All That and a Bag of Crisps
Two movies -one weekend. The first stars Dylan, Bob Dylan, not looking back. He gazes Through the orgy of cigarette smoke that fills the films’ architecture of stage left dressing rooms and stuffy hotel suites.
The movie, a cleaned up print of the 1967 classic Don’t Look Back, documents Dylan’s 1965 tour with Joan Baez through England. But it is not really a concert film. This is no Rolling Stones self-tribute to the rock and roll lifestyle. Well, maybe it is, but only in a pre-stadium way. The music is there: the harmonica, the nasal voice matched by a strummed guitar.
While the film captures gloriously the on stage performances, its strength is derived from the crystal sync camera developed by director, D.A. Pennebaker. The technology, which was innovative at the time, allows for easy matching of fast and loose film footage to sound. The match of sound to hand-held camera reveals the hermetic world of Dylan and his entourage as they tour across the English countryside and cruise into London. In each hotel Dylan glowers and argues with the management. Gamy reporters wrapped in black and white camel overcoats and armed with greasy notepads push themselves into the tiny suites. They pile one on top each other like fraternity boys in a telephone booth. And from that position they shoot out pointed questions and dig for meaning in old Bob’s folk songs. The news hounds are convinced that our hero is plotting to change the world - that he is starting a revolution under his disheveled hair and sarcastic remarks. But Dylan doesn’t know. He takes a drag on his ash-laden cigarette, shrugs his shoulders and says, "Hey, I just sing, man."
There is a revolution brewing in Don’t Look Back. It seeps out of the architecture, out of spaces with one too many people sitting on a dirty Danish sofa. When one mixes the great unwashed with modern furniture, trouble is bound to happen. The cameraman, Pennebaker, is pushed up against the corner of those close rooms. He is approved to get the entire atmosphere on film. He takes it all in - the excitement, the existential bullshit, the kohl eyeliner on be-bobbed girls. The lens implies a scent: it smells like cinders and cooked cabbage. Steam comes from the kitchen up through the floorboards and, like a draft, encircles the familiar mop of curly hair and hangers on in striped shirts.
The film is composed of seething interiors. Even the walls, wrapped in flaky floral paper, reflect the heaviness of an ancient Victorian status quo and a post-war angst. Although the film was made in the mid-sixties, Modernism is not evident. There is no free plan, no ribbon windows and the closest thing to transparency is Donavan, who is touring simultaneously. All the hallways, the hotel rooms and the dressing rooms make for just about all the claustrophobia one can handle on an El Niño Valentine’s night at the Roxie Theater.
The movie moves, well... rather... staggers, from one confined room to another, dragging Dylan, a crew of drunkards and intellectuals, ex-Animals members, and a beat up Royal typewriter along with it. Don’t Look Back builds from this unruly mass to one man on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It is a building shaped like a swollen belly. The shape is pregnant with Queen Victoria’s love for Albert. It’s a banger and mash version of the Taj Mahal, and in in this expectant hall that Bob Dylan (not the Caesar cut Jacob) with acoustic guitar and a harmonica braced to his neck, stands with his head sticking onto the spotlight, the rest of his corpus disappears into the darkness.
The film climaxes here. Every previous cramped hotel room coming together to create a perceived claustrophobia of light and dark in the domed concert hall. The Beatles played the portly Albert. They filled it with pop delight, making the huge dome lift up with helium jangles and "Love- Me-Do’s," but with Bob, it is the inverse. The space of the hall is collapsing in on itself, continuing the aesthetic of his compact universe. Dylan stands alone in the blackness. His Okie strands of "Baby Blue" muck up the gray-black 16mm celluloid.
The other film screened over the wet, moody weekend was another guilty pleasure. A media-orchestrated explosion, Spice World’s luminosity cuts though the diesel fumes, smoke, and almost wino haze of Don’t Look Back. The two movies are some thirty years apart and are in culturally opposing stratospheres - the morose Dylan barking at the press and screened in art houses versus chants of girl power screened in multiplexes. But the two films layer on top of one another and occupy the same physical space, London and its environs. Each film is deeply routed in the space of the city in order to build to their tandem plot climaxes in the Royal Albert Hall. The intense post-war folksy grimness gives way to a post-rave folly of sweetness, light and Spice racks. It is as if the swollen tummy of the concert venue, impregnated by Victoria in 1863, gave birth to Baby Spice. Only Noel Gallager would be unmoved by the sight of platform shoes so wide and tall that they could be mistaken Lloyd’s of London footings.
The Spice Girls fill the Old Albert with swirls of Technicolor that reach clear to the coffers in the ceiling. "Shake it to the left" and electronic drumbeats replace the strums of the free-wheeling, razor sharp-tongued folk singer. If Don’t Look Back is comprised primarily of closet sized interiors, Spice World, aptly named, is made of Cine-mascope exteriors. It is filmed as panoramic landscapes, even when inside. It rambles over Ha-ha’s and fords across streams. Even London, a veritable urban realm as any, is turned into a quaint country village under a dusting of Spice.
Smack in the middle of this Turner landscape is a Jasper John painting. The Spice Girl tour bus - flat, thin red, white and blue paint is spread across a double decker. (As if the red standard issue didn’t signify London, enough.) The collage of the Union jack on the perceived English blandness, the collage of girl power spice on a plate of pale gray cabbage, parallels the girls rise to fame. The spice personas clothed in kandy-colored kool aid spandex are color-formed on top of their rough and tumble, pasty Cockney birth. It is Marilyn times five, wired for sound and day tripping across the heath.
Even the interior of this glorious Spice Bus, the giant flag of girl power which whirls through the cobbled streets represents a vision of the great outdoors. Their tour bus is laid out like the country estate of a great English manor. Follies devoted to each Spice Girl wrap the edges of the bus, enclosing a lawn of plush blue carpet painted with a warped Kenneth Noland target and looking suspiciously like a Georgia O’Keeffe lily. Baby Spice rocks on her rope swing, twirls her braids and licks a lollypop while Sporty Spice delivers all of her lines from the seat of a stationary bike. Posh struts each of her little black dresses down a catwalk built for one, pirouetting and voguing her way across England. Ginger Spice lounges on Dali’s Bocca couch - two red lips with puckering pillows, and Scary Spice paces in her jungle-print lair.
The iconic match of Spice to setting brings to mind the visionary houses of Claude Ledoux. His visionary structures of abstract form refer to personality or trade of the occupant, leading to whimsical fancy buildings. The House for a Cooper, is set in a pastoral landscape, and straddles a stream. The house is shaped like a barrel and water pours through the center. Ledoux’s House for a Cooper or Workshop for Wood Burners could just as easily be Baby Spice surrounded by her stuffed toys in her playpen.
Ledoux designed his projects each for a particular meti- ér. His structures are suited for a clearly defined group, for a clearly defined task, i.e. Sporty Spice’s environment looks like a gym, the Workshop for Wood Burners looks like a stack of wood. The buildings, follies, and huts reflect not the most effective built space for each activity. Instead, they reflect the spirit and the iconography of metiér. Just as each of the Spice Girls has her own metiér, as housed in their magic bus, Dylan has his own environment. Perhaps it is found best, not in all the stuffy rooms, but in the taxi which takes him out of London. The final sequence of Don’t Look Back takes place in the cramped confines of a standard London cab. Dylan sits in the backseat with his manager and roadie. He smokes and mulls over being called an anarchist. The cameraman sits backwards in the front and shoots between the seats, occasionally catching a headrest in the corner of the frame.
The taxi scene may be the most confined shot of the film, but it is also the most open and mobile. As the cab moves along the streets, heading towards Heathrow airport, pieces of gray sky and skyline are glimped out the side windows. These fleeting glances offer an additional spacial link between Bob and Geri. The sidelong views of London, as framed by Pennebaker, pit the hermitage taxi against the outside world; the ongoing battle of interior versus exterior. The movable frame of the taxi, which carries in its belly the cargo for revolution, is really just a precursor to the hippie buses, heavy metal tour buses with hot tubs in the back, and punk rock tour vans with "Deathstar" painted across the front. In fact, the glorious vision of the Spice Bus, the travelling circus of sugar pop bliss, holds the same explosive nucleus as Dylan’s cab, but it is viewed from the outside, as an object, not from the inside, as a partner in crime.
This distanced ironic glance is the basis for a late twentieth century way of viewing the world. Spice World represents a post-Post Modern vision. It takes everything in, all at once. It is the entire panorama of London, Spice, and a huge array of obscure English actors making cameo appearances. (Ginger Spice magically morphs into Bob Hoskins.) The scope of references is synthesized together into a tenuous meaning. On a wet and weary weekend the same vision, in a collage worthy of Rauchenberg, the black and white art-house classic is bonded to the exuberant whoop of "...if you wanna be my lover," as sung by the five chorus girls of the new millennium.