Idiot Wind

David Greenberg's essay in Slate about "'60s nostalgia" in the new Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan (showing on PBS and the BBC, and available on DVD) seems to me to be the sort of thing somebody writes who feels a need to be contrarian, but doesn't really have anything good to be contrary about, and so misses the point entirely.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. is not steeped in nostalgia for the '60s. But Greenberg's awareness of this tendency makes him see it everywhere, and so he utterly misperceives the film, which looks at the years when Bob Dylan was first the adored icon of the folk song armies and then the hated apostate. Because Greenberg wants everybody to grind his axe, he misses what is so marvelous about Nowhere at Home: the film spends most of its 200+ minutes on five years in Dylan's life. This focus gives the film a depth that most biographical movies don't have, and helps it avoid the trap so many fall into of trying to cover too much in too short a time, reducing the characters to poses. Scorsese's movie is a character study, and the story it tells is a compelling one: the story of a kid who became an icon, and then wanted to be an iconoclast. It's the story of groups that tried to define him and grew sick with anger and confusion when he refused to live up to the definitions. Sure, Dylan created some great work as he got older (and plenty of drivel), but the drama lies in his early years, when the tension between his desire for independence and his fans' desire for something predictable was strongest.

Nowhere at Home is a damn fine film, though it may not be perfect as a biography -- as a more thoughtful Slate article, by David Yaffe, suggests, it's a bit of a whitewash. But there's a lot between the frames, and much of what the film best conveys it conveys through suggestion -- the editing is subtle, sometimes clever, and often surprising. Why expect this documentary to demand as little from viewers as the average "Behind the Music" episode?

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