Dont Look Back is a fly on the wall cinema verite documentary chronicling Bob Dylan’s tour of London in 1965. I first saw this just a few years ago, also on DVD. Thanks to my sister Carole for gifting me with this copy. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker who went on to direct many concert films, music documentaries, the Clinton campaign documentary The War Room, and is still working today(most recently with 2009’s Kings of Pastry), Don’t Look Back is a classic of the genre. This is where watching the films chronologically gets interesting because I found it very curious watching this on the heels of A Hard Day’s Night. They’re both, on paper, essentially the same story. Following a popular music act backstage and onstage, dealing with fans, the press, their entourage, partying, etc. They both are shot in black and white and the Beatles film even imitates the verite style. Of course the Beatles film was fictionalized, not presented realistically, filled with absurdist flights of fancy, and the Dylan film is all real. Or is it? There’s always been a debate over how objective documentary filmmaking actually is or whether it even has a responsibility to be. Documentaries have hours and hours of footage that is never used. The director, in editing the film, essentially writes the story that he’s able to find within. On top of that, Dylan, even at 24, seemed to enjoy tweaking his image. It’s been said by those who were on the set that he was always very aware of the camera. So when he berates and grills one of the guests partying in his suite about who threw a glass off the balcony is he actually upset? Is he performing for the camera? Is he performing for the assembled crowd? I suppose one interpretation is, if he is deliberately presenting false images and impressions to the camera and others, then the image he chooses to portray, real or not, says something about him. Ultimately, I care less about the veracity of what we’re presented with, than the fact that I find it compelling. Though I thought he seemed a little rough on the science student(as he’s described) interviewing him, I have less sympathy for the journalists asking him inane questions at a press conference. It may not have the lighter wit that The Beatles had, but in both cases there’s a sense of performing. Is Dylan combative for the sake of being combative, or is he trying to challenge the norms? I find there is some wit in, while appearing to berate the press, he’s actually trying to get them to move beyond asking the same dozen or so questions that everyone asks him. By refusing to engage in the dull circus, he’s trying to elevate the tedium into an actual exchange of ideas. This is where Ebert confounds me. Both in his original 1968 review and in his 1998 review of the rerelease, he seems very dismissive of Dylan, describing him as, “immature, petty, vindictive, lacking a sense of humor, overly impressed with his own importance and not very bright.” It seems to me that Dylan doesn’t lack a sense of humor, but he lacks Roger Ebert’s sense of humor. It seems that Ebert is genuinely a fan of Dylan’s music, so perhaps this portrayal of him was tantamount to having a hero knocked off a pedestal. It seems he might have considered blaming Pennebaker rather than taking the Dylan he sees in this 96 minutes entirely at face value. In any case, I really enjoyed revisiting this and respectfully disagree with both the 25 and 55 year old Ebert. I should note that, his scorn for the version of Dylan in this film aside, his praise for the music is still high and the review is a moderately positive one.
I know I’ve seen In the Heat of the Night before, but it has to be a good 20 years ago or more. Though the details had faded, my basic impression of the film is the same. Here’s a film that tackles the issue of race relations in the late ‘60’s head on, but presents it in the form of a genre piece, a police procedural murder mystery. This gives audiences the opportunity to feel they’re seeing something important while still getting caught up in the whodunit aspects. I don’t mean to make this sound dismissive. I actually think it’s a rather clever idea. A small town in Mississippi has a murder on their hands and it just so happens that the only person who can help them is an African American homicide detective from Philadelphia who just happens to be passing through town. Rod Steiger is the bigoted, but maybe not as bigoted as you think, sheriff. Sidney Poitier is the visiting detective who gets introduced to Steiger after being arrested shortly after the murder. He’s from out of town, someone’s been murdered, he’s at the train station at 3 in the morning, and he’s black. So of course he’s arrested and assumed guilty without even a cursory check of ID. And thus begins the cycle. Poitier is constantly being second guessed and abused, yet the voices of reason always prevail. There’s always someone who’s listening closely enough to realize he knows what he’s talking about. Some reviews I’ve looked at are critical of the broad Southern bigot stereotypes. I think, if anything, beyond the characters treating him the way a black man would be treated in Mississippi in 1967 because that’s how it was, there are probably a lot more reasonable characters in it than is probably plausible. Yeah, they all call him boy, but when he points out that they have the wrong suspect because he’s lefthanded, they don’t dismiss him out of hand, or worse, just try to railroad the suspect through so they can satisfy the public. These cops may be as racist as the world they’ve grown up in, but they actually care about finding the real murderer. There are a number of irredeemable racist characters in this film, but generally speaking, they’re not the cops. Though acknowledging the flaws in the system, this film wants us to think it’s basically good. Flawed but not broken. Which makes it just controversial enough to get headlines. But mainstream enough to sell tickets and win awards. And, I should add, I did like it. I should also note that I enjoyed the Quincy Jones score yet again, though not quite as much as The Pawnbroker or another upcoming 1967 film.