Last night the better half and I finally saw “I’m Not There,” the unconventional Bob Dylan biopic directed by Todd Haynes.
Just as a point of trivia, it was being shown in the Lincoln Square Theater in New York, on two screens. The 7pm showing we attended was something less than a third full, in my estimation. I can’t think what prompted the theater to put such a film on two screens. I’m not knocking it by saying this; it’s just that it’s not exactly “Spiderman III,” y’know?
Anyway: with expectations rather lowered based on the views of others whom I respect, I really went in just wanting to enjoy what I could of the film, and not waste my time and money. On that basis, I honestly felt it was a pretty good comedy. I don’t mean this in a backhanded way. For a full-immersion-type Dylan fan, who has read all the interviews and encountered all the stories and read all the crazy theories and has heard all the music, to get elements of all of it thrown at you in the film’s non-sequential style is rather comic in itself. Then, there’s all the great lines that Dylan has said at one time or another, coming out of the various actors’ mouths (cut-up and out of context, of-course). Those are some real funny lines. Admittedly, parts of the film were very tedious to me (e.g.: the fake talking heads droning on in a dull faux-documentary style). Still, I smiled and laughed quite a bit overall. My better half wasn’t as amused — make of it what you will.
That being said, I think the film has essentially nothing significant to say about Bob Dylan, and, were it to be looked at as any kind of attempt at rendering a true picture of him, it would have to be considered as being deeply flawed. I think that this has been pointed out in a whole variety of ways by others already. I might write something more on that angle at a later stage, but for now I’d just leave it at that.
One thing I will say is that I came out of the theater feeling that my favorite part of the film was — perhaps surprisingly — Richard Gere’s. His was the least Dylan-affected role. He plays “Billy,” a bemused, stoic and rustic character living in a landscape populated by people straight out of the songs on the Basement Tapes. The Dylanesque noise that exists in the other roles does not intrude on his performance. He might be anybody. I like that. When I first heard about the film’s concept (so many years ago now!) I honestly thought it would be more like how Gere plays it. That is, that you would have sundry different actors (and actresses), acting in scenarios comparable to some of those in Dylan’s career, but not actually aping Dylan per se. I think the relative freedom of Gere’s part is also attributable to the fact that it’s the only role that doesn’t really come out of the myths and gossip surrounding Dylan’s life, but is instead largely built around those Basement Tapes songs. And that suggests an entirely different film that might have been made, or might one day be made, where all the characters come out of Dylan’s songs, with the “hero” or observer character just going from scene to scene or period to period. (Give me 60 million and I’ll see it gets made.)
Todd Haynes has recently said that he doesn’t know if Bob Dylan has even seen the movie yet. He’s also never personally spoken to Bob, although he received carte blanche all those years ago to make the film he wanted to make. I personally can’t imagine the “subject” of this film being able to sit through it without getting physically queasy. On the other hand, maybe he’d just see it as a pretty good comedy, too.
There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound.
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun and he was shot in the back.
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Rich Lowry writes on President Bush’s vindication on the subject of stem cell research, now that scientists have succeeded in turning adult human skin cells into the sought after pluripotent cells.
With the breakthrough that Bush had been hoping for – and talking about since 2006 – his position looks farsighted. The ethical boundary he defended helped push scientists to pursue the new discovery. Bush’s opponents, on the other hand, specialized in simplistic advocacy contemptuous of moral qualms about how stem-cell research was conducted. Their muted reaction to the latest development suggests that for some of them what was so exciting about stem-cell research wasn’t the far-off potential therapeutic applications, but the chance to portray pro-lifers as standing in the way of life-enhancing scientific discoveries.
It should be remembered that President Bush chose this issue for his first televised address to the nation, in the summer of 2001. Pre-9/11, the promotion of a culture of life was one of the main goals of his presidency. (As I recall it, the other major things that Dubya wanted to focus on on the domestic front were education, Social Security, taxes and immigration — some now addressed in substantial ways, others clearly not. Foreign policy initiatives were always going to be dictated in large part by events, and the event on September 11th, 2001 was obviously a defining one like no other could be.)
In that address, by limiting federal funding to the already-existing lines of embryonic stem cells, President Bush ensured a landscape in which there would be incentives for other kinds of stem cell research. John Kerry and John Edwards made this a centerpiece of their 2004 campaign, accusing Bush of being in the sway of theological convictions and of being anti-science, and promising for their part that miracle cures would soon emerge if they were elected. The Democratic party, along with a substantial number of Republicans, continued to push the issue after the election, and President Bush has twice vetoed bills that would have given federal tax money to research requiring the destruction of additional human embryos.
Back in June of this year, when the advances with skin cells were announced as having been successful in mice, I posted the following:
What’s remarkable is that President Bush is still being accused of being “anti-science” by people for whom the real scientific advances in this area are completely irrelevant; all that they see is a political issue on which they believe they can win. Yet, the science has developed to the point where anyone who is still screaming about taxpayer funding for embyronic stem cell research is rapidly beginning to look like someone who wants to destroy human embryos just for the sheer hell of it.
Now that the same success has been achieved with human cells — by researchers both in the U.S. and in Japan — it seems that a punctuation point can actually be put on this issue. Embyronic research will continue, of-course — funded privately and by certain states that chose to jump in to the tune of billions of dollars — but the fact that this kind of work on adult cells is so much easier and cheaper looks almost certain, at least in my mind, to dry up heavy future investment in that area.
So, going on seven years later, a key policy of George W. Bush’s bears real fruit and goes from a subject of derision to an unabashed (if not completely unbashed) success. It’s supportive of the point-of-view he’s expressed a number of time in interviews; namely that history is the best judge of presidential legacies, not polls and pundits.
Those politicians who jumped overboard on the politics of this issue, and used over-simplifications of the science and offensive promises to the sick to manipulate voters with regard to it, will now suffer, in all likelihood: no consequences whatsoever. They will simply move on to the next issue to demagogue. They will not concede that they were wrong, nor are they likely ever to be asked to concede such. That, I think, is just a depressing fact.
So, better to meditate upon the great un-depressing fact: thanks to these latest successes, we are that much further away from a world where people would derive medical treatments out of cells taken from cloned embryonic versions of themselves, stored in a laboratory. I’ve never been able to see it as anything other than the old feeding off of the young, in an affront to nature straight out of a science-fiction nightmare. It’s where it had seemed we were headed at quite some pace. Thank God someone applied the brakes.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
A new Dylan blog called Song for Bobby is noteworthy for being en español. However, you don’t have to read Spanish to pick up on the fact that the author likes highlighting the roots and influences of Bob’s music. As in this post, where a series of YouTube clips, beginning with Johnny Cash and ending with Dylan, clearly illustrates the relatively straight line that runs through the songs.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Yours truly was traveling over the holiday weekend. I thought I’d be posting more from the road, but it didn’t happen, and that’s probably for the best. I have a new theory that it’s all the typing going on which is causing Global Climate Change: all the friction and kinetic energy of billions of fingers hitting trillions of buttons. Think of the text messages alone that get sent every instant of ever day! And all of those furious bloggers and messageboard-posters. The cumulative radiated heat from all of that activity has to be going somewhere and doing something, right? The human animal just leaves a path of destruction from cradle to grave in so many ways. Someone better do something quick.
Oh well — although this is of the most solemn import for the fate of Mother Earth, it’s just a digression right now.
The main point is that, also due to traveling, I haven’t been able yet to see the new Todd Haynes film, the one which we’re told is sort of about Bob Dylan but kind of maybe not, namely, “I’m Not There.”
I’m therefore especially grateful to a couple of readers who have seen it and have shared some impressions and reactions.
Mary at BabyBlueOnline has an extensive commentary on the film at this link. Just a bit from it:
I do not agree with the Haynes view of Dylan, which basically ends almost on the road (or riding the rail) of despair. It misses his humor and replaces it was biting sarcasm (Dylan could be sarcastic, but usually for a reason – as in exposing hypocrisy, even his own). And the spiritual element, the spiritual depth of Dylan’s music is just completely ignored in the narrative (though the music is present in the soundtrack which at times is almost a separate narrative all itself and the selections are terrific). This could be the view of the almost-fan, who knows a lot about the particulars of Dylan but doesn’t quite get it yet – has not yet gone deeper into the soul but is still fascinated by the look, even the feeling – but not the transformation. Dylan is all about transformation. Haynes assembles all the ingredients – and it does it extremely well – but he seem doesn’t seem to know how to mix them together to make the pie.
And Marek Breiger e-mailed with these thoughts:
Sean: I saw the film Friday evening and felt the project a mistake.
No one was more “there” than Dylan in terms of addressing what Whitman called “the time and land we swim in.”
The terrible year of 1968–a year as tragic as 1865–found “John Wesley Harding” (actually released Dec. 27, 1967) as an answer to the extreme members of the counterculture and the twin stupidities of looking to drugs or violence as an answer to the Vietnam War and the murders of King and Robert Kennedy.
In opposition Dylan offered songs of responsibility, remorse, and looking into one’s soul for answers and truth. And in the Woody Guthrie memorial concert, early in 1968, Dylan with the Band sung some of Woody’s “patriotic songs” as well as “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt” in a way that made clear Dylan and The Band’s dedication to both folk and rockabilly and Dylan’s dedication to America and “Uncle Sam” as a symbol not of worldwide oppression but worldwide hope.
Dylan lost that year both his own father and Woody Guthrie and the writing in “Chronicles” shows his love and respect for them both.
As Dylan writes, he was a father himself by the time of his dad’s passing, three times over, and he wanted to share with his father feelings that death had silenced.
“Tears of Rage” is a timeless song from that period and note that it is a song from a father’s point of view, with an awareness of how the daughter has been fooled by the counterculture and also a plea for return from both parents. “We’re so alone/And life is brief.” But it’s done without demonizing the daughter either…who else was writing poetry like that at that time? Who else refused to ride the wave of the youth culture during a time when slogans, Don’t trust anyone over 30, Tune in , turn on, drop out–were so popular? Who else saw the scene with so much compassion and so little anger?
The truth is, at least for me, that there are no six Dylans and that Dylan is a conscious artist…”I’m Not There” is a stunt and it diminishes the real courage of a man who trained himself as a musician and steeped himself in American music out of both an emotional and intellectual need–and whose actions, whether going South during the Civil Rights movement, blending folk with rock n roll, not giving into the simplistic ideas of the counterculture, recognizing the truths of both the Old and New Testament, admitting responsibility in terms of failures in relationships, continuing an American musical tradition–these are things that cannot be expressed by a film that shows little real knowledge of the era Dylan emerged from. It’s not enough to find film footage of Vietnam or JFK … perhaps Haynes should have read Chronicles again or On the Road or Frost or Whitman and Guthrie himself in “Bound for Glory.” That might have been a good start …
So, there you go. I imagine I’ll see the film myself this week. I don’t know if it’ll inspire me to write anything or not, let alone anything as eloquent as the above.
The box office numbers, if those things make sense to you, are at this link. The film opened in 130 theaters (I assume that’s just in the U.S.).
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Abraham Lincoln said it pretty good in 1863, in his Proclamation of Thanksgiving for that year:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battlefield; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed,
Done at the city of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
Oh well, a little more on the Todd Haynes film — or actually on some things he’s said in an interview while promoting the movie. He and the film’s co-writer, Oren Moverman, talked to the JewishJournal.com. Naturally enough, the subject of interest to that publication was Dylan’s Jewishness or Judaism, although the article also says that the film doesn’t really deal with that aspect of Dylan’s identity. A couple of extracts from the piece:
Bob Dylan’s Jewish identity has long been a point of conflict and controversy. His short-lived conversion to born-again Christianity dismayed many, heartened a few and confused all. But at least two commentators are certain that Jewishness and Judaism inform the core of the former Robert Zimmerman’s beliefs and music.
Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman, the director-writer and co-writer, respectively, of the new Dylan biopic “I’m Not There,” which opens theatrically in wide release on Nov. 21, are convinced, after living with their project for many years, that Bob Dylan remains a Jew. [And how exactly would he stop being a Jew? -ed]
“That is the most secret and well-preserved of his personae,” Todd Haynes replied when asked about that gap at the New York Film Festival. “I think Dylan’s relationship to his Jewishness is much more private than any of the other roles he has played; it’s kept close to his relationship with his family life, and I don’t think we’re supposed to know more about it than that.”
“[Judaism] is the one central thing in his entire biography,” Moverman said in a telephone interview last week. “Whether it is overt or not, it is there. Even the Christian period occurred as a reaction against his Jewishness, and that lasted only three years, and the next thing you know, Dylan is doing Chabad telethon appearances.”
Hmmm. So Dylan’s Jewishness is at once very “secret” and at the same time is demonstrated by his appearances on television for a conspicuously Jewish charity. Hey, I know: If the film did deal with Dylan’s Jewishness, there would be one actor who was very overtly Jewish, sprinkled his conversation with Yiddish expressions and kept the Sabbath, and then there’d be another actor who denied being Jewish, and maybe went out and got a nose job or something. That would handle it.
On the other hand, is it possible that Bob is just being himself, and it’s some of the observers who have the hang-ups on this subject?
There’s so much that has been written and said on this topic — I don’t feel going through a litany of facts and figures right now. However, coincidentally, a reader (thank you Ray) sent me a link to this piece by Toby Janicki — someone who apparently isn’t so flummoxed by how someone like Dylan might identify with what is represented by both parts of the expression Judeo-Christian. Todd Haynes might find this angle enlightening, although it would then require him to find a third actor to portray the Dylan who doesn’t happen to see an unresolvable conflict in his own beliefs and behavior. This is getting expensive!
Monday, November 19, 2007
Anthony Lane, in The New Yorker, says it again.
The new Todd Haynes film, “I’m Not There,” is not a documentary about Bob Dylan.
It makes “Yellow Submarine” look like a miracle of sober narrative.
To come at a stubborn subject from multiple angles was a smart move, but Haynes is so enthralled by the stylistic opportunities that his plan affords, as he was in the fifties-hued “Far from Heaven,” that he ends up more interested in the angles than in anything else, leaving the elusive Dylan, once again, to slip away.
Well, I think that Haynes would answer the latter point by saying that it was never his intention to capture the “elusive Dylan” in the first place; he’s supposed to “slip away.” That’s kind of the point.
However, I would note that in the round of promotional interviews he’s doing, Haynes is opining rather more freely on the subject of the “real” Bob Dylan.
But enough about it now, since I have yet to even see the film myself.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Generally on Sunday I try to highlight some kind of spiritual theme in a Bob Dylan-related piece of music. This week the relationship to Dylan is tenuous, but hey, I can do whatever I like, can’t I? A reader (and Bob Dylan fan), Don, recently sent me a link to a video he uploaded to YouTube of a Christian Harmony singing group — of which he is a member — performing The Penitent’s Prayer, and I found it both very listenable and quite inspiring. The performance features a kind of singing known as shape note singing (see Wikipedia here), whose origins in the United States date back to the late 1700s. I think that anyone who has enjoyed listening to old time bluegrassy gospel music — of the sort that the Stanley Brothers made, for instance — will recognize right away that that music must clearly have sprung in part from this. And hence the tenuous Dylan connection, since Bob is a fan of that kind of music, including to the extent of performing some of those songs in concert himself, in the days of the Charlie Sexton/Larry Campbell band.
So, click here or below to hear The Penitent’s Prayer.
The first “verse” which is sung is not actually a verse, but the notes themselves, as explained by Don:
The lead (or melody) is singing do mi la so do re
mi re do while the bass is singing do do do do mi fa so so do. And
the other two parts – alto and treble are singing their own notes by
singing the name of the note on its pitch.
This is how we learn unfamiliar songs, but we sing it on songs we
know, simply because it is a part of the tradition.
Then, the actual verses, known as the poetry, go like this:
Oh! thou, whose tender mercy hears
Contrition’s humble sigh;
Whose hand indulgent wipes the tears
From sorrow’s weeping eye.
See, how before thy throne of grace,
A wretched wand’rer mourn,
Hast thou not bid me seek thy face?
Hast thou not said – return?
And shall my guilty fears prevail
To drive me from thy feet?
Oh! let not this dear refuge fail
This only safe retreat.
From page 64 in William Walker’s “Christian Harmony.”
Shape note singing groups can be found in many places, although I was unaware of it until now.
Friday, November 16, 2007
A few weeks ago on his radio show, Bob Dylan talked about how Hank Williams passed away in the back of a Cadillac on January 1st, 1953. What he didn’t reveal then was that he is in possession of the contents of the briefcase that Hank Williams was carrying with him on that final ride; namely, the lyrics to his unfinished songs.
Well, that was my reaction when I read it right here in Paste Magazine: Dylan, Jack White, others finish Hank songs.
Bob Dylan is heading up a project to have several artists write music and record some of Hank Williams’ final lyrics, according to Steppin´ In It bassist Dominic Suchyta, who played on one of the tracks.
“This project started when Bob Dylan acquired the ‘lost´ Hank Williams songs,” Suchyta tells Paste. “Essentially, the lyric sheets Hank died with in his briefcase. Jack [White] is my oldest friend, we talk on occasion and he asked me to come down and record. Dylan had contacted him to see if he’d like to finish some of these tunes.”
The entire participant list is still under wraps. “No doubt Dylan recorded a tune for it with the Modern Times sessions,” Suchya posits. “I’ve also heard through the grapevine that Willie Nelson and Norah Jones are involved, but like I said this is a shot in the dark. It’s been an interesting project in that sense. I´m a huge fan of Hank Williams and was moved to hear what Jack had to contribute.”
Well, if all this is even half-true, it’s something to look forward to indeed.
Addendum: In his memoir, “Chronicles,” Bob recounts how, from his hospital bed, Woody Guthrie told him he could have his unfinished lyrics. Then, Dylan very amusingly describes the fateful way in which he failed to get them, trudging across a semi-frozen swamp to Guthrie’s house, scaring Arlo’s babysitter, and departing empty-handed. He was soon to be swept up by the force of his own creativity, and the moment for carrying Woody’s torch simply passed. Those unfinished songs were later given to Billy Bragg and the band Wilco, who put tunes to them and released them on an album in 1998. How ironic, but very sweetly so, if Bob Dylan now has the chance to do this with some unfinished songs of the great Hank Williams.
Michael Yon’s latest dispatch covers the first Catholic mass to be said at St. John’s Church in Baghdad in a very long time. His photos speak eloquently by themselves. Yon, who has covered the war from the ground at so many different stages, also says this:
The nightmare is ending. Al Qaeda is being crushed. The Sunni tribes are awakening all across Iraq and foreswearing violence for negotiation. Many of the Shia are ready to stop the fighting that undermines their ability to forge and manage a new government. This is a complex and still delicate denouement, and the war may not be over yet. But the Muslims are saying it’s time to come home. And the Christians are saying it’s time to come home.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
In today’s NY Post, the estimable Queen of Gossip, Cindy Adams, is “trying to keep up with all the Dylans.”
SO, the screening of “I’m Not There,” the new movie on the life of Bob Dylan. It’s six people including Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan . . . listen, don’t ask . . .
Richard Gere, one Dylan, explained it to me this way: “I’m sort of Dylan. It’s expressionistic. The character I play is not really anything. It’s mostly a feeling. The problem was, how to portray a feeling. My job was to find a way to make that specific.” Yeah, sure. Now I get it.
Heath Ledger, another Dylan, explained it to me this way: “I play him with all his different attitudes. I portray the differentiation between his personal and professional life.” Right, absolutely. Now it’s clear.
Producer Christine Vachon explained it to me this way: “Dylan had the ability to change completely. Shed skin like a snake. So this was done differently, using the guise of the different Dylans, because we all have biopic fatigue.” Hey, OK for me if it’s OK for you.
Following up on yesterday’s item about the prayers for rain in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal Constitution has this story today: After the prayers, the rain. Not a lot, mind you, but up to an inch in places. The Associated Press headline is: Georgia Gets Rain, but It May Not Help. Well, I guess that clearly it helps to the extent that it was rain as opposed to more dryness, right? But I’m just a layman. The headline writers at Agence France-Presse opt for flat-out denial: US governor’s plea to above brings no rain.
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