May 24, 2011
A busker in Central Park named Peter Ferarra used to introduce “Like A Rolling Stone” by saying, “This should be our national anthem.” If Peter was right, and I think he was, then May 24th, Bob Dylan’s birthday, should be a national holiday. He is, after all, a national treasure.
It’s not just that Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of the last century and an astonishing rock performer, he’s a true Renaissance Man. Accepted even in adademic circles as a genuine poet (“Boots of Spanish Leather” appears in The Norton Anthology of Poetry), Dylan is also a painter, a novelist (Tarantula), a memoirist (Chronicles, Volume One), a peerless radio host, a delightful actor and a film composer and director.
Quite a few Bob Dylan songs show him to be a film buff as well. In “Desolation Row” he pays homage to Bette Davis, in “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” he mentions a “a movie called Gunga Din,” and it’s said that “The Might Quinn” is about Anthony Quinn in The Savage Innocents.
There’s also a scene in the first film Dylan directed, Eat the Document (1972), in which he reels off movie star names like Tyrone Power, Ronald Coleman and J. Carroll Naish. Document is a cinema verite feature photographed by D.A. Pennebaker (director of Dont Look Back, which itself is a record of Dylan’s1965 tour of England). Dylan’s piece captures more surreal aspects of touring than Pennebaker’s. Its “pet groomer” scene, in which the director/star turns dozens of words into abstract found objects and quickly reassembles them into a surreal word collage, is simply astonishing.
In both Eat the Document and Dont Look Back, the folk rock icon seems to be acting, creating a character called Bob Dylan. Viewed in the context of film history, his performances belie the commonly accepted notion that portable 16mm. cameras were so unobtrusive that they were unperceived by documentary subjects. On the contrary, Dylan seems hyper-aware that he was being filmed. (Today -- with literally pocket-sized cameras like the Canon 7D -- such a view of 1960’s verite films, made with noisy 30 pound rigs, seems almost nonsensical.)
Even though Bob Dylan documentaries were shown in commercial movie houses when they were released, they are decidedly not “Hollywood” pictures. And Dylan’s other directing project, Renaldo and Clara (1978), is equally “art house;” it mixes concert footage and a dreamlike narrative, both performed by Dylan in white face make-up.
Of course, Dylan never intended his films to be “mainstream.” His neighbors, when he lived at the Chelsea hotel in the 1960’s, included such underground experimental cinema luminaries as Taylor Meade (Lonesome Cowboys) and Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures). If Dylan-directed movies have been more widely seen than those of visionary avant garde filmmakers, it’s simply because he’s a superstar.
But Dylan has, of course, toiled in the trenches of Hollywood. “Rainy Day Women” is used to great advantage in Forest Gump (1994). And “Things Have Changed,” written for Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” won an Academy Award for Best Original Song (2000).
Dylan’s most ambitious Hollywood venture, though, was his stint as both actor in and composer of the score for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). His highly stylized portrayal of a character named Alias is -- at least for his fans -- one of the best things about the movie. His Tex-Mex tinged score is extremely moving and the song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” which he wrote for the film, is nothing less than classic.
Indeed, Bob Dylan’s singing and songwriting do come to mind first when thinking about his contributions to film. In addition to all of the above, for example, songs are the centerpiece of Martin Scorcese’s PBS special “No Direction Home” (2005). In fact, Scorcese seems to build the entire first half of the show around a performance of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Which brings us full circle. I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe that “Like a Rolling Stone” is important for filmmakers, because the song is rife with editing lessons. Its unforgettable four verses and choruss are, according to Dylan, cut down from the 50 (!) he originally wrote. The lesson: cut ruthlessly.
On the other hand, the song’s 6 minute duration is an object lesson in not cutting, and in not compromising. When Columbia released it as a single in 1965, radio stations wouldn’t play any record longer than 3 minutes. A year earlier, AM disc jockeys had chopped The Rolling Stones’ 3 verse hit, “Satisfaction,” by a full third to make it fit the format. And two years later, they deleted 4 minutes of virtuoso playing on the Doors’ “Light My Fire” for the same reason. But in 1965 Bob Dylan and Columbia Records stood their ground. The artist wanted a record out there that he’d listen to, and that was unlike any he’d ever heard; only with the equivalent of “final cut” could he have gotten that.
So today, we celebrate a milestone for an uncompromising artist from whom we’ve all learned and by whom we’ve all been entertained and uplifted. Happy 70th Birthday, Bob Dylan!