Illustration by André Carrilho
The 1988 biopic of bebop immortal Charlie Parker, Bird, was the film that opened my eyes to Clint Eastwood’s potential as a filmmaker. Flawed and filled with strained flourishes—a drummer’s cymbals constantly whirl through the air like flying saucers from an Ed Wood picture—Bird nonetheless was the clearest sign that Eastwood was moving beyond his comfort zone. Ensuing years produced Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima. Always bringing in his movies on time and under budget, Eastwood has embodied more perfectly than anyone in Hollywood that “to live outside the law you must be honest,” a line written by Bob Dylan.
The first time I heard that line was the afternoon when, as a teenager, I listened to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde back to back, a life-changing moment that left me rethinking art and my own possibilities. Those albums were the peak of a career that apotheosized the 1960s, followed by inspired stretches in the ’70s, flashes of genius during an erratic ’80s, and a triumphant revival in the ’90s and early 21st century.
Stories of Eastwood’s politics and personal life haven’t changed my opinion that he’s one of the half dozen best American directors of the last quarter century. Narcissism and rumors of plagiarism haven’t changed my opinion that Dylan is the greatest of American songwriters, with the usual allowances for Duke Ellington. This past August, within seconds of Eastwood’s appearing on television at a national convention to insult an invisible president in a chair that millions of viewers took to be empty, I reached for my remote—almost frantically—to hit the mute button because, as an admirer, I was embarrassed for him. A few days later the star remarked that the current occupant of the White House is the “biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” which smacked of the familiar slander that the president is an illegitimate American. That was the point at which I wondered whether I would like Eastwood quite as much again. In the meantime, with the September release of a new album called Tempest, Dylan gave his most startling interview ever to longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Mikal Gilmore. Dylan always has been a prickly interview, known for talking circles around journalists; in earlier years his evasions were a modus operandi, justified by reporters’ questions that were insipid or stupid.
Gilmore’s questions were neither insipid nor stupid. Dylan couldn’t have had an interviewer more insightful or supportive, but Gilmore also was willing to press the point when the author of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “Blind Willie McTell” refused to answer straightforward queries (“I don’t know…I don’t have any opinion…You can’t pay any attention to that…”) about what role racism plays in American politics. “Do you want me to repeat what I just said, word for word?” finally replied an irritated Dylan, who may now believe that visionaries—of whom he certainly is one—shouldn’t be bothered with such earthly concerns. Dylan finished with an outburst about a notorious incident at a concert when someone called him “Judas,” a subject Gilmore hadn’t raised. “Judas, the most hated name in human history!…for playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified.” You could hear the snarl in what came next: “All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.” The concert in question—when Dylan alienated much of his folk audience by playing rock and roll—was 47 years ago, a long while for a persecution complex to simmer unabated when you’ve been vindicated by wealth, awards, presidential honors, and the guarantee in your own lifetime of immortality. Once you hear a regard for humanity this angry, you can’t help noticing that Tempest, Dylan’s most ambitious work in a decade and a half, also is the most violent he’s recorded, shot through with more hallucinatory brilliance than generosity of spirit.
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Hopefully it doesn’t come as too much of a shock that artists we love watching or listening to for an hour or two aren’t always people with whom we otherwise would want to spend 20 minutes. Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Mel Gibson, Lou Reed, Norman Mailer, Vanessa Redgrave, Van Morrison—each is distinguished by controversies unrelated to his or her art; by many accounts some of them are not nice people at all. Our reaction to such artists is divided because the artists themselves are divided. Among the mysteries of the creative ego is how the transcendence of what artists do is their own response to the darkness of who they are, and the same personal darkness that is at odds with the art is what propels artists to the light of what they create. It’s a propulsion fueled by insecurity and self-absorption, by the need to justify one’s existence while at the same time believing the creation is a gift that the world needs and that therefore justifies the artist’s ruthlessness. The audience winds up confronting paradoxes and calibrating distinctions having to do with whether the art that we love offsets whatever it is about the artist we don’t like, or whether what we don’t like about the artist actually informs what we love about the art. What humanity do Dylan and Eastwood draw on that renders their art great or enduring? How much of their personal darkness becomes compelling or attractive once it’s artistically mediated? When is it appropriate to set aside Eastwood’s opinions and when isn’t it? What, other than mere skill and technique, makes Dylan’s music speak to so many people if the man evinces so little empathy for anyone but himself?
Eastwood didn’t direct his latest movie, the predictable Trouble with the Curve, which came out within weeks of Dylan’s record. With assistance from the typically infallible Amy Adams, however, he gives one of his most affecting performances, and for two hours in the theater I forgave everything else. Eastwood has more humor about himself than Dylan, or at least he has the sense to fake it as only a good actor can, as he did with Ellen DeGeneres when the business about the empty chair inevitably came up. “The Democrats who were watching thought I was going senile,” he cracked, “and the Republicans knew I was.” Neither Eastwood’s performance nor Dylan’s album refute, or bother trying to, whatever misgivings we’ve formed. Rather, they own up to our perceptions and then broaden them. Because Eastwood’s aging, misanthropic baseball scout in Trouble with the Curve bears resemblance to the man who seethes at the president’s legitimacy, his emotional frailty in the film seems all the more authentic and therefore touching. Infused with the fury that seems petty in an interview, the doomy Tempest—which leaves more corpses in its wake than a serial killer (“I pay in blood,” goes one lyric, “but not my own”)—imparts to Dylan’s wrath an epic scope, and the heightened imagery and insights of which only Dylan is capable express a worldview that explodes into the cosmic.
Eastwood and Dylan have been famous and successful and lionized for so long that they don’t feel accountable to themselves or anyone else in the way the rest of us do. Self-examination carries for them the potential for sabotage more than revelation, and to assume that either man is at a loss for answers presumes he’s not too far inside the bubble of his public persona to have perspective on the questions or a recognition that the questions even exist. Our pact with artists whom we embrace personally includes the kind of familial forgiveness that we extend to a beloved uncle who says something disagreeable at the dinner table. Our expectations are greater because figures like Eastwood and Dylan come to represent something bigger than themselves as well as what they can’t risk betraying: an irascible independence in Eastwood’s case, a moral voice in Dylan’s. Fortunately for both men, Unforgiven and Blonde on Blonde, if not Trouble with the Curve or Tempest, will outlast everything repellent that made both possible.