This paper was presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference 2000 at the Congress Plaza Hotel, Chicago on March 11, 2000, as part of the panel I2: Giving Hollywood the Slip(page): The Carnivalesque in Musical Movies
* * *
“I need a dump truck mama to unload my head.”
– Bob Dylan, “From a Buick 6.”
The evolution of rock music has been marked by an intermittent but generally expanding interest in the display of traditional music competencies, such as instrumental virtuosity and disciplined vocal technique. In the world of rock’n’roll cinema, this is echoed by the formal disparities between deliberately scruffy ’50s movies–e.g., Will Price’s teenpic Rock, Rock, Rock (1957) and, on a more sophisticated level, Frank Tashlin’s parody The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)–and such meticulously planned, highly polished ’70s and ’80s productions as Martin Scorsese’s elegant The Last Waltz (1978) and Jonathan Demme’s inventive Stop Making Sense (1984), both directed by established auteurs who approach their concert-hall material (performances by The Band and Talking Heads, respectively) with a measure of “art film” seriousness.
Youth cultures have a predilection for mutiny against whatever status quo happens to prevail at the time, however, so it is not surprising that the ’70s saw a spate of resistance toward the increasingly well-schooled and well-behaved rock that was thought by some to be draining the subcultural scene of whatever vitality it had once possessed. The emergence of punk rock in the ’70s, via such innovative young performers as The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, has been viewed by many critics as that period’s most salutary return to the carnivalism and grotesquerie of early rock’n’roll. Yet certain older performers who had risen to prominence during the ’60s shared the desire to rebel against rock’s growing investment in professionalism and decorum. Launching a cheerfully atavistic campaign to recapture the improvisatory energy and self-inventing spontaneity of rock’s formative years–but hesitant to pursue this agenda in the rock arena itself, now steeped in values of conventional virtuosity that they themselves had helped to introduce–some of them turned to cinema as a means of developing and disseminating their more aesthetically subversive ideas.
Among the key films in the subgenre that resulted are 200 Motels, co-written and co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971, and Renaldo & Clara, written and directed by Bob Dylan in 1978. In keeping with standard rock-film practice, both contain large amounts of concert footage, much of which is effectively and excitingly filmed. On the other levels of meaning that they explore, however–fictional narrative, cinéma vérité documentary, pop-star portraiture–both are characterized by a remarkable degree of structural tenuousness and diegetic indeterminacy. These qualities allow us to see both films as exemplars of rock’s most healthily anarchic possibilities, with tendencies toward conventionally construed “correctness” or “proficiency” neatly deflected by the technical amateurishness of their cinematically untrained filmmakers. Seen in the larger context of contemporary music as a whole, moreover, these purposefully meandering works constitute filmic equivalents of the aleatory compositions associated with John Cage and his high-modernist disciples–David Tudor, Charlotte Moorman, et al–as the filmmakers’ inspired refusal of traditional competence allows copious amounts of cinematic and performative excess to contaminate, variegate, and invigorate their texts.
The desire to foreground such apparent formlessness and uncontainability points to the roots of these artists (Dylan and Zappa on one hand, Cage and his school on the other) in an implicitly nonrational sensibility that may broadly be called romanticist. Partaking of what Friedrich Nietzsche termed the Dionysian spirit, this sensibility is grounded in ideals of individuality, immediacy, unpredictability, and freedom from sociocultural norms. It has been shared by many artists who see spontaneity and extemporaneity as idealized routes to the authentic expression of a unique soul, spirit, or inner self. I have argued elsewhere (1) that while improvisation has played a significant role in artistic creation for centuries–it flourished in European music during the baroque and classical periods, for instance–it has achieved a particularly high reputation in the modernist era as a result of twentieth-century anxieties, or at least uncertainties, regarding the authenticity of artistic works and practices themselves. Walter Benjamin helps us understand the etiology of these uncertainties when he uses the word “aura” to identify certain qualities of the traditional art work, including its existential connection with a particular time and place, and the quasi-mystical “phenomenon of a distance” that it presents to the beholder no matter how physically close it may be. (2) Contemporary mass audiences wish to bring things “closer” in both spatial and human terms, Benjamin maintains, adding that this desire to overcome traditional values of “distance” and “uniqueness” has an anti-auratic effect insofar as it lends indiscriminate legitimacy to copies and reproductions at the expense of the original works upon which they are modeled. This tendency facilitates the “decay” of art’s traditionally auratic nature and fosters an ascription of “universal equality” to the objects of our perception. This in turn militates against the “essentially distant” and “unapproachable” nature of the “unique” auratic work, and thereby threatens the prestige of art itself.
One way to combat all this is to cultivate an improvisatory aesthetic that evades the norms of mass-produced art by placing a romanticized emphasis on notions of spontaneity, authenticity, and individuality as pathways to artistic originality and uniqueness. Cage did this by developing aleatory techniques that allow chance and indeterminacy to play key roles in shaping musical results. Some of Cage’s methods involve elaborate uses of high technology (e.g., mixing sounds into dense electronic collages); others turn to what might be called low technology (e.g., transforming household objects, office furnishings, etc., into “musical instruments”); others call on extramusical procedures for generating random series that can be transposed into musical terms (e.g., casting dice according to protocols derived from the I Ching); still others subordinate the performers to their environment (e.g., the famous 4’33”, wherein the silence of an unplayed piano throws into relief the ambient sounds in its vicinity). In all cases, the composer seeks to bypass his own structuring ego and allow a larger system or set of systems (the ubiquity of sound, the processes of hearing and seeing, forces of synchronicity or “karma,” and so forth) to take the foreground. As a highly desirable byproduct, dominant artistic practices and market forces are evaded and obviated.
In their primary field of music, Zappa and Dylan worked to achieve results very different from these. Zappa considered himself a high-art composer in the avant-garde tradition of Edgard Varese, composing jauntily melodic chamber and orchestral pieces when he wasn’t busy leading The Mothers of Invention, his resourceful pop group. Dylan made an epochal contribution to the poeticization of rock’s verbal component–nobody did more to bring rock lyrics from their “doo-wop” period to a new set of sophisticated options in the ’60s and after–while cultivating a performance style attuned to idioms as diverse as the American folksong tradition and the Sprechgesang of the Second Vienna School.
In sum, these were serious, ambitious musicians who used rock’s more “primitive” qualities as a point of departure for their own explorations of increasingly refined and complex artistic territory. As such, they had good reasons not to wax overly nostalgic over rock’s earlier investment in deliberately simple kinds of musical and verbal play, even though a deep affection for early rock styles had clearly drawn them to pop-music formats in the first place. It therefore made excellent sense for them to seek out a neighboring cultural arena in which they could reengage with instinctive and improvisatory creative processes on a more radical basis than their middlebrow status allowed for in the music world. Their choice of cinema (as opposed to, say, painting or dance) also made sense, given the recent precedents set by such artists-turned-filmmakers as novelist Norman Mailer (e.g., Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, both 1968) and John Lennon (various films, some made with Yoko Ono). All were attracted to film as an aesthetically malleable medium whose habitual adherence to industrial norms could readily be ignored by well-known culture heroes whose celebrity guaranteed access to financial and technical resources.
All of which helps to explain why the feature films of Zappa and Dylan stand out for their buoyant indifference to the sort of disciplinary competencies that did concern these auteurs in the music field. Both movies are openly experimental and drastically heedless of contemporaneous standards regarding content, style, and coherence, as I noted when reviewing them at the time of their release. “Unusual cinematic and musical techniques were obviously brought to bear on this obviously unusual project,” I wrote of Zappa’s film (3). “[It] is the first major feature-length movie to be shot entirely on video-tape (which was later transferred to film); both the fluidity and the versatility of the tape medium have left a definite mark on the final product….Equally important is composer-arranger-scenarist Zappa’s idea that all sounds and sights in the movie are part of its ‘score,’ no matter how gratuitous or careless–perhaps the word should be ‘aleatory’–they happen to be. Cageian aesthetics via a rock’n’roll movie.”
Co-directed by Zappa, who took charge of “characterizations,” and Tony Palmer, who is credited with the “visuals” of the film, 200 Motels was intended as an impressionistic portrait of a rock group on tour, evoking the “grueling hours, the seeming sameness of cities hurriedly visited, the banal plasticity of…motel rooms,” to quote my 1971 description. Among the film’s gratuitous and/or careless elements are long episodes of pointless horsing around by Mothers of Invention members (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, late of The Turtles, are among the most conspicuous) and equally long episodes of surrealistic-psychedelic showing off (rapid-fire montage, multiple superimpositions, and so on) introduced via editing and optical printing Palmer’s efforts can be seen as an attempt to impose a measure of cinematic order on Zappa’s more drastically undisciplined antics; the images, as I wrote in 1971, are “spectacular and have been assembled with obvious care” so as to look “now like a color version of Stan Brakhage’s Desistfilm (1954), now like a nightmare parody of Hollywood musicals.” The degree of cinematic control provided by Palmer’s contribution may be seen as canceling my claim that the film as a whole partakes of an aleatory aesthetic, but Cage’s own practice was based on a dialectic between indeterminacy (vis-à-vis pitch, sequence, duration, etc.) and rigorously structured means of producing that indeterminacy (throwing dice according to a carefully work-out protocol, choosing specific objects or instruments to produce specific sonic qualities, etc.). I don’t suggest that the practices of Zappa and Palmer represent an exact parallel with Cage’s techniques, but their blending of visual sophistication with flamboyantly extemporaneous profilmic material reflects a sensibility that I find quite close to some aspects of the Cageian ideal.
If a dreamlike condensation is at the heart of Zappa’s film, a metonymic sprawl characterizes Renaldo & Clara, the Dylan epic made seven years later. Again the ostensible subject is a rock entourage on tour–the famous Rolling Thunder Revue this time–and again synopsis is difficult. “Dylan plays Renaldo, sort of,” I wrote in 1978 (4). “Ronnie Hawkins plays Bob Dylan. Sara Dylan, Bob’s ex-wife, plays Clara. Also on hand are Joan Baez (the Woman in White), Ronee Blakely (of Nashville fame, here playing Mrs. Dylan), the grand old singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, poet Allen Ginsberg (who reads movingly from his great work Kaddish), and…Harry Dean Stanton, plus others too numerous to mention.” Other material in the film ranges from improvised dialogue scenes to cinéma vérité footage of the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter case, then (as now) in the news. As for the thematic center of all this, I wrote, “Dylan says it’s about ‘alienation of the inner self against the outer self…integrity…knowing yourself.’ Indeed, the eerie shots of him singing through a transparent mask start the picture with questions about the ‘identity’ of the public personality and the private man….” Dylan’s predilection for long takes (and a long movie, clocking in at 232 minutes in the version originally released) reflects his statement that he and his collaborators “can cut fast when we want, but the power comes in the…faith that [a shot] is…meaningful” and should therefore be allowed to continue at length. My review also quotes Dylan’s statement to Rolling Stone that about a third of the movie “is improvised, about a third is determined, and about a third is blind luck.”
By and large, the portions that appear to be “determined” display little more conventional filmmaking competence than the episodes that flaunt an affinity with randomness and purposefully uncontrolled spontaneity. As a whole, however, the deliberately shapeless mass of Renaldo & Clara spills over with what I called at the time “a dreamish logic and a generous, playful spirit” that lends an inspired and occasionally transcendent lilt to the film’s surrealistic juxtapositions and polymorphous longueurs. Its length, ambition, and diversity place it at an opposite pole from the folk songs and ’50s rock’n’roll numbers that Dylan’s early career was grounded in; but as with Zappa’s film, the very gap separating the artistic aspirations of its text from the cinematic proficiencies of its maker lend it an extra level of indeterminacy that places it into the same aesthetic arena explored by Cage and his colleagues from a different set of starting points and perspectives. The incoherence of 200 Motels and Renaldo & Clara makes them intransigent texts that seekers of conventional cinematic pleasure have mostly avoided. But the chasm that yawns between these movies and the average moviegoer can be seen as an idiosyncratic reappearance of the “unique distance” that Benjamin found missing in mechanically reproduced culture at large. If cultists were the natural allies of traditionally auratic works, fans of cult movies may be among their heirs in our own time.
- David Sterritt, “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 58:2 (Spring 2000), forthcoming.
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 221, p. 223.
- David Sterritt, “…and Zappa’s surreal look at rock’n’touring.” The Christian Science Monitor (December 1, 1971), p. 16.
- David Sterritt, “Dylan’s first film–unconventional: Fascinating mosaic of real life, fantasy and music demands effort from viewer.” The Christian Science Monitor (January 26, 1978), p. 19.