Friday, December 30, 2011

D.A. Pennebaker Reconsiders "Don't Look Back"

Film: Dylan Revisited

D.A. Pennebaker looks back for the deluxe edition of 'Don't Look Back'

By Steven Rosen · March 7th, 2007 · Cincinnati CityBeat

For D.A. Pennebaker, the time has come to look back. For the new digitally remastered "deluxe edition" DVD of his classic documentary Don't Look Back, which followed Bob Dylan during a 1965 solo acoustic tour of England, Pennebaker went back to his unused footage to make a film called 65 Revisited.

In doing so, he found himself confronting and challenging the very essence of Don't Look Back. That film, shot verite-style, is as much a freewheelin' narrative about the pivotal tour as it is a concert film. Much of it occurs in rehearsal rooms and hotels before and after the shows.

It's especially about an edgy, prickly young Dylan -- just on the verge of transferring himself from folksinger into Rock & Roll star -- cagily sparring with the press and others who try to get to know him. While it has a generous number of songs performed onstage by Dylan, many are excerpted so as not to detract from the film's own pacing and behind-the-scenes glimpses.

65 Revisited is a companion piece to Don't Look Back rather than a replacement. It's just a shade over an hour, and in places the sound and lighting are problematic. But it nonetheless serves as a meaningful alternative, a new take.

For one, Dylan is relaxed and even boyishly sweet with the fans he meets. He's also honest rather than evasive when asked questions.

He's generally happy and shows it -- in one scene he smiles with delight hearing his new Rock & Roll single, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," on the radio.

And Revisited contains riveting, electrifying full concert performances of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "She Belongs to Me," "To Ramona," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the rare "If You Gotta Go, Go Now." There are also short scenes of Dylan composing new songs "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and "I'll Keep It With Mine" on piano.

Talking from his New York office, Pennebaker -- now 81 but still busy -- said the catalyst for Revisited came from his editor getting him to watch Don't Look Back's outtakes.

"It was like a towel being taken off my head," Pennebaker says. "I saw something I hadn't bothered to think much about for Don't Look Back. I saw that those performances themselves were really the whole reason Dylan had an effect on people.

"It wasn't just that he was this little Kerouac kid running around being funny with the press. It was those performances to those huge, hushed masses of English guys who thought it was poetry and music put together in an amazing way. So we sat down to make a film about that.

"I don't feel this knocks that one out of the box. It was just a further insight for me where I hadn't been looking before. The charisma that came off that stage when he got up and sang those songs is just startling."

When Pennebaker first agreed to make Don't Look Back, he knew virtually nothing about Dylan. He's still unsure why he was invited, although during the ensuing tour Dylan mentioned he had seen a documentary on cellist/conductor Pablo Casals that Pennebaker and partner Richard Leacock had shot for CBS.

"Albert Grossman (Dylan's manager) came into our office and asked would I be interested in accompanying his client to England for a tour," Pennebaker recalls. "It wasn't a job. I was going to have to pay for it, I suspected. But that was the offer and I said yeah.

"I think I knew one song by him, the one Peter, Paul & Mary were singing ('Blowin' in the Wind'), but I didn't know anything about him. I had read a piece in Time magazine suggesting he was a guy singing Folk music and wasn't very good at it. That sort of intrigued me."

Pennebaker thinks Dylan wanted to see how the director's intimate, fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking worked.

"I think he wanted to see what making a film on this level was like -- not big-time filmmaking, just a single person. But I never knew, and he never talked about it."

The next year, when Dylan toured Europe with a Rock & Roll band called the Hawks, he directed a film called Eat the Document for an ABC special. Pennebaker served as his cameraman. Overly arty, that film was rejected by ABC and never released. Pennebaker prepared his own more straightforward film of that tour called You Know Something Is Happening. It, too, hasn't been released although portions were used in Martin Scorsese's 2005 Dylan film for PBS, No Direction Home.

Don't Look Back also is famous for starting with what has been called the first music video -- it opens in an alley, with Dylan holding up and discarding pertinent cue cards while "Subterranean Homesick Blues" plays on the soundtrack. His friend and road manager, Bob Neuwirth, and Allen Ginsberg stand in the distance. The deluxe set includes two alternate versions -- one shot in a park with Neuwirth and Ginsberg, another on a hotel rooftop with Neuwirth and record producer Tom Wilson.

"Originally, when I did the film I started off in the dressing room with Bob singing, 'You will start out standing (from the song 'She Belongs to Me'). I thought, 'That's a good way to start a film,' " Pennebaker says. "But as I looked at it before doing a final version, I said nobody knew who this guy is yet. So we had this thing we shot that we didn't have any reason for shooting. It was just a funny thing. I stuck it on the beginning and that was it. It never came off."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Film Review | Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2004)

Mass Deceptions

by Thomas Delapa

British statesman Benjamin Disraeli said that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. When it comes to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration apparently bamboozled the public with all three.

Further, there are at least two travesties involving the devastating, must-see documentary, Uncovered: The War on Iraq. Only the first has to do with the war itself. The second is that the film is only playing in two theaters in Colorado. If you thought Fahrenheit 9/11 burned the Bush administration, Uncovered pours gasoline on the flames.

Dodging the pitfalls of Michael Moore’s feverish polemic, producer/director Robert Greenwald opts for a reasoned, deliberate approach. At the outset, Greenwald introduces us to his gallery of experts, from ex-security advisor Richard Clarke to former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay. Veteran CIA analysts, ex-military officers, politicians and diplomats round out the interviews.

Though we’ve heard much of the material before over the polarizing last 18 months, Greenwald summarizes it in compelling, if sound-bite, fashion. Uncovered should shock and awe audiences, leaving you infuriated that the U.S. engaged in its first preemptive war against a country that, contrary to the Bush administration claims:

1) Had no weapons of mass destruction.

2) Had no relationship with al-Qaeda.

3) Had no nuclear-weapons program.

In addition, the failure to find any of the above during the American occupation has effectively proven that the U.N. weapons inspection program was working.

Although the Bush administration has now expediently changed its tune for going to war, it behooves us to watch again Secretary of State Colin Powell’s momentous pre-war address before the United Nations. In the words of one sober observer, Powell’s crossing-the-Rubicon speech was "a masterful performance...but none of it was true." Time and time again on TV, Pres. Bush, Vice Pres. Cheney and the White House inner circle insisted that the Hussein regime was a clear and present danger to the United States–thus the decisive reason for going to war.

On that WMD front, today even Kay admits that "We were wrong." During the occupation, Kay’s inspectors were doled a budget of $600 million to seek out the WMDs. Kay sees parallels between the U.S.-led Iraq war and our disastrous 20-year intervention in Vietnam. Both Presidents G.W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson (after the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident) were granted carte-blanche war powers by an acquiescent Congress.

The consensus in the film is the 9/11 attacks presented a convenient excuse for the Pentagon "neo-cons"–like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle–to execute their neo-imperialist, might-makes-right geopolitical plans. These advisors believe that America has no need to justify its foreign policy, not to its so-called allies and certainly not to the U.N. The plan to install a Western-leaning government in Iraq has been on (or under) the table for years, well before the 9/11 attacks, most notably circulated through the hawkish Project for the New American Century think tank.

Throughout the months leading up to the Iraq war, strategic analyses culled from the CIA were either distorted or selectively used by the White House to sell the war to the American public and the media. When Foreign Service veteran Joseph Wilson challenged these conclusions, he was first subjected to a smear campaign. Then someone* in the know leaked the name of his wife Valerie Plame, a CIA officer, to the conservative press, putting her cover–and life–at risk.

Uncovered: The War on Iraq unrolls like an American tragedy, delineating for now and posterity a watershed moment in our history. But perhaps the real tragedy is yet to come. In this critical election season, the damning truth of Greenwald’s exposé may be lost in the blinding fog of war.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly, 9/16/04

POSTSCRIPT: On December 18, 2011, the last U.S. troops left Iraq following nearly nine years of warfare. To date, the war has cost over 4,500 American lives and at least $1 trillion; while estimates of Iraqi deaths vary radically, most surveys count at least 100,000.

*Later determined to be Cheney's top aide "Scooter" Libby.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Film Review | The Descendants


by Thomas Delapa

After such critically acclaimed hits as Sideways and About Schmidt, you’d think that director Alexander Payne would have nowhere to go but up. But success can be a slippery slope in Hollywood. Even with hunky George Clooney out front and sunny Hawaii in the background, The Descendants is a balmy downer.

Call it Melancholia in Paradise, with Sir George playing Matt King, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. With his wife comatose in the hospital after a freak boating accident, Matt is morosely adrift, especially when it comes to handling his two troubled daughters. “I’m the backup parent,” he ruefully admits in his narration, a declaration that becomes obvious as watch his bewilderment faced with young Scottie (Amara Miller), whether acting out in grade school, or teenage Alex (Shailene Woodley), who curses—and drinks—like a sailor.

Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants has risen dramatically in critics’ 2011 Top Ten lists, though I’m as bewildered as Clooney’s rather dull and doltish character is. Unless your idea of comedy is watching Clooney wildly run around Hawaii in sandals (imagine a pineapple balancing on his head), I’d say that old Hawaii Five-0 re-runs have more juice.

Payne does his own balancing act, erratically mixing low-grade laughs (aren’t bratty kids so funny when they swear?) with a dead-serious plot that digs into both mortality and infidelity. Not only does Matt’s wife lay stricken and comatose in a hospital bed, but he’s apparently the last one to know that she has been unfaithful to him. Out of this stiff contrivance arises our hero's madcap adventure to track down and confront his rival.

After last year’s turn as a stoic, coldblooded assassin in The American, Clooney goes to the humid extremes, wearing a dewy-eyed guise of bitter and hapless vulnerability. Payne’s camera comes in for so many close-ups of actors tearing up, I thought I was watching a Kleenex commercial.

The director’s once-reliable gifts for irony and satire seemed to have dried up, replaced by clammy sentimentality. As his wife’s health goes downhill, Matt must face the ultimate choice of pulling the plug.

During the crisis, he must also deal with the business of selling his extended family’s lush swath of virgin land on neighboring Kauai. Passed down from his mixed-race ancestors, 19th century settlers of Hawaii, the land is certain to net the clan a king’s ransom.

Other than as vehicle for Clooney to show off his warm side and great tan decked out in floral shirts, Payne’s pallid film seems content to pose the star against a series of scenic Hawaii locations, accompanied by banal island music that seems better fit for a luau. Even though dysfunctional families are still alive and functional in Hollywood, this is one family tree that’s full of sap.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Film Review | Melancholia

When Worlds Collide

by Thomas Delapa

Nothing if not provocative since his 1991 breakthrough with the neo-Expressionist Zentropa, Danish director Lars von Trier has stepped from the portrayal of carnal devotion (Breaking the Waves) to postmodern musical (Dancer in the Dark) and Brechtian Western (Dogville). He also was one of the founders of the influential “Dogme 95” group, which advocated an austere, anti-Hollywood filmmaking aesthetic. More infamously, while appearing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he claimed to be a Nazi and “understood Hitler.”

Controversial gaffes aside (he’s since retracted those comments), his Melancholia may be the most depressing film of the year—excepting perhaps x-rays at a cancer clinic. Part psychodrama, part sci-fi, this intriguing but portentous end-of-the-world fantasy had me checking my watch, not the Mayan calendar.

You’re in for the time of your life if you fancy a close encounter with nebulous story lines and trippy imagery. Melancholia is really two movies, schizophrenically orbiting around a gothically apocalyptic plot. Following a surreal (and too-revealing) prologue, we’re invited to the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her adoring groom (Alexander Skarsgard), held at the posh country estate of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her prickly husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Looming literally and figuratively at a distance is the planet “Melancholia,” once hidden behind the sun and now headed dangerously close to Earth.

Von Trier’s rogue planet might be the biggest metaphor in the universe, seeing how it shadows Justine’s unstable emotional state, which rises and falls as the party drags on. While we’re not told what’s wrong with her (other than she works at an ad agency), we do see her capriciously desert her husband and run off for a quickie tryst on the lawn with a stranger. As a flighty female neurotic, Justine is only a few feathers away from Natalie Portman in last year’s Black Swan.

Everyone at the party, including Justine’s bitchy, cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling), seems on edge, waiting for when the bride will crash and burn. “No scenes” warns her sister Claire; but the party doesn’t end well, much to the disgust of John, who had to foot the bill.

With scant coherence between or within the film’s two parts, von Trier jumps ahead to Claire’s story, which takes place vaguely later at the estate. As Melancholia nears, it’s no honeymoon for Justine or anyone else. Smugly buoyed by scientific predictions, John assures the family that the planet will easily pass by Earth. Justine, near catatonic and on her own dark side of the moon, is saturnine.

As Melancholia approaches, accompanied by an eerie low rumble and Wagnerian music, the film ascends to an otherworldly beauty, like a scene from a Ray Bradbury story. One night, the family ventures out to watch the uncanny and stunning sight of twin moons lighting up the sky. As Claire grows anxious and panicky, Justine becomes curiously calm, if not content. The world is evil, she says, so good riddance.

Though Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, you can just as easily credit (or fault) von Trier’s shaky, invasive camera, which gets in her face for every toothy smile and nervous frown, yet reveals much less about her character than meets the eye. Whatever one thinks of Dunst and her radiantly opaque performance, even she is eclipsed by von Trier’s astronomically glum ending, which might only please lunatic doomsayers—and maybe ancient Mayans.