A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Just a few quick impressions of the second half of No Direction Home: First, the second half seemed to have a clearer narrative than the film’s first half, focusing more explicitly on what Scorsese called “the journey of the artist.” Not surprisingly, given the film’s limited historical scope, No Direction Home climaxes with the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan “went electric.” As I’ve suggested, that reflection on the individual artist as genius isn’t terribly interesting to me, and I think Direction underplays the contributions of other artists to Dylan’s success in order to conform to this image of the solitary artist Following His Own Path.

And yet, the images themselves were arresting. In the post-film interview with Charlie Rose (cited above), Scorsese remarks on the amazing collection of footage available to him, including the D.A. Pennebaker footage from Don’t Look Back, some startling footage taken by Jonas Mekas, as well as all the concert clips. And the scenes of Dylan singing with Johnny Cash were just plain cool. More than anything else, I think that’s what I enjoyed about the film.

This treatment of the artist as genius ultimately obscured some of the more interesting political aspects of the 1960s, but there were several powerful moments that seemed to resonate with the current political moment. Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” opens the film’s second half and sets the tone for Scorsese’s whirlwind tour of the political conflicts of the early half of the decade. Shots of Mario Savio’s December 1964 speech before the Free Speech Movement Sit-In mix with shots of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and shots of Joan Baez, whose interviews I found compelling, singing at an anti-war rally. This final image couldn’t help but remind me of Baez’s recent performance at the Operation: Ceasefire concert, and that’s how I’m seeking to link No Direction Home to the present moment.

It’s tempting to read Scorsese’s use of these historical images (he includes fragmentary clips from the Zapruder film as well) as a “flattening” of history, but I’m not sure that’s quite fair or even the most interesting reading of the film. For now (because I should really be doing some teaching prep), I’ll just say that the decision to focus on Dylan’s early career now seems wise, not because it’s Dylan’s creative peak. It was certainly a period in which Dylan was incredibly prolific. But these “historical” images certainly haunted the narrative and gave the film a power I’m still trying to articulate (and now I really need to do some work).

2 Comments »

  1. Caleb Said,

    September 30, 2005 @ 4:31 pm

    I didn’t catch the first hour of episode 2 but saw everything else. What bothered me about the use of the Newport festival as the climax was primarily that it wasn’t contextualized: I didn’t get a sense of what made Dylan “go electric,” other than the vague fact that it was there to do. Implicitly, I guess, what the movie is saying is that the folk music scene was ultimately too confining for genius. But in the first episode, the movie does a good job of conveying for us what attracted Dylan to folk music (I liked all the stuff about his identification with Guthrie and his immersion in Greenwich culture), and there’s not a comparable context that explains for us what attracted Dylan to electric rock.

    But maybe I’m overhistoricizing things and demanding a “reason” for artistic choice. Or maybe the part I felt was missing was in the part I missed. ;-)

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 30, 2005 @ 10:10 pm

    Yeah, I think the Newport performance was inadequately contextualized, and you’re right that the film presented it only in terms of Dylan’s status as “genius.”

    Jeff Rice has an interesting read on the audience reaction to Dylan’s “going electric,” but the ilm really misses the mark here, whether due to Scorsese’s limits in framing this evolution or something else (the power of rock legend, perhaps?).

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