I Wasn’t There

June 5th, 2008 § 0 comments

Expectations for artists have changed, perhaps because of post-modernism or changes in institutions, where the ability to lecture/discuss/critique is valued over the artwork. Visiting artist programs have taught me, through observation alone, that younger artists are expected to be well read, articulate, well informed and well connected, knowledgeable of their own field as well as others–mainly philosophy and politics. These qualities don’t sound unpleasant, but they don’t feel too good when they are expected of you. They seem to be distractions added onto the pressure of making, or alternative ways to gain validity and recognition when art objects are dismissed. “Research” seems to be one of those promising new vocabulary words, akin to studio “practice.” Our chair stated the other day, “if you hear someone who lectures well send them my way, but not if you only like the work.”

I was thinking about artistic expectations while watching both The Last Waltz and I’m Not There. Since Dylan and The Band are connected, I thought they would be interesting to watch in succession. Both films were dominated, or made worth while, by one central person: Robbie Robertson in Scorsese’s documentary (1976) about The Band’s last performance, and Cate Blanchett, playing one of the many Dylan’s in Haynes film. Both movies seemed only average, I’m Not There is a frightfully confusing mixture of visual tricks and cinematic genres, and Scorsese’s documentary, though thoughtfully sequenced, was marred by his own questions and The Band’s general lack of intellect.

The Last Waltz, as one critic described it, is a “revealing document of a time”, and it is that aspect of the film that I found successful. Robbie Robertson alone seemed to have something to say about the lifestyle his band had lived for the past 16 years, and the toll he was afraid it would take if they kept playing. This feeling is mirrored a scene where Blanchett’s Dylan becomes almost hysterical at the prospect of doing 83 more shows—“who wants to be a millionaire anyway?” Because, as Robertson states, with reflective honesty and a discouraging look on his face,“the road is a damned impossible way of life.”

Watching The Band play, however, I can understand the appeal of the film; who cares what they say backstage if they can play with compelling conviction onstage? Disagreeing with many critics of The Last Waltz, I think that it was not the music they were tired of, but the socially dictated path of the “rockstar” they had followed while trying to be musicians. I would argue that the strain of drugs and whatever else fell away while they played. It seems impossible to watch Robertson and not get that, though apparently many disagree.

I’m Not There covers the varied and contradictory life of Dylan. Watching any of the many documentaries on Dylan is as depressing to me, perhaps more so, than watching angry fans burning Beatles records or screaming fans losing bladder control during their concerts. It seems hard to realize that he is not an anomaly but a person.

No one, their critics at the time or our critics now, seems to want to address why The Band is so tired, why they are terrified of dying on the road, why they must stop now before…Dylan’s anger, so justified, reflects a similar critique of the musical system they all partake in–even those lofty Folk folks. People are all too ready to find fault with their musical heroes, but on one seems keen on critiquing the machine that kills them slowly off, metaphorically or sometimes literally.

It recalls to me to the expectations placed on artists. Performing artists have a difficult time because it is hard to divorce their person from their work. Musicians are pressured to sing with the “voice of their time”, as visual artists are expected to “reflect” it. In Ebert’s review of I’m Not There he states, “at the end of the day, we are left with the music, which is all the artist really owes us.” Just as visual artists now are expected to be philosophers, social critics, technical dictionaries, art stars, community activists, and so on, so it seems these musicians were interpreted and judged as figures they never really wanted to be. “Am I sincere?” Dylan repeats the question in an 1960’s interview, “as sincere as you are.”

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