A Review: Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home

September 20, 2008

 

Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan And Martin Scorsese

A Review of the Movie

No Direction Home by Martin Scorsese

by

R.E. Prindle

 

Texts:

Scorsese, Martin:  No Direction Home- A Film

Marcus, Greil:  http://www.powells.com/essays/marcus.html

 

     I’m not the only one that shakes  his head over the rants of Greil Marcus.  The perspective he’s coming from deserves some attention.  Greil Marcus in the disciple, probably the successor. of the decadent leader of the Situationist International, Guy Debord.

     The SI is a crank organization.  Like Hitler they place a lot of emphasis on architecture.  Architecture seems to go with the totalitarian personality.  Unlike Hitler whose goal was a Roman grandiosity to match his Thousand Year Reich, we can’t be sure what SI architecture would be like other than ‘human to make people happy.’  In other words Debord found fault with architecture that the majority were happy with but displeased him.  He seemed to think that he could create some stunning new architecture that might please someone other than himself.  We all know how hard a feat  that is.

     But he ranted and raved actually being influential in the moronic disturbances in France in 1968.  Whatever beauty he proposed we’re still waiting to see.  Greil Marcus still thinks the ability of the SI to transform God, life and beauty is within his grasp.  He runs around America at the public expense trying to drum up the Revolution.  Bob Dylan seems to be the centerpiece  of his plans.  Greil’s reaction to Martin Scorcese’s Dylan movie might then be a little more understandable.

     As film biographies go, and they don’t go very well on average, I thought Scorsese’s effort made the most of not too much.  After all there is really very little earth shattering in the career of Bob Dylan.  Greil thinks Bob brought in something new; at best Bob just brought in something a little different no matter how startling it seemed from the perspective of the times.  From the perspective of this time  one wonders what the fuss was all about.  Nevertheless Scorcese maintained a nice tension of interest.  But not for Greil.

     Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary- a shape-shifting assemblage of 1950s and 1960s film footage, still photos, strange music, and interviews with Dylan and compatriots conducted over the past years by Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen- never holds still, it allows, say, the Irish folksinger Liam Clancy, telling stories of Dylan in Greenwich Village, to contradict Dylan telling his own stories about the same thing;  the film contradicts itself.  There is nothing definitive here; within the film there is not a single version of a single song that runs from beginning to end.

     So now we’re essentially back to Guy Debord’s SI architecture argument.  Whatever has been created is no good and must be replaced by Debord’s ideas which unfortunately for us we cannot evaluate because Debord gave no examples.  It doesn’t really matter, of course, because if he did their ‘definitive’ beauty and utility would not be, perhaps, so apparent to the rest of us as it was to him.

     So, as Debord’s successor Marcus implies that Scorsese has made a movie as ugly as the architecture that Debord and presumably Marcus despises.  The implication is the Greil would have done much better.

You can imagine Rosen driving up to Scorsese’s door with a truck and dumping thousands of pounds of books, interview tapes, film  reels, loose photographs, a complete collection of Dylan albums along with a few hundred or a few thousand bootlegs, and then leaving, trusting that a fan who also knows how to make a movie to make you watch…could wave his hands and just like that a movie would emerge…

     Well, why not?  I’m not aware of Scorsese’s process but a very fine movie of its type does emerge.  With unerring insight Scorsese seeks out key influences, the most important artists in Dylan’s life, introduces them to the viewer, very likely for the first time, and brings some coherence into the Dylan story.  It’s only a movie though, no substitute for study.

     I do not consider it a fault that Scorsese presents all the high points covered by the four main biographies.  His purpose seems to be to cover the years from Dylan’s high school beginnings to Bob’s nervous breakdown in 1966 which he does.  Although already a long film it is never boring while to cover more ground it would be necessary to condense and eliminate to add anything beyond 1966 making the film unintelligible- something like Greil’s own prose.  Of course, the Situationist International that believes in magic might be able to snap its fingers and make it happen, although I think their blank screen notion might be easier to conceive than something with content.  Besides I don’t believe in magic.

     Greil apparently doesn’t believe in differences of opinion or else he feels that loyalty to his ideal requires everyone to ask what Bob said and confirm it.  Marcusian version of freedom of speech.

     As it is I thought Scorcese very skillfully selected song snippets to bring out the very best of artists like Hank Williams, John Jacob Niles, Makem and the Clancys and others.  His interviews with Dave Van Ronk, Liam Clancy, John Cohen and Suze Rotolo were apt and to the point presenting each as attractively as possible.

     I mean Bob left some bad vibes behind that were not accentuated, nay, even glossed over.

     The key point of the movie was the actual monologue or dialogue carried on with a very careworn looking Dylan.  Time has treated him fairly viciously.  Bob revealed himself as much as a modest man could.  There was very little braggadocio while Bob explained himself in a very natural droll manner.  He was much more charming than first person reports of him would lead you to believe.

     Of course, Greil is fixated on what he considers the revolutionary break with the Folk Tradition with Bob as the Promethean figure bringing electricity to ‘weird old America.’

     Greil apparently believes we viewer have been hoodwinked by Scorsese of malevolent intent as a result.

     So you enter the movie with your ideas suspended and your prejudices disarmed, thrown back- eager to be moved- as in moved from one place to another- as you were.  You’ve been set up; you’re ready for anything.  You’ll buy whatever the movie is selling.

     But by the end- when the film has taken the viewer from Dylan’s childhood to those halcyon days in the spring of 1966, then cutting the story off, cold, with just a little card to indicate that the story went on, Bob Dylan continued to do various things, but it’s not the movie’s problem so good night- you don’t know how it got to “Like A Rolling Stone” starting up on stage one more time.

     By this point Marcus has divorced himself from reality and vanished into the pure rhetoric of his armed prejudices.  He’s no longer talking about the content of Scorsese’s movie.  Greil is contrasting the movie he thinks he would have made, Debordian architecture, with the movie or architecture that actually exists.  An inability to perceive reality that is quite mad in its own way.

     It’s what the Jews call building a fence around Torah.  A mad attempt to prevent reality from disturbing the lovely inner version of not only the way they think things could be but shoud be.  Once again as with Debordian architecture or Marcus’ movie not a vision likely to be shared by many others.  One’s private dreams never would be.

     Greil even disagrees with Scorsese’s title in a rather vehement way:

     …despite that title, “No Direction Home,” from Dylan’s greatest hit, “Like A Rolling Stone”- already used as a title for Robert Shelton’s 1986 Dylan biography- such a cliche, isolated like that, so “On The Road”, so “it’s the journey, not the destination,” so corny.

     LOL.  I suppose so, but it didn’t bother me nor affect my enjoyment of the movie.  The running interview with Dylan unifies the movie while giving us an open window to Bob’s motivations and the working of his mind.  While no song was finished Scorcese has great taste and selected the most moving passages from the songs he showed displaying the remarkable vocal talents of the singers.  I was astonished at the mad approach of John Jacob Niles with its odd setting of his auditors standing over him as he sang.  I melted before Tommy Makem’s rendition of the Butcher Boy. (Don’t know the real title.) while the Clancys were superb.  I’d heard all these artists on record before but the recordings lost all the dynamics of the performances.  Even the old Red Pete Seeger really put his song across live.  The New Lost City Ramblers unfortunately were as stiff as their recordings.

     By this time I suppose most people reading this have seen Scorsese’s movie but for those Dylan fans who haven’t the movie is highly recommended.

     As for Greil I can only cite the words of the old Children’s game:  Greil Marcus, Greil Marcus, come out, come out, from wherever you are.

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