After seeing I’m Not There,some Bob Dylan fans will undoubtedly accuse director Todd Haynes of committing heresy with his radical reinterpreting of the singer-songwriter’s mythic persona. But such dissenters would do well to remember that when it comes to desecrating Dylan’s good name onscreen, no one has done the job as meticulously as the man himself.
Though he has been the subject of two celebrated documentaries — D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) and Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005) — that, respectively, contributed to and dissected his legend, Dylan has authored several films on his own that present a first-person perspective on his mysterious inner self. Those movies have been forgotten, derided and/or nearly impossible to obtain. But examined as a whole, they provide a fascinating (if not always pleasurable) overview of Dylan’s five-decade relationship with his fans.
The 1972 documentary Eat the Document sets the tone for Dylan’s self-made films. Shot by Pennebaker during Dylan’s 1966 U.K. tour — the infamous “gone electric” tour that followed the one chronicled in Don’t Look Back — Document ostensibly covers the same thematic terrain as the earlier film: celebrity, the media, the agony of the road. But with Dylan overseeing the editing, Document became a confrontational, nonlinear exercise in how much jerking around a loyal audience can withstand.
Where Don’t Look Back maintained a critical distance from its subject — a boyish 24-year-old artist at once toying with and spurning his adoring throngs — Document both suffers and gains from its lack of any such distance. The contemptuous Dylan of Don’t Look Back, who enjoyed taunting clueless journalists, calls the shots in Document, and the film’s disjointed snippets of late-night bull sessions, angry folk-purist fan commentaries, celebrity encounters (including John Lennon and Johnny Cash) and some stellar live footage are clearly meant to reflect the mindset of a cocky prodigy high on his own genius, confident that anything he creates will be brilliant. Fight the urge to smack Dylan, though, since Document’s sometimes-grating incoherencedoesexpertly convey the blurry, sleep-deprived rush and soul-deadening monotony of the life of a touring musician.
The indulgences of Eat the Document are easy to excuse because of the pivotal creative period the film covers. Plus, it’s relatively short. Neither of those factors is in play, however, in Renaldo and Clara, the grandly disastrous 1978 feature debut of Dylan as writer (with playwright Sam Shepard), director and leading man. Running just under four hours, this amalgam of concert movie and pseudo-autobiographical art film (with Ronnie Hawkins playing “Bob Dylan,” and Dylan and then-wife Sara starring as the enigmatic title characters) is terrible for obvious reasons: Dylan can’t act; his musician co-stars can’t act; and the non-concert sequences are fraught with ponderously “symbolic” imagery that would get their maker laughed out of a freshman film class.
Still, once you accept what a laborious, pretentious mess it all is, Renaldo and Clara wields a hypnotic appeal. Like David Lynch’s lesser films, it represents an artist’s vigorous working-through of his issues in dreamlike non sequiturs. Such purely instinctive impulses have been the hallmark of Dylan’s songwriting genius, but while Renaldo and Clara has a few stunning wordless passages, too often the film’s ruminations on identitystink of bitter, insular ego. Suffering through a dissolving marriage and a recent string of mostly underwhelming records, Dylan looks besieged, but, tellingly, only during Renaldo’simpassioned concert performances (filmed during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour) does he turn that disillusionment into art.
If Dylan’s cinematic trifecta were a typical Hollywood biopic, Renaldo would be the story’s low point, where our hero’s early promise has collapsed under the weight of self-destructive behavior. His story then finds its feel-good resolution with Masked and Anonymous. Debuting at Sundance in 2003, Masked was perhaps the most-anticipated film of that year’s festival. Not only did Dylan star, but he also co-wrote the film (under the pseudonym Sergei Petrov) with director Larry Charles, and the cast included John Goodman, Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. Once it screened, the film was quickly branded a vanity project. But Masked has aged rather nicely, and much of its success has to do with the latest of Dylan’s many public transformations.
Coming after the 20 years that were Dylan’s darkest period — waffling from dispirited arena warhorse to born-again Christian and spiteful has-been railing at a society that didn’t want to buy his new records — Masked celebrates his artistic rebirth. Heralded by his magisterial ’97 comeback disc, Time Out of Mind, the late-’90s Dylan suddenly seemed older than time itself, his authoritative, grizzled voice singing tunes haunted by the nation’s musical history: spirituals, murder ballads, lovelorn blues. The renaissance continued with 2001’s even better Love & Theft,which lightened Time’s Old Testament despondency with hilarious one-liners and Dylan’s courtly savoir-faire.
That newfound gracefulness and sense of humor also shine through in Masked, which is by no means a model of airtight three-act construction, but is easily Dylan’s most pleasurable film. Unlike his previous screen incarnation as a bratty or entitledenfant terrible,the Dylan who waltzes through Masked is a wiser man who’s witnessed the worst of humanity and treats it all like a cockeyed cosmic joke. The plot — about the staging of a benefit concert featuring forgotten musician Jack Fate (Dylan) — is merely a clothesline on which the songwriter hangs his lyrical obsessions: political corruption, the nobility of the common man, the search for lasting values in a materialistic world. Almost every line of dialogue is a pithy witticism that feels plucked from a Dylan song, and the mostly superb cast deliver their lines with the right combination of conviction and good-natured playfulness, as if they (like Dylan) understand that life is inherently unhappy but that this shouldn’t ruin your day.
For once, Dylan seems fully comfortable up on the screen. Watching him ride off into the sunset at Masked’s conclusion— or rather, in perfect Dylan style, heading stoically off to prison for sticking to his principles — I was reminded of a line from Renaldo and Clara that seemed to sum up what Dylan had finally achieved cinematically: “If the world was like music, the world would be beautiful.”