The obvious soul to siphon for Dont Look Back is Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, a comparison that is not circumstantial but, I suspect, intentional. After all, the mid-’60s films featuring and warping the Beatles public persona were revolutionary in their day, and they feel as ribald and restless today as they were then. These films not only utilized but mangled the burgeoning cinema vérité stylings of the French. They were markers of subversive anti-documentary documentary filmmaking that threshed out the interstitial regions between fact and fiction, narrative cinema and documentary cinema, and an untested wandering soul named D.A. Pennebaker couldn’t resist.
The similarities in the two films also speak for themselves, yet Pennebaker, who directs Dont Look Back, has his own passion to fulfill. Like the stylistic relationship between their respective subject matters, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the two films are both bosom buddies and diametric opposites. The shaggy-dog editing and manic cutting retain prominently, but the cotton-candy insanity of A Hard Day’s Night is, if present at all here, merely a vestigial structure. Pennebaker’s film prefers the laconic, lacerating milieu that Dylan so often adopted in his public life. Just as A Hard Day’s Night was a masterpiece because it located a visual medium to express the aural entropy of its subject matter, so too is Dont Look Back a superior film because it envisions a visual dialectic for the musical world of Bob Dylan – at once timeless and timely, ragged and melodic, distressingly realist and innocently, charmingly fable-like.
The temptation is to predict the tell-all music documentary of years to come and connect the dots such that Don’ Look Back plays the part of the onlooking stranger glimpsing into Dylan’s personal life. There’s a touch of that here and there, but the film’s central fascination is how it actually begs the question of whether Dylan’s personal life is worth the glimpse. The film is an oddly humanizing portrait of the figure not because it dramatizes his life or unlocks his inner mysteries and heroic frailties, but because it leaves us out in the cold, evoking Dylan the traveling troubadour as much as Dylan the nebbish child playing with his forefathers’ music. As much as Dylan feels like an omnipresent, timeless backdrop to America’s history, the film also contrasts him with the everyday workers he is sometimes painted in front of. The film asks if he is a subject we can ever know, a figure that can ever fit in anywhere.
For instance, we all know the opening – where Dylan holds flashcards of the lyrics of his own “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and gallantly strives to keep up the pace of that slice of hysterical thousand-miles-an-hour proto-punk folk. But we do not pay as much attention to how out of place Dylan is in the image, never existing as a natural presence in the film but as an object of analysis, a cultural entity that has been placed on top of the film staring at the camera and breaking the vérité stylings of the film. Dylan is artificial, right from the beginning. As he fumbles and just barely trains the cards into their places at the right time, he is flailing to retain his curated distance, his judicious detachment from us, his sense of celebrity and mystique.
Watching the film, its chief success is how we cannot tell whether this failure, whether this inability to retain his own image, makes Dylan uncomfortable, or if it makes him whole. For a musician who expended so much energy tapping into a cultural and national history, does pretending to fit into that lexicon actually enshrine him in the canon, or does it keep him at distance, always relating to the history of devil worshippin’ crossroads travellin’ music without ever actually being a part of it? It might be that messing up, fumbling, is the way Dylan connects to the failures and frailties of his forebearers; after all, blues was made in the mistakes, and not in the successes.
Artifice, I must point out, is not condescending in Dont Look Back. A Hard Day’s Night, in its own way, was a study in how documentary naturalism is merely a ruse or a paint-job placed over cinematic artifice. In that film, the Beatles were only ever pixie dreams, fantastical children in adult clothing, and icons of a cultural zeitgeist translated into slapstickian Marx Brothers personas. Figures of entropy, in other words, but not people we were ever to accept as real. The same is more lightly true of Dont Look Back, where Bob Dylan seems ever conscious of the cameras around him, ever unsure of himself, and always attempting, even in fits of dogmatic internal rage left explicitly unstated, to retain his mystery. Or simply to savor his internal identity at the expense of the cameras that would try so valiantly and unconscionably to enter into his inner realm.
Which has the effect of humanizing Dylan as an entity more than any willful or aberrant attempts to construct a thesis around him would have . Dylan’s dogged deterrence of the character, his willingness to relate to the world as a detached idea more than a reconcilable human, identifies Dylan ambidextrously. On one hand, he’s an innocent child afraid of the limelight, very much the lanky and skittish, high-strung bundle of nerves he came off as in the media. Like a dork, in other words, the father figure to every future unforgiving alternative music star who would shun and be tormented by the limelight, and who would call Dylan pop. He becomes the everyman extraordinaire.
On the other, the film – in the way it carefully defines Dylan as the shady sunglasses-wearing, leather jacket-clad enigma who glances at the camera indifferently and vacantly – withholds any sense that even this innocent, nervous child image is the true Dylan. It is no accident that Dylan, as depicted here, would slide right in with the ghoulish rogues and anonymous, vacant sonic tigers of any of Godard’s films, noirish cinema types more than fully defined people. Dylan always seems like a performance and not a real human; had the film been made five years later, we might be watching Jean-Pierre Leaud putting on the glasses and playing the harmonica for him. The film always allows, and even beckons, the possibility that this too is Dylan’s masterminded image, a social concoction of monomaniacal, and possibly mischievous image-construction on his part. Whether he is victim or agent of his own social identity, whether the way he fumbles with those cards is genuine or itself part and parcel with his calibrated and enigmatic public persona, is tacitly withheld from us. He may be planning to mess up his card transitions; again, it only makes us like him more, makes us think of him as a more “genuine” soul. We never know who Dylan is here, and the sense is that he wants us stranded in the darkness with only our approximations and haphazard estimations to bring us toward the light.
If, then, Don’t Look Back is a tonal mismatch to the distinctly, innocently childlike A Hard Day’s Night, this film has its own disarming outsider innocence as well. Pennebaker follows Richard Lester in striving not to locate the soul of the human beings in the subject, but instead to uproot those beings and redefine the notion of private life through the refracted lens of celebrity. Both films capture the soul of public performance as a consuming, possibly devouring entity that cannot but distance us from the subjects, and both films implicate themselves in this process. They do not attempt to break down the boundary between the fiction and the fact, but to blur them and even solidify them by mashing them together. The films become not revelations, but mechanisms of obfuscation, self-refracting mirrors that define themselves not as solvents to the mystery of celebrity but buttresses to that mystique. The films, they say, are celebrity icons too, products of fiction that redefine but do not usurp the fiction.
Thus, if Dylan himself seems a confused, wandering soul in the film, it is very possibly a question of the way we value the image of the wandering musician, or the image of the frail, confused human at the core of our public heroes, rather than a question of whether this was truly Dylan’s identity. Dylan may be cultivating and curating this image, fashioning himself as a frail, lanky man because he knows we will enjoy him more, and relate to him more, if we understand his flaws to be heroic. Everything we witness may not be Dylan the individual, but Dylan the icon calculating Dylan the individual. And, as such, the icon may be the individual.
Does Dont Look Back peruse and make play with this private/public divide quite as pugnaciously as A Hard Day’s Night did? No, not really, and it never really wanders as viciously and spiritedly either. But it continues to drift, and its drifting is often matched in its intimacy by its sheer beauty (the searing chiaroscuro transforms the film in fits and spurts into noir, folk art parable, absurdist flight of fancy, and even grisly horror film all with the simple flicker of light). If nothing else, the palpable discomfort of the film – the way Dylan seems ever disquieted and perturbed by the cameras – is itself a bold and pointed riposte to the camera-cavorting Beatles found in Lester’s film (which would become, in one form or another, the dominant persona for musicians in films of all types, including but not limited to the Spice Girls). That strained difficulty between the rough-around-the-edges, still hurtling energy of the film and the laconic, restful anonymity with which it is played, like the uneasy dissonance within Dylan’s physical features, at once boyish and craggly, is morsel enough to make Dont Look Back essential cinema.