Time Warp to the Sixties

Lots of great links at GreenCine Daily today, including several reviews of Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home (IMDB) as part of their American Masters series (the film is airing tonight on many PBS stations, including at least one in DC). Writing for Slate, David Greenberg takes the film to task for basking in ’60s nostalgia at the expense of the rest of Dylan’s excellent career, and offers a more general critique of nostalgia, especially for the 1960s:

Nostalgia is also sentimental and thus meshes well with the machinery of mass culture, which, as Dwight Macdonald wrote years ago, tends to produce prepackaged cultural artifacts not dissimilar from chewing gum. More than any individual historians or critics, it’s the leveling tendencies of mass culture that are really to blame for perpetuating our flattened, idealized images of the 1960s.

We’ve been drenched for so long in so much mass-produced 1960s kitsch that our Pavlovian responses to the music, words, and images of the time override critical assessments of it. And at bottom, today’s cultural climate doesn’t much distinguish between history and nostalgia. (Billy Joel once explained the genesis of his song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—the one that reels off proper nouns from the postwar years, as in “Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television/North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe”—by saying that he had always been interested in “history.”) So, maybe we have to resign ourselves to accepting “the 1960s” as it’s purveyed in mass culture—and to concede, with the postmodernists, that ultimately there’s no real way to separate the 1960s from our myths of it.

While I haven’t seen the Dylan documentary, Greenberg’s comments strke me as excessively dismissive of nostalgia. Sure, nostalgia can easily be used to produce “flattened, idealized images” of the past (the VH1-ification of history), but a “critical nostalgia” might also provide a useful way of critiquing and acting in the present (Slate article via Steve, who also notes that yesterday’s counter-protest supporting the war in Iraq was, shall we say, slightly outnumbered).

For more on No Direction Home, check out Mick Brown’s outstanding article/review. Brown seems less bothered by the focus on Dylan’s early career and identifies several highlights from the film. I’d imagine the film is worth watching just for Dylan’s screen test for Andy Warhol (speaking of Warhol, selections from the Warhol Museum will be on display at the Corcoran Museum here in DC until February 2006). Hoping to catch the Dylan documentary tonight and write a brief review, at least.

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