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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Forgotten Bob Dylan Film Projects from 1966: From the Archives




By Steven Rosen
Denver Post, 10-17-98

(When I first wrote this story, the angle was that the newly released Bob Dylan Live 1966: The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert album might prompt some of this long-unreleased film footage to get out there. It didn't, but maybe now the new Basement Tapes packages will prompt the same thing -- even if the Basement Tapes period is a little later, it's still Dylan in the 60s and demand is great. -- SR)
       
   It's 1966 all over again in the world of pop music - and the
Denver International Film Festival, which just concluded, was in
the center of it.
 
   That's because the record "Bob Dylan Live 1966: The ‘Royal
Albert Hall' Concert'' was just released this week - some 32
years after the performance.
 
   It was instantly hailed as one of rock's great live
recordings. And the publicity surrounding the long-delayed
release has interested old and young music lovers in the story
of how folk singer Dylan switched to amplified rock 'n' roll in
1965 and 1966. He changed pop culture forever.
 
   Actually taped at the Manchester, England, Free Trade Hall on
May 17, 1966, the new album reveals Dylan and his band playing
majestically loud in response to hecklers who wanted to hear him
solo, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. In
July, after the European tour was over, Dylan was seriously
injured in a New York motorcycle accident and for many years
retreated from touring.
 
   The story of "Dylan goes electric'' has become contemporary
myth on the order of Arthur finding Excalibur and becoming king.
Now, after all these years during which bootleg tapes circulated
among collectors, a wide audience can hear a concert recording
from that time.
 
   But few people know there are still two never-released films
of Dylan's 1966 European tour, where he and his band members -
including Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard
Manuel of the Hawks - played blistering rock 'n' roll to a
sometimes-resistant audience. (Dylan opened shows with an
acoustic set.)
 
   But two people who do know about the movies were at this
year's Denver film festival - directors D.A. Pennebaker and
Harry Rasky. Both were involved, to varying degrees, in trying
to make a movie of the tour.
 
   "It is rather strange,'' Pennebaker said. "You go for a
long period of time and there's not much interest in it and you
think, ‘Well, it's not as great as I thought it was.' And then
suddenly something starts it back up.''
 
   Pennebaker is one of the pioneers of cinema-verite
documentaries. He was in Denver with his wife and filmmaking
partner of some 20 years, Chris Hegedus, to show their latest
work, "Moon Over Broadway.'' They also received the festival's
John Cassavetes Award.
 
   In 1965, Pennebaker filmed Dylan's solo tour of England,
which occurred just before the musician's shift to rock. That
movie became the now-classic "Don't Look Back.'' Dylan called
him in early 1966 to help film his upcoming European concerts.
Dylan had contracted with ABC to produce a television special
about his tour.
 
   "We had a meeting in Los Angeles and Bob said, ‘You got your
movie and now I want you to help me make mine.' And I said
‘sure,''' Pennebaker said.
 
   Dylan's plan, apparently, was to create a film that was both
structurally and emotionally confrontational and radical - just
like his music of the period. (A spokesman at Dylan's record
company said he was unavailable for comment.) But ABC had other
ideas, and hired Harry Rasky to be the director.
 
   Rasky, who now produces documentaries for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corp., was in Denver to show his new "Christopher
Plummer: King of Players.'' He recalled his Dylan '66 experience as
"one of the great traumas of my life.'' He had just completed a
program on Fidel Castro's Cuba, including a rare Che Guevara
interview, when ABC called him.
 
   "It seemed to me they chose me as a free-minded guy,'' Rasky
said. "But the minute Dylan found out I had been asked by ABC
to do the film, he thought I was the voice of authority.
 
   "He said, ‘OK, you can make the film but I won't listen to
direction.' I thought I could ingratiate myself to him. So we
all went to London and stayed at the Mayfair Hotel. Dylan said,
‘We're going to do things my way.'''
 
   After a week, Dylan's manager paid him a full salary to
leave. But he did have one unusual experience - attending a
private late-night screening of "Don't Look Back'' with Dylan
and the Beatles. When it was over, he said, he discovered the
Beatles asleep.
 
   Once the tour began and filming started, Pennebaker recalled,
Dylan intentionally tried to keep people around him on edge.
 
   "He was getting a big pot boiling, with everybody kind of at
odds and uncertain and confused and even a little ... (annoyed)
and then film that condition in various ways,'' Pennebaker said.
 
  "It's a way for people who aren't filmmakers but are
consummate dramatists in one way or another to create a kind of
scene for a film,'' he said. "They're not writing; writing
scenes is an art in itself. So Bob just simply said, ‘I'll get a
lot of people together and we'll see what happens.'''
 
   Pennebaker, who, along with Howard Alk, was filming selected
concert dates, doesn't recall crowd response because he was
watching the musicians. "The music was wonderful,'' he said.
"They were some of the best concerts I ever shot. It was
wondrous. And I was taken up with how to film them.''
 
   In particular, he wanted to get close - right on stage, if
necessary - to film the musicians. "Dylan and Robbie (guitarist
Robertson) really were into it, and cut themselves off from
everything else, as if they weren't even aware there was an
audience there. It was an amazing thing to watch.
 
   "Always up to that point, when Dylan would go out acoustic,
he was completely aware of the audience - he dominated that
audience,'' he said. "He almost dared them to make a noise or
get out of line. And in this case, it was as if he didn't ...
(care) what they were doing or thinking. And in order to get
that, I began to think we couldn't film that with long lenses.
 
   "I had to get out on stage, put a wide angle lens on the
camera and get into it, myself. That was a big decision. It
meant the first time Dylan came out on stage and I was standing
there with a camera, he almost flipped. He laughed because he
hadn't expected it, but it made it possible to get the kind of
performance we couldn't otherwise get.''
 
   In June, after the tour concluded, Pennebaker said, Dylan's
management found itself with no movie and facing an ABC
deadline. So at management's request, Pennebaker edited his
footage into a 45-50 minute "rough sketch'' called "You Know
Something Is Happening.'' (The title comes from a phrase in a
Dylan song.)
 
   "It would be like a continuation of ‘Don't Look Back,'''
Pennebaker said.  "‘Don't Look Back 2' - what happened when the
electricity was turned on.''
 
   But Dylan didn't like it and, with Alk, used different tour
footage to construct his own anti-documentary called ""Eat the
Document.'' ABC rejected it, and both movies have been more or
less forgotten.
 
   But with the release of the new record, there has also been a
revival of interest in "Eat the Document.'' The Museum of
Television & Radio branches in New York and Los Angeles are holding
special screenings of the film. There are no plans, however, to
make "Something Is Happening'' available.
 
   Rasky meanwhile said he still regrets not having the chance
to help Dylan make the kind of film he wanted - one that
explores a highly regarded, singer-songwriter's personality and
relationship to his audience while also featuring music.
 
   "But I made it up a few years later by making that film with
Leonard Cohen – ‘The Song of Leonard Cohen,''' he said.
 
   That, too, has remained virtually unseen seen since its
Canadian TV broadcast.
 

   Steven Rosen's e-mail address is srosenone@aol.com.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Film Review | Food Chains


No justice, no peas ... or tomatoes?

'Food Chains' Documents the Shameful Exploitation of Migrant Workers

 
In H.G. Wells' prescient The Time Machine (1895), the seminal British science-fiction author foretold of a dystopian future in which the indolent, lotus-eating Eloi live off the toils of a race of devolved humans—the Morlocks—who barbarically survive running incessant machines in underground caves. 

Wells’ gloomy future was set in the unfathomably far-off year of 802,701, but don’t tell that to Bangladesh sweatshop workers, Chinese smartphone assemblers—or Florida tomato pickers. His dismal vision of humanity is nearer than you may think. And like the Eloi, we above-ground 2014 dwellers may be the ones running out of time.

Today is no great present for the legions of migrant workers who toil in our fields for what often amounts to a few dollars an hour for backbreaking labor. A new documentary on their plight, Food Chains, plucks out the unsavory links between American agribusiness, grocery behemoths and the voracious U.S. consumer, who continues to labor under the illusion that cheap products don’t come with an insidious hidden cost.

Produced in part by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and actress/advocate Eva Longoria, Food Chains serves up bitter facts and figures about how farm workers have become fodder for corporate food giants like the Florida-based Publix stores. Touched off by the entrance of Walmart into the grocery business in the 1980s, the industry has distilled into a Darwinian handful of top-feeding corporations, including Kroger and Safeway. These multi-billion-dollar chains now have the unprecedented power to drive the hardest of bargains with suppliers, forcing prices way, way down for their products. That may be good for penny-pinching consumers, but inevitably bad for the producers and their workers, especially small-potatoes farmers.

To that witches’ brew, add and stir in NAFTA, the seismic 1992 agreement that mowed down trade barriers between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. One of the main unintended byproducts of the Clinton-engineered pact was that scores of south-of-the-border farms went under, driven out of business by competition from lower-priced American foodstuffs. And here’s the bitter frosting on the funnel cake: As a result, thousands of unemployed and displaced Mexican nationals fled to El Norte—the vast majority undocumented, to find menial work in American fields and factories.

Director Sanjay Rawal’s tract doesn’t always go down easy, and no one will mistake it for such delectable documentary fare as Food, Inc. or Super-Size Me. His 82-minute film is more of a rallying flag, boosting the crusade of a coalition of Immokalee, Florida tomato pickers and sympathizers in their decades-long fight to squeeze out a pittance more in wages (through their “Fair Food Program”) from the highly profitable, employee-owned Publix chain.

Rawal and his producers grasp for, but barely touch the bigger picture of the long history of worker exploitation in U.S. fields and farms. We hear of the seeds of labor agitation planted in the 1960s by Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers, but Rawal could have better forged the deep-rooted connections between the grocery giants, the restaurant industry and the omnivorous American consumer.

To broaden his scope, Rawal ventures far afield from Florida, planting his cameras in California’s lush Napa Valley. Here migrant grape harvesters are priced out of the ritzy housing market and many are forced to live in shantytowns many miles away from the fields. Like so much of post-Reagan America, this is a land of two classes, two divided cultures, existing side by side yet certainly not seen in Alexander Payne’s boisterous wine-country tour Sideways. As for the Napa growers, they surely must feel some sour grapes at Rawal’s claims, since narrator Forest Whitaker omits mention of the public housing the county specifically built for seasonal workers starting in 2002.

Food Chains is most sobering when it doesn’t pick and choose its facts. It takes us back in time to Thanksgiving 1960, when the CBS-TV landmark Harvest of Shame plowed up the pervasive poverty among America’s farm laborers. Back then a Southern farm owner admitted, “We used to own our slaves, and now we just rent them.”

In an American agribusiness dependent on cheap, exploitable labor from newer generations of huddled masses, it’s not only grapes that may ripen with wrath.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Film Review | Interstellar

The Observer's culture blog
Ann Arbor Observer
Monday, November 10, 2014

2014: SPACE ODDITY

by Tomas David

poster for the movie Intersteller
Earth to Christopher Nolan: "There's no crying in outer space!"

Roger that. Houston would have a real problem with the British director's latest magnum opus, Interstellar, which shoots high to put the science--and big ideas--back into the science-fiction movie.

Unpleasantly earthbound after his Oscar-earning turn in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey dimly stars as an astronaut given the lofty mission of saving humanity from imminent doom. Yes, In a World ... choked by killer sandstorms and dying agriculture, humanity has no hope but to seek out another home in the cosmos. As a corn farmer and former space pilot, McConaughey's Cooper fatefully lands in the driver's seat, prodded on by his feisty young daughter (Mackenzie Foy).

The helmsman behind a galaxy of pop-corn blockbusters including Inception and the Christian Bale Batman reboots, Nolan and co-writer and brother Christopher Nolan launch their multi-stage, multi-hour vehicle designed to reach the rarefied atmosphere of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and other sci-fi classics. The dramatic payload is heavy, often crushing, and the payoff will leave many gasping for air, and not in a good, Space Mountain way. You might say that Interstellar is the anti-Gravity, if it didn't implode soon after lift-off.

Sketchily post-apocalyptic, Nolan's star-crossed epic theorizes that the truth is out there--or at least a new Earth potentially is on the far side of a mysterious wormhole spinning off Saturn. A brain trust of stealthy NASA scientists drafts Cooper for the mission, along with a small crew that includes a young scientist (the anti-Sally Ride, Anne Hathaway) who's the daughter of the project's weary mission controller (a weary Michael Caine).

A weightless hero, McConaughey delivers his lines in a mumbled, over-naturalistic monotone that's the wrong stuff in a spacey movie that comes equipped with the pace of suspended animation. Nolan overloads the script with so many clunky scientific terms ("singularity," "time-shift," ad infinitum.) that they might even make Stephen Hawking's head spin. When Nolan needs a melodramatic booster, he has his actors jettison Kubrickian coolness and lurch into hyper-crying, including Hathaway, the Les Miz Oscar winner who's miserably cast in a retro female role beamed back from 1950s B-grade sci-fi. Where have you gone, Sigourney Weaver?

For all its modern trappings, yawning length and astronomical pretensions, Interstellar is a dismal, fizzling blast from the past--George Pal's When Worlds Collide bogged down with cornball philosophy and an extra hour of unfunny outtakes and overwrought suspense. Rather than 2001, Nolan should have explored the grim fate of Disney's 1979 The Black Hole, which charted nebulously similar territory and quickly vanished into box-office hell.

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