Art History: Literary and Cinematic Archi-Textualities: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue
Literary and Cinematic Archi-Textualities: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue
Bruce Isaacs, in conversation with Paul Sheehan
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue
The Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue, defies the generic structure of the documentary film. It moves across historical time and space, untethered from a precise or verifiable rendition of the past, unanchored from the grand narratives that have defined an American historical identity. This is precisely because Rolling Thunder defies the spatial and temporal coherence of narrative form.
In this paper, I argue that Martin Scorsese’s reconstruction of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975 inscribes a radical kind of historical-representative image. In a close analysis of three sequences from the film, we uncover a textual modality founded not on inscription, or the act of excavating an object common to the documentary genre, but on a shape-shifting mode of performative textuality. In its production, reproduction, and digitally streamed distribution, Rolling Thunder exemplifies a contemporary post-cinematic image regime. Place and time is rendered unstable and transitory, and historical narrative and mechanics of representation as they were once understood are now reconceptualized and re-scripted. Of the Revue, Dylan says: “It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder… it’s so long ago, I wasn’t even born.” In this mercurial slippage between present, past, and future, Dylan offers an insight into how texts code, recode, and revivify our individual and collective experiences of the past. If Rolling Thunder is a document of something, it’s the document (a performance in itself) of a performance that enacts that performance’s erasure. It is a perfect work of constant, and constantly changing, creation.
Bruce Isaacs is Associate Professor in Film Studies at the University of Sydney and works primarily on American cinema. His most recent book is The Art of Pure Cinema: Hitchcock and His Imitators from Oxford University Press in 2020, and he is the co-creator of the forthcoming podcast, ‘Film Vs Film’.
Paul Sheehan is Associate Professor of English in the Department of Media and Communications, Creative Arts, Languages and Literature at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of Modernism and the Aesthetics of Violence (2013) and co-editor of “The Literary Image: Film, History, Theory”, a special issue of Textual Practice (forthcoming, 2022). He has also published articles and chapters on The Matrix Trilogy, Werner Herzog, and Michael Haneke.
Image credits: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975