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New Dylan Film Opening Night: Fast On The Eye

'Eat The Document' takes viewers on a visual mystery tour of Dylan's music

March 4, 1971
bob dylan 1971
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

New York — It was an early evening rain, night comin' in a-fallin', and merely on the basis of short advance announcements in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and on Howard Smith's FM radio show, a couple of thousand persons showed up at the Academy of Music on February 8th to catch Dylan's one-hour color film Eat the Document, shown twice at 7:00 and 9:00 with proceeds going to a Pike County citizen's group which has been set up to stop strip mining in the South.

Jerry Rubin and Gordon Lightfoot where there. A. J. Weberman ("name me someone that's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him"), so-called Minister of Defense of the so-called Dylan Liberation Front, was standing under the marquee wearing his FREE BOB DYLAN button and passing out a leaflet which concluded: "The movie you are about to see is about the old Dylan — a beautiful right-on dude who sang the truth and gave a lot of his bread to SNCC, but the new Dylan, the post-accident Dylan, is a stoned Pig."

The Academy of Music, with its cavernous dome and its karmic memories of the the Chords and the Valentines, early Fifties rock and roll shows rubbed and ingrained into the seats, was the perfect setting for this revisitation of old Dylan lovers hoping to retrieve their fantasies of their hero who used to "meet on edges." And there everyone was with that "restless hungry feeling," waiting for some miracle, so-called Dylan Liberation Front members in the front rows, confusion boats, kneeling blood hounds, mutiny from stern to bow — all of Dylan's images coming home to roost.

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The Band's manager, John Taplin, who organized the screening, had announced we were going to see a work print. The first images of the film came on the screen, out of focus, no sound, and it was positively 14th Street. "Fix it, you bastards!" some shouted. Other friendly voices screamed: "Get the shit together"; "I see why ABC didn't buy this piece of shit"; "Let's see him shoot up!" Someone behind me was talking about buying the $2 pirate edition of Dylan's "liberated" novel Tarantula. A revolution in the Academy of Music.

The projector focused and started again, and on came a very special film conveying the sense of a private diary, both the subject and its filmic embodiment being that of a true night journey through mad, disjointed landscapes, a magic swirling ship of jump-cuts, "ready for to fade." Dylan said: "We cut it fast on the eye."

The quasi-methedrine logic of Eat the Document suggests a self-consciously disintegrating structure, an anti-documentary that uses the "star" image in order to de-mystify and decompose it. Thus Dylan's presence is undermined for any easy identification by means of juxtaposing images from Australia with say, a scene in an English train. Needless to say, the film's structure corresponds to what Dylan must have experienced on this mixed-up confusion tour.

Using footage taken mainly by Donn Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), during Dylan's 1966 world tour with the Band, both Dylan and editor-friend Howard Alk retired to Woodstock and shortly after Dylan's motorcycle accident, using editing ideas as their map, they constructed a film that suggests the works of Man Ray, Ron Rice and William Burroughs, with its insistence on perceiving a multitude of concrete details and elliptical progressions. What one remembers are: silhouetted figures, a beautiful, almost androgynous Dylan with cigarette and shades, police dogs brutalizing a man in a bagpipe parade, a man wearing a sandwich board reading: "It is appointed unto men once to die," Dylan reading a paper in bed, a man in a war helmet, a cemetery, dogs on leashes, girls' faces, fans commenting on Dylan's music outside Royal Albert Hall ("It was rubbish"; "He was great, better than Presley"), and above all, the repeating images of travel — a train steaming and whistling across country, scores of cars with their one-too-many windows which one is always looking through. And in one scene, which epitomizes the sense the film gives of one's watching postcards of the hanging, the camera pans over people's hands as they drunkenly pass plates across a Last Supper length table, and suddenly at the table's corner is Dylan in shades, shrouded in a private world, looking abstractedly and warily to the side.

The soundtrack presents dream-like fragments of speech: "Have you ever heard of me? . . . I heard you booing . . . I can't believe that everyone makes it so difficult . . . I'm sorry for everything I've done." "Are you ever yourself at any time?" someone questions him, and Dylan shrugs. "Why are you here?" another reporter asks, to which Dylan says: "I take orders from someone on the telephone, but I never see him. He calls up and just tells me where to go." And we're back on the Nova Express.

The film's fantastic music is cut off, sometimes returning, in similar elliptical fashion. The audience at the Academy of Music booed when those amazing Liverpool versions featuring Dylan and the Band playing "Like a Rolling Stone," "One Too Many Mornings," and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" were broken off abruptly. Other performances are briefly shown as well: "Tell Me Mama" and "Mr. Jones" with the Band at Albert Hall, three beautiful acoustic numbers by Dylan accompanied by Robbie Robertson, Johnny Cash and Dylan singing "I Still Miss Someone." But most of the people at the Academy of Music wanted to see a 1966 Dylan concert and not, what is equally powerful, Dylan's particular filmic perceptions.

Most of these numbers, as well as the short fragments showing John Lennon and Dylan zonked out in the back of a car, are small scenes taken from longer rushes that Donn Pennebaker has been working on in "documentary" style, in a wonderful, still unfinished and unreleased film. Both Dylan's and Pennebaker's films go well together.

"I shot most of the film," Pennebaker says, "but it was pretty much Dylan directing what went on. And editing is all Dylan's. Dylan wanted Eat the Document to show what TV never does, to snap people's head a bit. It's Dylan's logic. And it's a little like a mystery tour, really an extraordinary event. To worry about whether it's good or bad is ridiculous. I find the film arresting, and I'm knocked out that he did it. Unlike my film, which I'm making in order to see a kind of record preserved, Dylan's film is complete. If someone had bought Tarantula and made a film of it that would be one thing. But in Eat the Document Dylan is making you see things with his own funky kind of sense."

At the beginning of the showing at the Academy of Music, Taplin announced that the film was "a little too freaky for ABC at that time, and they rejected it."

"That's a lie," said Hubbell Robinson, who was executive producer for ABC's Stage 67, the 90-minute program to which Eat the Document was originally contracted. "We didn't know what we had," Robinson recalled, "because when we saw the film in the fall of '66 it wasn't yet edited. By that time we had to make other programming commitments to producers for the spring of '67 and Dylan didn't know what the film would be and when it would be finished. But we were definitely interested in the film."

There's a possibility that Eat the Document will be distributed in the future. When it is released all the Mr. Joneses, whether they're 14 or 64, will be wondering why Dylan didn't just make a normal TV "music" film which anyone else could have made, when in fact Eat the Document is a near-visual equivalent of some of the songs Dylan was singing on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

This story is from the March 4th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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