D. A. Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back” is screening next Monday the 27th with the Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter” at the Astor Theatre.
Show this film to anyone who dares treat any artist like one constant, unchanging identity. Anyone who believes that Shakespeare is just Shakespeare, that Carver is just Carver. Dont Look Back catches Bob Dylan just as he, already a cultural icon, was beginning down what would be remembered as the most controversial road he ever took: Turning electric.
Although the film was made before this actually happened, looking back at it in retrospect makes it seem almost as if Pennebaker and Dylan are trying to tell us “See? It was always going to happen!” like stacking up a mountain of evidence. This is a restless and perhaps terrified Bob Dylan tearing down a myth as recklessly and as violently as he possibly can.
Directed by D. A. Pennebaker, this film catches its subject walking a tight rope. In one scene we see Dylan yowling like Guthrie into a microphone with an acoustic guitar in front of an old flatbed truck out in wheat fields. And in another, in dark sunglasses acting all too cool, posturing around a young Donovan in a hotel room cluttered with reporters and sycophants. He seems bored, maybe. Definitely frustrated.
I’ve always been hugely frustrated with the idea that any artist at the beginning of their career could be expected to be at all like they are at the end. Early Stanley Kubrick is a far stretch from Late, same for Bellow, same for Roth, same for Neil Young, who once in an interview with Charlie Rose paraphrased Bob Dylan saying “I’ve heard Bob Dylan say that he doesn’t know who wrote those songs any more” and how could he? How could a 40 year old Bob Dylan, a 50, a 60 year old Bob Dylan, be anything close to a 20 year old?
D. A. Pennebaker is often credited as being one of the pioneers of the Cinema Verite movement of “direct observational cinema”. It’s an important thing to note that Pennebaker never for one moment pretended that his subjects could forget he was there, that he had any chance of disappearing into the wallpaper. The camera’s never forgotten and that’s an unavoidable truth that Pennebaker exploits it as far as it can be taken. The camera just sticks around, it doesn’t let the subjects rest, eventually becoming just another personality for the subject to try and impress.
Bob Dylan was said to have been pretty mortified after seeing a rough cut of Pennebaker’s film, it having left him feeling pretty rotten about how that film seemed to make him appear. Perhaps he’d started to believe the crap his rabid fans and adoring press kept spewing about this noble moral messenger… Although I doubt it. It was this point he realised that it didn’t matter, just like everything else he did, it was all part of an act. It was all just as fake as anything else.
This is what’s special about Pennebaker’s film: Not that it shows an uninhibited look at the behind-the-scenes Bob Dylan, but instead that we see a legendary self-mythologiser mastering that craft. There are those figures in the culture like Joan Didion, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway or Bob Dylan that understand that their public persona is as much a character to be invented and presented and utilized as the work they’re more famous for. Although, how rare is it that we’re ever given a chance to see these folks actually inventing these public personas?
Recently restored by the Criterion Collection with a fantastic 4K scan, there’s never been a better time to see it. So go, see it.