January 08

Hey Judes: Dylan and the Beatles Transformed
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
p. 2 of 2

Things Have Changed

Jay Michaelson

I want to imagine late Dylan not as Richard Gere but as Tommy Lee Jones, the sheriff who's outlived his time in the latest Coen brothers masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. The Coens' film is set around 1980, just as America lost the last bits of its soul, electing a simulacrum president, enriching itself with patriotism, and creeping irrevocably toward mass corporatization, mechanization, and the loss of human dignity. No Country would make no sense today, with DNA testing, surveillance technology, and the psycho-pathologicalization of criminality – and Jones's character knows it. He knows that time has passed him by; that Modern Times belong to a less comprehensible species of animal.

Dylan's story resists nostalgia because it has always been a simultaneous denial and embrace of the notion of "roots." The embrace is probably better known: Woody Guthrie, union songs, the blues, the new American music Dylan co-created with the Band, even country music with Johnny Cash and rockabilly in Dylan's autumn years. But I'm Not There makes more hay out of the denials, the evasions: Dylan's shifting personae, and an emotional disconnect that begins as naive illusions, evolves into arch diffidence and rock-star obnoxiousness, and finally (as perhaps in Dylan's own life) settles into an almost psychotic break with reality. There is no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland -- or if there is, we're not going to get to know it.

As such, I'm Not There can only be an oxymoron of a film: a biopic of a man without a bio. Unlike Martin Scorsese's brilliant No Direction Home – note the same trope of leaving the past, while at the same time being haunted by it – I'm Not There offers no explanations of what made Zimmerman Dylan, or what he really felt or thought, or what other people thought of him. When Stephen Hazan Arnoff shared an early review of the film with an editor from another publication of Jewish interest (he got to the preview; I had to wait to see it upon release) – he was told that the topic was “not Jewish enough.” But of course, I'm Not There is entirely Jewish – denying and embracing the notion of roots. Ironically, Haynes' "Dylan" invents himself as an African American guitar slinger and an earnest Wobbly folkie, but when it's revealed that he is, gasp, Jewish, he's reduced to a cliche: Best Jewish Sports Heroes, and did you know Gene Simmons is Israeli. Because Dylan's Jewishness is -- until Infidels at least – diaspora Jewishness, it is defined by its gaps, by its refusals, and by its dislocations and rootlessness. I'm Not There is a Pentateuch of wandering.

Stephen is right to criticize Julie Taymor's brilliant, psychedelic, and sweeping Across the Universe (recently nominated for a Golden Globe) as nostalgic. But isn't there something nostalgic about Dylan as well? Sure, it's not as obvious as Taymor's flowers and sunshine -- though Across the Universeis visually brilliant, and really did, despite my reservations, cause me to feel some imagined excitement of 1966, when horizons were opening, merry pranksters were on the loose, and there was a sense of limitless possibility. (Terence Stamp's character in The Limey observed that the Sixties really only lasted for about three months in 1966; after that, it was a pop phenomenon only.) But in today's hyper-capitalist, hyper-postmodern, endlessly Baurillardian world of fakery, even the notion of a wandering Jew/Jude is quaint.

It's easy to forget that when Gere's Dylan/Billy finally leaves his home and goes back into the world, it's because his cabin in the woods is about to be bulldozed for a six-lane highway. I don't know if there's an analogue to that in Dylan's own story, but there is in mine: I'm writing this from my own cabin in the woods of upstate New York, yet I know that there is a Wal-Mart only twenty minutes away, and that the Republican "pro-growth" slate swept my town's elections. Like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, I'm painfully aware that there is precious little country left. For God's sake, the whole action of that film couldn't even happen today, since everyone would have a cellphone.

Dylan's last three albums have returned to old forms in order to make timeless music. It's paid off, artistically and commercially, and I agree with those critics who see the work from the acoustic cover albums (1992's Good as I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong) on as representing a period of renewed genius; indeed, it's arguable that only in the last few years as a carnie showman has Dylan figured Dylan out. But let's be clear that we, no less than the well-scrubbed hipsters in Taymor's film, are living in a time of dissolution and destruction, in which the very notion of memory is merging with that of nostalgia, and in which even the earnestness that is so palpable in World Gone Wrong is today tainted with the specter of the simulacrum. This is no country for old men, for the old remember what was, and can look back behind them, if they choose.



Stephen Hazan Arnoff is Executive Director of the 14th Street Y of The Educational Alliance and former Managing Editor of Zeek.

Jay Michaelson is editor in chief of Zeek, and author of Another Word for Sky: Poems.

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