A few weeks ago, two separate artists, each a giant in his respective field, both published a new nonfiction book. Each book features free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness musings, a series of essays both personal and historical on the medium they’ve mastered and about the works that have inspired them, informed their worldviews, and continued to influence them.
Each book tells us something about these celebrated artists: their foundational texts, their preferences and peccadillos, and how their contributions have moved their respective art forms forward. But read together, and in conversation with each other, they tell us even more.
In The Philosophy of Modern Song and Cinema Speculation, Bob Dylan and Quentin Tarantino (respectively) are inspired to reinvigorate and reevaluate their canons, dismissing the lionized in favor of the underrated and the long-forgotten, deep cuts and toss-offs, B-movies and B-sides. Dylan’s book spotlights 65 of his favorite songs with a brief essay on each, often following a simple format. Most begin with a section of poetic interpretation, a third-person or (more often) second-person reading of each song’s themes, ideas, and/or implications, in florid prose. Then comes a second section, usually giving historical context, biographical background, detailed praise, and the like. The Tarantino book covers 13 films released between 1968 and 1981 (the prime years for, as he titles the opening essay, “Little Q Watching Big Movies”), as well as other historical and autobiographical musings.
Neither Dylan nor Tarantino is a professional critic, of course, or even a historian. But what they lack in formal training they more than make up for in artistic insight, personal passion, and casually acquired knowledge. As Dylan writes, “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important,” and both men, whether writing about a film or a song or their own lives, are undeniably aware that the line between the personal and the professional is erased altogether when you’re making art that means so much to so many people—and, more importantly, to themselves.
So, what brought these men to writing this very specific kind of volume, at this particular moment? These aren’t just deep dives into their favorite movies or songs, which they could do in an interview (and have, frequently). Each book becomes most informative when delving into the area in which they draw on the techniques of creation. Dylan will dive into the nuts and bolts of songwriting (“Writing a song like this can be deceptively easy. First you assemble a laundry list of things people hate … Then there’s the trap of easy rhymes”) or take out the microscope to figure out exactly how a song is improved by a singer’s style (“Time and time again he’ll slip the first few words of a line upstairs into the end of the previous line”). Tarantino is equally articulate in identifying the effective tools of his trade. In his description of The Funhouse, for example, he pinpoints “the staging of scenes, his dynamic coverage, and the cynical, tawdry, and downright nasty tone he carries throughout the picture,” as well as the “towering crane shots” and “imaginative focus pulls” executed by cinematographer Andrew Laszlo.
The Philosophy of Modern Song and Cinema Speculation share a sense of curiosity, a desire to take apart the things they love and put them back together again, to better understand their particular alchemy. Dylan goes so far as to end the very first essay by stating, “That’s why this song works.” For both authors, it’s less like an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. After all, Tarantino has promised to retire from filmmaking after his next film, and Dylan’s last album was preceded by three records (one of them a three-record set) of pop standards. Maybe these books were byproducts of the pandemic, or of a desire to further flex their muscles in a side field. Or maybe Dylan and Tarantino both needed to rethink and re-feel what they do, to shake loose the cobwebs of old age and icon status.
The books differ primarily in their degree of autobiography, how much they’re willing to share of themselves with the reader in the process of their list-making. Dylan, as ever, is aloof and evasive, at least on the surface; he rarely makes plain his own personal connection to these songs, or divulges how they inspired or moved him, though it’s implicit in the text. But flashes of confession filter through his admiration. He notes what “On the Road Again” gets right about life on the road: “When you’re on the road, you’re living the life you love. Making music with your friends, and earning a living.” He takes on the persona of the husband in the crosshairs of the suspicious wife in “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”—“On goes the light, and she wants precise details of where you’ve been, and she’s giving you the business, giving you bad vibes.” And most tellingly, in writing about the shifting persona of Bobby Darin, he ends up writing about himself: “Some people create new lives to hide their past. Bobby knew that sometimes the past was nothing more than an illusion and you might just as well keep making stuff up.”
It’s not that The Philosophy of Modern Song isn’t passionate. Dylan turns a history of Edwin Starr’s “War” into a lengthy meditation on the U.S.’ ill-fated misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, and it’s as bitter and angry and accusatory as anything he’s written since “Masters of War.” Yet there is always a degree of removal between himself and the subject matter. Tarantino, on the other hand, writes as though he’s being paid by the “I,” embarking on long personal jags and fevered digressions. Most revealingly, he makes immediate connections from these films to his own, recalling an opening weekend screening of Black Gunn at an “inner-city” theater thus: “I’ve never been the same. To one degree or another I’ve spent my entire life since both attending movies and making them, trying to re-create the experience of watching a brand-new Jim Brown film, on a Saturday night, in a black cinema in 1972.”
Hardcore fans already know whether they’re going to read these books (indeed, they probably already have). The question for the rest of us is: Would either be worth our time or attention were it not for the famous names on their covers? To answer that, it’s instructive to note one more commonality: Both books read like extensions (or companions) of their creator’s adventures in spoken word. For several years, Dylan hosted Theme Time Radio Hour, a satellite radio show in which he spun obscure records and wrapped his gravelly voice around playful introductions and wacky wordplay. In other words, it was a music show, but also a literary one. Tarantino’s new (and very good) Video Archives Podcast, on the other hand, is conversational—pointed discussions and debates about movies, both beloved and forgotten, between Tarantino and Roger Avary, a fellow filmmaker, occasional collaborator, and former co-worker at the video store from which the program took its name.
The distinction between the conversational and the literary is ultimately what distinguishes these two books. Cinema Speculation is conversational to a fault; it is, it must be said, not very well written. The text is filled with sentence fragments, comma splices, odd grammatical choices, and baffling overuse of italics. It’s an entertaining and thoughtful read, and boasts the occasional striking turn of phrase (Tarantino calls John G. Avildsen’s Joe “a cocktail mixed with piss that’s disturbingly tasty”). But by the midpoint, I was so distracted by the text that, in desperation, I switched over to the audiobook, and all of its problems were solved.
That makes sense; Tarantino isn’t a great writer of prose, but he’s an excellent talker, and when he’s singing the praises of this obscure exploitation film or that, or talking about hypothetical alternate versions of Death Wish or Taxi Driver, it’s like he’s back behind the counter at Video Archives itself, where such theories and aesthetics were worked through in passionate conversations. “I wasn’t a professional filmmaker back then,” he writes. “I was a brash know-it-all film geek.” And he still is.
Dylan is a brash, know-it-all music geek—his Video Archives was his friends’ record collections, and he was notorious for absconding with his favorites—but he’s also a masterful prose stylist. His writing in The Philosophy of Modern Song, in fact, most closely echoes that of his longtime chronicler Greil Marcus, arguably the music writer most gifted at replicating, for the page, the experience of being transported by a singer or a song. There are phrases in Dylan’s book that feel like they could’ve flowed from Marcus’ pen: “Every song was sung as if it might be the last one he would ever sing.” “He didn’t just wear his emotions on his sleeve, he carried them on a flag that he waved in the audience’s face.” And, most hauntingly, “This record presses the panic button. This record might be the first and only gospel rockabilly record. This is evil as the dictator, evil ruling the land, call it what you will.”
Greil Marcus, by the way, also has a new book out this fall. It’s called Folk Music, and it’s a biography of Bob Dylan, in the format of seven essays, each focusing on a key song from the Dylan discography. Great minds, as they say, think alike.