‘No Direction Home’: The World Premiere (2005)

The thirty-fourth Telluride Film Festival opened Friday night, September 2. I saw the slithering man-and-woman-meet-at-a-wedding drama Conversations With Other Women, and Capote, which is good—but Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote is so good he almost silences everyone around him. People were talking about William H. Macy in Edmund and about Brokeback Mountain.

The next morning No Direction Home went up on the daily TBA boards. As the festival was not permitted to include the film in the program, and could only show it once, as a sneak, there were no notes to explain what exactly it was—or, for that matter, that it would only be shown once. Some people had read about the movie—the three-and-a-half-hour Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan—but nothing very clear or helpful had been published. People didn’t know it stopped at the end of May 1966, when Dylan ended a world tour in the U.K., in a storm of abuse and betrayal for supposedly forsaking the eternal truths of folk music for the cheap glamour of the pop charts—and then had a motorcycle accident and stayed off the road for eight years. They didn’t know if it was a project Scorsese had been working on for a decade—or if it was, as it was, what Scorsese made of hours upon hours of interviews with Dylan and compatriots from Minnesota, New York, and anywhere else conducted over the last years by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, plus a mountain of performance and news footage, archival photographs, and music famous and unheard. So there were plenty of people at the festival who didn’t know what the picture was, and a lot of people who did, and who figured—this was the buzz all day Saturday—that the crowd would be so huge they’d never get in and so didn’t bother to try. At Telluride everyone stands in line for a movie, usually on the first days lining up an hour or more ahead of a screening, and often people don’t get in—though most films play three or four times, with screenings added as the festival goes on, so by the end everyone has a chance to see what they want to. For the one-shot of No Direction Home, the result of confusion, ignorance, and self-intimidation was that the theater, the biggest in town, holding 650 people, was at best two-thirds full.

Nevertheless there was great tension and anticipation in the audience. When I introduced the film, I mentioned that while another, unnamed festival was hosting the official world premiere of the picture, this would be the first public screening of the movie anywhere, and that people could put that into their own words as they chose. It set a tone of eagerness: right from the start, the entire crowd responded to what was on the screen with an engagement—a sense that combined recognition and surprise—that had no analogue at any other screening I attended during the festival (the Dardennes Brothers’ L’Enfant, Michael Haneke’s horrifyingly uncompromised Caché, Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash story). People were laughing out loud at anything remotely funny or ironic. They were with Dylan—his flinty, thoughtful, mystical, straightforward narration—all the way. There were murmurs and gasps of assent or approval. There was the displacement the film insists on: starting off with an unspeakably intense, suffused-with-danger “Like a Rolling Stone,” onstage in Newcastle in May 1966, with Dylan a dervish possessed by a god you don’t want to meet, and then the weird title, “Many Years Earlier,” as if to suggest that this would be a film about a quest, the tale of what sort of journey it would be that could take anyone, never mind Bob Dylan, to a place as strange and self-immolating as the one that opens the picture cold.

At the end of the first section of the film, about two hours in, the crowd erupted into long and hard applause, with shouts and cheers, even though I’d made it clear that no one associated with the film was present (very unusual at Telluride, where the director of a film is almost always there to present his or her movie, and often the producer or writer or leading actors—for Capote, both Hoffman and the director, Bennett Miller, were there for the entire weekend). During the twenty-minute intermission, there were constant “Did you believe thats” and “Did you see”s, people pin-pointing this moment or that (at the beginning, Dylan describing himself as a child, discovering another world when he accidentally encountered Bill Monroe’s “Drifting too Far from the Shore”—the metaphor strikes like a clock as the movie goes on—or Allen Ginsberg speaking of Dylan becoming “at one with his own voice, turning into a column of air”—I couldn’t help thinking, “a pillar of salt”: “Don’t look back—or else”). The screenwriter Larry Gross came up and said, “Do you know what this film reminds me of?” “What?” “Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia!” He went on to talk about how, in that movie (and in John E. Mack’s great biography, A Prince of Our Disorder), Lawrence, without ever losing his uniqueness, or, in contrast, ever truly revealing himself, becomes the emblematic figure of his age. In Lawrence, Larry said, the social and political history of the time takes shape, but it is Lawrence who gives it shape, not because he is a figurehead or a spokesperson, but because in some essential and ultimately indefinable way he enacts the age, acting out or performing the essence of its drama, what the age both needs and wants, but in a way that no one else ever would or could. Other people came up to ask what happened next, in Part 2, as if they didn’t know—as if the way Part 1 had unfolded, moving chronologically but continually circling around the cauldron of fury in England in 1966, had cast real, already familiar events into doubt. Or as if they were watching it not as the-story-of-their-own-lives but as a movie, where anything can happen.

When the second part began, there was an evident sense of jeopardy. You could feel the stakes being raised minute by minute. The absurdity of so much of the footage from the U.K.——a photographer at a press conference ordering Dylan to “Suck your glasses,” a death threat phoned into a hall and Dylan in his dressing room, saying, “I don’t mind being shot, I just don’t want to be told about it”)—was simultaneously ugly and hilarious. A lot of people were tremendously impressed by Joan Baez’s interviews (I was one: her humor, her bluntness, her lack of gentility). Scorsese showed enormous flair, and an invisible hand, not only for picking out appropriate moments from Rosen’s interviews (the Greenwich Village veteran Liam Clancy or Baez saying one thing, Dylan then contradicting or denying) but for finding the moment, such as the musician Bruce Langhorne on the perfect tip of the band into “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”). People were completely caught up, loving the details, but also, slowly, enveloped by the growing dread. By the time the narrative has doubled back on itself, at the end, day after day in May 1966, fans attacking, Dylan’s performances becoming more assaultive, there seems to be no exit, no way out, no way this can go on, no way this can end.

In Walk the Line, there’s a fascinating scene, early in the straight this-then-that biopic story, where Joaquin Phoenix as Cash, in Memphis in about 1954, takes his little amateur group to audition for Sam Phillips’s Sun label. They do a gospel number, and Phillips says, “I don’t believe you.” Phoenix as Cash is outraged: “What, you don’t believe I believe in God?” Phillips explains that it doesn’t matter what Cash thinks he believes; he has to convince other people: “Make me believe something.” So Cash begins to fumble out “Folsom Prison Blues.” It isn’t until the end of the picture, when Cash goes into Folsom Prison itself to play, that you believe Phoenix believes he is Cash, or could have been.

That lack of reality isn’t present in No Direction Home, and not because it’s a documentary. Either through Rosen’s interviewing, or Scorsese’s sense of picture, the people who speak—Dylan’s Freewheelin’ girlfriend Suze Rotolo, beautiful and exuberant, the poker-faced harmonica player Tony Glover, Dylan’s sidekick Bob Neuwirth, people who passed through Dylan’s life and whose lives he passed through—don’t seem to be trying to impress anyone, to come off well, to flatter themselves. And there is a kind of reality that people may have difficulty integrating with aesthetic representations. That is, you can be overwhelmed by Walk the Line, and at Telluride a lot of people were—but if you are seeing No Direction Home at more or less the same time, or connect the two, Walk the Line can’t explain itself when set against the scene in No Direction Home of Dylan and Cash, backstage in Leeds in May 1966, singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (The footage has never been seen before—D. A. Pennebaker shot it, but he didn’t use it in his own, unreleased film of the 1966 tour, and Dylan didn’t use it in his barely released Eat the Document.) Here’s Johnny Cash, he’s thirty-three, and he looks sixty, he looks dead, his face deformed by abuse and guilt, and the question of how he got to this little room, of how he’s going to get out of it, becomes, in an instant, the question that opens No Direction Home itself, with that Newcastle “Like a Rolling Stone.”

At the end, people broke out into two or three minutes of sustained applause and cheering—again, even though they knew there was no one there to receive it. The audience stayed for the entire, long credit roll, perhaps thinking there’d be something they’d regret missing. At the end of the credits, people burst into applause again. And then a lot of people simply did not leave their seats, as if they thought there might be an extra reel of outtakes for those who truly demonstrated their commitment.


Studies in Documentary Film, 2005


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