Bob Dylan does not want us to know who he is. He recently turned seventy, and if no one has figured him out by now, nobody probably ever will. The Andy Warhol Factory’s Screen Test of Bob Dylan, filmed in 1965 attempts to get close to him, figure out what is underneath the voice and lyrics. He sits impatiently, looking down most of the time, unsmiling. He could be anyone, which is really the point of being Bob Dylan. As David Yaffe points out in Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, the screen test demonstrates that “[b]eing Bob Dylan has apparently already gotten old.”
Yaffe does not set out to find Bob Dylan’s core, but instead gives us a series of portraits that peel back enough layers to understand what the various cores look like. One of these layers is Dylan through the medium of film, which includes numerous documentaries and an appearance singing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. (The oddness of the commercial diminishes—slightly—after reading this report which claims that in the same year he made Andy Warhol’s film, Dylan said “ladies’ undergarments” might be the only thing that would entice him to sell out.) Even in the cases where the singer was not directly involved in a movie, he still used the production to further complicate his image.
He wrote, directed, and starred in his own a movie, which still has no official video or DVD release because the four-hour-long Renaldo and Clara was, as Joan Baez called it, “a giant mess of a home movie. What makes it worthwhile to Yaffe is that Dylan appeared as another self-constructed version of himself, even if the rest was a surrealist disaster. Documentary makers have tried to show that in film, as in concert, the musician “had a black self, a symbolist poet self, an outlaws self, a misogynistic matinee idol self.” More recently, he gave full reign to the director of I’m Not There, allowing a wide assortment of actors, including a woman and an African American, to add new representation to both his real-life and onscreen character. He is as much one person’s reaction to him as he is all the faces he has willingly presented to his fans.