This summer at Oxford I’m presenting paper on identity and Bob Dylan (specifically his representation in I’m Not There), and as such I’ve been revisiting the other cinematic representations of Dylan over the years. The one that started it all, however, still remains the most significant, I think: 1967’s Don’t Look Back. Permit me to indulge in a bit of commentary on its significance for documentary (and Bob Dylan) theory…
D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back was significant on a number of levels—but perhaps most of all for the way that it made “public” the direct cinema/cinema verite style in America. Pioneered in the states by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock’s “Drew Associates” (whose 1960’s production of Primary is often considered the first major film of its style), direct cinema utilized technological developments in portable cameras and sync sound to more organically capture “reality” in an unobtrusive manner. The goal of these filmmakers was to remove themselves from the equation—to be mere observers without commentary, interview, or interference. Often with small (sometimes one-man) crews, Drew Associates’ films used quiet, lightweight, shoulder-mounted cameras and on-camera mics to “observe” their subjects in a mobile, improvisatory manner. Hence the classification Bill Nichols gives to direct cinema: they are films in the “observational mode.” According to Nichols, this mode stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker, the ceding of “control,” the eschewing of anything nondiegetic, a preference for synchronous sound and long takes, and a commitment to the present-tense, the intimate, the immediate. “Observational cinema,” writes Nichols, “affords the viewer an opportunity to look in on and overhear something of the lived experience of others.”
While 1960’s Primary garnered critical acclaim and marked the much-heralded arrival of direct cinema, it wasn’t until 1967 and the release of Don’t Look Back that the artistic and commercial possibilities of direct cinema reached their apex. Pennebaker (a former “associate” of Drew Associates) set out in 1965 to observe Bob Dylan on his British concert tour, and the result—Don’t Look Back—proved to be one of the most memorable portraits of an icon/celebrity ever captured in cinema. It was Pennebaker’s first big-league documentary, and it invented the rock documentary (ultimately spawning such classics as Gimme Shelter (1970), Woodstock (1970), and Pennebaker’s own follow-up, Monterey Pop (1968)).
Capitalizing on the new youth culture’s consumer clout, Don’t Look Back broke all box office records for theatrical documentaries when it was released in 1967. Critical reception was more mixed at the time, with many prominent critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael decrying the film for being “contrived” and “fake,” even while it claimed a somehow more objective or “direct” relationship to its subject. Other critics were impressed with the access and intimacy the film represented—giving audiences an “insider” view of the life of a superstar celebrity.
Among other things, Don’t Look Back signaled a revolution in a sort of “celebrity” documentary that pierced the distance between fans and celebrities, removing the iconic aura and mystique that so often accompanied such stars. There were precursors, certainly (1964’s What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA and 1966’s Meet Marlon Brando), but Don’t Look Back’s presentation of Bob Dylan took celebrity documentary to another level. As the camera observed Dylan, the audience saw all too clearly the fundamental rupture between the “stage/public” and the “private” persona—between the image and the self. With Dylan it was especially jarring, for his folk/populist image depended on a sort of authenticity or fidelity to self. But as he revealed himself in the documentary, Dylan was much more a master of spin and self-stylized performance than anything. Or was this only because there was, in fact, a camera always present? Don’t Look Back was the first step in the decades-old quest to understand the elusive identity of Bob Dylan. Is he for real? Can anything he says be trusted? From what soul or self are his ridiculously poetic lyrics flowing from?
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Don’t Look Back (aside from Dylan being an incredibly fascinating person) is that, in spite of itself, it is a very reflexive meta-critique of media itself. In the end, this is a film that is more about the media and how the media interfaces with its subjects (and the subjects with the media) than it is about Bob Dylan. A large part of the film is devoted to Dylan interacting with the British press (interviews, press conferences, reading articles about himself…). Dylan has a field day toying with and turning the tables on the stodgy, square reporters who ask him questions such as “do you love people?” (to which Dylan responds, “it depends on how you define terms like love and people”). In the famous final encounter between Dylan and Time magazine’s Judson Manning, Dylan says, “I know more about what you do—and you don’t have to ask me how or why or anything—just by looking, than you’ll ever know about me. Ever.”
Hmmm. Is that true, Bob? Are you that elusive, just because you are a poet? Perhaps.
As film historian Jeanne Hall has argued, this famous scene reveals less about Bob Dylan than it does about Pennebaker’s point of view, which she argues is a “systematic critique of traditional news-gathering and reporting practices” Ultimately this scene serves to validate Pennebaker’s own alternative method—suggesting that the passive gaze of direct cinema reveals more “just by looking” than any traditional expositional form might. Thus, even though it is still “direct cinema” and maintains a façade of objectivity, there is a clear editorial perspective here—a “story” being told through carefully selected and juxtaposed fragments. Don’t Look Back demonstrates how a documentary film can establish trust (with both the subject and audience) through observational distance, even while it can exploit that trust to convey—in the end product—a decidedly subjective point of view.
It’s funny because the film is ultimately treating Bob Dylan just as Dylan treats the press: as an object for its own purposes. But on his more cynical days, that is precisely the sort of vibe Dylan exudes in terms of his views of people, and of life: we are all just suckers, feeding off of and constantly trying to get the better of each other. A sad point of view, certainly, and one that, like Don’t Look Back, makes Bob Dylan look like a snotty little misanthropic punk from Minnesota (and nothing more).
But can we say that about Dylan and divorce it from our love of his music? I think so. Inasmuch as Don’t Look Back is about Bob Dylan, it is even moreso about his art, or art in general: an experience of seeing, hearing, encountering something, unhindered by a litany of muddled commentaries and abstract interpretation—even from the artist himself.