Nash Edgerton, the older brother of Australian film star Joel Edgerton, is primarily known in his country of birth, perhaps, for his early and cheeky short films, often seen at the early iterations of Tropfest. Edgerton is also well known as a stuntman – he has 135 individual credits for stunts on his IMDb page – and, so, indeed, we are looking at what might once have been called a “man’s man”, but who knows just what that means in the era of raging debates about the rightly and righteously relevant concept of toxic masculinity. Please just be aware, as you navigate this piece, that the thick fumes of testosterone are fogging the creative air here.
He is also a principal member of the loose filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, whose members includes Nash, Joel, Luke Doolan, Spencer Susser, Kieran Darcy-Smith, and one woman, Mirrah Foulkes. Blue-Tongue Films’ best known filmmaker member (on purely filmmaking, not acting, terms) is, of course, David Michôd, whose ascendance in America is currently on a steady trajectory. There has always been something inherently “blokey” about Blue-Tongue Films, despite the recent recruitment of Foulkes – it does, after all, share a name with the now defunct Bluetongue Beer, originally owned by bruiser businessman John Singleton (not to be confused with the African American director of Boyz n the Hood of the same name) and which had naming rights to a sports stadium in the city of Gosford, located in my scummy hometown of the Central Coast. I remember having some serious cognitive dissonance about the branding of Blue-Tongue Films due to the beer as both rose to prominence in the mid 2000s. In this, I was unsure if Singleton was putting up the financing for films that would drive cinemagoers to drink his watery, piss-weak brew.1
Nash Edgerton is, perhaps, best known in America as a frequent filmmaking collaborator with the most recent Nobel Laureate for Literature, and musician, Bob Dylan, on a series of late-career music videos: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” (2009), “Must Be Santa” (2009), “Duquesne Whistle” (2012) and “The Night We Called It A Day” (2015). These music videos, in addition to his short films, seem to have, for some time, represented the core of Edgerton’s work in film, superseding, I would suggest, his sole feature credit, the 2008 Australian neo-noir crime film The Square, which like most Australian films of the 2000s had very little lasting cultural impact, and barely made notices globally. (Edgerton has been working on a second film set up at Amazon Studios, with Charlize Theron attached to star, which will likely return the conversation to his narrative feature length work.)
Edgerton began his working relationship with Dylan after the songwriter had experienced an incredible late career renaissance, with the three loosely connected albums, Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006), each of which featured some of the greatest songs of his career, and, surely, some of the lyrics that lined him up for the Nobel Prize (“Mississippi” from Love & Theft cannot seem to put a foot wrong with each accumulative line; and that particular album, with its playful textual appropriations, seemed to solidify Dylan’s purposefully slippery literary persona). Edgerton came into Dylan’s creative orbit on the first album following that run, working with the songwriter on a music video for the lead single off his 2009 record Together Through Life, a scrappy underrated work that was compared unfavourably to the earlier so called trilogy, and was seen as a sudden decline (look, qualitative critics are fucking losers, as qualitative criticism is, ultimately, a losing game, and many have wasted energy charting peaks and troughs of icons like Dylan, but in writing this piece, I am likely as guilty as anyone, one supposes).
It is important to note that Together Through Life, as an album, had strong filmic origins. Dylan mentioned in an oft-quoted interview of the time that the record came to be due to an invitation from the French filmmaker Olivier Dahan to contribute a song to his 2010 American production, My Own Love Song. Dylan was featured prominently on the theatrical poster for the film, as if he were any other actor; the song “Life Is Hard” features prominently, and went on to appear on Together Through Life. Renée Zellweger sings it in the film, somewhat melodramatically; on stage in a wheelchair, Forest Whitaker in the background plucking on a guitar. Oh boy – that’s hard to get past here (you can find the YouTube clip for yourself). Dahan’s film primarily acts as a road movie, and Dylan seemed somewhat inspired by the genre when it came to composing his new record; although it is important to note roads and the concept of the road trip appear all through Dylan’s work, from the earliest of his songs.
The cover of Together Through Life uses a photograph by the Magnum collective member Bruce Davidson of a pair of lovers, reclined and embracing on the backseat of a car, two bodies crumpled to fit into the space. A highway is hinted at in the background, out the rear window of the car. It’s hard not to get stuck on the photograph because it’s so striking, and the album within contains a lot of murk – muddied audio production by Jack Frost (Dylan’s producer pseudonym, which he used from Love and Theft on) and Dylan’s voice sounding more ravaged than previously. Murk is not a bad thing, it just happens to be murk; the same can be said of mud.
Edgerton’s music video for the album’s opening song, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”, essentially functions as a short film, and one not dissimilar to Edgerton’s earlier work. It contains a narrative twist, which Edgerton got hooked on early in his career, and, of course, it features a car. How could it not? The basic premise is as follows: a man comes home, and is attacked by a bloodied, blonde-haired woman in his apartment, who the viewer is led to believe is his captive prisoner. They tussle in a manner that recalls Tarantino’s down and dirty fist fights in the Kill Bill series, before she escapes in his car, driving off, and finally, looking in the rear view mirror, reverses to knock him down. The narrative twist is that she gets out of the car, and kisses him passionately right at the end of the song; suggesting that this was just a lover’s quarrel – not quite the rape revenge scenario, so common to cinema, at the front of the viewer’s mind given the set up of the short.
It, perhaps, is a bad music video because it is so much more a short film than expected. Narrative has a definite place in the artistic capacity of the music video, but too much story can distract from the song, and selling the song is foregrounded in most music videos, which is the primary commercial goal of the form. Edgerton includes diegetic sounds into the video – breaking glass, locking doors, jangling keys, punches landing, a head smashed against a wall, a syringe being wrenched from plastic, a knife being pushed into flesh, a TV exploding with electricity after being knocked off its table, and, of course, a car engine revving – but these sounds are foreign and intrusive to the structure of the song. In another sense, these are sounds of violence, which are also foreign to the song, although not completely foreign to Dylan’s overall oeuvre. There is nothing in the lyrical composition of the song to suggest the response that Edgerton formed; at best, one could suggest that repeated refrain of the title – “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” – suggests an obvious sense of existentialism, but existentialism and violence are not the quite same thing, and one assumes Edgerton has made a critical misreading here.
This could come down to Edgerton’s mishearing of the song, made quite literal by his lack of access to it during the writing of the film. In an interview with music-bro website Pitchfork, Edgerton said of the approach to make the music video from Dylan’s management team:
Usually, you get sent a song and you listen to it a bunch and then you write a treatment. But because it was Dylan, and piracy and all that, I only got to hear the song once over the phone.
If Edgerton failed to do right by “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” it would, one imagines, come largely down to this obstacle. Dylan, or his management, must have been impressed with the results, however, because Edgerton was invited back to make a video for Dylan’s very next album, which, as I write… I don’t know, I… just can’t help but laugh… so… In 2009, the same year as the release of Together Through Life, Dylan dropped a completely unexpected Christmas album into the market, to much bemusement. He donated much of the profit from the record to charities that focused on addressing food shortages and hunger. I’ve listened to the album every Christmas since its release, and though occasionally the covers sound sarcastic, there’s a truth and warmth to his approach. Dylan explained, in an official interview, his fondness for Christmas, despite having grown up Jewish, due to its strong presence in the Minnesota of his childhood.
Edgerton was commissioned to make a video for the cheekiest of the covers on the record, “Must Be Santa” – a 1960 release, originally sung by Mitch Miller, and the closest song on the record to something that sounds like a Dylan original. This comes down to the fact that Dylan messes up the lyrics on purpose, singing:
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen
Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton
Dylan’s playful merge of Santa’s reindeers with recent US presidents gave Edgerton the framework within which he had to work: pure, unabashed silliness. Edgerton gets to work with Dylan in the video this time, and, in responding to the brief provided by the song, he dons him with a long silver wig and red Santa hat. The resultant music video may be as disposable as Christmas music itself usually is – it can’t last on the radio more than a month by very definition – but it possesses the same level of charm. And Edgerton, as a stunt man, understands the power of visual chaos within film – an overloading of the senses through fast editing cuts and mass occupation of what the camera captures from dancing extras and various party revellers. The verisimilitude is right on. Edgerton fills the frame with the visual detritus of Christmas too – too much tinsel to even begin to mention.
Edgerton’s third collaboration with Dylan might be his masterpiece – as much as a music video can claim to be a masterpiece, and as derivative as the work ultimately is. Dylan’s unexpected record, Tempest (which didn’t quite drop like a surprise Beyoncé release), opens with the joyful little ode “Duquesne Whistle”. The twists and turns, relating partly to the romantic subplots and gender dynamics, of Edgerton’s previous work on Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ come to a more full fruition here.
Ultimately, the music video borrows a great deal from Spike Jonze’s How They Get There (1997) which features a young couple spying each other from opposite sides of a street and flirting through an increasingly involved series of mirrored dance moves (the very same set up was seen in the recent Australian film, Lion). Jonze has an Edgerton-esque twist here: the man is hit by a car, distracted by the dancing. The woman is dressed exactly like Olive Oyl from Popeye, perhaps paying respect to Robert Altman’s influence on Jonze’s generation of music video/feature film director hybrids.2 Jonze was, of course, a master of the music video form as it boomed in the early ‘90s, coming from the skateboard VHS scene, so he is an obvious touchstone for someone like Edgerton who comes from his own DIY filmmaking-on the-cheap-background. That Edgerton has reached the heights of the cultural pantheon that someone like Dylan inhabits is part of the story of this creative trajectory, and, if cynicism can be permitted briefly, represents the co-option and commodification of the very core of the underground approach.
The actions of the young Dylan proxy in “Duquesne Whistle” speak to a lot of the problems in the emerging work of Edgerton; a too present fascination with male violence, and stalker-like behaviour played for laughs and excused as charm. The young fool follows the young woman in the video with a persistence that is completely inappropriate and recalls documentary footage of men wolf-whistling and stalking women on the streets of New York and elsewhere. Edgerton seems to think that this has its place, that male bravado will trip over itself and fail, and fumble for a sense of rightness, but cannot not be expressed. It will not be suppressed. The stuntman performs violent self-sabotage to demonstrate a point – to entertain – but why do this at all? Who is getting kicks from all of this in the contemporary moment?
The reason that “Duquesne Whistle” works is because it contrasts this young scoundrel with footage of the older Dylan – the young man walking at a clip through the day, and Dylan coolly strolling at slow pace at night, hands in pockets. The convergence of the two – a kind of Edgerton stand in, and Dylan’s late career persona – comes when Dylan steps over the bloodied, bruised body of the young man, without so much as a blink, and certainly not a care or concern for the fool’s wellbeing. This speaks perfectly to Dylan’s late career resurgence: the youthful optimism, singing protest songs and odes to romances has been replaced with a detached objectivity. The best of Dylan’s later work is of a man singing in a raspy voice as the world around him burns (Love and Theft was infamously released on September 11, 2001, and many searched for meaning and prophecy in its lyrics once the scope of the tragedy had set in; Dylan probably would have preferred they didn’t).
Gone, then, is the young man’s rage and opposition to an uncaring, unjust world; in its place there is a detached damnation of what has come to pass, facts stated and judged on a case by case basis. As Dylan sings on a key song on Modern Times, “My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf”. The blank uncaring look of Dylan in Edgerton’s short film is of a man in late age, fully himself: you can go fuck yourself if you don’t like it. When Dylan declined to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony at the end of 2016, it was to no real surprise, but outraged many in the literary community, as well as the Swedish Nobel committee. But how could they watch “Duquesne Whistle” and expect anything else?
Dylan’s deliberate stepping over the bloodied body of the Edgerton/young Dylan substitute – it’s hard to really define whose understudy this dumb dude is – it is almost as if Dylan damns Edgerton’s entire style of filmmaking and the earlier flaws of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”. Of course, employment and the continued creative partnership counters any such reading, but if Dylan courted Edgerton to reclaim some edge of youthful vigour, he ultimately, and perhaps, unconsciously, rejects the very premise of the juxtaposition-heavy nature of “Duquesne Whistle”. If anything the woman referred to in the song possesses the anarchic autonomy, with Dylan signing, “You’re like a time bomb in my heart.” Either that, or the anarchic autonomy belongs to the titular “Duquesne Whistle”; which according to the annotated lyrics for the song on Genius, was “the largest blast furnace in the world, named the ‘Dorothy Six’, built in Duquesne, PA.” Dorothy could be both machine and woman, and in Dylan’s accumulative lyrics, the metaphoric convergence seems right. However, if Edgerton missed an opportunity here, it would surely be that he didn’t connect the dying industry of America’s rustbelt and elsewhere with his visual representation of the song, missing a real chance to build metaphor and visually predict the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – a war fought for the votes and confirmation to act in the interests of the working classes of America – that Dylan himself had for years, through his lyrics, hinted towards, in the long, weary lead up to the 2016 American presidential election season, and we all know how that turned out. Culture played its part – not just culture that documented and fuelled Trump’s toxic rise, culture that wasn’t there to stop it too.
Dylan’s music videos before working with Edgerton had taken on a definite self-mythologising approach. The music video for “Thunder on the Mountain”, the opening track of Modern Times, for instance, was constructed from clips of Dylan performing live and old music videos. The music video even recycled footage from Dylan’s disastrous film project, Masked and Anonymous, co-written with Seinfeld alumni Borat director Larry Charles. In fact, the video’s recycling of old footage was a recycling in itself, as Dylan had previously used this method for the music video for the standalone single “Series of Dreams” (1989), which at least had its own aesthetic – using various fast paced animation techniques to purposefully obscure the older footage.
“When the Deal Goes Down”, a more “original” video for Modern Times, had a nostalgic tinted view, creating footage mimicking 16mm home movies, and starring Scarlett Johansson in 1950s dresses and sunglasses, wandering green fields, with an elderly couple showing off old black and white family photos. A quick shot of a vinyl cover of Hank Williams’ Wanderin’ Around album gives you all you need to know about the touchstones of that video; appropriate for the musical styles Dylan had adopted for the record; waltzes, piano ditties, blues and ‘50s rockabilly sensibilities abound.
Dylan, of course, has had a long and varied history with film. Prior to working with Edgerton, Dylan’s closest working relationship with a filmmaker would surely have been his various collaborations with the late Curtis Hanson. These produced greater results in terms of songs. The masterful “Things Have Changed”, featured in the soundtrack for the joyful Wonder Boys (an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel of the same name, this 2000 film is a pick me up for any writer going through a rough ride), which won him an Oscar for Best Song (which, funnily enough, he accepted via video conference, beamed in from Sydney, on a tour in which I saw him play with my dad at the Newcastle Entertainment Centre). He produced another song for Hanson’s patchy gambling romance Lucky You (2007), starring Drew Barrymore and Eric Bana. Australian connections abound, but such is the life of a global cosmopolitan wanderer on a “never-ending tour”.
Dylan has had a habit in his music videos, relating to feature films, of inserting himself into the movie’s visuals, and thereby putting himself at the centre of the narrative. For “Things Have Changed” someone clumsily edited Dylan into footage from the film, to the point that Dylan seems to be seducing a young Katie Holmes, in the place of Michael Douglas’s washed up creative writing lecturer. He did the same for the music video for “Cross The Green Mountain” for the 2003 film Gods and Generals; surveying the battle scene, dressed as… it’s hard to say, he is wearing a wig, a maybe fake beard, and a top hat. He doesn’t fit into the scene and he doesn’t fit into the remade film. This speaks directly to the kind of vanity project of musicians when it comes to appearing in films, or even taking lead roles; Prince’s Purple Rain worked out, but for every Purple Rain (1984) there’s a Under the Cherry Moon (1986). Dylan has his Under the Cherry Moon from the 1980s: the bizarre 1987 melodrama Hearts of Fire, co-starring a young Rupert Everett.
The final collaboration between Nash Edgerton and Dylan – to date – stinks of vanity. For his album of Sinatra covers, Shadows in The Night, Edgerton collaborated with Dylan to create a video for the lead single “The Night We Called It a Day” (it’s very much worth noting that this was the title of a 2003 Australian film starring Joel Edgerton, about Sinatra’s ill-fated Australian tour, with Sinatra played by the late Dennis Hopper; I’d completely forgotten about the film, which I saw in a rickety cinema in The Entrance, until writing this essay). The video explicitly evokes film noirs, shot in black and white, and even has a Big Sleep-esque painted title card. Again, Edgerton creates what equates more to a short film than a standard collage-like music video; Dylan gets caught in what appears to be a love triangle between himself, another man, and a creepily young femme fatale. Dylan is an accomplice to the killing of the man – played by former James Bond villain star, Robert Davi, who is best known, perhaps, for his portrayal of a skeezy stripclub owner in the camp classic Showgirls – and then goes on to murder the femme fatale in question. The video is disagreeable in every sense and shows the worst tendencies of both Dylan and Edgerton when it comes to their portrayal of women, linking into Anwen Crawford’s blistering take down of Nick Cave – and his own use of a Sinatra film, From Here To Eternity (1953), to form the play on words album title From Her To Eternity – on his vile gender politics:
From her to eternity: the phrase is an epitaph for Cave’s career. He has sculpted for himself, very deliberately, the mask of a timeless artist. Fully embraced now by both the tastemakers and the gatekeepers of Australian cultural life, his ascendancy has been enabled by a metaphorical pile of female corpses.3
One can see the clear connections between Cave and Dylan, here, in the “mask of a timeless artist” particularly in Dylan’s late career nostalgia-fest. Dylan’s “pile of female corpses” have been more on the metaphoric side – less on the side of Kylie Minogue getting her head bashed in with a rock – but discarded women are discarded women, dead or alive. Ultimately, however, one must ask how exactly Dylan and Edgerton truly converge. If they share a love for violence against women, this must be called out; but I still boggle at how and why their fondness for each other has traversed four music video collaborations. I want to see the best in both of them; but where Dylan is a master lyricist, Edgerton is a subpar filmmaker, skilled due to his stunt work, but too enamoured with visual and narrative twists and his own macho bravado, which clearly reflects poorly on Dylan, even when it works, briefly, in “Duquesne Whistle”.
Part of me wishes that Edgerton, who was born in Blacktown in Western Sydney, could see more clearly the class politics of Dylan’s later lyrics, and see their connection to his own upbringing, as Dylan himself clearly hasn’t lost sight of his Midwest roots, despite amassing hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket and album sales over the years. In his later work, Dylan has attempted to speak for the working class, particularly on various masterful and wistful songs on Modern Times, but this record was the immediate precursor to their collaborations, before Dylan zigged and zagged between Christmas records, Sinatra covers, and the two scrappy record Together Through Time and Tempest. Still, as the lyrics on “Duquesne Whistle” proved, he was still singing about locations relevant to the working class. Had Edgerton noted this, and visited those locations, rather than becoming obsessed with narrative arcs relating to domestic violence, stalking and outright murder, a more nuanced and powerful collaboration between the two may have eventuated. As it stands, Dylan has, borrowing Edgerton’s cruel weapons, shot us all down. And as we know, as the man himself sang: those cruel weapons should have been left on the shelf.
- The easy joke here – and, sorry to confess, the working title for this essay in its early formation – is “What have you seen, my Blue-Tongued son? ↩
- Altman, of course, directed a notorious musical film adaptation of Popeye; and when we talk music video/feature film hybrids influenced by Altman, we should pay particular deference to Paul Thomas Anderson, who is chief amongst them, indeed, having served as a human contingency plan in order to secure financing for Altman’s final film in case of Altman’s death; the film was the folk music tinged A Prairie Home Companion, nostalgic for old time radio, step in step with Dylan’s Modern Times, given they were released in the same year. ↩
- Anwen Crawford, “The Monarch of Middlebrow”, Overland, 197, summer 2009 ↩