Bob Dylan and John Ford: More on the Douglas Brinkley / Rolling Stone interview

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I want to continue looking at some noteworthy things that came out of the Douglas Brinkley/Bob Dylan Rolling Stone interview, both the print version and the online outtakes (which are now gone but not forgotten).

There is this from the print article on Bob Dylan’s taste in movies:

A cowboy-movie aficionado, Dylan considers John Ford a great American artist. “I like his old films,” Dylan says. “He was a man’s man, and he thought that way. He never let his guard down. Put courage and bravery, redemption and a peculiar mix of agony and ecstasy on the screen in a brilliant dramatic manner. His movies were easy to understand. I like that period of time in American films. I think America has produced the greatest films ever. No other country has ever come close. The great movies that came out of America in the studio system, which a lot of people say is the slavery system, were heroic and visionary, and inspired people in a way that no other country has ever done. If film is the ultimate art form, then you’ll need to look no further than those films. Art has the ability to transform people’s lives, and they did just that.”

It’s always a pleasure to find out that you’re in full agreement with ol’ Bob, as I am in this case. He probably knows a lot more about movies than I, but I endorse his sentiments wholeheartedly; in my experience John Ford’s greatest films are the height of cinema. I also think that the discipline, if you want to call it that, of the old American studio system was a major reason why so many great and inspiring films were made in that era.

It’s interesting that Dylan observes about John Ford that “he was a man’s man,” and that “he never let his guard down.” And he means it as a compliment, in an age when never letting your guard down might be considered a flaw in an artist; it might be associated with being uptight or square or even conservative or something, and therefore despised. Dylan knows better. Ford exhibited a restraint and an integrity that was manly. One is reminded that Dylan wrote a song on this subject, loosely speaking, called The Man In Me. There’s a couplet that goes:

The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from bein’ seen,
But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.

What does that mean? Well, who the heck knows? But one way of understanding it is that some things need to be left unsaid; not everything can be given up, not everything can be spelled out, because to do that — or to attempt to do that that — is to cheapen oneself and to make it appear as if everything is comprehensible and definable, when everything is not comprehensible and definable.

It’s also interesting that in his comments in the MSNBC interview, Douglas Brinkley remarked that in some ways Bob’s love of John Ford’s old westerns “informs this new ten songs that he’s just written.” That sounds to me like Brinkley is referring to something Bob said, albeit something that didn’t make the printed article. And it’s not that hard to imagine John Ford directing in the dusty Texas locale that looms throughout Together Through Life.

In his memoir, Chronicles, Dylan also talks about movies and John Ford, but in a different way. It’s in the section where he writes about a character named Jon Pankake in Minneapolis, an amateur expert on folk music, movies and maybe everything, who called the young Bob out on the fact that all he was doing at the time was imitating Woody Guthrie. He told Dylan that that had been done, and much better, by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He played some of Elliott’s records for Bob, and Bob duly picked up some of Elliott’s style and added that to his schtick. Pankake called him out on that too. Bob knew he was right but somehow realized that he couldn’t let himself be crushed by this kind of criticism either; he had to just keep moving forward.

As regards Pankake’s attitudes to film, there’s this:

While other intellectual types might be discussing poetic differences between T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings, Pankake would come up with arguments about why John Wayne was a better cowboy in Rio Bravo then he was in Legend of the Lost. He expounded on directors like Howard Hawks or John Ford, that they get Wayne when other directors don’t. Maybe Pankake was right, maybe not. It wasn’t that big a deal.

Dylan then tells a story of meeting John Wayne years later, and wondering if he should ask him why some of his westerns were better than other ones. He didn’t do so. Anyhow, it seems clear that in writing this passage in Chronicles, Dylan was writing from the point of view of himself back then. Going by his remarks to Brinkley, Bob Dylan today would have a very good idea of why some John Wayne movies are better than others, and the role that the directors played in all that.

It’s somehow very nice to know this about Bob; i.e. that he is knowledgeable and appreciative and on-target when it comes to American film.