April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Film Fest, Part Un.


By Wendy McHale

While many of us were hopping, skipping and jumping through Adv.Week, Kurt Brokaw chained himself to his front row-reserved table at Lincoln Center and began to view all 29 new films recently released at the New York Film Festival. Would we have preferred to trade places with him?


Let's think about that for a minute. Hmmm...to have sacrificed attending, "How to Increase ROI Through a New Virtual Special Application Which Searches, Targets and Destroys All Consumer Buying Resistance Through Dynamically-driven, Content-based Social Media Communities, Optimized With Precise, Top-rated Websites and Content Channels Which Are Downloadable And Can be Used Online, Offline and on the Food Line"... Okay, for a cozy front row seat in one of the world's most celebrated theaters; and watch films written, produced, directed and starred in by the most acclaimed actors in the world? Difficult call for sure.

Over the next week or so, Kurt will be sharing the hardship he endured with us by telling us all about it. He begins here with his take on - not one, but two - films about America's iconic minstrel, the normally inimitable Bob Dylan! Thanks, Kurt. Tough job but... oh forget it.


The first thing you notice about the 1965 Bob Dylan in Murray Lerner's fine documentary, "The Other Side of the Mirror," is how much he looks and sounds like Cate Blanchett.

Cate is the one actress joining five actors (Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, and 10-year-old Marcus Carl Franklin) who each represent Dylan in various career stages in Todd Haynes' keenly original "I'm Not There." Both films have shown at the 45th annual New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center. Lerner's documentary releases on DVD on October 30. Haynes' movie is being given a two week "showcase" launch at Film Forum in downtown Manhattan beginning November 21.


Because these films juxtapose real-life art and reel-art life in totally new ways, your engagement with Bob Dylan will soar if you can watch them sequentially.

"I'm Not There" is deliciously on point in visually demonstrating the ever-changing personas of America's most enduring and enigmatic singer-songwriter. Haynes' bold concept of having six different talents playing Dylan is clear and easy to follow. But the magical transformations of this highly entertaining and wonderfully fashioned movie take a back seat to Murray Lerner's footage of Dylan himself doing a metamorphosis through '63, '64 and '65.


Dylan starts as a shy, awkward adolescent sitting beside Joan Baez n the crowded stage of the Newport Folk Festival. He's wearing a sport shirt with plain slacks, his hair is cut pretty short, he has to borrow a guitar pick and he keeps rearranging his chair as he tries to get his guitar in tune. He's kind of a klutz until he opens his mouth and that young/old-man's voice kicks in its familiar, assertive, poetic authority. He and Joan perform "With God On Our Side" as plaintive young folkies, and the plaintive young folkie crowd claps its warm approval.


ZAP! Lerner's documentary cuts in the '65 Dylan performing "Like A Rolling Stone," with slashing electric chords and a mean blues harp. He's taut in black with the longer, frizzed/curled halo hair. His backup band is the old Blues Project with Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Barry Goldberg; the only sideman missing is Paul Butterfield, the great harmonica player, and I asked filmmaker Murray Lerner why Butterfield wasn't there. Lerner explains that "as a harp player I guess Paul didn't want to share the same stage with Bob Dylan." Exactly--this is Dylan's sudden growth spurt from folkie to rocker. In Haynes' fictionalized version the crowds are virulently, violently unhappy about Bob Dylan going electric. One guy has to be pulled away from taking an axe to Dylan's power cables. In Lerner's documentary the audience response to "Like a Rolling Stone," while mixed, is mixed-to-positive.


The film company head Harvey Weinstein has been widely quoted as threatening to take himself out if Cate Blanchett doesn't garner an Oscar nomination for her performance as Dylan. Here's a tip for Harvey--Cate's real competition is the guy she's playing. "I'm Not There," to be sure, is magnificent in its sprawling, endlessly creative rendering of Bob Dylan's life through the decades, and it's all illusion. It's as good an illusion as anyone could imagine.


But Lerner's "Other Side of the Mirror" has the real-life magic of Bob Dylan working for it, and nobody channels Bob Dylan better than Dylan. All the singing in Lerner's documentary is done by the master, while many of Dylan's songs in "I'm Not There" are assigned by Todd Haynes to the usual cover suspects--Stephen Malkmus, Eddie Vedder, Yo La Tengo, John Doe, Calexico and Sonic Youth head the list. Haynes' movie has a busload of movie stars and rock stars working at peak potentials to deliver the essential statement on Bob Dylan. Lerner's little black-and-white footage from nearly half a century ago has only Bob, but that's everything because Bob has it all.

If you can see both movies together, see for yourself.


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