Christopher Ricks: 'Judas!' Did they hope he'd hang himself?

September 30, 2005

"Don't Look Back?" Do Look Back, but Don't Look Only Back. Look up, look up - seek your Maker.


Martin Scorsese, like Bob Dylan, is one heaven of a maker. Dylan till 1966: this was to be the heart of the matter, but this great Scorsese film looks into other decades and into other bodily realities. The lips, the teeth, the face, the lungs, the hands, the hair, the eyes.

Footage - of Dylan, yes, but not only of him. Here are countless others - from all the good people who travelled with him, through the loved ones (some of whom ceased to love him back), to the fans who stayed loyal to the royal in him. Not forgetting the faint of heart who fell by the wayside.

Plus all the petty grand inquisitors from the media, the needless needlers who set out to classify him, the quiz maestros whose loud dumb questions simply have to be heard to be unbelieved. Of a particularly insulting question: do you ask the Beatles that? Dylan asks right back. Take - and keep, please - the interviewing puppet who has to admit that he has never heard Dylan sing and who then announces that it is his job to ask questions, which is exactly what he is not doing.

A truth was put by T. S. Eliot (who matters to Dylan, and not only because of his more-than-cameo appearance in Desolation Row) - that the poet John Donne "looked into a great deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system and the digestive tracts."

Scorsese looks into all of these. He sees and he is a seer. Meanwhile, Dylan has had us hear the body and the spirit as never before. So, here, unforgettably, is Dylan until 1966, mounting to the fateful British concerts that feel they may prove fatal. "Judas!" Did they hope he'd go hang himself? Was 30 pieces of silver where it was at?

Yet such is only one of the thrilling story lines in the ranging substantiated history that is Scorsese's No Direction Home . All this, with Dylan looking back from his sixties, commenting in the service not of himself but of his songs. "My songs lead their own lives."

A biopic ought to be just such a matter of life and death, deeper even than a biopsy. For those of us who know that the crucial thing is simply to thank both Scorsese and Dylan, there are blessedly far too many ways in which the film is a masterpiece.

First, this is because it is truly, truthfully, interested in a whole lot of people other than Dylan, for the good reason that Dylan has proved interested in them. Second, because the film respects those who grace it, even while wishing on occasion that they would not do or say things that risk their losing our respect. Third, that it everywhere arouses gratitude for its own imaginative acts of arbitration, the selection and the unsnide editing, even while it brings out how much of Dylan's genius is his genius for gratitude - gratitude to his predecessors, his contemporaries, his friends, his loved ones, even those who couldn't abide his new creations. For, as he says while refusing to make light of all the hideous booing, you need to remember that you can kill someone with kindness.

Here is God's plenty. "He did not see any reason why the Devil should have all the good tunes."

Christopher Ricks is professor of poetry at Oxford University, professor of the humanities at Boston University, US, and author of Dylan's Visions of Sin , Ecco/Harper Collins, 2004.

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