A guest post I wrote for Taste of Cinema. Persian films are on the way up, baby.
Audiences are becoming smarter.
It wasn’t always like this.
TV rots your mind! Chewing gum for the eyes, as Father Ted says in one episode. And it’s quite hard to deny, having grown up in the UK with the likes of terrible laughter track sitcoms such as Birds of a Feather, One Foot in the Grave, and, later on, the atrocious My Family. Lines were spoon-fed, we were told when to laugh, and every double-entendre about drainpipes/drawers/bedsprings was rolled out for our despair on cue, like a hungover clown before an audience of snivelling toddlers.
Today’s comedy is a different animal. The evolution of the cringe comedy à la Ricky Gervais ushered in the arrival of such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a mockumentary following the life of a cantankerous old man. It was basically Victor Meldrew all over again, except this time no one was telling us when to laugh. And thank goodness for that – it was, and still is by today’s standards, a pretty good series. The lack of canned laughter is now the comedy standard – no one tells us what to do!
No one has to.
What about drama? We’ve had a spate of ‘clever TV’ in the past decade, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to the Ayn Rand stylings of Mad Men. Perhaps the greatest sign that the TV execs don’t just think we’re a bunch of thickos is evident in the decision to broadcast the excellent German spy thriller Deutschland 83 over here. Not an English adaptation like The Experiment, not redubbed, but subtitled. It’s also the first German language drama to air in the US. We follow a young East German spy’s foray into the West for the first time, where he is just as overwhelmed by the choice of brands in the supermarkets as he is by the covert operations he must undertake in the name of the DDR. It’s a new world for him, and, in many ways, for us.
It takes a huge leap of faith in the audience to launch a historical show that, for the most part, does not concern us. The two Germanys and their polar ideologies might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Why take the risk?
Because it’s damn good TV, that’s why. With a coveted score of 100% on RottenTomatoes, the show is slick, clever, and totally gripping. It injects life into the spy genre, and scenes where young “Moritz Stamm” (his spy alias) plants bugs and retrieves floppy disks from hotel safes are so painstakingly nerve-wracking that they have the viewers covering their eyes. He’s not a pro, but a football-loving everyman plucked from his normal life who just wants to go home. He is us.
It’s the small stuff that makes Deutschland 83 outstanding. It’s watching downtrodden East Germans savoring a cup of naughty (verboten!) Nescafé, instead of their usual state-issued shit. It’s Moritz silently marveling at the array of bath products in his luxurious Western hotel room, or listening to the Eurythmics in bemusement. It brings Goodbye Lenin! to mind, where we watch Daniel Brühl’s character scramble to replicate minute details of the DDR in a reunified Germany, so as not to upset his ailing, fiercely socialist mother.
The small details are what make drama compelling. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner points out how watching ad man Don Draper scrub his mouth out with dish soap after cheating on his wife is far more daring, and far more revealing of character, than what any other show was doing at the time. It’s worth noting that Weiner cut his teeth as a writer for The Sopranos, perhaps the first of the dramas to take a far more ‘internal’ approach to story and characterisation. Every look, every nuance, even a sip of a drink has meaning, and the camera picks that right up. Tony Soprano’s trips to the psychiatrist add another outlet for inner struggle. As he pours his poor old mob boss sob story out to the aloof, mostly silent Dr. Melfi, we are able to pick up on when he is putting on an act, trying to elicit sympathy, or even admiration. We call out his shit right along with Melfi, and not because we are told to.
Matthew Weiner elaborates:
“…Because to see something that was that good be financially successful was very important. To prove that the world was not filled with idiots. And even if they liked it for the wrong reason. Every argument that you heard in a writers’ room, every time you tried to do something good, was that people wouldn’t understand it. And they wouldn’t like it and therefore it wouldn’t sell. And everything good that had ever been made had flopped.”
The audience doesn’t need to be told. We can decide for ourselves.
Here’s a bit more from Weiner about how we aren’t morons.
And here’s the trailer for Deutschland 83, if you haven’t seen it yet.
Let’s talk about Bob Dylan.
I haven’t really had a music obsession for a while – not since I was a teen anyway. But then again, Bob, arguably, is not simply about music. He’s about the 60s, he’s about experimental films, he’s about Andy Warhol. He’s six characters at once in I’m Not There. He’s the romanticised unwashed phenomenon riding through the Northwest on a boxcar. He’s the rust to Joan Baez’s diamonds. He is an entire era and an industry all of his own.
I spent this winter devouring every interview and documentary I could find, from Don’t Look Back to No Direction Home. I read Positively 4th Street, David Hadju’s swoop into the folk scene. I watched things vaguely connected to Dylan, such as the brilliant Ralph Bakshi animation, American Pop. So far, I’ve managed to give the rather fartsy Renaldo And Clara a miss, but it probably won’t be too long before I succumb.
One thing that does carry throughout the documentaries and interviews, however, is this – Bob isn’t easy to get along with. He sneers, argues, or, best of all, says nothing at all. Watching him boisterously fend off Time magazine reporter Horace Judson’s questions is an exercise in awkwardness. Later interviews see Bob slowly replace youthful indignation with an amused, almost mystical sense of the absurd – in a 1993 interview with Bob and Carlos Santana, the reporter roams into gun ownership territory:
Q: Do you think the availability of guns is a big problem?
BD: I don’t think there’s enough guns.
Q: What about guns among kids? Do you think that’s… too prevailing?
BD: Toy guns. (gives reporter the side eye)
Here’s the vid:
By far my favourite interview isn’t from Bob Dylan’s wilder 60s days, but a 1986 BBC interview filmed in his trailer while he was working on the poorly received Hearts of Fire. He’s his usually prickly self, and scowls at the poor, hapless reporter. However, he eases into the conversation, and soon he’s sharing some pretty interesting thoughts on where music is headed. The trick – his mind is occupied elsewhere, as he’s intently sketching the interviewer. As he holds up his finished work for appraisal, his sullen demeanour gives way to boyish approval-seeking. It seems that Bob opens up once you’ve made it clear you aren’t looking to just get a piece of him.
An easy silence descends later on in the chat. He stares down at the illustration he’s working on, hand pressed to his chin.
Q: What do you think of the drawing?
BD: Uhh… I don’t know. Buncha things I don’t like about it… (he starts scrawling furiously) But I’ll get it right.
And what do you know, he does. The finished sketch is quite a nice little piece. He doesn’t give it to the interviewer, either. As far as I can tell, he just keeps it for himself.
Here’s Part One of the mesmerizing interview:
As it became apparent to me that Bob, to put it nicely, is slightly standoffish to the press, it also became clear that his fans fell into several camps. There are those who defend him to the bone, saying things like, “Well duh, if you’re gonna ask a genius stupid questions for his whole career, don’t expect him to play along.” Then there are those who say, “Celebrities have a responsibility to behave a certain way in public and pay fanservice.” There are also those who say, “Man, I love Bob Dylan, but I sure as heck wouldn’t want to meet him.” I suspect I might fall into that camp.
Don’t meet your heroes! You’ll always be disappointed! I guess, but that didn’t stop me from trying to find as many meeting-Bob stories as I could. I was curious to know how others have fared in meeting their idol in all his ageing, grumpy-guts glory.
Here are a few of my favourites.
This anecdote from Larry Charles is freaking hilarious. Apparently Bob got it into his head that he wanted to do a slapstick comedy. When the meeting was set up at HBO, he spent it scowling at the window like a brat with his back to the room. A detail I like in this story is how Bob deflects questions back to the interviewer:
Interviewer: Hey Bob! Why did you go electric?
BD: Why did YOU go electric?
Interviewer: (muses to himself) Why DID I go electric?
This article in the Guardian by Seamus McGarvey is the best. Bob pulls his hood around his face at a dinner gathering to avoid eye contact with fellow guests, smears guacamole all over himself, then repays McGarvey’s good turn by abandoning him at a gas station.
Neil McCormick tells a great, if somewhat unfortunate story about Bob in the Telegraph here:
I had my own encounter with the ghost many years ago. I was backstage at a massive open-air Dylan concert in Ireland, chatting with two young American guys I had just met, when I noticed this weird looking fellow sidle up alongside us, his jowly face caked in orange make-up and baggy eyes ringed with thick black liner. I didn’t actually recognise him at first, perhaps because he bore so little resemblance to the skinny beatnik with the tangled psychedelic curls whose poster adorned my bedroom wall. But eventually it dawned on me that this paunchy, wrinkled old peach making small talk in a stoned drawl was Bob Dylan. I gaped at this strange vision, simultaneously amazed and disappointed. “He looks so old!” I whispered to my new American friends, before babbling some nonsense about it being better not to meet your heroes. They turned out to be Dylan’s sons, Samuel and Jakob. Not my finest moment.
Twin Cities writer Jon Bream also writes about meeting Bob. Bob told him to put the tape recorder away, and apparently they had a nice fun date:
JB: He can be very normal and very typically Minnesotan, very friendly. But then he can be standoffish and very serious like any other star. My hot take on Dylan is he wants to be put on a pedestal but don’t treat him like he’s on a pedestal. Talk to him like he’s a normal human being. But [when we were together] he said, “Put away the tape recorder and let’s just hang out.” So I didn’t really interview him, per se.
This is a superb piece from Rockmine about mustering up the courage to ask the man for an autograph, in which panic seems to grip both the fan and Bob himself. Poor old Bob.
Here’s an autograph signing that actually goes well, just to compensate:
Reddit is also a treasure trove of anecdotes. A gem here includes:
Well, a friend of mine told me this story. This was late 90s I believe. Her dad worked at Duke Hospital in Durham, NC, and was outside smoking a cigarette. Man walks up to him and asks for a smoke. Dad gets a cigarette out and hands it and a lighter to the man. As the man is lighting the cigarette, Dad really looks at him for the first time and it dawns on him.
“You’re Bob Dylan aren’t you?” asks the dad.
Bob hands the lighter back, looks at dad and says, “Keep it under your hat,” and walks away.
Quite amicable, all things considered.
Here’s a link to a somewhat rambling collection of Bob stories.
And also this fantastic story of Bob being confused with a handyman, also in a comments section that can be found here:
I once heard on Radio 4 some woman talking about how Bob Dylan once walked into her house in error. It was somewhere in rural England in the late Sixties or early Seventies I think. She was expecting a builder (called Bob) to drop by to do some business with her plasterer husband. So when she heard someone at the door she shouted out: “Come right in Bob, and make yourself at home – Peter won’t be long – he’s running a few minutes late.” Unbeknown to her, the Bob at her front door was Bob Dylan, and he happened to be looking for musician Pete Townsend’s house. He was actually outside the wrong house. But when he heard a woman’s voice call his name and invite him in he assumed he was at the right place. I can’t remember the details but the lady offered him tea and biscuits and when the woman’s husband arrived she said: “Bob’s waiting in the living room for you.” Imagine Peter’s shock when he saw Bob Dylan sitting on his sofa! In all Dylan was sitting there for 40 minutes – in the wrong house!
This has become a bit of a shaggy dog story, but it’s lovely nonetheless. Some say Bob was looking for Dave Stewart’s place, not Townsend’s. Emma Hartley tries to get to the bottom of it here.
Perhaps my favourite stories of all are not about Bob’s personality at all, but his incredible musk. Here’s what Joni Mitchell says in Mojo about working with him:
JM: Oh, he’s such a little brat, you know. He really is. He’s never been
very complimentary to my face – most of the boys haven’t. But he loved Sex Kills, and was very effusive about it. Anyway, we played three concerts, and they kept shifting my position at the mics, and which verses of the songs I was going to sing. On the third night they stuck Bob at the mic with me, and that’s the one that went out on tape. And if you look closely at it, you can see the little brat, he’s up in my face – and he never brushes his teeth, so his breath was like…right in my face – and he’s mouthing the words at me like a prompter, and he’s pushing me off the mic. It’s like he’s basically dipping my pigtail in ink. The press picked up on it and said, “Bobby Smiles!” Yeah sure, because he was having a go at me out there.
Unwashed by name, and by nature.
Here’s a cuter, cuddlier anecdote from Quora here, just to end on a positive note:
…A member of my band [met Bob Dylan], at a mutual friend’s party in LA. She told Bob that she plays in a band, and he wanted to hear a clip of our music. So she showed him our website and played him a few clips. I can tell you our music is very girly and poppy, not something you would expect Bob to like. However, he was very positive, at least to my bandmate’s face, saying that he liked the music. My bandmate then said to him, “I’m not really a musician,” because she mostly doesn’t write the music, just plays it. He replied, “You make music don’t you? Then you’re a musician”. haha, it seemed like a nice thing to say. He sounds like a good guy.
Just as a sweet reversal, here’s a crime author who discovers that Bob wants his autograph:
“You’ve gotta be punking me,” I said.
The man assured me that he wasn’t. I turned and looked at the bookstore owner.
“It’s true,” she said. “Bob likes crime fiction, and he has his friend come into the shop from time to time to pick up signed copies of books by his favorite authors.”
I am one of his favorite authors? Still not quite believing, I asked if I should just sign the book or write a dedication.
Bob, the man said, would like you to dedicate it to him.
To Bob Dylan or to Robert Zimmerman? I asked, knowing the name the great man was born with.
“He prefers ‘Bob Dylan,’” his friend said.
However Bob Dylan is represented and however he is expected to behave, people are still going to talk about him. Whether he likes it or not, stories about him aren’t going away for a while. Phew!