Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric by Bob Dylan

Hollywood has gone through so many changes since 1964, the year of this book’s initial composition, that such things as the ‘Death of Old Hollywood’ now seems almost as remote as the death of one’s great-grandparents. So much of contemporary importance died in the 1960s that the demise of something as antiquated as, say, the star system, would seem not just natural but welcome. Since Innocence was buried, why not the Golden Age?

In Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric, co-contributors Bob Dylan and Barry Feinstein document the entombment, capturing the old Hollywood of studios and stars on its absolute downslide. In some ways, the book is like a backstage version of photographer Robert Franks’ The Americans, and Dylan himself, in an introductory interview, says how Feinstein’s photographs reminded him of Frank’s, with “…their stark atmosphere…the angles…the shadows and light, that sort of thing”.

I can imagine the appeal to 1964-era Dylan of producing spontaneous texts or riffs on moody photographs, akin to someone like Jack Kerouac, who himself had provided text to The Americans. Many of the poems in Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric read with the same jazz logic of Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, with some poems restricted to one page, others spilling over, evolving their ideas over a series of images like a saxophonist mining an inexplicable line. This Beat influence extends to some William Burroughs-like routines, where Dylan adds dialogue and stage direction to related pictures, suggesting little automatic movies.

In fact, the text synthesizes most of Dylan’s influences up to this point in his career, including a good dose of French poetics. The surrealistic impulse of throwing together two rationally incompatible images or ideas to create a whole new one is evident in lines such as “in wombs of soft poverty/subprivate unblessed/the mystics wait/but couldn’t care less/paint mist colored keyholes”.

But while the surrealists induced trances in order to transcribe the subconscious, Dylan free-associates under the impetus or guidance of the photographs. That is, he works at describing his way around specific images rather than divining dreams — more craft than witchcraft. In his great introduction to the book, poet Billy Collins rightly mentions the “weird milk of the French symbolists”, those precursors to surrealism who had similarly ungraspable imagery as Dylan’s “paint mist colored keyholes”, and the same way of describing around an Image or Idea, always with a capital I (punctuation which here, Dylan, like e.e.cummings, refuses to use).

Along with these poetic influences, Collins also mentions another certain one, what he calls “the right drug”. Written in 1964, which seems a bit early for popular LSD or marijuana, these poems have more of the concrete punch of amphetamine. Lines such as “jellied into gangrene/unseen/looks clean” or “sun’s hot/I’m not/wont cease/just go/don’t care” are less pot poetry, than speed-speak. Yet within the more hard-driven stuff, Dylan gets in some great, goofy one-liners, like “spectacle respectable”, “dream bloops”, or, my favorite, “history gets the hungries”.

Dylan is such a prodigious cultural presence that any artist is bound to suffer a little next to him. For the most part, Barry Feinstein holds his own. A successful Hollywood photographer, and one time Monterey Pop cameraman, Feinstein here displays a good forlorn eye, with most of the photographs projecting a sad, hip emptiness, glamour exhausted and unmasked: a pajama-ed Jayne Mansfield, chest heaved to heaven, stands next to a Jesus statue; a lonely Marilyn Monroe look-alike pages through a Life magazine devoted to the actress, followed by images of Monroe’s empty pool the day after her death. Not all of the photographs work — fairly bland shots of, say, Jack Warner’s door, or actor Billy Barty talking to his agent — and sometimes their ordering within the book seems random or uninspired.

For the most part, the images are better because of the text and sometimes vice versa. The best are series, or suites, including the routines mentioned above, as well as some very strong and explicit ‘Death of Old Hollywood’ imagery: the shabby letters of the Hollywood sign itself, cropped into nonsense syllables, like LYW or OOD; oil barrels overflowing with old celluloid, next to which Dylan writes, “when a nitemare/is hatched”, as if the barrels are black eggs or executive eggheads. Images taken at the funeral of Gary Cooper become a kind of requiem for the late actor, and the obsolescence of his era as a whole. A shot of Cooper’s grief-stricken widow is set among other melancholy images of a black line of limousines or a group of on-lookers eager to catch a glimpse of all the famous mourners, like James Stewart, Jack Benny, Edward G. Robinson, and that oldest of old-timers, director John Ford.

Many of these funereal images provoke from Dylan great colloquial lamentations, such as “ah mama/what care the dead/t drink up their own toasts?/spirits slurping/candle syrup/affects whose emptiness?/aches an sorrow/pain an sorrow/what good what good”, while others inspire dark cast-off jokes like “at your funeral, we’re even/you’re taken care of/one more time”. Indeed, such elegiac ambivalence shades much of the text. If the overall theme of the photographs is ‘Out Goes The Old’, Dylan often seems glad to see it go.

Next to a picture of a dismantled Peyton Place set, he condemns, “just who’s t blame/starving people/could eat awhile/on what this/nonsense represents/presidents/don’t cry/so why should i”. Celebrity isn’t spared, including Dylan’s own. Beside images of actors clutching Oscars, Dylan meditates on his own Tom Paine Award, given him, as Luc Sante’s foreword reveals, from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963. He animates the object, and the Oscars in the photographs, with a kind of malevolent force, sated on its soul-devouring worthlessness: “the room was silent/except for this hysterical laughin/stemming from the ridiculousness/of such useless property/but i couldn’t tell/who was laughing mama/i couldn’t tell if it was me/or this thing/i was holding”.

The title Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric seems to refer to Hollywood’s instamatic persuasive allure, and the ultimate emptiness of its promise. Seeing the so-called Golden Age enduring such a shabby end, I can’t help but relate that time to our own era of intensified celebrity, when movie stars are as ubiquitous as family members. The innocence of that earlier time may have been an artificial construct, but it’s an innocence I miss nonetheless. Through its gloomy nostalgia, this book only confirms what I’ve often felt: There’s just no Hollywood like Old Hollywood.

RATING 8 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.