Sunday, September 6, 2009
Don't Look Back
D.A. Pennebaker's seminal documentary Don't Look Back remains the startling work it was upon its release: not only a revolutionary cinema verité approach to a rock tour, but one of the most intimate glimpses possible of the perpetually elusive Bob Dylan. The film was made on Dylan's 1965 U.K. tour, a pivotal moment in his career, as he began to move away from the folk movement from which he'd emerged. He'd just released Bringing It All Back Home, which featured rock instrumentation on its second side, a source of some controversy among his rabid folkie fans — at one tour stop here, a couple of young schoolgirls nervously tell him that it doesn't sound like him, that it sounds like he's only goofing around. In fact, it was no joke. This would be Dylan's final acoustic tour, and when he returned to England in 1966 it was for the electric tour that yielded one outraged fan's accusing cry of "Judas," a legendary moment. Pennebaker couldn't have known all this was coming, but it must have been apparent that Dylan was poised on the brink of something. The film captures an artist in flux, trying on different identities, experimenting with a playful sensibility that sometimes bleeds over into perversity and willful obscurity.
What Pennebaker's restless camera captures, more than anything, is a man whose personality is always shifting; Dylan is almost always performing in some way, always trying on different guises, covering up what he's thinking with strings of non sequiturs, turning interviews back on the interviewers with probing, unanswerable questions of his own. Pennebaker's handheld camerawork is perfectly suited to examining such a slippery figure; when Dylan bobs and weaves, figuratively speaking, the camera is with him, subtly zooming in to probe the intricacies of his face, his expression, trying to reveal what might be hidden behind his ever-present dark sunglasses. What Pennebaker seems to find is a guy who contains multitudes, who's many different things at different times. In unguarded moments, he sometimes seems like a kid — Dylan was 24 at the time — hanging out with friends, goofing around, telling jokes. At one point, listening to a jazz band, Dylan and several friends don dark glasses and snap their fingers, aping beatniks, laughing as they drop "hip" phrases. The Dylan who appears in interviews is someone else altogether, confrontational and aggressive and gnomic in his pronouncements. In one of the film's most prolonged scenes, a British journalist comes into the dressing room before a show and finds himself drawn into a battle of wits with Dylan and his friends, who are constantly challenging the guy, asking him questions about himself, basically asking him to defend his very existence to them.
It's amazing, and reveals a certain antagonistic streak in Dylan, a tendency to go on the attack, to prevent anybody from understanding him or pinning down anything about him. Pennebaker, by simply observing, by letting his camera unobtrusively weave through the scene, getting a rough fly-on-the-wall perspective on the singer, arguably understands much more than almost anybody else who Dylan encounters over the course of this film. He gets Dylan's need for mystery, for myth, and recognizes it as a bit of an act. He's also perceptive enough to see a different Dylan, the charming, bashful young boy who's so polite with an older British woman who comes to pay her respects, enthusing about his songs and earnestly asking him to come stay at her country mansion. There's a moment, towards the end of a particularly ornery and provocative "interview" with a reporter from Time magazine, when Pennebaker's camera zooms in on Dylan's face, capturing the bemused, playful smile dancing across his features as he answers a few questions. It reveals his famed aggressiveness towards the press as a bit of a joke, a put-on, a game to create a certain persona — Dylan's having fun with it, enjoying the clash as a sport.
If Pennebaker's film is enlightening about Dylan the man, it remains even more worthwhile for its portrayal of Dylan the musician. In rehearsals, in ad-hoc jam sessions at house parties, on stage, in loose songwriting sessions at a piano, Dylan always seems utterly focused, utterly alive, never simply tossing something off. His energy and passion for his music is obvious. If the public Dylan was always changing, always playing games, there's something dead-serious about Dylan the musician, which made that schoolgirl crack about Bringing It All Back Home kind of sting; he shrugs it off with a joke but the annoyance shows through anyway. The film is alive with Dylan's music, with snippets of concert footage; he rarely gets to play a whole song through, but Pennebaker collages together more than enough music to capture what it was like to see Dylan live on this tour. He sings through the first three verses of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" at one point, and Pennebaker films it in a closeup, because Dylan's face is very much alive when he sings, seething with the bitter irony of the lyrics. Dylan's best songs hurt, they're dangerous: the story of rich tobacco farmer William Zantzinger and poor maid Hattie Carroll is unforgettable to anyone who's heard it, because Dylan doesn't just tell the story, he brings its images to life, and he infuses it with the depth of his own outraged emotions. When he sings this song in Pennebaker's film, his face communicates everything that the lyrics do, the heartache and acute sense of injustice.
What's remarkable is that this is true even of Dylan's more elusive later songs, after he abandoned this kind of topical rant. The film closes with an equally heartfelt rendition of "Love Minus Zero/No Limits," one of Dylan's best songs from this era. Its poetic evocation of love isn't direct or representational like Dylan's earlier songs, and its images are figurative rather than visual, but it's obvious that it is no less deeply felt, that its emotions well from somewhere deep inside. The final moment of music in the film, the penultimate shot before a chatty, informal car ride, is accompanied by Pennebaker's most ostentatious camera move in the whole film. The camera, behind Dylan, floats aloft towards the high rafters of the theater, looking down at the musician within a small circle of pure white light at the edge of a dense darkness, and then the camera looks up, out at the house lights as the final notes of the harmonica fade away. It's a gorgeous moment, as mysterious and strangely poetic as anything in Dylan's songs. Pennebaker has a lyrical sense that's sometimes lost or ignored in his frenzied, off-the-cuff backstage camerawork, but that's readily apparent in his soulful closeups and the more formalist austerity with which he films Dylan's concert appearances.
Pennebaker is equally interested in Dylan's musicianship offstage, in the way any gathering with his friends might suddenly burst into song, with Dylan or Joan Baez or anyone else who happens to be around. (Though an interlude with Baez where she sings a few Dylan compositions inadvertently winds up as further proof of Dylan's artistry; despite her lilting, lovely voice, there's no escaping just how boring Baez is, how flat and lifeless her performance is, how lacking in Dylan's crucial energy and passion.) Pennebaker also evinces some curiosity about the character of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, who with his bushy black eyebrows and big glasses and noncommittal expression is in some ways even more gnomic and inscrutable than Dylan himself: who knows what this guy is thinking? There's an enlightening scene where Pennebaker films the merciless negotiations Grossman conducts with several British promoters for a few shows, hammering away until he gets the tremendous sum he wants for Dylan. Throughout it all, Grossman shows no expression, no trace of anything; he's almost creepy, like a mob boss delivering ultimatums.
The point of the scene is obvious, of course, Pennebaker's not-exactly-revolutionary suggestion that it all comes down to commerce, that beneath all the artifice, on at least one level, Dylan's just another pop star. He's what the kids are listening to this month instead of the Beatles, as one newspaper article has it. That's part of it maybe, but Pennebaker seems to know it's only part, that there are many parts to Dylan, which is why Don't Look Back is structured as such a collage of public and private, performance and backstage, "in character" and out, rock star and folk singer and pop idol and just a guy enjoying himself and doing what he wants. All of these things are in Dylan, and all of these things are in Pennebaker's film as well.