Monday, October 3, 2005

Eat The Document

With the release of No Direction Home Dylan fans have a further opportunity to glimpse some of the most sought after footage of his career. Although the film elides a few key characters [Carolyn Hester, Edie Sedgwick, Sara Lowndes], it delivers a well presented, if official, bio of Dylan's early years and has comments from many of the main players, including the man himself. Most effectively, it builds the tension between the divergence of electric Bob from folkie Bob, the former being represented by his infamous '66 tour. Most of the clips from that period are presented for the first time and give a fairly good taste of just how on fire he was when he let loose with The Band.

For those with a hunger for this stuff, an even rarer opportunity is being presented by the EMP when it screens the largely unseen film Eat The Document, this Friday at 8:00 at the JBL theater. The film derives from the same footage seen in No Direction Home and was shot by D.A. Pennebaker with the intention that it would be completed by Dylan for an TV special to be broadcast by ABC. The network passed on it and it was shown only once, in 1972 at the Academy of Music in New York before disappearing from circulation; only to re-appear at a one-time screening in 1998 to promote the release of the Live 1966 recording. The film has had a second life as a not too terribly hard to get bootleg of which I own a rather excellent copy [sorry, I won't tell you where I got it].

For fans of Pennebaker's portrait of the '65 tour, Dont Look Back, this latter film will be a shock. Pennebaker employed a similar shooting style, but the editing was done by Dylan, along with Howard Alk, who had worked as a cameraman on the '65 and '66 tours and who appears in the film as the man in black hat and beard. Unlike Dont Look Back, which employs verite' documentation with some improvised staging to create a linear narrative of Dylan's experiences in London, Eat The Document cuts the footage into a Godardian stew, often confusing and denying the expectations of the viewer. The movie opens with Bob collapsed over a table, laughing hysterically and gets woollier from there. Musical segments are abruptly cut, people and places are shuffled like cards and chronology is thrown out the window. In addition, the image of Dylan as a wisecracking upstart is replaced largely with that of a weary, brittle, dandified ghost; one of the few times he gets talkative is when receiving a backstage visit from Steve Winwood and Spencer Davis. Ironically, the very thing that facilitated this mode was Pennebaker's development of a style beautifully suited to catching the spontaneous, intimate and oddly surreal moments that occurred. As usual, the question arises, what was Bob thinking? There are two schools of thought on this. One is that Dylan was artfully trying to reproduce the sense of disorientation he felt on the tour; the other is that he had no idea of how to edit a fucking movie. As tempting as it might be to ascribe it to the latter [especially in light of Renaldo and Clara] there is a third possibility that, faced with the prospect of having to cut innumerable hours of footage into a 52 minute piece, he had no alternative but to cram everything into a dense, overstuffed package. Viewed in this light, one can view the results as an interesting, but butchered curiosity. However, if one is willing to set documentary expectations aside, the film exerts a hypnotic vibe and fairly entertains with its odd associations and daft moments [a particular favorite is when a sliver of food gets passed along a long table in a manner that resembles more of a last snack than supper].

The EMP is to be truly commended for making this rare treat available and yet, there is an even holier grail which, to my knowledge, has never been screened, due to the fact that it seems to have vanished as completely as the lost reels of The Magnificent Ambersons. Although Pennebaker served only as a cameraman on Eat The Document, he reputedly kept a working print of the footage and cut his own two-hour version, entitled You Know Something Is Happening. In a 2002 interview by Chris Hollow, Pennebaker has this to say about the movie, "That's kind of like a lost jewel. I feel like I've got a piece of string with chewing gum on it trying to get a nickel out of the grading when I think about that film." The film has no IMDb listing, doesn't appear on Pennebaker's resume and isn't credited as a source for No Direction Home. Needless to say, you can forget about finding a bootleg version.

Regardless, many of the '66 tour sequences which appear in No Direction Home do not appear in Eat The Document and some of the ones that do appear use footage from a different camera. The evidence would suggest that, whether they were culled from the long lost Pennebaker film or the original footage, much of the material still exists in pristine condition. Indeed, the clips in No Direction Home are beautifully restored with rich and full sound [a testament, really, to Pennebaker's talent]. It is a pity, then, that such stuff should be parceled out like caviar. The DVD includes a few full-length performances as extras, but largely presents those sequences as truncated clips. It would be nice if, someday, a fuller document would be released, whether it be the Dylan edit or the Pennebaker edit or a newly edited film or possibly, best of all, all three. But I suppose that's about as likely to happen as Brian Wilson finishing the Smile album.

1 comment:

  1. Carolyn Hester is a very dear friend of mine , and I spoke with her yesterday about the new film version of " No Direction " - she did appear in the book , and was interviewed for the film - obviously not making the final cut .
    For a film of such great detail , many people were omitted - but I think Carolyn's is the most glaring , since it was she who introduced Dylan to John Hammond . The film says Dylan came to Hammond's attention in a review of a show at Gerde's , but Hammond knew of Dylan already as a harmonica player on Carolyn's session . As mentioned in the film , the only folk artists the labels were looking for were ones with pretty voices ( like Hammond signing Carolyn ,
    who had - and still has - a very beautiful , high - register voice similar to Joan Baez .)
    She does not bemoan being cut out ; she chose a family life years ago ,and actually turned down Albert Grossman's request that she become part of the trio he was forming with Peter & Paul . Both Dylan & Joan Baez had a singular determination to become famous , almost at any cost . They were capable of lying , and manipulating people to a degree that seems at odds with the values they later espoused . To Dylan's ( and Baez's ) credit , they did not abuse the fame they achieved .