The dee-luxe, 2-DVD, collector’s edition of Don’t Look Back, famously called “one of the most influential rock films ever made,” arrived in stores nationwide Tuesday. To present the Bob Dylan documentary to the public 40 years ago, legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker released it through a porno distributor.
“I went around to theaters, schools and universities,” he said in a telephone interview, “and I couldn’t get the people who dealt with that audience to even think about it.
“Finally, a guy from the Art Theater Guild - they ran a lot of porn houses in the West - took it on. `It looks like a porn film, and it’s not,’ he said. It ran at the Presidio in San Francisco for almost a year.”
Don’t Look Back may have the production values of those black-socks porn shorts of yore, but it is an intimately beautiful study of Dylan and some of his cronies, filmed with breakthrough techniques, at a crucial moment in the development of his career and legend.
Bringing It All Back Home, an album with—gasp!—rock songs, was already in the can, the insane indignation provoked by his first electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was still a few months away, and Dylan toured grimy England - Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and other cities - standing on stages all by himself with three microphones, an acoustic guitar, and a stool with a glass of water and bunch of harmonicas on it.
Dylan deconstructionists and lifelong fans endlessly pick the movie apart. You don’t get to see the notoriously aloof poet/musician/jester in such close quarters very often. One of the themes of the movie itself is the tension between outsiders’ attempts to figure him out, and Dylan’s resistance to being figured.
“I’m glad I’m not me,” he says after reading one egregious profile.
Pennebaker acknowledges the general interest “in resolving some peculiar mystery that seems to overhang our whole generation.” And, perhaps, the misguided nature of it. “Why is Dylan such a big deal?” asks the filmmaker. “I don’t know.”
But you don’t need to be a Dylan fan to marvel at the work Pennebaker did three years before Andy Warhol made his observation about fame, and to marvel at the distance the culture has come since then.
Trained as an engineer, Pennebaker built the relatively lightweight 16mm cameras that he toted around. Most film cameras before that were so big they needed tripods and so clunky they were often wrapped in fur coats to deaden their noise. The people Pennebaker shot, except for Dylan, who seems to sense that all life is a performance, paid no attention whatsoever because nobody really understood what Pennebaker was doing.
“You couldn’t have done it at all five years ago,” he says in commentary on the DVD, “and now a child can do this.” “The whole thing is still being figured out,” he said in the interview. “We’re at the beginning of a new kind of language. At first it was a few people like me in New York, all going broke. Now, everybody goes out and gets a camera.
“It’s the same thing that happened when Byron came along. `Gee,’ people thought, `I can write a poem. I can write a book.’ Five hundred years ago, they didn’t know how to do it. They didn’t know what to do.”
The line from Don’t Look Back to YouTube is so clear that watching the film is like looking through a telescope propped up into a wormhole in the fabric of time. And if you want to work out why the lamppost stands with folded arms or the vandals took the handles, go right ahead.
The movie, with commentary by Pennebaker and Dylan confidant and then-road manager Bob Neuwirth, includes five Dylan performances from the tour, curiously accompanied only with still photographs, as an extra. The new set includes a flip book of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” film intro, generally considered the first music video, a reprint of the Don’t Look Back book Pennebaker made to try to squeeze some money out of the project, and a brand-new film of Don’t Look Back outtakes, Bob Dylan 65 Revisited.
It’s packed with stunning straight-through stage performances of “To Ramona”, “It’s Alright Ma”, “Don’t Think Twice”, and others. Back in the `60s, nobody thought there would be much interest in that sort of thing.