Friday, March 19, 2010

We're Not There

One of my favorite movies is I'm Not There. Granted, I have seen fewer movies than anyone else you know, and granted that I will probably uncritically like anything associated with Bob Dylan, I still think it is a great work of art. I appreciate that Todd Haynes (the director) acknowledged up front that a traditional narrative wouldn't work to ecapsulate Dylan's life and art, so he served up a fragmented jumble of overlapping stories with multiple characters portraying different "Dylans" (without actually using the name "Bob Dylan" at all). I also appreciate how utterly ambitious Haynes was, to the point where he started to conceive of his stories and characters not only as metaphorical stand-ins for Dylan, but for an almost Platonic ideal of American culture. He came to regard Dylan as the great 20th Century fulfillment of an essential American mythology--namely,the possibility and the promise of identity construction. Haynes argued through his film (and more explicitly, in his DVD commentary) that the great idea of America is that anyone can choose to be someone else. He cited Dylan's supposed interest in the Rimbaud quote "I is another." The movie posits that Dylan suffers for his constructions, but portrays him as ultimately rewarded by the culture he signifies, recognized and regarded as a heroic ideal.

But there is a bit of a contradiction there. An essential part of the Dylan mythology involves the backlash he received after "going electric," at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival (This was also the focus of the much more traditional Martin Scorsese biopic No Direction Home). Every good story has to have conflict, and the conflict in the Dylan narrative comes into play vis a vis his audience's rejection of his new direction. And the narrative is made complete when that audience recognizes the error of its ways and embraces him. And that's a good story and all, but why did the audience have to reject him in the first place? Why weren't his fans hip enough to embrace his new identity from the outset? It would be tempting for a Dylan hagiographer to respond by saying, "Well, Dylan is just that much more hip than his audience." But there is a little problem with that theory: The Beatles.

Haircuts aside, when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan they conformed to the expectations of a 1964 "singing group." They wore suits. They bowed after numbers. They shook hands with the host and smiled. They performed "Till There Was You" (a Broadway show tune) for crying out loud. Almost three years to the day after their Ed Sullivan debut, they literally mailed in another performance to the same program:

The contrast couldn't be more jarring. No more suits, no more bowing, no more audience interaction, not even any smiling. With extreme close-ups, experimental use of audio and video technique, and a radically different sound, even altered physical appearances, they are scarcely the same group. And yet the fans still loved their Beatles. Nobody showed up for Beatles concerts and yelled "Judas!". (Granted the Beatles had quit doing concerts, but even if they hadn't, would anybody have thought to do such a thing?) Why were their changes embraced while Dylan's earlier transformation was regarded with suspicion?

My theory: 1966 happened. While the term "The '60s" has become a shorthand term to describe social change in America, the first half the decade was rather placid, certainly relative to the second half. 1966 saw the formation of the Black Panthers, NOW, and the emergence of large-scale Vietnam protests. 1966 saw Time magazine give the "Man of the Year" (still not yet "Person of the Year") award to everyone under the age of 25. In such a climate of all-encompassing change, an individual (or in this case, a band) stands to be able to "get away with" a personal metamorphosis that would be more suspect in a time of relative stagnation.

The implication of this theory is that if the Beatles had put out Magical Mystery Tour, or even Yellow Submarine, instead of Help! in 1965, they would have been castigated by the majority of their fanbase. And if Dylan had waited until Newport 1967 to "go electric," nobody would have cared. And a further implication: if America had not undergone its own transformation roughly concurrently with Dylan's early career, he would not be recognized by anyone, even Todd Haynes, as the fulfillment of an American ideal--which naturally calls into question the validity of such an ideal. It still makes for a nice fragmented and disjointed story, though.


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