The Cinema of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s cinematic output is dubious at best.  Reynoldo and Clara was an epic failure. Masked and Anonymous maybe was a bit convoluted, not to mention a bit out there and, dare I say it, self serving? The seminal D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Don’t Look Back, about Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, was very cinematic, fraught with strife and conflict, due in large part to Dylan going electric and touring far too much. But it was still a documentary, even if its central figure was the greatest dramatist of our time.

The real cinema of Bob Dylan is contained in his music. It comes from his songs. It is not poetry or rock music. Were it that simple, he wouldn’t be twenty thousand leagues above us while the rest of us run as fast as we can to catch up. Forget Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen. Pure cinema isn’t contained in the pages of a screenplay. That would be far too simple and a great dramatist is anything but simple. Quite frankly, they are jerks. They are surly, combative and they do not suffer fools at all. You ever watch a Dylan interview? Right there, before your eyes, he is writing a story. When the foolish interviewer tries to write it down, preserve it for posterity, he changes it. Posterity kills spontaneity. Spontaneity is life. Life is cinema.

The characters who inhabit his cinema are as great as those Shakespeare and Marlowe have to offer. Thieves, card sharks, vindictive females, confused and backstabbing politicians, they are all there. It’s never a serious world though. All the characters are seen through a Luis Bunuel lens. This is the life Bob Dylan sees. This is the life that is. This is the cinema of Bob Dylan.

What takes a screenwriter ninety minutes, Dylan does in seven. You could literally sit down with a book of his lyrics and create an unlimited number of screenplays. They can be about Johanna, the  unattainable woman who haunts the main character’s world, just out of grasp, forever out of grasp. You could travel to Desolation Row. Haven’t we all been there? Bob’s Desolation Row is a bit different, though, in which the characters make those in Fellini films seem normal. Romeo and Cinderella wander around, foolishly trying to continue the façade of their existence. Einstein, dressed as Robin Hood and a jealous monk ramble through. Now lost, Einstein sniffs drainpipes and recites the alphabet. If only he could get back to playing the electric violin.

Dylan’s cinema is a document on the human condition. As we detach ourselves further and further through the use of technology, through its utter uselessness, we lose the greatest element of storytelling, our humanity.  The personal becomes plastic. Joy becomes a DP who tosses the camera up in the air and that’s his shot composition. Beauty is no longer boundless, but is a CG shot in front of a green screen. Watch Laurence of Arabia. If an Effects Person can capture the world, the 3D world, the one where glasses are not needed, the one where the love of your life lies beside you in the grass and you see night sky and stars blanket you, where she touches your face and you feel a million human emotions, then I will pack up my things and go. For you will not find true drama talking to something that’s not there, no matter your imagination. It will not creep you out. It will not make you laugh, cry, or wonder. Your brain will go for the ride, but how full will your soul be?

Follow Bob Dylan’s lead. Dip your hands into the fires of life and create cinema from within you. Get back what technology wants to leave behind. Ride the train. Maybe, if you stay long enough, you will find a thrill or, at least, a story.