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…)

Laibach Lives

I’ve often talked with students and colleagues about the Slovenian “band” Laibach and Goran Gajic’s very intriguing documentary about them, Laibach: Victory Under the Sun (1988)

Not only is the band an interesting phenomenon in its own right, but the documentary adds to the pleasure (and perversity) by featuring Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on Laibach and NSK, the multi-media art movement they founded back in the ’80s.

They never received much attention in the US and have been keeping a low profile for the last seven or eight years. They surfaced in July with a new album, WAT (“We Are Time”) and this month in Artforum magazine.

In the former Yugoslavia, Laibach made use of a political strategy that Zizek frequently mentions as being particularly effective under Eastern European communism — being more politically correct than one’s own leaders. By following very strictly certain guidelines and policies of the dominant regime (to which, of course, no one is expected to pay more than lip service), one is able to force the complacent authorities to confront the very symptoms of their adopted ideology.

Could such a strategy work under current politico-economic and cultural conditions in the US? My first response would be the obvious and cynical one that the manifestations of such a strategy by artists would go through successive stages of being momentarily outrageous, puzzling, adopted in small circles by those who catch on and those who don’t, appropriated by the “merchants of cool”, and finally cleaned up for mass consumption, with the result that any remnants of political effectiveness would be neutralized. But perhaps it’s worth looking beyond this rather simple reasoning.

It will be interesting to see what form Laibach takes under the “new world order” and in the aftermath of the transitions in Eastern Europe. I suggest artists in the West pay very close attention.