Don’t Look Beyond: Scorsese on Dylan

There’s been surprisingly little written about Martin Scosese’s documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home .  David Jaffe over at Slate begins his review by suggesting the ways Scosese may have been compromised by the PBS project.

This documentary comes complete with a Starbucks tie-in, an Apple logo, and a celebrity director’s credit. That director is Martin Scorsese, who has surely coveted access to this footage—donated by D.A. Pennebaker, Murray Lerner, and others—having already shot Dylan as the pièce de résistance to his documentary about The Band, The Last Waltz. But before you get too excited about this crossroads meeting, viewer, beware: This project was co-produced by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen. Scorsese was brought in well after Rosen had already conducted the interviews and approved the material.

Jaffe is grateful nonetheless, in spite of the absence of sex, drugs, and Dylan’s more than politically incorrect statements.  One expects a PG rating for “viewers like you”.

But this is more than a PBS-sanitized nonfiction film about one of the defining figures of our time.  It is a failure of the documentary form, capitulating, as it does, to the constraints of the authorized version.

Imagine the same film made, say, by Errol Morris.  First off, the interviews would not have been prefabricated by Dylan and his staff, an approach that minimizes the possibility of cutting through the facade and exposing contradictions behind the delicately composed image of “the man without a past”. Nor would we have the quick cuts away from the singer just when his unguarded backstage behavior starts to be revealing. Recall those long, awkward scenes in Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back when, for example, Dylan indulges in an unmerciful send up of a young backstage visitor, or responds to a professional journalist with an endless series of irritable (and, perhaps, justifiable) retorts and obstacles. As the camera refuses to turn away from its subject and maintains its unblinking gaze, one eventually gets a clear sense of the complexity of the situation and the forces shaping Dylan’s experience.  As this happens, the unofficial truths begin to emerge.

(To be continued…)

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