Every One of Them Words Rang True

Every One of Them Words Rang True: The Defiance of Time in Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.


Back in 2006, Bob Dylan was interviewed for yet another ‘Rolling Stone’ cover story. Looking back on the tumultuous decade in which he’d first made his name, Dylan reminded the interviewer, Jonathan Lethem, that he was “talking to someone who owns the Sixties”. Which is true. The flip side, though, is that for a long time, the Sixties seemed to pretty much own Bob Dylan. It was as though he had signed some kind of Faustian bargain with the spirit of that decade, guaranteeing him phenomenal artistic success and a quasi-religious following, but forbidding him ever to evolve beyond it. Had his infamous motorcycle crash in 1966 actually killed him, it might have been seen as a fitting end to Dylan’s story: it could have been his James Dean moment, the 500cc Triumph Tiger serving as a perfect metaphor for the breakneck speed and unpredictable trajectory of his Sixties career. Like some sort of countercultural Icarus, they’d have said, he flew too high, too fast, and was thrown back to the ground. Tragic, but inevitable.

Instead, after an ominous hiatus during which all sorts of rumours about the crash circulated, Dylan returned; but the Dylan who returned seemed even more of an enigma than the one who’d momentarily vanished. If Dylan’s audience had trouble relating to the new Dylan who emerged, Dylan himself had problems relating to his own art, and even his own sense of self:

“Well, it wasn’t that the crash was so bad. I couldn’t handle the fall. I was just too spaced out. So it took me a while to get my senses back. And once I got them back I couldn’t remember too much. It was almost as if I had amnesia. I just couldn’t connect for a long, long time.”

A lot of Dylan fans soon began to share that sense of disconnection. To many, Dylan’s post-crash career proved a letdown. If the stripped-back countrified arrangements and minimalist, biblically flavoured lyrics of ‘John Wesley Harding’ were bad enough, then subsequent albums such as ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘New Morning’ seemed ten times worse. By the mid 1970s, Dylan was seen as an anachronism, an artist whose only contemporary appeal was retrospective. The hugely successful 1974 ‘comeback’ tour with The Band, which had filled stadiums and set records for ticket sales, was viewed as an exercise in nostalgia, a chance for aging hippies and well-fed baby boomers to fondly recall the high tides of the Sixties from the calmer, more contented shores of the Seventies.

The 74 tour had coincided with the release of Dylan’s 14th studio album, ‘Planet Waves’, which received a fairly muted response: it did hit Number 1 on the US album chart, but only because of pre-sales; business dropped off sharply, and overall it was far from a spectacular success, particularly when compared with the record-breaking popularity of the tour. This served to reinforce the impression that Dylan was very much an artist of the Sixties. He had dominated that decade, but now that decade was becoming an albatross around his neck, threatening to drag him under. As the Sixties receded into the past, so the cultural phenomenon known as ‘Bob Dylan’, once such a powerful force, appeared to be ebbing slowly away.

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Twenty years of schoolin’

Twenty years of schoolin’ – Dylan & Scorsese, Together Again

Who could fail to be mesmerised by the footage of Bob Dylan – legs bent, voice ragged but still powerfully expressive, silvery grey birds-nest hair blazing atop a hatless head – performing an eerily beautiful ‘Blind Willie McTell’ in “tribute to” Martin Scorsese, at the Critics’ Choice Music Awards the other night?

Forget for a moment the fact that Dylan gave the performance his all, or that the arrangement was (relative to what’s generally the norm these days) short and stripped back, or that the harmonica breaks were controlled and eloquent rather than blustery and fierce. No, what stood out was how apt the choice of song was for both of these great artists, whether Dylan was truly “paying tribute” or not (and Scorsese’s bemused half-grimace at the word ‘tribute’ implied he wasn’t quite accepting the term himself, perhaps subconsciously deferring to the song’s original dedicatee).

No matter, because both these great artists – acquaintances and kindreds over the years via many intertwining musical, cinematic, and cultural channels – have soared high and plunged low in critical (not to mention commercial) favour, more than once. They’ve been down, been kicked, been re-embraced and reappraised, and been seen to accept it all with a wry smile and a knowing nod.

Long before Martin Scorsese tied his tightest connection with Dylan, via 2005′s ‘No Direction Home’ documentary, he’d carried Bob’s words through their mutual old stamping ground of Greenwich Village, Dylan’s urban hipster hymn ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ donating a lyric – “Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift” – as the totemic epigram inscribed at the head of the shooting script for ‘Mean Streets’.

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

What’s Wrong With This Picture: ‘Annie Hall’ and the endless quest for the perfect Home Cinema experience.

You don’t have to be a died-in-the-wool Luddite to recognise that technology can be a two-edged sword. In fact, if you were seeking to plot a course through the last millennium or so of technological innovation, marking only those special milestones that are unanimously, uncontroversially recognised as wholly positive developments, you would end up with quite a short list, one which would probably look something like this: printing press; telescope; refrigerator; Concorde; the Draught Guinness ‘floating’ widget; rear parking sensors.

In the home cinema universe, the ‘Big Bang’ moment came with the introduction of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) in the late 1970s. The next big leap forward occurred when the DVD, which had gradually superseded the clunky, unglamorous VHS cassette, was combined with the widescreen TV.   That vast expanse of flat, matt, glare-free screen, coupled with the crystalline clarity of DVD, allowed us to enjoy our favourite films all over again, with a richness of detail that can seem almost hallucinatory. As The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts poetically put it, having recently seen ‘On The Waterfront’ on a widescreen: “Karl Malden’s nose hairs looked like fuckin’ BX cables.”

But there’s always a down side. For every pro, there’s a corresponding con. Or, to put it another way, for every revelatory glimpse of Karl Malden’s nasal hair, there’s an infuriatingly unintuitive, bafflingly circuitous DVD menu system, seemingly designed by MC Escher during a bad LSD experience.  (To add insult to injury, many DVDs force you to endure an excruciatingly loud jingle or dialogue snippet every time you return – however inadvertently – to the man menu screen.)

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The Dream Never Dissolves: Taschen’s ‘Movie Icons’

Taschen’s ‘Movie Icons’ series offers a chance to ponder the particularities of iconic movie stills.

“She gave great still. She is funnier in stills, sexier, more mysterious, and protected against being. And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of media. For stills are more available to the imagination.”

- David Thomson on Marilyn Monroe

In the olden days of the Hollywood dream factory, when movie stars were doggedly elusive and – not coincidentally – infinitely more interesting, the big Studios rigorously controlled access to their stars, radically adjusting their accessibility levels according to context: on one side, no press people got any kind of unmediated access to the likes of Bogart or Gable – the Studios controlled and choreographed all such encounters; at the same time, stars were made to make themselves available for publicity duties at the behest of the moguls who called the shots. Studio publicity departments were adroit at image-massaging machinations. If a male star, say, was the subject of rumours which threatened to undermine his perceived heterosexuality, then a suitable starlet would be lined up to publicly accompany him to a première or party, acting as a twinkly-eyed beard. It was the age of the ‘publicity still’. Elaborate tableaux were constructed into which the compliant actors were expected to step at the last moment, to have their photographs taken surrounded by suitably image-reinforcing paraphernalia. The resultant shots were at once utterly disconnected from the actors’ presence in their films, yet also somehow of a piece with their existence as ‘stars’.

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On Holiday by Mistake: The Enduring Legacy of ‘Withnail and I’

Oomska takes a fond look back at the film that gave our site its title: Bruce Robinson’s ‘Withnail & I’.

Forget Ealing Comedies and Kitchen Sink Dramas, ‘Withnail and I’ is the quintessential British film. Truly unique, impossible to adequately describe, in a sense it’s an English ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, with a dash of Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Bouvard and Pecuchet’. The largely irrelevant plot follows a few fraught days in the bibulous lives of two unemployed actors living in bohemian squalor in London at the tail end of the 1960s. Borrowing a cottage in the Lake District in an attempt to rejuvenate, they find that they’ve “gone on holiday by mistake”. The idyllic rural retreat turns out to be a “horrible little shack”, they have trouble with the menacing locals, and their problems culminate in the arrival of the cottage’s owner, Withnail’s Uncle Monty (a career-making performance from Richard Griffiths), in hot and unwelcome homosexual pursuit of the resolutely heterosexual Marwood (the titular ‘I’).

As quotable as Shakespeare, funnier than Monty Python, sadder than Shelley’s Adonais, writer-director Bruce Robinson’s script is a work of literary genius: resonant and evocative as a great novel, and obviously revelling in the richness of the English language. The pyrotechnical brilliance of Richard E Grant’s Withnail threatens to overshadow Paul McGann’s lower-key portrayal of Marwood, but both performances are equally accomplished, and both men are more than capable of transmitting Robinson’s mastery of idiom, nuance, and laconic inflection. McGann’s ability to exude nerviness is wonderful, the solemnity he imparts to key lines such as “I’ve been called a ponce” an unfailing delight. For his part, the sense of bitter dissatisfaction with an endlessly inadequate world and tragically disappointing life that Grant gets into Withnail’s line, “How could I possibly know what we should do? What should we do?,” is phenomenal.

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