Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dylan Times Two/No Limit

D.A. Pennebaker's classic documentary of Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of the United Kingdom has been refurbished for a new, deluxe DVD release that, when held in one's hand, has the earnest heft of a Bible. In addition to a digitally restored presentation of the main feature, there's a collection of uncut performances culled from various venues during the tour; an entire second disc of compelling outtakes, including other performances and a guest appearance by Nico; and a reprint of the 168-page book version of Pennebaker's film, containing images and transcriptions of every word spoken in it. When this film was first released to US theaters, some of its strong language was censored, but this was restored for the previous video releases and remains intact here. For a film shot in 16mm with available light, the image quality is exceptional and the sound quality is also improved, but there is something about a document of such historical importance that entices the eyes and ears to dilate, to make the most of what's available. What's especially great about this set is that the uncut performances shift the package's focus from Dylan the charming provocateur to Dylan the artist; it is amazing in itself, in this era of stage teleprompters and song books, to see him stand alone on a stage and call to mind all the imagistic words from these songs, at a time when they were less than a year old in some cases, and interpreted with so much inflection, immediacy, and urgency. At the same time, it becomes easier to understand why audiences were so powerfully drawn to the almost Holy force of the truths he summoned and why they felt betrayed when he chose to diffuse the unacceptable burden of that limelight by sharing it with a band and erecting a wall of electricity and volume between his audience and his vulnerability. Impossible to watch without thinking, "Woe is us, but how blessed we were."

It's hard to tell whether this film -- co-scripted by Bob Dylan and director Larry Charles -- was intended as a fantasy or an allegory, but I'm inclined to see it as a remake of DON'T LOOK BACK of sorts, and Dylan's own jet-black recrimination of a world that has failed to heed the warnings of his best-loved songs and grown monstrous. Dylan himself, looking like a diminutive Dr. Phibes in Hank Williams garb, plays Jack Fate, a legendary musician caught and imprisoned after witnessing, shall we say, an unsharable political truth involving his father. Many years later, as his father lies on his deathbed, Fate is released and immediately snared by snake-oil agent John Goodman and producer Jessica Langue as the only available musical star for a televised charity event. The nature of the charity is vague, but so is the nature of the heavily spray-painted, multi-racial, brooding, self-interested landscape of the America herein portrayed. Fate himself is no more familiar; a wiry little man no one recognizes, he steps out of his communal prison cell into an America where his once-famous songs (like "My Back Pages") are heard principally in languages other than English, or thrashed out by groups like the Ramones; no one remembers him except a few people who might profit from that memory. Dylan proves himself a better actor than any of his earlier screen work indicated, noble and touching and cypherish, and Jeff Bridges and Val Kilmer have terrific supporting roles as an arrogant journalist and animal wrangler, respectively. Bridges' interview with Jack, which seems to have been improvised and whittled down to its most vicious essence, is one of the film's highlights. Shapeless perhaps, but sprawling and impressionistic in the best sense, not unlike "Desolation Row" applied to cinema. Though it's fairly obscure now, it's bound to gain greater recognition as one of Dylan's major latter-day projects in years to come. Why was this film called MASKED AND ANONYMOUS? Perhaps because AMERICAN GRAFFITI was already taken.

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