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

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.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Film Review | Interstellar

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


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.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

TV Review | Big Men

They Might Be Giants

The PBS documentary 'Big Men' is a refined, methodical probe into wildcatting capitalism and corporate neo-colonialism.

If there was gold in them thar hills, there must be black gold in them thar oceans.

That might have been the operating motto powering Texas-based Kosmos Energy when it went drilling for petroleum off the coast of Ghana a decade ago. In 2007, they hit a gusher, tapping into a huge oil reserve—now the aptly named Jubilee field—leaving Kosmos-nauts as well as Ghanaians with visions of barrels of petro-dollars dancing in their heads.

But before Ghanaians and their government fantasize about their own colorized remake of the Beverly Hillbillies in the Sahel, they only need look next door to Nigeria to see what happens when a poor, undeveloped African nation strikes it big in oil: There will be blood... as well as greed, corruption and war.

In the new season of PBS’ award-winning POV documentary series, filmmaker Rachel Boynton’s Big Men (Monday, Aug. 25) stands lean and tall, digging into a cautionary tale that merges Fortune magazine with Joseph Conrad at his grimiest. The end product is a refined, methodical probe into wildcatting capitalism and corporate neo-colonialism, but one that nonetheless runs a little dry in bedrock analysis.

Boynton takes her cameras and crew from the streets of Ghana and the deltas of Nigeria to the slick boardrooms of New York City; from America’s entrepreneurial one-percenters to Africa’s wretched of the earth. Shot over five years, her 95-minute chronicle is a hefty accomplishment, giving viewers a multifaceted, fly-on-the-wall probe into how the gears of 21st-century Third World turbo-capitalism work—and the grease that keeps it all running.

If Boynton has a protagonist, besides Ghana itself, it’s Bill Musselman, a straight-shooting, old-school oilman who spearheaded Kosmos’ African explorations as CEO. The upside to Boynton’s considerable access to Musselman and other Kosmos execs is their chatty, off-the-cuff comments; the downside is the relative rarity of provocative questions or research that dig deeper than her objective style permits. Yet for all of Musselman’s amiability— even when Wall Street bears begin biting in Great Recession 2009—he revealingly spouts off when a Norwegian official argues that the best way to prevent Ghana from being exploited is to heavily tax the multinational drillers. Like any good free-marketer in our regressively Ayn Randian era, Musselman views taxes as bad business, if not sludge.

At the beginning of Big Men, Boynton quotes U.S. capitalism high priest (or witchdoctor) Milton Friedman, who sermonized that the “world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.” The Chicago School economist scarcely qualified his “I got mine” mantra, but Boynton pours out examples of the destructive absurdities of such a crude individualist credo. We’re taken to oil-rich Nigeria, where greedy and corrupt elites have so wildly pursued their interests at the expense of their country that they’ve created a brutally stratified, stagnant land of haves and have-nots. This is a place where the destitute villagers secretly sabotage pipelines just to be hired back to repair them, and where armed militants in ski masks set hellish fires to oil refineries. (It’s also worth mentioning that Nigeria is where poverty and despair ignited the barbaric Islamic backlash of Boco Haram.)

Big Men’s title comes from an observation of a Ghanaian tribal leader who says that “everybody wants to become a big man" and get fat from a diet of oil money. The ultimate question that Boynton poses is if Ghana can break the Nigerian (and Mideast) mold by democratically sharing the wealth from its share of that oil money—some $444 million in 2011 alone.

But the deeper question, and not only for Ghanaians, is who exactly owns the Earth’s diminishing natural resources, and how much they should profit by them. Musselman and venture capitalist Jeffrey Harris claim that the great risks involved in exploring for oil justifies their enormous takes on the back end. But what’s the bottom line and who really pays when a corporation (BP, anyone?) recklessly befouls our precious waterways and coasts for generations to come? And don’t the Jubilee field and discoveries like it just keep gasoline relatively cheap, prolonging our bottomless addiction to fossil fuels and the amoral corporate pushers that pump them?

The answers from Big Men are sizeable but they don’t always measure up to the well of questions Boynton implicitly raises. To wit, how’s this for a toxic gusher: Kosmos Energy CEO Brian Maxted was a monstrously big man in 2011, fueled by $58 million in salary and stock options.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Film Review | The Kill Team

Improvised Explosive Devices  

In 2009, when Army PFC Andrew Holmes saw his first combat action in Afghanistan, his immediate thought was of the over-the-top, gung-ho heroics of Top Gun, capped with the strains of “Danger Zone” ricocheting in his head.

Dizzying jump cut to six years later: Holmes has no medals, no trophies and not even a kiss from Kelly McGillis. Found guilty in a military court, along with other members of his notorious “Kill Team” platoon in the murders of unarmed Afghan civilians, Holmes is currently serving a seven-year sentence in Leavenworth prison.

How Holmes, Adam Winfield and Jeremy Morlock spiraled down from front-line U.S. warriors to disgraced war criminals is the main mission behind The Kill Team, a brief, choppy but incendiary documentary that registers yet another tragic beat in the American heart of darkness during the post-9/11 era.

With director Dan Krauss doing triple duty as producer and cinematographer (as well as editor and co-writer), The Kill Team is nearly a one-man operation, and the stitches in this postmortem sometimes show. Krauss trains his sights primarily on Specialist Adam Winfield, once a proud member of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Bravo Company, stationed in Kandahar province from 2009 to 2010. You won’t get the big picture of the decade-long U.S. counter-terrorism war in Afghanistan; rather, Krauss’ closeup cinema-verité campaign is to embed himself into the lives of Winfield and his distraught parents, Chris and Emma, as the military begins its murder trial against their son in Fort Lewis, WA. For background ammunition, Krauss drops in footage captured from the soldiers’ camcorders while on patrol as well as from Winfield’s actual 2010 Army interrogation.

Baby-faced, soft-spoken and slight of frame, Winfield hardly fits the profile of a macho, battle-tested veteran. A patriotic idealist when he joined the Army at age 17 (“I loved being in the military”), while echoing his father’s Marine footsteps he soon discovered that the Army wasn’t at all like those glorified Be All You Can Be commercial come-ons. Winfield and his fellow soldiers experienced firsthand the damning disconnect between the military’s historic search-and-destroy raison d’être and the ambitious, yet perhaps impossible mission of nation-building— this in a desolate tribal country mired in the Middle Ages. Faced with the collateral foes of boredom and frustration, Bravo Company went medieval itself in short order. “This sucks... a lot,” we hear a disgusted Winfield say on patrol.

In a déjà vu flashback to the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, Bravo Company had to contend with elusive Taliban guerrillas nearly impossible to pin down, nerve-racking daily threats from roadside bombs, as well as indifferent and suspicious, if not outright hostile, villagers. But what really lit the fuse in the squad was the entrance of Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a burly Iraq veteran who was, by most accounts, a Rambo-esque psycho. In only one of Gibbs’ kick-ass pathologies, his idea of R&R was fashioning a ghastly bone necklace made from the fingers of enemy dead.

You don’t need to be a military (or movie) historian to flashback to Oliver Stone’s 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Platoon, in which  young Army recruit Charlie Sheen is divided in his loyalties to his two sergeants—a ruthless Tom Berenger and the altruistic, Christ-like Willem Dafoe. But in Krauss’ grimly un-Hollywood war story, there was no casting call for Gibbs’ counterpart. Bravo Company’s soul was lost to the sergeant’s savage scheme and conspiracy to rack up kills, even if it meant planting evidence (using “drop weapons”) on innocent civilians, and then claiming self-defense.

A classic sociopathic bully, Gibbs uniformly cowed his squad into going along and falling in place with his savage schemes. Most got a rush out of the blood lust, especially back at the base, where they were greeted as “heroes” and "made men." But at least one soldier initially disobeyed orders and couldn’t stomach the Kool-Aid. That was SPC Winfield, who in early 2010 began e-mailing his father in distress, pleading, “I want to do something about it.”

The rest of Winfield’s nightmare war story is a long gray line of military screw-ups, treachery and scapegoating. Of all the images in The Kill Team, perhaps none is as tragic or ironic as that of the manacled Winfield in his camouflage fatigues, ruefully telling his account to Krauss’ camera. There are other voices equally as expressive—like that of Morlock, serving a 24-year sentence—but Winfield commands attention, if only because he sounds so earnest, even heartbreaking.

In the interminable war on terrorism filled with such blowback disasters as Abu Ghraib, “enhanced interrogation,” and the Iraq invasion in toto, how can the U.S. government even think about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people when it can’t even win those of its own soldiers?


Saturday, June 28, 2014

I'm Not There: Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan Movie: From the Archives

I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
W/ Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw
Cincinnati CityBeat; 2007

Grade:  A-

By Steven Rosen

Music biopics tend to be prosaic in form – a chronological recounting of a pop star’s life, highlighting the push-and-pull between personal tragedies and artistic triumphs. Usually, such films get their energy and achieve their success through the acting and music – Ray and Walk the Line being the most notable recent examples. Their narratives are clichéd.

But I’m Not There is only loosely modeled on, yet nevertheless profoundly about, Bob Dylan’s life. It is different. Director and co-writer (with Oren Moverman) Todd Haynes has structured a freewheelin’ film (with Dylan’s permission) based on the associative imagery and mystique that a great Dylan song creates when heard by a fan. You’ll like this film if you ever craned toward a radio trying to decipher and construe lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone,” or wonder about the man behind that drawling, seductive, alluring – and radically singular – voice. And who hasn’t?

Six very different actors – including Cate Blanchett (photo above) in a turn worthy of an Oscar nomination – play Dylan-inspired characters (the name “Bob Dylan” is never mentioned). Although there is ample crosscutting to keep each one’s story moving forward simultaneously, their worlds are presented like different movies with different moods. Sometimes those separate stories are shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman with different film stock, or in black-and-white rather than color.

Haynes, who also made Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, has a degree in art and semiotics – perfect for a filmmaker steeped in the resonance and historic meaning of metaphor and symbolism. But he’s not an overly intellectualized cineaste trapped inside his own head. He likes to have fun; he can be an incredibly provocative “jokerman,” to quote from a Dylan song. 

In Dylan, he has a perfect subject, too – an artist who has manipulated and controlled his own mystique-cloaked persona to the point his “periods” are almost as important to us as the solstice and equinox were to the ancients.

I’m Not There is encoded with references to Dylan’s life and art, as well as to the filmmakers whose avant-garde approach to commercial movies – Jean-Luc Godard, Fellini, Richard Lester, D.A. Pennebaker, Robert Altman – did so much in Haynes’ view to free pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Just like Dylan. In one incredible short span, Haynes references Fellini’s 8 ½, Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and, delightfully, the Teletubbies! In one of his boldest moves, inspired by a close reading of Greil Marcus’ writings on Dylan, Haynes connects the rifle shot-like opening of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the way Godard used rifle shot-like editing to shake up devotees of the French New Wave.

Blanchett plays the doomed Jude, closely based on the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker’s black-and-white Don’t Look Back – a folk singer transforming into a blissed-out electric rock star during a mid-1960s London tour. Here, her Jude is alternately amused by and outraged by a British press that believes he has sold out.

Richard Gere is Billy, an aging outlaw who confronts the sheriff Pat Garrett in a circus town on the Western frontier. (Dylan had a small but influential, to him, role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.) Christian Bale is Jack, the folk/protest singer who took Greenwich Village by storm in the early 1960s and then dropped out to become Pastor John, a leader of a small evangelical church.

Ben Whishaw is Arthur Rimbaud, the mysterious French poet who inspired Dylan. Heath Ledger is Robbie, a Hollywood actor who once played Jack in a movie and is now breaking up with artist wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

And in a remarkable performance, African-American child actor Marcus Carl Franklin plays young Woody in late-1950s America, who runs away from home and hops a train trying to relive the adventures and lifestyle of idol Woody Guthrie. Gregarious and outspoken, he wins friends among hobos and – after he falls into a river and escapes a shark – a wealthy, middle-class family right out of Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Franklin’s joyous duet with Richie Havens on “Tombstone Blues” is a highlight.

Of these stories, only Robbie and Claire’s feels flat. It’s hard to take the time to authentically depict romantic heartbreak in a film moving as fast as this one. And Robbie seems pretty far removed from Dylan.

What unifies everything, ultimately, is the thrilling use of Dylan’s songs by music supervisors Randall Poster and Jim Dunbar both on the soundtrack and as performed on screen. That begins with “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” during an opening montage of 1960s life in Greenwich Village, and ends with Antony and the Johnsons’ tender reading of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” during the closing credits.

The title, itself, comes from a haunting, simmering Basement Tape outtake previously unreleased but made legendary by Marcus in his book Invisible Republic. The film contains two versions – Dylan’s original and a new one by Sonic Youth.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Overlooked Performances: Royale Watkins in 'My Dinner With Jimi'

(Deeper Into Movies begins an occasional feature singling out overlooked fine performances in movies you may or may not know about, but are worth seeing if you savor the art of acting.)

My Dinner With Jimi

(Rhino; 90 minutes)

(First published at
 Royale Watkins gives a charismatic, sexy and endearing performance as Jimi Hendrix in this wryly comic, sweet-natured reverse-Don’tLook Back remembrance of a trip to Swinging London by California posters the Turtles in 1967, at the height of their “Happy Together”/”She’d Rather Be With Me" fame.
 On their arrival, the night before Sgt. Pepper is released, wide-eyed Turtles singer Howard Kaylan (a very effective Justin Henry, child star of Kramer vs. Kramer) meets the Beatles, Graham Nash, Donovan, Brian Jones and Hendrix at a nightclub. More fan than rock star, chubby and poorly dressed and not especially hip, Kaylan is both an outsider and – because he has a pop hit – an insider in this rarified world. 
John Lennon (Brian Groh) is drunk and cruel, Jones (Jay Michael Ferguson) proves a gentlemanly fan of Southern California pop, Hendrix – not yet known in the U.S. – imparts wisdom during an alcohol-fueled dinner.
Made in 2003 on a restrictive budget by Bill Fishman (Tapeheads), with a screenplay by Kaylan that relies too heavily on narration, it transcends its limitations and feels real because of superb casting and acting.It casts a spell.
 Special features: Commentary by Kaylan and producer Harold Bronson, short film about the Turtles’ British trip.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Merits of Movies That Mess With Your Head: From the Archives

By Steven Rosen

(This story first ran in 2006, but I'm not sure where -- SR)

Robert McKee, the screenwriting lecturer and author of “Story,” believes that three distinct styles of movie narrative occupy a pyramid of importance – classical design, minimalism and anti-structure.

The first is by far the most popular, with its single protagonist, external conflict and closed, tightly wrapped-up endings. Minimalist comes next – challenging narratives with multiple protagonists, inner conflicts and sometimes-ambiguous open endings. And then there’s anti-structure – films not afraid to call attention to themselves as films first, stories second. David Lynch, for instance.

“When you go down the triangle, you’re eliminating the audience,” McKee said during a Los Angeles seminar this year. “Absolute forms of minimalism and anti-structure just don’t seem like life to them. What you’re left with are cineaste intellectuals who like to have their worlds twisted every now and then.”

Well, maybe. But there sure seem to be a lot of movies out this fall – big-budget, high-profile Hollywood productions as well as smaller art films – that toy with or completely embrace these “audience-eliminating” styles. A few examples:

Ø  Babel: Making abrupt, unannounced switches in chronological order, this film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga very loosely connects three downbeat stories set in Morocco, Mexico and Japan, each featuring characters with much inner angst.
Ø  Bobby: Writer-director Emilio Estevez interweaves and in some cases leaves unresolved the stories of 22 characters staying at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was fatally assassinated there in 1968.
Ø  Déjà Vu: This Jerry Bruckheimer/Tony Scott drama starts as a conventionally plotted thriller about a terrorist, but veers off into complicated layers of parallel construction as the hero – and the film – travels through space and time to save a dead woman’s life.
Ø  Happy Feet: This animated feature from “Mad Max” director George Miller – already unusual in featuring penguins who sing and dance yet otherwise live in the Antarctic like actual penguins – breaks a Fourth Wall when they come into contact with realistically rendered humans who are amazed that penguins can tap dance.
Ø  The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky moves between three time periods – the 16th Century world of a Spanish conquistador, the present world of a novelist, and the future world of a space traveler.
Ø  Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus: Rather than a conventional biopic about the photographer attracted to outsiders, Steven Shainberg’s film turns into a weird “Alice-in-Wonderlandish” blending of realism and fantasy in which Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) is attracted to a semi-mythical hair-covered “freak” living upstairs.
Ø  Inland Empire: David Lynch’s three-hour opus is beyond description, as it moves randomly between an L.A. actress (Laura Dern) losing control of her identity to hookers dancing to Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” to rabbits in clothes, living in an apartment, whose every word is accompanied by a sitcom laugh track.
Ø  Stranger than Fiction: Writer Zach Helm’s film, directed by Marc Forster, stars Will Ferrell as an IRS agent who discovers he is actually the character in a novel being written by Emma Thompson. Worse, he thinks the film’s voice-over narration is coming from inside his head.

So what gives? It seems to be the impact of several outside external sources: Heralded self-referencing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”); the Oscar-winning success Paul Haggis’ ensemble drama “Crash”; the impact of hit television dramas influenced by “Hill Street Blues;” and the ongoing pressure for auteurist directors and writers to establish credentials by offering something new.

“We’ve run out of new content,” says Howard Suber, a longtime professor of story structure at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television and author of “The Power of Film.” “It’s hard to think of any subject, any kind of story, where somebody could say, ‘No film has ever talked about what this film talks about.’ That leaves, if there are aspirations to be an artistic filmmaker, experiments with style.”

This seems to have been a motivation for Shainberg and his writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, on “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.” In a way, it’s stylistically an anti-biopic – similar in inspiration to the way writer Kaufman in 2002’s “Adaptation” turned Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief,” about an orchid collector, into a weird meta-struggle between Kaufman and his twin brother (both played by Nicolas Cage) to adopt Orlean’s book.

Another such “anti-biopic” may appear in 2007 – Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan” – in which seven actors, including Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere, play Bob Dylan at different career stages.

“Why is this happening? I could give you a meta-answer,” Shainberg says. “It’s about how much media there is. It’s about how much information we get about everyone and how just portraying it straight really isn’t interesting anymore.”

That explains the motivation. But why is the audience receptive – or, at least, not in open revolt – to such experimentation? Because film is a very good medium for it. It’s especially good for directors who want to visually play with the logical order of time and space. “One of the things film does better than any other medium is cut back and forth between time and space,” Suber says.

Filmmakers historically have been more conservative about narrative experiments. Directors and writers felt they inherited a tradition going back to Greek theater of basic stories around a major problem of a central character, with all else secondary. Successful variations were few, like Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” because audiences tended to view open-ended multi-character stories as dramatically flat or too complicated to follow.

Now the approach is hot. It is identified with directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”) Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”). Coming up is Karen Moncrieff’s “The Dead Girl,” featuring Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt and Brittany Murphy as women affected in different ways by a serial killer.

Suber says ensemble-cast television dramas with ongoing “multithreaded” plots, especially the groundbreaking “Hill Street Blues” of the 1980s and later “ER,” changed the audience. “It took the audience a long time to deal with what was initially confusing,” he says. “But once they learned, they had learned storytelling that was infinitely more complicated.”

And films are eager to take advantage of that.

(Photo is of David Lynch)