The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts September 30, 2005


No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, the 225 minute Dylan documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, played in two parts on PBS this past Monday and Tuesday evening.

Despite its nearly four hour running time, the documentary does not cover Dylan’s entire life, but instead focuses on the period from 1960 to 1966, ending with his famous motorcycle accident. The film is currently available on DVD, and PBS will no doubt be replaying the movie frequently over the next several months.

Though Scorsese is credited with directing No Direction Home, the film bears few of the stylistic marks of his well-known fiction films. It is composed primarily of old footage and pictures of Dylan, as well as more recent interviews with Dylan and many of his contemporaries.

The interviews were actually shot before Scorsese took over leadership of the project. The video and picture collage style of the film could probably best be compared to that of another PBS collaborator, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

If you have grown tired of the Hollywood musician biopic which seems to stick its subject into the same formula, you might appreciate the Dylan documentary. Scorsese’s film does not deceptively suggest that Dylan’s many successes resulted from simply packaged Big Inspirational Moments. It doesn’t dwell on the drugs Dylan did or bludgeon the viewer with the ways fame can lead to self-destruction.

Of course, this less sensationalistic approach means that your prior level of interest in Dylan will likely have a significant effect on whether or not you find the movie worthwhile.

Despite the film’s admirable respect for its subject, it ultimately does not offer much new insight into Dylan’s personality or character. Part of the blame for this failure can probably be assigned to the faceless familiarity of the “objective” collage style No Direction Home shares with so many other documentaries. However, the shroud around Dylan seems somewhat intentional.

This is particularly interesting in light of two facts: The interviews in the film were conducted by Dylan’s manager and staff, not Scorsese; also, Scorsese was only allowed to assemble the film from archival materials approved by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager.

Salon’s Steven Hart goes so far as to write, “No Direction Home is an in-house project from Bob Dylan’s management team, conceived as a way to frame Dylan’s legacy while the man himself is still around to supervise the work.”

Perhaps this explains why Dylan comes across as a more sympathetic figure in No Direction Home than he did in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. Whereas Dylan comes across as arrogant and antagonistic in Pennebaker’s film, No Direction Home reveals a playful side to Dylan and shows him struggling to come to terms with an increasingly demanding public and media.

Despite frustrating the viewer’s desire for a deeper understanding of Dylan, No Direction Home still manages to be quite engaging.

I have frequently had the experience of finding a Dylan song thought-provoking and endlessly interesting, even when I was not quite sure that I could identify what exactly the song was about. Similarly, I found Scorsese’s movie interesting and worthwhile, even though I feel like I still do not know much about its subject.

In one sense, it is appropriate that No Direction Home does not ultimately define or bracket Dylan. Though biographical documentaries traditionally aim to do just that, it is clear that Dylan always resented others’ efforts to classify him.

Furthermore, the enduring interest in Dylan and his music is tightly tied to his mystery, his theatrical posing, and his propensity for reinvention. In America, we like our heroes to be shape-shifters, equal parts skilled con men and authentic geniuses. One needs merely to look at our preference for Orson Welles in film, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby in literature, and Dylan in music to confirm this.

–Jacob Ruhe

This past month the Criterion Collection released a DVD of Jean Renoir’s second sound film, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). It is the story of Boudu, an outrageous vagrant, who attempts to drown himself, but is saved by a bourgeois bookseller, Lestingois. When Lestingois invites Boudu into his home against the wishes of his wife, Boudu proceeds to create chaos throughout the household.

The film was first subject to a Hollywood remake in the mid-80s in the form of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and most recently this year, in a French remake with Gerard Depardieu. There is something classic in the nature of this comedic plot that has crossed cultural and generational boundaries.

This original incarnation of the film works specifically in the context of 1930s France. The themes of class and social change in Europe to which Renoir would later return in his masterpieces La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) are present in this film also. Both La Grande Illusion and The Rules of the Game are concerned with the demise of the upper classes in the early 20th century.

In Boudu Saved from Drowning, Renoir portrays the distasteful but discreet bourgeois Lestingois as naïve and futile in his brave effort to save Boudu.

What Lestingois receives in return for saving Boudu’s life is to have the hypocrisies of his social world exposed through the scrutiny and antics of the uncontainable Boudu. The social implications of the film are played out through a series of comic gags, and Renoir demonstrates the similarities and differences between the wealthy and the impoverished as the roles between the two become interchangeable.

Despite making the tramp repulsive and difficult to identify with, Renoir is careful to make the connection between Boudu and Lestingois strong enough that we viewers question the validity of Lestingois’ position. And while it is Lestingois who saves the life of Boudu, Renoir suggests that it may be Lestingois and his class that are in fact drowning.

The fascination of Boudu comes from the rich and eccentric performance of Michel Simon. Simon also starred in Renoir’s La Chienne, in addition to acting for some of the greatest French directors of the day, including Rene Clair and Marcel Carne. As he twirls and stumbles along, Simon brings an unusual charm to the part of Boudu in making him both delightful to watch as well as utterly repulsive.

The special features on this edition include several significant additions to the film. As with previous Criterion Collection DVD releases of Renoir’s films, an archival introduction to the film by Renoir himself is presented. Renoir gives his audience some insight into the production as well as his fondness for Simon.

There is also a 1967 television program featuring both Renoir and Simon, reminiscing about Boudu and the scandal it caused in Paris due to the filthy and ungrateful main character.

There are also additional interviews and discussions with such noted French film personalities as Eric Rohmer, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean Douchet. Gorin’s comments on the social implications, the film’s movement, and the technical innovations offer the best analysis.

The most interesting and unique special feature is an interactive map of Paris in the 1930s. This locates the film’s action at the “intellectual and cultural center of Paris.”

In addition to giving some background information about the social and demographic history of Paris, it analyzes the significance of the various Parisian sites in the film, such as the Pont des Arts, from which Boudu attempts his suicide.

Overall this is a valuable DVD release, ranking high in the Criterion canon. The presentation of this outstanding film is of the highest quality, and while it lacks the cornucopia of supplements added to the release of The Rules of the Game, this DVD is strongly reco mended.

–Oliver William Pattenden


Search powered by