How appropriate that, as Dont Look Back wheels its way into New York’s Film Forum, I’m Not There is still commanding one of the theater’s other two screens; it’s as if D.A. Pennebaker’s film lined itself up perfectly with the prism of Dylanology created by Todd Haynes. What’s important to remember, of course, is that it is actually Haynes who is reading Pennebaker, not the other way around. Both I’m Not There and Dont Look Back forge a portrait of the same mythic, unfixable character, depicting a man who is “everyone and no one.” For Haynes, Dylan’s various facets are so different as to constitute their own separate identities (six in all). Interesting, then, that Pennebaker presents a similarly divided (and divisive) Dylan.
There isn’t much plot in Dont Look Back; it’s essentially a collection of episodes, vignettes and scenes from Dylan’s ’65 tour through England, when his fame had hit a substantial peak. There’s a fairly intriguing supporting cast—Joan Baez is in tow, her fading star painfully obvious in light of her companion (a reporter even asks her what her name is). Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, who also served as one of the film’s producers, is interesting in the way that managers of such artists tend to be (one guess as to what he cares about most) and there’s a great sequence where he negotiates a fee for Dylan to perform on the BBC. One can’t neglect Donovan, the popular British folk singer who gets completely one-upped by Dylan at a party; and of course Allen Ginsberg, who has a brief, albeit memorable cameo in the film’s famous opening sequence.
Throughout Dont Look Back, there are as many shades of “Bob Dylan” present as there are judgments of who he is and was. Many criticize him as a pretentious actor, hiding underneath the empty shells of language games. There are some who see him as a counter-cultural subversive whose anti-hegemonic message is as artistic as it is ideologically sound. And then there are others who say that he is just a kid, a twenty-four year old overwhelmed with the situation he is in, just out to have a good time.
They’re all correct, of course. In support of the first interpretation, I will venture that Dylan is nothing if not an actor, and it is painfully obvious how much of his demeanor is an act. In the contemporary age of hipster-irony, it’s far too easy to see how much of Dylan is an affectation. Early in the film, during a press conference, Dylan holds an over-sized light bulb in his hand. “Oh, this?” he responds when asked about it. “This is a gift from—from my friend, from a very intimate friend.” At the same time, there are moments where Pennebaker is able to find the person behind the mask (or is it just a different mask?). Dont Look Back is a veritable Rorschach test. One’s predetermined conceptions and opinions of Dylan will be confirmed here, no matter what they are. Indeed, when a character is as multi-faceted and nuanced as Dylan is here, viewers will see whatever they want to see.
One of Dylan’s most “genuine” moments occurs in a sequence towards the end of the film as he is interviewed by a reporter from Time magazine. Dylan is ferociously antagonistic towards the reporter: “You don’t print the truth in Time magazine, man,” he says. When asked what said truth might be, Dylan responds that it would be a photo, a photo of a bum throwing up right next to well-dressed Mr. Rockefeller. (One can’t help but feel somewhat emboldened by Dylan’s seeming “rebellion” against a deep-rooted symbol of the powers-that-be.)
Pennebaker later presents us with the film’s strongest image: Bob Dylan staring into a mirror backstage, his guitar held up firmly by the strap over his shoulder. He appears to be fumbling with his shirt or his tie, trying to adjust something (what, exactly, is unclear). Dylan looks into the mirror for a long time, concentrating, searching for something he can’t seem to find. It’s as if he doesn’t understand what he sees. That, to put it mildly, is the plain and simple truth.
Zachary Wigon studies Film Production and Comparative Literature at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is the editor of the film studies publication, the Tisch Film Review. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.