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Dylan pulls off another put-on

THE FIFTH COLUMN

There has been a certain amount of huffing and puffing about Martin Scorsese’s new work on Bob Dylan, his account of Dylan’s 1975-1976 tour. It’s titled Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, and can be seen on Netflix. The huffing is about the fact that, though it looks pretty much like Scorsese’s previous Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, it also has fictional elements.

It uses concert footage from the tour, which Dylan also mined for his four-hour movie Renaldo and Clara, though Dylan added staged encounters and dialogues between, say, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Sara and his former lover Joan Baez. That might’ve set the tone for Scorsese, who adds talking heads speaking in serious documentary style — but who are making things up, or are not who they appear to be.

Sharon Stone tells how she ran away from home at 18 to follow the Dylan caravan, but that’s fiction. Another character claiming to be the original tour cinematographer is invented and is played by an actor; his stories are made up. And so on.

Some commentators feel betrayed by this element of the work, although Scorsese apparently signals early on that it won’t be played straight (including the subtitle: a “story”, indeed). Now that it’s known, there are several pieces out there along the lines of The Washington Post’s June 18 piece, long-windedly titled A guide to all the fake stuff Martin Scorsese put in his new Bob Dylan documentary.

So one can approach the work in that spirit, knowing what’s fake, or at least fictional. And it’s not as though one should really be surprised at this fakery or fictionalising coming from Dylan, who is surely in on the joke here.

I think it’s a version of that 1960s art form, the put-on, which has rather declined and been forgotten since. At least one dictionary defines “put-on” simply as a deception or hoax, but the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the wider sense of parody or spoof, “related to old-fashioned joshing”. And Dylan, as shown by the 1965 documentary Don’t Look Back, is or was a master of the put-on — his frequent response to questions he found irksome.

Dylan was never very precious about the purity or originality of his work in general. He’s a post-modern intertextualist, as Richard F Thomas argues in his book Why Dylan Matters, which might have been better titled What Dylan Borrowed. There were the ancient folk tunes he adapted and the lines he took from old songs, whether it was A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in 1963 or, much later, the 2001 album “Love and Theft” (yes, it has quote marks too), as signalled in its title. Then there was his lifting from SparkNotes when he spoke of Moby Dick in his Nobel speech, or his use of lines from the 19th-century poet Henry Timrod and a novel about the Yakuza in Japan, not to mention the Iliad and the Odyssey.

As Picasso said, though he may have had TS Eliot’s words put in his mouth: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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