I was recently watching Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. When I have previously watched this movie, I have typically thought about things like the intensity of Dylan’s performances or his taunting of the press. This time though I found myself thinking more about Kim Kardashian and Honey Boo Boo.
Don’t Look Back was shot intentionally in the style of “cinema vérité” featuring handheld cameras, continuous tracking shots, and no interviews, voice overs, script or staging. The idea was to capture reality on film with no tricks, manipulation or artifice. Audiences were presumably observing authentic happenings about which they could make up their own mind. Cinema vérité was a radical artistic movement that was meant to counter highly processed news and documentary styles that verged on propaganda (other famous examples include Titicut Follies, about a psychiatric hospital, and Gimme Shelter, featuring the Rolling Stones).
Except for the famous title sequence in which Dylan impassively discards cue cards containing the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” Don’t Look Back begins with no explanation or introduction. We see Dylan at press conferences; travelling through the airport; milling around backstage; hanging out in hotel rooms; etc. Intermixed with these scenes of life on the road are shots of Dylan performing in concert.
The standard assessment of the film is that it provides an intimate glimpse of a musician who was in the midst of changing popular culture. From this perspective the viewer is blessed to have the opportunity to see history in the making. The film is also praised for portraying Dylan in a way that does not cover up his flaws: Is Dylan satirizing inane media conventions when he goads members of the press, or is he just being a jerk who enjoys persecuting people who are trying to do their job? This is the stuff of interesting discussion, made possible by then-audacious cinematic techniques.
From modern standards however, is there anything audacious about the style of Don’t Look Back? An image of Paris Hilton rolling her eyes and saying “Whatever!” keeps coming to mind. The central stylistic device of reality television (not to mention YouTube and social media) is the camera that tracks the behavior of people in everyday life who are not playing characters. Far from being radical, you can't get away from this stuff.
Certainly one can distinguish cinema vérité from reality TV to an extent. Reality TV doesn't play by any consistent rules. For example, long shots are replaced by short images that are carefully edited to emphasize dramatic story lines and obvious messages. These messages are often made to be as salacious and simplistic as possible, violating the intended ambiguity of cinema verite.
At the same time, the pleasures of Don't Look Back are just as grounded in voyeurism as reality TV. Viewers are meant to get the impression that we are watching the "real world" which is what makes the action so compelling. These days, cheap but sophisticated technology allows people to watch other people do things without the time, effort and artistry of the theater or traditional film. I am sure that Pennebaker did a lot of planning and reflection before filming Don't Look Back, but once he starts, the pleasures of the film come mostly from Dylan's actions—singing, antagonizing would-be interviewers, confronting drunk people at a party, etc. This is not completely unlike the pleasures of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in which its "stars" make outrageous statements, go to lavish parties and backbite each other.
The major difference between classic documentaries like Don't Look Back and modern visual culture is that in the olden days there was an assumption that the object of the camera's attention was important. Dylan was a big deal at the time. While debate can be had about whether he is a genius or whether he is over-rated, there is no denying he was a force that was exerting his influence on the times. The movie gives us a peek into this important happening.
In contrast, the whole point of many reality TV programs is that the stars are ordinary. Standard tactics including taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary circumstances (Survivor), or taking ordinary people and keeping them in ordinary settings (Big Brother) just to document their exceptionally horrible behavior. Another variation of the genre takes people who are extraordinary in some ways (such as wealth or fame) yet subordinary in other ways (such as perceived intelligence, dignity or integrity). The audience doesn't feel the stars are "just like me." Instead we envy them for “getting lucky” yet at the same time we feel superior and have contempt for them. This explains why people often report feeling kind of sleazy after watching too much reality TV.
I don't pretend to be completely immune to the charms of the genre, but I am reminded of how different Don't Look Back is in regard to the respect it shows its subject. When Dylan goes about his business—pacing around back stage, glaring at the camera, and especially performing on stage—it is difficult to look into his famously blazing eyes and feel superior. Instead, it is as if he is challenging the audience to follow him into his artistic imagination. That is not typically where people want to go when it comes to Honey Boo Boo.
(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770)