Thursday, December 18, 2008

My two cents


Though none of us can apply a strictly objective set of criteria to judge this or any movie’s specific value, my own inclinations are to think about what the movie tries to do and decide whether or not it follows through.

This movie promises to be a couple of things (dramatic, funny, explosive, some sort of political statement) and doesn’t necessarily accomplish them. Things do explode and do so in an epic, utterly compelling sort of way. That I’ll give it. But the other things just don’t play out for me. Therefore, to follow Gaston’s criteria, I wouldn’t watch it again, nor would I recommend it to someone. It has, of course, evoked responses, and I myself did review it upon watching it (see my myspace blog ).

I base it’s rewatch-abilty, be it my own or a proxy’s, on the things the movie can do (tell a story, tell a joke etc), the things T AZ has laid out. And rewatch-ability is linked up with what I already prefer, right? Not just some objective reaction that occurs upon my watching it the first time. Would I watch Tombstone a zillion times? Yes. Do I argue that it’s aesthetically solid film? Not really. I’d watch it any day of the week because it accomplishes what it promises (being a Western), it’s got some zingy one-liners, and I think Val Kilmer is hot. Part of what I’m arguing is that we have to be aware of what we already prefer and recognize that must factor into a movie’s rewatch-ability status.

I think we also need to think about the watcher’s pleasure. None of us (I hope) would argue the Cougar selections are good movies. Yet you people watch them because you derive some sort of pleasure from seeing a bad movie being bad. So, that has something to do with a film’s aesthetic value. Perhaps the watcher’s reaction might be a better measure—There are films that I consider terrific that I cannot watch again because they were too overwhelming. I found little humor or pleasure in TF, though I delight in the juvenile, as my penchant for Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Friday indicate. I also like watching things blow up. Somehow, though, the anti-freeze as pee-pee joke in TF didn’t work for me and the fighting scenes weren’t enough to carry it. The pleasure I derived from watching it had far more to do with the company rather than anything the film tried and failed to do.

I’m glad to see that box office draw and money made have been tossed from the criteria. By that logic Mariah Carey is the best female artist ever. Lastly, in regard to Michael Bay—the best thing he ever did was direct Meatloaf’s videos

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


1. My argument is NOT that either box office receipts OR critical consensus (with Rotten Tomatoes used as shorthand) constitute grounds for an objective evaluation. We shouldn't replace your list with either of these things, nor should we assume that when all three of these things correspond that we have suddenly found an objective trifecta. My point is that BO and CC complicate any claims to aesthetic objectivity. I don't need to argue that they make their own absolute standard. Of course, popularity doesn't equal "good." Of course, the critical oligarchy aren't absolute arbiters of taste.

2. Ultimately, the only aesthetic judgments that mean anything to me are the answers to these three questions:
a. Would you insist that someone else watch this movie?
b. Would you watch this movie again?
c. DO you want to write about/talk about this movie in an extended format elsewhere?

I still think the re-watchability is probably my go to evaluator (for instance, I tried to watch The Dark Knight again last night, and I fastforwarded everything but the Joker scenes, and I have to say that the film has taken a serious hit in my book after my initial ecstatic response).

But of course, how do you judge something like Schindler's List according to that? That's a movie that I appreciate, but that I really don't want to rewatch. So, the recommendation that someone else NEEDS to watch the film replaces the rewatchability criteria.

Finally, does a film provoke further thought, conversation, and writing? If so, the film is working on some level (i.e. there's enough there to reward engagement).

Notice, each of my criteria relate specifically to practices: watching, telling someone to watch, or writing and talking about the film.

3. My job isn't to argue for TF's perfection. I maintain it's a two star movie. I watched it again, and if someone digs the idea of robots transforming, then I would recommend it in a heartbeat (!). Even if we stipulate your criteria for TF, your evaluation is far from definitive. I've finally decided that the film WANTS to keep the deceptacons indistinct in order to approximate the affect of confronting these evil robots from a clueless human point of view. The F/X and action pacing is enough to earn a star and a half (that is, the accomplishments of the film are NOT slight; they are significant); all I have to do is cobble together half a star from the rest of the film. Easily accomplished.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Viability of Evaluative Film Criticism

Dear Gaston,

Briefly and off-the-cuff:

I mean awful in the sense that it 1) attempts to adhere to a particular set of aesthetic conventions regarding the look, rhythm, structure, pacing, organization and affective power of a Hollywood film and 2) fails to do so on multiple counts. What are these conventions? I believe they could be more-or-less derived from 1) an analysis of the Hollywood film canon, taking into account films that have a) endured as financial draws through re-releases, television rights, critic lists, DVD sales, etc. (this is the Bloom part of the argument) and b) received general critical acclaim (and this would require looking not at the "good" vs. "bad" scale of rotten tomatoes, but the reviews themselves...lest we forget, a 2 1/2 star movie on RT is 'fresh', but I wouldn't call that "critical acclaim;" and 2) an analysis of aesthetic-based critical assessments of Hollywood films (this, as opposed to thematic-based or auteur-based criticism). Obviously, that's too much of a task for me to adequately perform in an email, but I will say those who have watched shitloads of movies (like the two of us) tend to develop a sense for these conventions and expectations, and we carry them into movies when we see them. I know that's not academically precise, but I hope the previous few sentences will suffice as a 'warrant' for this approach, and this last sentence will serve as an 'example' taken from personal experience. Also, this is not to say that all movies everywhere are subject (in terms of their quality) to an adherence to particular cinematic conventions--many movies intentionally deviate from convention and are the better for it, as they strengthen their cases in thematic and auteur based criticism, among other forms of more-academic short, they become more 'interesting'--but it is to say that when a movie 'enters' into a conventional game, its failure to a) self-reflexively explore that convention, b) transcend that convention in any meaningful or intelligent way, or c) carry out that convention in a way that is satisfactory is a FAILURE of its aesthetic program. It becomes a "bad" movie, in the sense that it inadequate AS a movie.

TRANSFORMERS in particular is a classic example of this kind of aesthetic failure. In terms of pacing, the film is uneven, unbalanced and awkwardly timed; this is not wholly a personal opinion--I think most viewers would agree that the screen-time alotted particular characters and events is disproportionate--for example, Megatron, the film's main bad guy and a staple of the cartoon to which Bay's movie has some responsibility to adhere, receives approximately half as much screen time as Shia Lebouf's grandfather's glasses and probably a third of the time alotted to Megan Fox's ass. There's also the problem of the time devoted to particular characters' development: again, Megatron is under-explored, Starscream is ignored, and even Optimus Prime is relegated to a position BENEATH Shia, the glasses, Megan Fox, the black computer guy, John Turturro, Hot Rod, a handful of Marines, the opening credit sequence, Shia's parents, the ending credits, the Hoover Dam, and the Dolly Grip. This is a FAILURE in terms of the way screen time is shared between the principal characters and plot elements of the film. There are also obvious plot problems regarding how particular plot elements are over- or under-explained. This is not purely a subjective judgment, it is an analysis of how TRANSFORMERS compares to the traditional model(s) of narratives it seeks to emulate. This argument is getting repetitive, so let me say quickly that it can apply to any of the elements outlined in the previous paragraph: timing is wrong, plot development is wrong, editing is wrong, pacing is wrong, screen-time alotment is wrong, characters are wrong, the movie fails as an exercise in conventional action-film narrative (it is far too sprawling and loose), it fails as an homage to a children's TV show (and it does this almost as badly as the FIRST Transformers movie), and its not even particularly interesting as a star vehicle, because, again, Shia Lebouf is given a strange and disproportionate amount of screen time in a movie that ISN'T ABOUT HIM. The only area in which TRANSFORMERS is successful is in its achievement as a summer F/X spectacular, which we might want to discuss as its own genre, independent of action films. In these terms, the movie hits the right notes: big opening F/X scene, two scenes in the middle of the film designed to highlight particular developments in F/X (robots at night, interacting with environment, and the chase with Hot Rod and the police car), and a 20 minutes or more closing F/X extravaganza. I am arguing that these ARE legitimate criteria for a movie to attempt to meet, and TRANSFORMERS does meet them impressively; thus, in these terms, it is "good." However, the film doesn't pretend to ONLY be an F/X spectacular--the screentime given to Shia's character is evidence of this--and thus, it must be evaluated in accordance with ALL the criteria relevant to the genres in which it engages (I would say it shoots for comedy, action and bildungsroman, at least). On these terms, the movie is a near-total failure, and thus it is bad, bad, bad.

That was not pre-planned, and so I know it rambled, but I think there are ideas there worth taking seriously and continuing to talk about. Finally, I would also like to say that I think I see the logic you are using in your discussion of quality as necessarily and objectively derived from either 1) box office receipts or 2) critical consensus, but I think your oversimplifying the way this thing has to work. If proposition 1 is true, then the masses have to be arbiters of taste, and the way they wield this power is through dollars--this is a flawed proposition for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its insistence that the masses have free access to capital, that the masses value movie-going in the same way that critics do, and that the masses are somehow in tune with an aesthetic resonance that we are not individually privy to...this seems like mysticism to me. Your second proposition is also problematic, particularly as it is reached through RT--as I said before, there is a huge difference between a critic who calls TF a 2.5 star movie and one who calls it a 4 star movie, and this difference should be accounted for (see: This proposition also rests on MY INABILITY to objectively (or even consistently and subjectively) evaluate a film but OTHER CRITICS' ABILITY to do so. WTF, yo? I admire what you're trying to do with these criteria, but I don't think it works well enough to warrant the way you are discarding any other options for considering the success/failure/quality of a film.

Okay, that was long and I have to get out of here. I hope its food for thought. Hit me back.

T. Az.

Transformers: Good, Bad, Otherwise?

T. Azimouth,

I think we've had this kind of argument before, one where you level an evaluative and objective statement about a film you don't dig. I want to lay out the problems I see with your stance on Transformers, and get some sort of systematic response from you.

You say TF is awful, beyond bad awful, bad as The Core awful.

And you do so in some objective sense.

Okay, what exactly does "awful" mean?

It can't mean "didn't make money." It made 650 million dollars. This means that not only did other people disagree with you on the film's merit (I have several friends who dug it), but that they decided to watch the film in the theater more than once.

It can't mean that critics loathed it (that is, a critical layer of opinion that hovers above the hoi polloi with disdain while the common audience laps it up), because it has Bay's best Rotten Tomatoes rating of all his films.

So...does it mean "Morally repugnant"? If so, how (in some other way than its aesthetic failures...i.e. it's so bad a film that it becomes a sin to watch it)?

Does it mean aesthetically awful? How are you judging this?

What "I" think it means is that you won't watch Transformers again. I'm fully willing to take that as a workable answer. Moral judgments? I guess I can see you coming down hardline on it. Aesthetic judgments? Um...not so much. Your stubbornness regarding this film lets me know it's something more personal rather than some objective standard. can articulate a program of judgment on which to base your claim.

EN garde...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Horror Movie Marathon Wrap-Up, Part 1: Rosemary's Baby

A caveat before I begin: my goal with this post (and the next few posts) is not necessarily to construct a cohesive argument regarding these films. Rather, I am hoping to use this space to simply respond to them, as they might be considered both independently and (eventually and more interestingly) together. I'm not sure where this is going to go--in fact, I haven't even figured out how to start this write up yet. But I feel like I should say something, if only because I spent ten hours of my life watching these five films this past weekend.

I suppose the best way to start is to introduce the format: my wife and I host an annual Halloween movie party at our house each year. In the past, this party has consisted of three or four horror movies, watched in between any number of breaks for snacks, meals and board games. Although this has been a pretty successful program, the introduction of Facebook to our lives prompted us to do something special this year: with the benefit of semi-formal "invitations" and a month of planning, we decided to organize a bona-fide schedule for this years events, all based around a particular theme for the movies. The theme we selected was originally conceived as a joke: having recently welcomed our first child into our home, Meredith and I thought watching movies about "evil children" would be just the right kind of "twisted." We were right, but we were also shortsighted: although we had recently started a family ourselves with the birth of Evangeline, several of our friends who were in attendance at the party were still "in transit" to this goal. Over the course of the party, not one, not two, but three pregnant women made an appearance, and as each new mother and prospective father entered the room, my confidence in our movie selections (and our taste) dwindled.

The problems were apparent from the start: our first film was ROSEMARY'S BABY, and although the film itself surprised me with the quality of its performances and its production, its politics were more unsettling than I remembered. Sure, everyone remembers the general set-up of the narrative: a woman falls victim to an elaborate plot hatched by a Satanic cult to impregnate her with the spawn of the Devil; she must uncover said plot and stop said hellspawn. But the problems come in with exactly how the film chooses to portray the heroine: Rosemary Woodhouse is not just a woman, she is an impossibly young and naive housewife to a small-fish/big-pond stage actor. She is never confident, never capable, and never particularly intelligent. Her childlike status is a sticking point for the director during the film's first half, as she frequently appears in oversized clothing, her hair in pigtails, her chin down on her chest and her large eyes looking up as if she had done something to get in trouble. She is a waif, and she is will-less. This makes her relationship to her husband, "Guy," all the more unsettling: Guy, who embodies approximately 47 of the 48 most common Italian stereotypes found in Hollywood cinema, is also loud-mouthed, self-centered and condescending (no, those are not Italian stereotypes). His idea of a romantic evening: she cooks, and then, mid-dinner, he takes his pants off (without a word) for sex. For her part, Rosemary is upsettingly compliant when things like this happen: when Guy begins to undo his jeans, she puts down her fork--also without speaking--and pulls her dress over her head. The resulting sex scene is filmed by a static camera and is one of the least erotic consensual sex scenes I can think of.

Of course, that's part of the issue: although Rosemary goes along with Guy's "request" without complaining, her lack of any agency up this point in the film prevents her from being able to offer any real "consent" to the encounter. This is the problem with her marriage to Guy: she is less than a child to him (or to us); she is an ornament, or a piece of furniture, to which Guy (and the movie) can do as they please. The fact, then, that Guy sells their unborn son to the Satanic cult next door in exchange for a part in an off-Broadway play is not a tremendous moral decision for him: as his wife, Rosemary's job is to produce babies, and since she is young, fertile and compliant (she mentions twice to random strangers how easy it will be for her to have a baby, even before she assumes, after a single sexual encounter, that she "MUST be pregnant!"), Guy assumes there won't be any problem having more children after the one he gives away is gone. The logic mirrors a kindergartener's response to the story of Rumpelstiltskin: losing your "first born son" (especially on the day of his birth!) is only traumatic if you don't have any more kids; therefore, just as the heroine of that story is able to make gold from hay (read: nothing), so the mother IS ALSO CAPABLE of making a potentially infinite number of children and, logically speaking, negate the terror of the crazy dwarf's threat of stealing (only!) one of them. In other words: what's the big deal? There's always more where that came from.

But this is where ROSEMARY'S BABY gets interesting: for Rosemary, the narrative purpose for being put in this predicament--her "job," so to speak, as a character--is not to solve the plot, but to successfully terminate it. Since she has already been raped and impregnated by the time she "awakens" in the movie from her passivity and blind obedience, the only "active" thing for her to do is to find a way (and the willpower) to terminate her pregnancy before she gives birth. However, there is, of course, a double-bind: as a "real mother," she is wholly and completely attached to the life of her child, even to the point where she puts her own life in danger to preserve it. The movie presents this as a completely natural response: this is what mothers "do." I can go with that. However, she is also bound by an intricate system of specifically male acquaintances who are responsible for controlling her actions, such that even when she begins to suspect Guy, she is still bound by a network of other men. At no point is this more apparent than in her frantic visit to Dr. Hill, a physician recommended to her by her girlfriends, who listens patiently to Rosemary's explanation of the plot against her ("and her baby"), only to tuck her in for a nap and then call all the people she just told him were evil so they can come pick her up. The problem isn't just the chauvinistic Guy; it's a patriarchal conspiracy, headed up (ultimately) by the Devil himself.

After Dr. Hill's betrayal, it is a narrative formality for her to give birth to her son and to have him taken by the cult that has control over her. It is also an efficient way to move through the threat that abortion poses to the sanctity of the narrative itself: by stripping Rosemary of agency (and even knowledge) regarding the devil-baby in her belly, the movie makes sure we know the social/political stakes of her quest to uncover the "truth" about the conspiracy that surrounds her: she is a girl playing detective and nothing more; in the end, what she finds is only relevant if it can persuade a presumably neutral man to call a hospital instead of her husband.

So what, then, is Rosemary "good" for, and why does a patriarchal order topped by Satan carry the day here? Well, the film's answer to the second question is most obvious, so we'll begin there: Satan is at the end and beginning of all plots here because "God Is Dead"--so saith a copy of TIME magazine Rosemary picks up at the doctor's office; so saith the high priest of her friendly neighborhood Satanic cult at the very end of the film. In fact, so saith the film itself, at least in terms of the faith it bothers to reward: the closest we come to a "Christian" presence is probably a tie between the Woodhouse's old friend Hutch and a young woman Rosemary meets in the laundry room of her hotel, and both of those characters end up dead, in both cases by suicide, and in both cases, through the direct interference of members of the Satanic cult that takes Rosemary's baby. But the pronouncement is also a strange one in itself, and it never receives sufficient explanation: if God is Dead, who killed Him and why? The movie dangles a few of the usual suspects before us--consumerism, materialism, greed, power, etc.--but nothing ever rises to the surface with any authority other than good old fashion Procreation: the Devil needs a son, and there ain't no she-devils in Hell. So, I suppose we might say it was Man who killed God, but only in that both God and the Devil need heirs to keep their kingdoms going, and (apparently) the only way to get them is to seduce literal or figurative twelve-year-olds.

But, to close this thing out, let's give brief attention to the former question from a moment ago: what is Rosemary "good" for? The deeply upsetting answer the movie gives is that Rosemary's purpose is, quite simply, to take care of her baby. In the movie's closing scene, Rosemary confronts the cult that has tormented her and demands to see her baby. When she gets what she asks for, her initial response is to recoil in horror: the child is a monster, too horrific for the camera to see, conceivable only through a flashback to Rosemary's rape and a shot of the eyes of the baby's father. However, after a few minutes of closing exposition, Rosemary asks the cult leader an interesting question: what can I do? Of course, the movie has prepped us for a particular response: you can kill it! You can take the crucifix hanging over its crib and stab it into the little bastard's heart! You can WIN! YOU CAN ACT!

But the cultist has a different response: "You can be its mother, Rosemary. After all, that's what you are." Rosemary's role, even unto the anti-Christ, is to hold, feed and nurture a baby, not because the movie is certain that "mothers mothering" is an important message to send but because there is simply no other message women like Rosemary--which is to say, all women--are capable of hearing. Thus, Rosemary is not--and perhaps was never--a moral agent; in fact, her disaster was set in motion before she spoke an independent line by the one who spoke and continues to speak for her--her husband, Guy. Of course, this is slimy to us, the viewers, but that's only because we've forgotten the rational way out of the old paradox with first-born sons: children are a dime a dozen, but a part off-Broadway? That's the Devil's bargain.

Time Take Two

Let me begin my response to Bob Dylan’s 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, by saying I have only listened to this album once through already, though I have attempted to do more than three times. So, my inability to sustain a complete session of listening is not because I haven’t tried, nor do I think it’s a fault of the album. In fact, it’s one thing I quite enjoy about Time Out of Mind: I can actively listen, or I can drift in and out. And it’s this quality of, for lack of a better term, in-between-ness that is the album’s strength.

What make that possible are a couple of things, but probably most specifically the length of the songs. All are long, and all are rambly and feature what you’d think of as a traditional arrangement of instruments for a Dylan album. (He has the ever-deft drummer Brian Blade of a few tracks too, which is a treat.) Each of these songs, whether use an electric guitar jump or the warm wash of an organ, also exploit and push Dylan’s voice to its expressive limits. It sounds like scraps of cloth stuck on barbed wire burr: prickly and warm, but authentic and present.

In this album we do get the quintessential Dylan silliness, the pinnacle being a discussion between the speaker and a woman over boiled eggs. And there is the simple “To Make You Feel My Love,” made famous by scads of popsters, (including the frightening Timothy B. Schmidt). Dylan’s treatment of the song is straight-ahead and plain, making the symmetry of its words something like a beautifully made finial, well turned and some how ordinary. But in most of the other songs, Dylan pulls from a repository of American blues archetypes and uses those templates to name-check so many places it’s hard to keep them straight. The “gay Paree” has been mentioned, but there’s Missouri and Baltimore, Dixie and the middle of nowhere, “inside a doorway” and heaven. He employs various chronic qualifiers—when, if, and yet.

The effect of these lyrics and the quality of his voice then reflects a sense of hauntedness instead of the punchy irony and biting sarcasm of the mid-sixties albums. What we get is a speaker caught somewhere between—he’s in a doorway, he’s “twenty miles outside of town,” some purgatorial waiting room, and waiting for dark to fall. This liminality is different from his position on an album like JWH. Though I think in the other kinds of albums Dylan can put on this bardic tone, being a seer and a doer and remaining Bob Dylan, here what we associate with the singer/artist icon persona gives way to a broader kind of figure—a bluesman, maybe or some kind of American version of a crusader. He’s on a path, always going somewhere, but not getting there yet. He has destinations and aspirations including winning back love, “going to the ends of the earth” for someone or “going down the road feeling bad” (a brilliant morsel that has to come from his relationship with the Dead) on his way to heaven. This album, then, tells the story of those acts not yet completed, those homes not yet found.

It is the perfect album to listen to when you’re halfway in the bag too, but it’s also the perfect album to listen to when the sky is gray and the air is fogged with drizzle, when it’s impossible to tell where one thing ends and the next begins, when the lines are blurred and you don’t know what will happen next.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Time Out of Mind

Four important things: every song on Time Out of Mind is written in the first person; the album is nearly 80 minutes long; the lyrics are obsessed with mortality, including two references to "flesh" and "eyes" melting off of the speaker's face; and finally, the album won a grammy for Album of the Year in 1997, signaling a critical and commercial comeback for Dylan.

Musically, the songs alternate between ballads and blues, literally from track to track. The opener, "Sick of Love," begins with the clatter of just played instruments humming before the organ pounds out the staccatoed opening chord. The entire album exudes a similar informal warmth, an indeterminate number of musicians gathered in a smoky room in a circle around their ringleader Dylan. The music is atmospheric, which is both good and bad. It is capably if restrainfully played but definitely subordinate to the songs' multiple verses, which is pleasant, if a bit wearisome because of the album's uniformity in structure and theme. The shuffle "Dirt Road Blues" is as close to an upbeat number as Dylan gets. There is certainly no four to the floor rock here or even something that picks up as much steam as "Maggie's Farm." Every song takes its time to develop; four guitars, two keyboards, and sometimes two drummers ("Can't Wait") pile on top of one another, but never in a distracting way. When Dylan bows out for an instrumental break on "Dirt Road Blues," for instance, there are enough distinct guitars playing that the song could conceivably break out into a Dixieland Hot Five imitation, the proverbial clarinets, trumpets, and trombones competing on top of each other with their own lead line. But here the guitars retain their holding pattern, and except for an occasional fill flourish, the precedent holds for the entire album.

The lack of an explosive-releasing solo compliments the lyrics about emotional sterility. The songs are all about love and how the speaker isn't getting any of it. This bothers him, because as his voice, music, and words indicate, time is running out. As the album's middle song puts it, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." The album's final cut, a 47 hour behemoth, is named "Highlands", the place where the speaker's soul will be when he gets called home (companion piece to BoB's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands"?). The song contains the album's most playful lyrics (if you don't include Dylan's hilarious, grizzled reading of the line "And I've been to gay Paree"), with tangents about listening to Neil Young and reading Erica Jong. The song is a microcosm of the album, pleasant if a bit tiring around hour 15.

I had never heard this album until Sunday, and I've listened to it four times over the past couple of days. The individual songs I gravitate to are "Standing in the Doorway" and "Can't Wait," the former for its chord structure and the latter for its shuffling drums and minor key groove. The lyrics are all of a piece for me, and no song stands out as more exemplary than any other. I don't know if I'll listen to it any time soon. It's a mood album, best listened to 1) while alone by someone with a belly full of wine and ears full of a lover's rejecting words OR 2) as long playing background music at a dinner party.

Monday, October 20, 2008

John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan’s 1968 album, lands at number 301 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums. Upon its release, it was both critically and commercially well received, but, now, I contend, the album less familiar today, save for “All Along the Watchtower,” which may be more familiar because of the scores of covers it’s spawned. I originally purchased the album because I had to exchange a duplicate gift. Admittedly, its construction, its acclaim, and its subject matter didn’t draw me in: it was the cheapest Dylan album at the megastore and I recognized “Watchtower.”

After listening through it, JWH became a fast favorite, mostly because it was unlike the other Dylan albums I was familiar with—Blonde on Blonde and The Freeewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Here, the songs are comparatively spare and straightforward. Two musicians accompany on bass and drums (the last two tracks do feature a steel guitar as well) and the rest is all Dylan—piano, guitar, and harmonica. The surrealistic, often silly, often associative, multivalenced story-lyrics are absent, except in the liner notes—a nonsensical narrative about the central song on the album. What surprised me initially is that this album could be so cohesive without being so grand and strange and epic and metaphorical in Dylan’s typical fashion. Another surprise, too, was the album’s last track “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Its slow-drag tempo and the steel guitar that glints like the back of a polished spoon—easy, familiar, warm—anticipates the Nashville Skyline connections, and the subject—a stopped-time chronicle of momentary surrender--seemed somehow utterly sexy to me.

The album isn’t a complete departure for Dylan either, and perhaps the recontextualization of the familiar make this album listenable and so solid. It’s peopled with the same sort of characters that crowd his other songs, a pastiche of the actual historical (John Wesley Hardin, Tom Paine, St. Augustine) and the archetypal (a damsel in chains, gamblers, drifters, and immigrants) who interact with the speaker and the balladeer. The specific personages he mentions on this album are all from the past, and most of them American.

In some ways, then, Dylan sets up this conscious connection with the history that leads to this album. Dylan tells their stories from the third person perspective, but he also does so in the first person, fusing the narrative and lyric voices in a bardic mode and telling another version of history. Perhaps I stretch this assessment too far, but in any case, the adoption of these points of view then allow Dylan to become the seer of history as well as a participant in it. He stands outside of it to offer commentary or to adopt a quasi-Biblical prophetic tone. And, of course, this dual vision allows him to indulge yet again in putting on the guise of the outlaws and scallywags he sings about without facing any of their consequences. That works through most of the tracks: he ends them with a summation of what one should or shouldn’t do: “follow no man’s code” or “so when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’/help him with his load.” “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” however, breaks this pattern.

The speaker dreams of seeing the saint ‘alive as you or me” entering a slave market, searching for souls and appealing to “ gifted kings and queens,” but no one answers. The vision ends with the speaker taking on the role of the Vandals who put the historical Augustine to death (however tangentially that invasion was connected). He wakes “alone and terrified” and his only reaction is to go to a window “put [his] fingers to the glass/and bow [his] head and [cry].” The reality beyond the dream, the boundaries of time, the continually present past, and the dream itself collide in this song. Dylan, the speaker, is haunted by what has come before, and here cannot shake off that these visions of the past, however they are conjured, assembled and told. These tellings and retellings, the singer’s ability to put on the past and blithely doff it do purchase different things, and in this case, the line between the singers ability and the actual lived reality are as thin and transparent as the glass that separates the dreamer from the outside world. But, the glass is a barrier nonetheless. He isn’t the persecutors nor is he the saint. But, he somehow, through this voice, is implicated in Augustine’s death and pointedly feels those effects because of his role in the dream. Like Augustine’s “fiery breath,” the retelling of the past, the revisiting of the familiar from whatever perspectives we choose to inhabit is quickening, dangerous, re-creative.