Friday, May 9, 2008
"I'm Not There": Dylan Degree Zero
The more interesting aspect of Dylan Watching the last four years or so hasn't been his new music, which is fine if a bit cornball and relying too much on the songwriter's reputation for a passing grade, but rather in how well, how brilliantly he's managed and manipulated his image and mythologies. Chronicles, the assumed first volume of an ongoing memoir, had him writing clearly about his influences and his struggles as an up and coming folkie in Greenwich Village in the Sixties, an intelligence that maintained a bucolic trace that never let on too much, too soon about what his fandom wanted to hear about.
I actually enjoyed Tarantula and still parts of it brilliant in ways that would have been interesting if Dylan had continued writing for books, especially the riffs on Aretha Franklin and the odd fellows who suit her, and especially the poem about the end of Bob Dylan, recited at the beginning of Todd Hayne's recent fantasy I'm Not There. As for film making, at least he's allowing professionals, Scorsese and Haynes, to put his accounts together.
I don't think that manipulating his reputation so much in recent years makes Dylan less of an artist, only that it's been the most ingenious expression of his art of late. The self-construction of his persona is crucial to his ability to write songs in the manner he did. The work does stand by itself once we deal with the albums and not the reputation, but like Miles Davis there is a context of rigorously maintained mystery about them that can't really be separated from the work.
Actually, I think Dylan's albums of new material in the nineties and the 2000s are among the best writing in decades, a sure recovery from the depressing drift of his work in the eighties. Love and Theft and Modern Times are the writings of an artist who has let his masks slip a little, allowed his defenses to open just a tad and allowed his thoughts to develop a clear, if haggard voice. None of the lyrics approaches his genius from his best work, but then again Davis never produced some quite like Kind of Blue after that, nor did Mailer attempt to write another Naked and the Dead. While I'm bored unto death with the packaging and repackaging of him as cultural icon, I do admire his willingness to move on to the next music to be written and played, regardless of what others might make of it.
He wasn't about to give away the core and cause of his mystique, and seemed determined to with hold more than he would reveal, a shrewd and measured use of his charisma and allure. The Martin Scorsese directed miniseries for PBS No Direction Home was, of course, a feast of obscure footage and interviews with Dylan and his fellows as they recalled his rise to stardom and their time basking in Bob's cold glow, but again it was a production underwritten and controlled by Dylan, with Scorsese being only the hired gun to bring it too market. Now, finally, thanks to NetFlix, I've seen I'm Not There, director and co writer Todd Hayne's movie that deconstructs, in several overlapping narratives derived from Dylan's factual biography and his self-mythologizing, with a series of actors including Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett taking turns doing impressions of the reclusive icon. I turned it off forty minutes into the DVD , my prurient interest in Dylan and the manner in which he continues to add layers to what's left of his charisma finally exhausted. It’s not that the various versions of Dylan here aren't good or canny; the actors are good mimics who imitate Dylan's accents and affectations from the differing periods of his life, from the days when he wanted to be Woody Guthrie and took to adding a twang to his speech and dropping his g's like were seeding an apple grove, to the citified version of himself, post Greenwich Village and Gerdes Folk City, when the media discovered him and he made himself another cryptic sage with a bag full of self-cancelling aphorisms perfect for the age of McLuhan. Blanchett gets this ideal of Dylan down perfectly, an angular, shock-theatre hair do, a firm, scowling face, a constant attack of the amphetamine jitters.
What brings it down is the lack of a story line that would make this fanciful and hard to take fan letter into something that would inspire my willing suspension of disbelief. There is something about Dylan’s fan base that nears a cult identity, and one picks it up from time to time when a writer starts speaking in a stream of Dylan’s, where song titles and oddments of phrase, riveting and hackneyed, substitute themselves for a real argument; you know the audience reading the stream just nods and grooves on the heaviosity it all. I posted about Dylan’s problematic Pulitzer a month ago, and the only response was from a writer who’d self-published a novel where the character names and the major plot lines are taken straight from Dylan lyrics. I haven’t read the book, but I would imagine it to be at least as annoying as the Beatles film Across the Universe, where a plot is contrived from that band’s lyrics to offer us up—what else?—a tour of the most over-studied clichés of the Sixties. That I was getting the references this movie was making in the course of its unraveled narrative style made the matter more frustrating; it was depressing to realize that one had to be a Dylan obsessive to follow any of this at all. There has always been something cultish about Dylan's fans, but this, among other efforts since the start of the 21st century, is too close to the songwriter asking to be adored and coo'd over. He is willing to remind us again and again and yet again if we missed it the first time that he was a genius poet of the juke box, and we, a generation priding ourselves collectively for being so bright and hip to the Man’s trick of co opting our best ideas, seem more than willing to let this guy sell us our own memories.