17 July 2005

NetFlix Review: Don't Look Back

Watched the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker. I am a big Dylan fan, at least of everything up to and including Blood on the Tracks. After that, it gets really hit or miss, and mainly miss in my opinion. Like his contemporary Neil Young, Dylan lost his way for at least a while. Unlike Neil Young, I don't think Dylan ever found his way back. For me, the 1980's is Neil Young's lost decade, whereas Dylan's lost decades are the mid 70's through the current time, but especially up until 2003's Love and Theft, which is alright, but simply does not capture the brilliance that young Dylan exhibited.

Anyway, if you have any interest at all in Bob Dylan or in the state of pop/folk music in the mid 1960's, this movie is crucial. It follows Dylan around an England tour in 1965. He's accompanied by his then-girlfriend Joan Baez, who's got a beautiful voice but is unfortunately or maybe presciently recorded mainly singing Dylan's songs, since nearly everyone in that Greenwich Village folk circle is seen by our collective cultural memory rightly or wrongly as satellite's around Dylan's sun. It also reveals how much has changed in the world of music, as Dylan's rather small entourage and harried escapes from fans after shows attest.

The most amazing thing about the film, however, is the way in which Dylan handles the press. Dylan antagonizes, insults, and evades the press and their questions in every interview. He refuses to answer anything straightly, instead challenging the legitimacy of both the question and the medium in which the answers will be presented. The sole exception may be the BBC radio interview he does in which he's given three very general questions that he is allowed prior approval on -- but we don't get to see his answers and I haven't heard the final interview, so I don't know. He particularly skewers a Time magazine journalist, essentially telling him that he and Time's audience wouldn't have any way to understand his answers.

At root of this antagonism is Dylan's insistence on the imprecision of language, which is interesting since he is something of a contemporary of the late Jacques Derrida, whose theory of deconstruction takes as its scope the impossibility of linguistic determinacy. In an early scene, Dylan is asked, "Do you care about people?" and he replies, "We all have our own definitions of those words, starting with 'care' and 'people'."

This reticence continues to today, with Dylan pronouncing in his Chronicles that he didn't mean anything, that people read too much into his lyrics, that he wasn't "the voice of his generation." Well, that may be how he wants it, but the weight of history is a hard thing to unload. Reading a newspaper report about himself, Dylan jokingly remarks, "I'm glad I'm not me." Again, he's firmly in Derrida's camp here. Derrida writes, "Only the name can inherit, and this is why the name, to be distinguished from the bearer, is always and a priori a dead man's name, a name of death" (Ear of the Other 7).

Dylan comes off as extremely cagey and distant, even in the behind the scenes shots. He never lets his guard down. In that act, at least, he's been almost entirely consistent throughout his career.

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