father of Film,” was unquestionably the biggest single influence on Ford. (On one of the rare occasions when Ford publicly accepted an award, he turned his eyes to the heavens and simply said, “Thank you, D.W.”)

Whatever the reason, thank you, Bob, for taking Intolerance on the road with you and showing it the way it should be seen – in large-scale projected form. And even though you didn’t show Intolerance last night, the concert you gave was, in its own way, a Griffith-like “super-production”:

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2. The Man In Me
3. Things Have Changed
4. Positively 4th Street
5. Summer Days
6. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
7. Cold Irons Bound
8. Simple Twist Of Fate
9. High Water (For Charley Patton)
10. If You Ever Go To Houston
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Tangled Up In Blue
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
15. Jolene
16. Like A Rolling Stone
17. Forever Young

Thanks to Adam Selzer for help with research on this post.

Like Dylan in the Movies

Something’s always happening in the world of Bob Dylan, even if you don’t know what it is, but this fall sees an unusual amount of activity on the part of the Bard of Minnesota. Before the end of the year, he will exhibit new paintings in Denmark (and release an accompanying coffee table book, “The Brazil Series”), as well as release two new CD sets: the 9th installment of the official Bootleg Series, focusing on demos recorded in the early ’60s, and an 8 disc set of his first 8 albums in mono (the way they were originally meant to be heard), all on compact disc for the first time. And of course, his never-ending tour will roll on with fall dates across the U.S., including a show in Champaign on October 22nd.

To commemorate, here is an essay I wrote about Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s unjustly maligned 2003 movie collaboration with director Larry Charles. The original version appeared in the English Dylan fanzine “Isis” but this has been substantially reworked.

Masked and Anonymous Unmasked

“I’m in the amusement business, along with theme parks, popcorn and horror shows.”
– Bob Dylan

“What’s so bad about being misunderstood?”
– Bob Dylan

You would probably have to look to Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless Bob Dylan has cited as the kind of film that made him feel like he could make films himself, to find a movie as audaciously perverse in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s 2003 (and presumably final) foray into fictional narrative filmmaking. Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum might as well have been describing Masked and Anonymous when he wrote in the late 1980s that Godard’s King Lear “. . . has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form – director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics – look, and presumably feel, rather silly.” Like most of Dylan’s post-Don’t Look Back filmic output, Masked and Anonymous was considered a mess by most critics upon its initial release while simultaneously being hailed as a masterpiece by members of the Dylan faithful. Larry Charles, the film’s director, would later split the difference, pronouncing the film a “messterpiece.”

When news broke in 2002 that the legendary singer/songwriter might return to the big screen after a fifteen year hiatus (his starring role in Hearts of Fire in 1987 being the arguable nadir of his career in any medium), it was couched in the disingenuous terms that Dylan was “in negotiations” to star in a new film. It was soon discovered that Dylan was in fact responsible for the film’s conception and that he and Charles co-wrote the film under the pseudonyms Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Yet right up until the film’s Sundance premiere, many Dylan fans thought it was some kind of elaborate hoax. And who could blame them? Prior to production, press reports suggested Dylan would play the ridiculously named “Jack Fate,” a jailed musician sprung from prison to play a benefit concert, the aim of which was to “save the world.”

The curiosity and confusion aroused by the film’s seemingly outrageous concept was then exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding the film’s production and the almost daily updates of an increasingly long list of Hollywood stars (Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and so on) who agreed to work for scale for a chance to share the screen with Dylan. Shot on digital video in just twenty days in the summer of 2002 and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result turned out to be a dense collage of image and sound, a film that almost overwhelms the senses but never quite does, regularly threatening to plunge the viewer into some horrific, unfathomable abyss but continually pulling back from the brink in a strange spirit of shaggy-dog-tale charm.

The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal and portentous, all adjectives we’ve come to associate with Dylan’s work as a recording artist. Larry Charles has been quoted as saying, “I tried to make it like a Bob Dylan song,” which appears to be the strategy of anyone directing a Bob Dylan film, including Todd Haynes and Dylan himself. Whether or not this is desirable or even possible is open to debate but Masked and Anonymous is probably more successful in capturing the “feel” of Dylan’s music than any other Dylan movie. This is no doubt in part due to a cut-and-paste style of screenwriting that mirrors Dylan’s own songwriting process; in describing the writing of the film, Charles said, “He [Dylan] had a pile of scrap paper with little notes written on them. He threw them down on the table like a jigsaw, and we started playing with the pieces. . . . One thing about working with Dylan is you learn to trust your instincts.” Charles also confirmed that lines that began as dialogue in Masked and Anonymous ended up as lyrics on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album and vice versa (“I’m no pig without a wig” from the song “High Water” being one such example).

Of course, songwriting and filmmaking are vastly different art forms and Dylan-the-songwriter’s latter-day fondness for allusion, quotation and theft doesn’t always successfully translate into film dialogue as meant to be spoken by coherent, three-dimensional characters. But in a risk-averse age where more and more American indie films function merely as Hollywood calling cards, Dylan and Charles’ complete lack of interest in creating Screenwriting 101-style characters is so pronounced that they should be applauded for the sheer audacity of turning their backs on the demands of commercial narrative cinema alone. Unfortunately, Dylan’s status as an interloper from another medium, even if a legendary one, has made it all too easy to write Masked and Anonymous off as nothing more than a “vanity project,” as Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics have done.

One thing we didn’t know in 2003 that has since become obvious in hindsight is that Larry Charles, a veteran Seinfeld writer making his feature film début with Masked and Anonymous, developed into a very interesting director, a kind of “invisible auteur” along the lines of Raul Ruiz. Although all of Charles’ movies share stylistic and thematic similarities, he is hardly ever credited as the dominant creative force behind these films; due to his habit of collaborating with co-writers/lead actors with bigger than life personalities, Masked and Anonymous is seen as a “Dylan film,” Borat and Bruno are seen as “Sasha Baron-Cohen films” and Religulous is a “Bill Maher film.” Yet all of these movies are unified by their status as subversive political satires that attempt to blur the line between documentary and fiction. Masked and Anonymous is especially interesting as a companion piece to Borat in this regard since both films are essentially about the creation of government-sponsored, made-for-television documentaries (the aforementioned “benefit concert” and Baron-Cohen’s foreigner’s eye-view work of video journalism).

If Borat and Bruno seem like quintessentially 21st century, YouTube-age films (especially by way of enticing audiences into google-searching anecdotes about their methods of production so as to determine what is “real” and what is not), Masked and Anonymous melds fiction and documentary in a way that looks more to Hollywood’s past. In writing about the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age, film scholar John Belton has noted, “Musical sequences interrupt the linear flow of necessity – the narrative – and release the actors from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a world of pure spectacle: in this fantasy world, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and others drop the pretense, for a moment, that they are playing characters and perform for us simply as Astaire and Kelly.”

A similar shift occurs in Masked and Anonymous whenever “Jack Fate” plays a Bob Dylan song with Dylan’s touring band, and Charles and Dylan muddy the waters further by self-consciously studding the film with references to Dylan’s life and career. The result is a fascinating self-criticism of the myth by the author, perhaps the only kind possible when the author is a “living legend.” In this respect, the film most comparable from the history of cinema may be Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, another highly personal and thinly disguised self-portrait by a master in his autumn years. (One obvious allusion to Dylan’s career is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan’s own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman’s size and boorish demeanor don’t give it away, the Coke-bottle glasses do. And a similar case can be made for Luke Wilson’s Bobby Cupid, who bears a strong resemblance to Dylan’s former road manager, Bobby Neuwirth.) Ultimately, what these personal references suggest is that, like Chaplin’s Calvero, Jack Fate the washed up troubadour is both Dylan’s fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.

The story: in an alternate-reality, civil war-torn America, Jack Fate, a legendary singer jailed for unspecified crimes, is released from prison on the condition he agrees to play a benefit show live on television. As he gradually makes his way to the sound stage where the show will be held, Fate’s first significant encounter is on a bus with a confused young soldier played by Givovanni Ribisi. The soldier regales Fate with a monologue about joining a group of insurgents, only to realize that these rebels are being funded by the very government they mean to topple. When the young man finally admits that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality, you don’t know whether to laugh or scream; it’s the story of John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” as told by Italo Calvino. Fate laconically responds that he no longer pays attention to his own dreams. This scene sets a tone and a narrative pattern that the rest of the film follows; the plot proceeds in fits and starts as the taciturn Fate encounters a series of eccentric, speechifying characters, each of whom reminds him in some way of his past. Flashbacks are introduced to Fate’s childhood and we learn that the troubadour is actually the son of America’s dying, dictator-like President.

Subplots involving the President’s former mistress (Angela Bassett) and a Vice President (Mickey Rourke) who is preparing to take over the position that once seemed destined for Fate, indicate that Charles and Dylan had Shakespeare on the brain. Apparently without trying to be perverse, Charles has mentioned Shakespeare and John Cassavetes in the same breath as influences on Masked and Anonymous. As befitting such a wild hybrid, the film’s structure is alternately “loose” (a bunch of actors wandering around warehouse-like interiors and shouting cryptic, occasionally meaningless dialogue at each other) and “tight” (a surprisingly elegant symbolic use of staircases in the film’s most crucial scenes). To direct the heavyweight Hollywood cast to speak the script’s poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors, for the most part, do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony.

Everyone that is except for Bob Dylan. Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and Charles gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Dylan’s deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it’s like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the 1940s and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science fiction landscape – the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remain hilariously intact. Of course, Dylan’s non-acting was offered as Exhibit A by most critics who wanted to write the film off as a folly but I would give most of post-9/11 American cinema for that one shot, “badly acted” but infinitely moving and worthy of Robert Bresson, in which Fate visits his father’s deathbed and looks toward the heavens with glycerine tears streaming down his cheeks.

At the film’s Sundance premiere, Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him not to worry about the film “in the short term.” The film was indeed a critical and commercial disappointment in 2003. But, like the story of the tortoise and the hare, years later Masked and Anonymous is holding up just fine on DVD, looking better and more interesting than most of the acclaimed American films that surrounded it at the time of its release.

Me and director Larry Charles at the film’s 2003 Sundance premiere

For  a list of Dylan references in my own short film, At Last, Okemah!, go here:


Works Cited

1. Gunderson, Edna. “USATODAY.com – Tell It like It Is.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 09 Sept. 2001. Web. 19 Aug. 2010.

2. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Importance of Being Perverse”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

3. Belton, John. American Cinema, American Culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.

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