Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kubrick, Dylan and Another Self Portrait

I just finished watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the umpteenth time, but for the first time am watching the special features CD that accompanies the film. One of the segments is titled "Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick". It features Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, the late Roger Ebert and a host of others weighing in on Kubrick’s significance as a director and the groundbreaking achievement of 2001. Kubrick’s masterful attention to detail raised the bar as regards the possibilities of film, and especially with regard to the sci fi genre and outer space themes.

The film’s significance wasn’t necessarily established by its box office receipts (which were considerable for its time*), but rather, by its influence on everything that came afterwards. Interviews with these directors, producers, critics and writers affirm and re-assert that this was a historic film that broke new ground as regards the possibilities of storytelling in film.

Many people have affirmed that Bob Dylan’s music in 1965 did a similar thing, taking rock music to a new level. Just as Kubrick’s film caught the attention of other film makers, his peers, so was Dylan’s influence greatest not among the pop scene but amongst his peers. His albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde were game changers.

The work that followed, however, had only moderate critical acclaim and the decade ended with what some considered his worst piece of work to date, Self Portrait.

Kubrick’s send-up after 2001 was a remarkable, albeit provocative, retelling of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Orange was then followed by Barry Lyndon, which some critics had a field day with even though it won four Academy Awards. I read one review that proposed the notion that the proof of  Barry Lyndon's failure is that it brought Ryan O’Neal’s career to an end. That is an assertion I don’t understand. Some critics scorned it, but the 8.1 rating at imdb.com proves it is a story well told, with luscious scenery and music to boot.

Like 2001, Barry Lyndon has exquisite filmography. Like 2001 it is a story of an odyssey. Like 2001, Kubrick is a master of his craft. But like Dylan’s Self Portrait, it was an effort unheralded by many.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was similarly shredded by opinion page critics of his day. If I remember correctly only the Chicago Tribune printed the prescient remark that the rest of the speakers that day would be forgotten while Lincoln’s three minute oratory would live far longer than the men and women who heard it.

The 1970 time frame in Dylan’s career may not have been well received by critics of of the time either, and even many fans, but in retrospect there was more substance there than he was given credit for.

Disc One of Another Self Portrait begins with one of my favorites from Dylan’s New Morning: Went to See the Gypsy. New Morning has been one of my favorite Dylan albums since from the time of its release. This version is accompanied by the guitar rather than the frisky piano that fans have been long familiar with. It’s a great intro to this new collection of outtakes from that period. For more than three decades I’ve relished the sound of Gypsy, and though my initial impression (fifteen seconds’ worth) was to resist liking this version, by the end of the first lesson it was acceptable and by the second it was great.

What’s especially interesting is that the exit number here (Disc One) is All the Tired Horse, minus overdubbed embellishments. I don’t think anyone understood why Dylan would open Self Portrait with this piece, but as I listened to it that first time I immediately thought of the sirens in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (“Go to sleep little babe…”) It’s music. It’s lyrical. It’s from another space than we’re accustomed to. In 1970, he’d earned the right to take risks. What’s the worst that could happen?

I still find it amazing that at this point in time Dylan was still only in his twenties.

For what it’s worth, here are some comments from the critic regarding this new compilation of outtakes from that time frame...

"...one of the most important, coherent and fulfilling Bob Dylan albums ever released." - David Fricke, Rolling Stone

"Another Self Portrait is an illustration of Dylan’s vast command of the folk song, a laboratory for transforming some of his most familiar hits, and a testament to his powers as an interpretive singer.” - Ben Greenman, The New Yorker

“Another Self Portrait is a pleasure trip, for anyone who wants to hear Bob Dylan's voice pure and simple, and enjoy music from instruments, and not devices.” – Anne Margaret Daniel, Huffington Post

“There’s an intimacy and energy that somehow never found their way into the originals or got drowned out by the too-lavish production.” – Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

If you're a Dylan fan, you no doubt already know how to purchase this new set. It's available in a variety of combinations, in both CD and vinyl form, from the Dylan Store.

*Box office for 2001: A Space Odyssey was 56,715,371, which ranks it 132 in all time box office when adjusted for inflation or 1,168 overall for Hollywood domestic receipts.

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