No Direction Home

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan premiered as part of the American PBS network’s “American Masters” series in late September 2005. This biographical documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese and covering the early years of Dylan’s career, was broadcast as the centrepiece of a special Bob Dylan season on the BBC in the same week. Simultaneous appearances on the two heavyweight public broadcasters that co-financed the project contributed to its event status, lending a fresh impetus to the heavily hyped DVD release. Scorsese’s auteur cachet completed the package, with PBS proudly trumpeting No Direction Home as “A Martin Scorsese Picture”.

Yet the provenance of No Direction Home is not nearly as transparent as this label suggests. First proposed in the mid-1990s (one featured interviewee, Allen Ginsberg, died in 1997), the project was in fact largely driven by Dylan’s management. Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, arranged most of the interviews which appear in the film, and Rosen himself conducted the interviews with Dylan. Scorsese agreed to direct well after most of the interviews were completed and never met Dylan to discuss the project, even though the pair are well acquainted, having met prior to making The Last Waltz in 1977. Although Columbia Records and Dylan’s management gave Scorsese unique access to their vaults, this access came with a crucial caveat: the footage was vetted by Dylan’s management before it was provided to him. Inevitably, this has lead to accusations that the project is an “in-house” or “authorised” biography.

In one sense, these quibbles about authorship are moot, as No Direction Home is most mesmerising when it reaches into the archive. In its final moments, the film reveals a legendary moment in the most notorious of all rock concerts, when a furious heckler shouts “Judas”, referring to Dylan’s switch from folk to rock. Dylan responds by snarling, “I don’t believe you – you’re a liar”, before entreating his band to “Play fucking loud!” This exchange, recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966, had grown in infamy due to the widespread circulation of audio bootleg recordings since the early 1970s. (1) Footage of this event, shot by American documentary filmmaker Donn Alan (D. A.) Pennebaker and only recently retrieved from his office basement, is the most remarkable moment among a veritable treasure trove of previously unseen archival material uncovered in the Scorsese film. Footage from this tour begins both parts of No Direction Home, and is seeded throughout the film, privileging this period as the defining moment in Dylan’s career.

No Direction Home ends with a special dedication to Pennebaker for his “extraordinary contribution”. Pennebaker makes a brief appearance as one of many talking heads, but it is clear that his primary contribution lies in work behind the camera on two mid-1960s projects from which No Direction Home draws heavily: Don’t Look Back (D. A. Pennebaker, 1967) and Eat the Document (Bob Dylan, 1972). These films cover a watershed period as Dylan moved from acoustic recordings and performances to rock and roll. Don’t Look Back was directed as well as shot by Pennebaker during Dylan’s English tour of April-May 1965. Pennebaker stated at the time that “nothing was staged or arranged for the purposes of the film” (2), with his aim being to produce a portrait that would be just like “a window someone peeps through” (3). Tracing Dylan’s final solo, acoustic tour in Britain, Don’t Look Back plays out in anonymous locales, such as hotel rooms, limousines, backstage rooms and concert halls. It explores its subject through public media interviews and concert footage, and private exchanges within his entourage. We see him backstage jamming with Joan Baez to country legend Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. These manifestations of his past can be set against the fact that Dylan had recorded his first largely electric album, Bringing It All Back Home (Columbia, 1965), immediately prior to the filming of this tour. Running references to the chart placement of his first electric hit from the album, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, evoke the changing firmament of popular music and youth culture.

In 1966, Pennebaker returned to film another Dylan tour under different conditions. The ABC Network had commissioned Dylan to make a film of his first electric European tour with his backing band, The Hawks. Pennebaker, while a self-described hired-hand on this film, shot most of the tour, beginning in Stockholm in late April and continuing on through to the Royal Albert Hall concerts in London at the end of May. Howard Alk, who had assisted Pennebaker on Don’t Look Back, also filmed this tour and eventually assisted Dylan in editing it. After a lengthy gestation, the tour was ultimately immortalised as Eat the Document in 1972. The resultant film is the antithesis of the approach employed by Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back: self-consciously edited, it uses rapid cuts to deliberately juxtapose disparate images. This fractured montage style is linked to abrupt matches on action and punning visual jokes, with concert performances presented fleetingly.

Images culled from these two projects, along with material shot by Murray Lerner at the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1965, represents the archival spine of No Direction Home. Many of the performances, as well as some of its most compelling backstage moments, were produced with Pennebaker behind the camera. Unpacking this material provides an opportunity to construct a cultural archæology of Scorsese’s film, pivoting around the figure of Pennebaker. In particular, the affective dimension of the archival footage shot by Pennebaker is shaped by the direct cinema movement (sometimes referred to as “cinéma vérité” (4)) with which he was aligned. This movement had a special relationship to the accelerated swirl of celebrity culture in the fresh media, political and popular cultural landscape of the 1960s. Before canvassing these elements, however, it is necessary to examine the philosophical basis of direct cinema.

Bob Dylan and D. A. Pennebaker

D. A. Pennebaker and Direct Cinema

D. A. Pennebaker was a pioneer of the direct cinema documentary movement in the early 1960s, which sought to use the new technology of handheld, mobile cameras and synchronous sound to film in a strictly observational, spontaneous style. The movement first came to prominence in 1960 with Primary (Robert Drew, 1960), an account of the Democratic Party’s Presidential Primary contest between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. (5) Pennebaker worked on this film, having been employed by Robert Drew as part of the Drew Associates team at Time-Life, along with other luminaries such as Richard Leacock, and Albert and David Maysles. From a contemporary vantage point, direct cinema is most likely to be branded a “codified and puritanical” (6) movement, obsessively striving for a return to the real through a series of rules prohibiting the use of interviews, re-enactments, rehearsals, direction of subjects, artificial lighting, voice-over commentary or narration and extra-diegetic music.

Early direct cinema documentaries were made for television broadcast, and television finance helped to bankroll research into and development of technological solutions to the problem of the intrusive, noisy and cumbersome camera and sound-recording equipment which had restricted mobility in previous documentary production. In the 1950s, standard cameras were non-synchronous and noisy and, prior to the appearance of the Nagra tape recorder in the 1960s, sound-recording equipment was also too bulky for spontaneous shooting. (7) Having trained as an engineer, Pennebaker worked with Richard Leacock and a group of technicians to streamline the new Auricon camera (cutting down its size, adapting it for shoulder holding and eliminating excess noise) (8) and to develop a synchronised sound recording system.

As these aims were achieved, direct cinema built its primary truth claim around an active, mobile shooting style linked to an ethos of minimal intervention, described by Stephen Mamber as “uncontrolled documentary” (9). Emphasising the objective, neutral techniques of the recording machinery, and playing down the presence of embodied filmmakers invested with personality and perspective, direct cinema drew on the empiricist and positivist tradition of faith in science and the machine. The movement’s ontology of realism reflected André Bazin’s case for a cinema of realism, deriving from the camera’s mechanical, truth-capturing qualities, resulting in “an image of the world [being] created automatically without the creative intervention of man” (10). Both Bazin and the direct cinema filmmakers espoused a method of filming reliant upon ‘natural’ takes, preferably uninterrupted, in ‘real’ locations, with style secondary to events unfolding in front of the camera. The belief was that scientific instruments of precision such as the camera would remove human mediation in representation, producing incontrovertible ‘evidence’ of the world, “a reproducible warrant” (11), through the indexical relationship to the scene represented.

Even in its early days, the direct cinema philosophy attracted plenty of criticism. Reviewing Don’t Look Back in 1967, prominent American critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael focussed on the problematic notion of objectivity, noting the performative elements of the film, as well as the effect of the camera on the actions of participants and the impact of editing, montage and shooting decisions. Sarris called the film a “contrived documentary” (12), and Kael condemned the inherent “fakery” (13) of direct cinema. In the early 1970s, supporters of apparatus theory such as Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean-Louis Baudry would contest the claim that cinema could be ‘just’ a ‘window’, arguing that the technical emphasis on the neutral capture of reality through instruments of scientific precision was an ideologically charged illusion. (14) Jeanne Hall has succinctly summarised this shift in theory, perception and discourse surrounding direct cinema, which

burst on the scene in 1960 talking of “honesty, intimacy, and above all, objectivity” – but by the end of the decade, film studies programs were teaching ideology, interpellation and subjectivity. [Direct cinema] filmmakers, with their liberal humanism and unabashed empiricism, became easy targets indeed. (15)

Such criticisms have since only gathered pace, with the mainstream of opinion and practice now irrevocably altered in the wake of the post-modern and post-structural theorists who dominated the latter part of the 20th century. Increasing questioning of traditional verities such as truth, facts and objectivity has eclipsed the established truth claims of direct cinema, which in its purist observational form is now most likely to be characterised as hopelessly naïve or passé.

Celebrity Documentary, Direct Cinema and Don’t Look Back

Yet in truth there was always a large gap between the rhetoric of objectivity and reality and the actual direct cinema films. For example, Don’t Look Back formed part of a substantial sub-genre of direct cinema films which took celebrities as their subjects, resulting in a foregrounding of the questions of identity and selfhood. These profiles (all of which were produced by Drew Associates as a collective, except where indicated) include Primary (1960), Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) and Adventures on the New Frontier: A Day in the Life of John Kennedy (1961), all of which featured John F. Kennedy, as well as profiles of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (Nehru, 1962), Jane Fonda (Jane, 1962), The Beatles (What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, Albert and David Maysles, 1964), Marlon Brando (Meet Marlon Brando, Albert and David Maysles, 1965), Truman Capote (With Love from Truman, Albert and David Maysles, 1966), Igor Stravinsky (A Stravinsky Portrait, Richard Leacock, 1966), and The Rolling Stones (Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970). Each of the works illustrates the fascination held by direct cinema filmmakers for progressive and unconventional personalities, with their subjects often identified with new epochs in politics, popular music, performance and literature.

Not coincidentally, during this period a clutch of best-selling sociological tracts were grappling with defining transformations in the American character, emphasising the new type of America that was emerging. Attachments to tradition, community, certainty, manifest destiny (and, implicitly, authority and authenticity) were giving way to an upsurge in ego, self-consciousness and performative notions of social identity. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman considered the series of roles that he believed were an essential part of everyday life in America, with a demarcation maintained between a “front stage” public face, a character to be enacted, and a back stage private life. (16) David Reisman’s book, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, depicts the traditional American character as “inner directed”, i.e., “implanted early in life by the elders and directed towards generalized but nonetheless inescapably destined goals” (17), in contrast to a newly emerging “other directed” character, whereby “contemporaries [including the media] are the source of direction for the individual” (18). For Reisman, this development coincided with the rise of the image; the increasing self consciousness of an “other directed” society demanded that its members conform to roles that were not natural or traditional, as the stability of character was transformed into the dynamic of personality. In a similar vein, Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image bemoaned the ubiquity of the reproduced image in society, leading to a rising tide of packaged celebrities and media driven “pseudo-events” (19).

The direct cinema celebrity films were part of this dialogue. Typically they were impressionistic portraits rather than attempts at a fuller biography, following their subject for a period of days or weeks. Usually based on a specific event, such as a tour or an election, the films presented a contrast between ‘public’ and ‘private’ life. They sought to employ the new technology allowing proximate, mobile and relatively unobtrusive shooting to pierce the distance that had always been the sine qua non of celebrity. Celebrities in these documentaries were offered as accessible icons to fans and the viewing public. Unprecedented levels of access fostered intimacy, but the uniqueness of this access underlined the departure from the prior norm of exaltation and distance. Discourses of compromise, sell-out and betrayal, of authenticity, integrity, fakery and performance, recurred in discussions of both the celebrities and direct cinema films.

Don’t Look Back

All of these films, but in particular Don’t Look Back, foregrounded the sense of fragmentation between image and self at the core of the notion of celebrity in a mediatised society. Marshall McLuhan described the resulting entity as “discarnate man”, in which the self was cleaved from the corporeal body and rendered in the electronic media as an “image or pattern of information” (20). It was this cleavage that the direct cinema portrait set itself to overcome, breaking down the distinction between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘performing’ self. In Dylan’s case, there was a clear disjunction between the authenticity and integrity associated with the folk or protest tradition, and Dylan’s penchant for performance, his wildly invented persona. As Don’t Look Back was being filmed, Dylan had built a career and a reputation based upon lacerating political commentary in folk music, a genre privileging authenticity over all other qualities. At the same time, however, he was also a seasoned tale-spinner. As sketched at the start of No Direction Home, Dylan began life as a middle-class Jewish college drop-out from small town Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman. The re-invented Bob Dylan presented to the world a fictitious background as a circus orphan, an artist who made a pact with the devil, a wandering minstrel, the bastard child of Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac.

This combination of integrity and role-playing is presented in its most combustible form through Dylan’s interactions with the media in Don’t Look Back. Like other portraits, such as Meet Marlon Brando and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, Don’t Look Back is structured around exchanges between its celebrity subject and a media contingent with limited understanding of the artist they are interviewing. Even a casual viewing of any of the direct cinema celebrity profile films reveals an embedded critique of the mainstream media. Jeanne Hall has argued that Don’t Look Back mounts an implicit critique of the dominant media, staking its claim to the moral high ground on the alternative, liberal flank. (21) Paul Arthur has drawn attention to how the “unwitting go-betweens” of the mainstream media “in their misguided fealty to rational speech as benchmark of communication (in contrast to direct cinema’s faith in unfettered image) elicit patently unconvincing responses, confirming the probity of an observational style” (22).

Don’t Look Back demonstrates how this strategy can work: the fact that Pennebaker follows a popular singer and media personality allows him to adhere to the direct cinema rules, resisting direct interviews on the basis that his observational watching brief has an inbuilt mise en abîme structure: he watches and records other members of the media with his camera as they use their cameras and tape recorders to interview Dylan. Notwithstanding the direct cinema rhetoric about objectivity, Don’t Look Back is carefully edited and structured, combining an observational approach with a strong personal perspective and ‘editorial’ line. No Direction Home refers to a number of these moments, including the final explosive encounter with Time reporter Judson Manning, and the meeting between Dylan and Donovan. The culmination of countless jousts with journalists throughout the film, the Judson interview is characteristic of the treatment of the media, in that Manning’s comments are largely elided, so that the conversation becomes essentially one-sided, ending with Dylan saying, “I know more about what you do, and you don’t have to ask me how or why or anything, just by looking, than you’ll ever know about me, ever.” The representation of Dylan’s supposed rivalry with “the British Dylan”, Donovan, is also artfully calculated. Recurring shots of newspaper banners (“Dylan Digs Donovan”) or headlines being read by Dylan (“Is Donovan Deserting his Fans?”), and Dylan’s jokey references to Donovan in concert and in private are moments which playfully mock the media hype.

A Tale of Two Films: Eat the Document and You Know Something is Happening

The genealogy of Eat the Document is more labyrinthine than Don’t Look Back. Originally commissioned by ABC as a one-hour television special on the 1966 European tour, Pennebaker was hired as cameraman for a film which Dylan wanted to direct. However, with the ABC deadline looming at the end of the tour, Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman asked Pennebaker to edit his own version of the tour. This version, provisionally titled “You Know Something is Happening”, was rejected by Dylan because it too closely resembled Don’t Look Back. Working with Howard Alk, he began editing his own film, while recuperating after the motorcycle accident in July 1966 that marks the end point for the chronology explored in No Direction Home. Dylan has described the footage shot by Pennebaker as “miles and miles of garbage” (23). Aiming to shape this material into a “logical story which consisted of stars and starlets who were taking the roles of other people”, he complained that he was limited in this vision, because of the “newsreel-type footage” shot by “the eye” (i.e., Pennebaker). (24) Eventually premiering in New York in 1972, the Dylan directed Eat the Document is a self-consciously composed film, rejecting any direct cinema style claim to being a ‘window’ on to Dylan’s 1966 tour with The Hawks. It presents a handful of quasi-vérité moments, including Dylan and Johnny Cash jamming backstage, hand held snatches of concert performances, and a sequence of John Lennon and an addled Dylan riding in the back of a limousine which has been added to bootleg DVDs and videos. (25) Otherwise, the opening sequence of Dylan and friends snorting off a table sets the scene for the almost free-associative, rapidly cut collage which follows.

Pennebaker is dismissive of Eat the Document, arguing that Dylan’s focus on off-stage moments, “filming these goofy little scenes with nutty people” (26), ignores the real action on stage. He believed that the 1966 tour differed materially from the 1965 Don’t Look Back tour. In 1965, “you couldn’t really centre on the stage because what went on on-stage really wasn’t that important to his life”, while in 1966 “he came to life in the middle of that stage” (27). Pennebaker made the decision to shoot on stage himself during this tour, initially surprising Dylan, who was not interested in recording the performances, in the middle of a concert. (28) The energy and tension generated by the performances inspired Pennebaker to shoot up close with a wide-angle lens, in contrast to the long-shots used for performances in Don’t Look Back.

Scorsese relies on this footage for performances from the 1966 tour that are spread throughout No Direction Home, as it builds towards its climactic “Judas” moment and the final rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Whether it be Dylan rushing, truculently and monotonally, through a version of “Mr Tambourine Man” in the solo section of a concert, or performing versions of “Visions of Johanna”, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, “Desolation Row”, “Tell Me, Momma”, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, it is overwhelmingly the footage shot according to Pennebaker’s schema that finds its way into No Direction Home. Apart from the concerts, this means that encounters with fans and unproductive media conferences again feature heavily, underlining the film’s direct cinema heritage.

The narrative shape of No Direction Home

Having probed some genealogical links between No Direction Home and Pennebaker’s work on Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document above, I want to expand this investigation by considering the narrative shape of Scorsese’s film. Unlike in his histories of American Cinema (A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, 1995) and Italian Post-War Cinema (My Voyage to Italy, 1999), Scorsese does not appear before the camera in No Direction Home. Here he is content to play mix master, strip-mining a mother lode of rarities, from sound and film recordings previously unavailable in the public domain, to photographs, handwritten lyrics, posters and handbills. The narrative of the film is organised around this material in a broadly chronological fashion, supplemented by interviews with friends and colleagues, its progression chronicled in sub-titles marking the passage of time. The form of No Direction Home is relatively straightforward: in terms of Bill Nichols’ documentary taxonomy (29), it would be characterised as a standard television style interactive documentary, essentially dependent on a mixture of interviews and the archive. Avoiding any obvious narrative twists, it progresses teleologically towards its climax.

No Direction Home is divided into two parts, with the first part encompassing a familiar story arc. Dylan’s trajectory towards stardom features here, privileging testimony regarding his early struggle (sleeping on couches and floors, soaking up poetry, music and literature), long-lost vignettes (earliest sound recording, first film in New York) and reminiscences from a time before fame (such as passing himself off as local Hibbing pop star Bobby Vee and stealing rare folk records from colleagues in the folk scene). The second part is focused on the oppressive aspects of celebrity. As in both Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document, unproductive encounters with the media form a familiar leitmotif, establishing a recurrent pattern of the artist ahead of his time, estranged from the monotonous demands of conventional society. Fans and journalists constantly pester Dylan, with requests ranging from the banal (autographs) to the bizarre (“Can I see your left fingertips, please?”). Approaching its climax, No Direction Home wryly presents a series of stand-offs with the media, charting the dissolution of the tour as Dylan becomes more alienated, tired and befuddled: a Swedish reporter asks if he considers himself to be “the ultimate beatnik”, a French journalist wants to know, “Do you agree that you should be the leader of singers with a message”, while in England he bemusedly declines a photographer’s request to suck his glasses.

The overarching meta-narrative in No Direction Home is Dylan’s development as a driven creative artist, culminating in the intense emotions evoked by the break with his folk roots in favour of rock and roll. References to this turning point and the furore it created are woven throughout the film, signposting its climax and providing the only real break from an otherwise linear narrative. The narrative logic posits Dylan’s restlessness and almost perverse disregard for conventional wisdom as the motive forces propelling him forward. “Home” becomes a metaphor for stasis and suffocation, matching the reality of young Robert Zimmerman’s alienation from life in small-town Hibbing, Minnesota; life was elsewhere, borne from far-away radio stations late at night delivering snatches of the blues, country or gospel. The constant questing of the genius artist drives him on to ever-fresher artistic and physical destinations, but never back to his point of origin. As Dylan tells Rosen, “An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere; you always have to realise that you’re constantly in a state of becoming.”

No Direction Home

Predominantly a pæan to Dylan, a conventionally romantic portrait of the artist as genius, No Direction Home generally avoids explicit commentary on personal dramas which are exhaustively covered in the biographical literature, such as Dylan’s abundant drug use or his tangled love life. Scorsese’s approach here reflects the direct cinema films in another sense: avoiding context or commentary for these subjects, they are either implicitly referred to (as in the interviews with Suzie Rotolo and Joan Baez) or shown without any explicit markers, such as in a number of sequences where Dylan is plainly stoned or speeding. Scorsese adopts the direct cinema mantra of showing, not telling, echoing Pennebaker’s representation of Dylan’s relationship with Joan Baez in Don’t Look Back (which collapsed in the middle of filming), where the very lack of explicit information requires the viewer to exercise extra-textual knowledge to understand that the significance of Baez’s disappearance half way through the film.

No Direction Home and the Archive

In the 1960s, the celebrity profile films were often dismissed as insignificant by academics and critics, either because of these technical flaws, or due to a perception that they were mere crowd-pleasing entertainment, as opposed to “serious” documentary work. With the release of What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, the then head of features for the BBC, Anthony Jay, said:

I think it will be hard for anyone who comes fresh to this film in ten year’s time to believe that anything so unutterably tedious was ever transmitted: its viewability depended entirely on a near obsessive interest in everything to do with the Beatles. (30)

Writers on documentary characterised the films as trivial or crowd pleasing exercises which failed to take advantage of the possibilities of the direct cinema format. Referring to the films of rock stars and concerts, G. Roy Levin wrote disparagingly: “pleasing a large number of people does not necessarily imply value” (31). Erik Barnouw came to a similar conclusion in stating that “most of the films dealt with people leading highly public lives, and some were little more than studies of performers and audiences in action. These won audiences, but suggested a limitation in the technique.” (32) A critic of Crisis regretted that the “decision making processes of our government had been brought too close to ‘show business’” (33). These contemporary criticisms, combined with the negative impact of direct cinema’s unsustainable rhetorical claims for objectivity, suggested a dim future for the films.

Against this background, it is intriguing to reflect on how the passage of time and the advent of new modes of delivery in the digital age have transformed their original use value as immediate records, rather than historical artefacts. When they were filmed, there was no guarantee that phenomena such as The Beatles and Bob Dylan would sustain an enduring global celebrity that would create a near-insatiable market for memorabilia and images. With the baby-boomer generation approaching retirement, the market for nostalgia has encouraged commodification through re-cycling and re-packaging these films, often by adding extra footage which was excluded from the original. As well as Don’t Look Back, direct cinema films such as What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, Primary, Crisis: Portrait of a Presidential Commitment and Gimme Shelter have demonstrated the extended shelf-life of archival material as they are re-cycled and re-packaged as DVDs. Martin Scorsese’s use of Pennebaker’s footage from Dylan and The Hawks’ 1966 European tour demonstrates, particularly when compared to images taken from the same concerts on Eat the Document, how re-mastering of long-lost or badly bootlegged material can lead viewers to look again at works that might otherwise be written off as passé.

The transformation of heritage, the revival of old forms, is a recurrent motif throughout No Direction Home. Many years after the heat of the event, Dave Von Ronk smiles about Dylan “borrowing” his arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” for his self-titled first album, relishing the irony that Dylan’s version was in turn overshadowed by that of Eric Burdon and The Animals. Dylan’s debt to other artists such as Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Allen Ginsberg is acknowledged. This borrowing trope is reinforced through Scorsese’s transformative use of images from other archival portraits. In the contemporary era, however, legal constraints on the use of copyright film mean that this material is not so much “found” or borrowed as authorised or negotiated footage, garnered from rights-holders such as private collectors, filmmakers and Dylan himself.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

This transformative, re-vivifying process can result in uses far removed from their original context, as an analysis of the opening sequence of Don’t Look Back illustrates. Ironically, given its status as perhaps the most widely viewed segment in the history of direct cinema, the constructedness of this sequence is manifest. In its precise staging, it is the antithesis of the concert recordings which recur throughout the rest of the film. Beginning with Dylan holding up cue cards containing snatches of lyrics from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, as the song plays out on the soundtrack he progressively throws away cards when the relevant lyrics are finished, revealing the next card. Allen Ginsberg lurks in the background, resembling a prophet. Dylan is close-mouthed as he shuffles the cards, underscoring the primacy of the visual, rather than the audio, recording. An extra layer of artifice is added when Dylan does not even bother to mime the lyrics.

In the 40 years since Pennebaker filmed this opening, it has come to be read as the inauguration of a new cultural epoch, a portent of music video and MTV. It was not intended in 1967 to be broadcast as a discrete music video in the sense that this term is now understood, as there was no space for such a broadcast on network television in this pre-cable era. Today, however, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is shown on MTV as a video of a single from Bringing It All Back Home and from the movie Don’t Look Back. In an age when “music video promos are […] all but de rigueur for commercial movies” (34), this prototype video has been anachronistically re-invented as just such a promo. In No Direction Home, it appears that the wheel has turned again. Here, having unearthed two alternate versions of this “video clip” of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from the Pennebaker archive, Scorsese airs segments of all three versions. In a neat inversion of Pennebaker’s original “corruption” of the direct cinema rules, in Scorsese’s documentary the value of these clips is in their rarity, their historicity, their indexical link to a famous moment in popular culture, as opposed to any performative charge.

Generally, however, the selling-point of direct cinema in the era of its production was that it was viscerally in the moment, rather than reflective or painstakingly constructed; the Pennebaker material used by Scorsese is marked by its spontaneity and “presentness”. Technological advances were used by Pennebaker and his colleagues for the type of guerrilla shooting which was to become the hallmark of the ‘fly on the wall’ genre, inflecting the distinctive formal qualities of direct cinema. Hand-held tracking, wobbly camerawork, whip pans, long takes, a lack of lighting equipment, occasionally muffled sound and loss of focus operate as virtual signifiers of ‘authenticity’, bringing the viewer an apparently unmediated, raw picture of reality. The rough, unburnished style of the Pennebaker’s filming attested to its claims as an authentic record of reality.

For years, Pennebaker had rued the lost opportunity of You Know Something is Happening and his unused footage from the legendary 1966 tour, to the point that its legend matched that of other notorious “lost” films, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!, filmed in 1931, and eventually ‘restored’ by Grigory Alexandrov in 1979. While not restored in any complete sense, this footage has to some extent been incorporated into, and revived by, No Direction Home. If No Direction Home presents the idea of “home” as out of reach, its deployment of the archive to construct a mosaic biography suggests another elusive chimera. The archival images that Scorsese has assembled draw upon the power of their indexical heritage, the special relation between cinema and the real, rendering history as tantalisingly present, allowing the viewer an impression of the turbulence of Bob Dylan’s early career. Roland Barthes has reflected on the “return of the dead” (35) and the immobilisation of time in photography, which he characterises as “an emanation of past reality” (36):

The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation. (37)

The unique appeal of cinema is founded on this “desire that the concrete be preserved, stopped in time” (38). The fact that this experience is ultimately an attenuated link to another time, occluded in the precision of its representation, limited in context and marked by the subjectivity of its creator, must be acknowledged. These parameters define the limits of the indexical link, of direct cinema’s rhetorical truth claims, and the status of the archival images of Bob Dylan in No Direction Home as a representation of reality. By definition tenuously attempting to arrest time, these images remain remarkably resonant all the same.


  1. The recording has often been incorrectly labelled the “Royal Albert Hall” concert, particularly prior to its official release in 1998.
  2. D. A. Pennebaker, Don’t Look Back (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), p. 5.
  3. D. A. Pennebaker, interviewed in G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Film-makers (New York: Doubleday, 1971), p. 235.
  4. In this article, I adopt the basic philosophical division accepted by writers on documentary such as Bill Nichols, Michael Renov and Brian Winston. For these theorists, the expression “direct cinema” refers to the observational, minimal intervention style of filming practised by Americans such as Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Albert and David Maysles. This approach contrasts with the active, catalytic cinéma vérité of French filmmakers such as Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, which emphasised shared participation and interaction between filmmaker and subject.
  5. See Brian Winston, Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited (London: BFI, 1995), p. 152; Stephen Mamber, Cinema Verite in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentaries (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1974), p. 178; Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), p. 218.
  6. Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins (Eds), Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 250.
  7. Macdonald and Cousins (Eds), p. 249.
  8. Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (London: Starword, 1983), p. 331.
  9. Mamber; Mamber also referred to the “ethic of non-interference”, p. 145.
  10. André Bazin, What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 13.
  11. Michael Renov, The Subject of Documentary (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), p. 122.
  12. Andrew Sarris, “Don’t Look Back”, in Confessions of a Cultist: On the Cinema 1955-1969 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), p. 312.
  13. Pauline Kael, “Celebrities Make Spectacles of Themselves”, in Going Steady (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970), p. 14.
  14. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”, and Jean-Louis Comolli, “Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field [Parts 3 and 4]”, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, Philip Rosen (Ed.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 287-8 and 422-3 respectively.
  15. Jeanne Hall, “Realism as a Style in Cinema Verite: A Critical Analysis of “Primary””, Cinema Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), p. 27.
  16. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959).
  17. Reisman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 15.
  18. Reisman, p. 21.
  19. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1987).
  20. Phillip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: the Medium and the Message (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989), 238, in Gabler, p. 220.
  21. Jeanne Hall, “‘Don’t you ever just watch?’: American Cinéma Vérité and Don’t Look Back”, in Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski (Eds), Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1998), pp. 223-7.
  22. Paul Arthur, “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments)”, in Michael Renov (Ed.), Theorizing Documentary (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), p. 123.
  23. Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades (New York: Summit Books, 1991), p. 177.
  24. Heylin, p. 178.
  25. This final sequence has been tacked on to the end of various bootleg versions of the film that have circulated over the past 30 years, most of which are of a vastly inferior visual quality to the re-mastered material contained in No Direction Home.
  26. D. A. Pennebaker, “1966 and All That: D. A. Pennebaker, Film-maker”, All Across the Telegraph – A Bob Dylan Handbook (London: Futura, 1988), p. 75.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Op. cit., p. 64.
  29. As set out in his books, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) and Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
  30. Antony Jay, quoted in Mamber, p. 146.
  31. G. Roy Levin, Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Filmmakers (New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1971), p. 27.
  32. Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 241.
  33. A. William Bluem, Documentary in American Television (New York: Hastings House, 1965), p. 133.
  34. J. Hoberman, “What’s Art Got to do With It”, in Vulgar Modernism: Writings on Movies and Other Media (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), p. 151.
  35. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Vintage: London, 1993), p. 8.
  36. Op. cit., p. 88.
  37. Op. cit., p. 4.
  38. Philip Rosen, “History of Image, Image of History: Subject and Ontology in Bazin”, in Ivone Margulies (Ed.) Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema (Duke University Press: London, 2003), p. 56.

About The Author

Tim O’Farrell teaches cinema at the Victorian College of the Arts, programmes films for the Melbourne International Film Festival, has a PhD in Cinema Studies from La Trobe University and works as a lawyer.

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