Gotta Serve Somebody
Roger Ebert bigfooted himself over to television criticism yesterday, offering up four glowing stars for "No Direction Home," the forthcoming PBS documentary about Bob Dylan "directed" by Martin Scorsese.
Ebert joins a chorus of critical praise for the doc, which is part of a major promotional campaign for Dylan Inc.—he's got two albums of live and previously unreleased material coming out, along with the paperback edition of "Chronicles Vol. 1" and an "official" scrapbook—and many, many folks have swooned over the "intimate epic" (Hollywood Reporter), which traces Dylan's evolution from earnest folkie to diffident folk-rocker.
For Ebert, it was a revelation: He was always a Dylan fan, but thought he was pretty much an asshole after seeing D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back." Before seeing that movie in 1968, Ebert had always thought of Dylan as a "lone, ethical figure standing up against the phonies." But Pennebaker unmasked him as, in Ebert's words, "immature, petty, vindictive, lacking a sense of humor, overly impressed with his own importance and not very bright."
But Ebert was won over by "No Direction Home," which "creates a portrait that is deep, sympathetic, perceptive and yet finally leaves Dylan shrouded in mystery, which is where he properly lives."
Well, gosh, I wonder how that could have happened. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Jeff Rosen, Dylan's manager, is a producer of the documentary? And that Rosen, or people hired by him, conducted the interviews—all of them—that appear in the film? So that, when Joan Baez, or Allen Ginsberg, or Pete Seeger, or Dylan himself appear on camera, they are answering questions posed by people hired to advance Dylan’s interests and create a "deep, sympathetic portrait" of him and his legacy?
Which isn't to say that it's not a great film, or worthy of four stars (I haven't seen it). But it is—in its entirety—a production of Bob Dylan and people paid by Bob Dylan. Every frame of it is owned by Bob Dylan. They're his archives, he commissioned the interviews. (I know all this because I incredulously questioned the producers about it at a press event I attended on the film back in January.) It's unavoidably a massive self-blow-job.
So why have so many critics—and I don't mean to single out Ebert, who does mention, without seeming to mind, Rosen's involvement in the picture—elevated this glorified video press release to the level of film? Because it was nominally "directed" by Martin Scorsese.
Which is bullshit. It was edited by Martin Scorsese. Rosen and Dylan began planning the film years ago, long before Scorcese was attached, when they realized that many seminal figures who have interesting things to say about Dylan were dying off. So they made sure to get, for instance, Ginsberg's recollections down on film before he died. They hired the crews, conducted the interviews, went through Dylan's film archives, picked the stuff they wanted released, kept private the things they wanted private, and handed it over to Scorcese to stitch together at such a time as it was convenient to their promotional needs.
Again, I'm sure it's a fascinating film. And I'm sure it's worthy of praise. But every word was vetted or produced by Dylan and his camp, which certainly ought to be a caution to critics and at the very least ought to raise questions about why PBS is financing and distributing it.
At the aforementioned press event for the film, Scorsese said he may still go back and re-interview Dylan himself, but not because he wanted to ask more probing or interesting questions--he had some issues with the sound and intellegibility of some of the reels that had been handed to him to "direct." I don't know if he ever did freshen any of the interviews up, but it hardly matters. It's still phony.