By Elayne Rapping
Watching this amazing documentary of Madonna's "Blond Ambition" tour, I thought constantly of Bob Dylan. That's not as weird as it sounds. In 1965, at the height of Dylan's equally fantastic, culture-changing career, D.A. Pennebaker made a very similar documentary, Don't Look Back, about Dylan's concert tour of Great Britain.
The films are too similar not to evoke comparisons. The theme of both is the nature and meaning of celebrity in an era of radical cultural and political change. The structural strategies are also identical. Both follow their stars around, moving jumpily from backstage "reality" to on-stage performance. Both films construct an image of the star that is informed by similar characteristics: mystery, danger, personal charisma and a sense of absolute control over everything in sight, from personnel and entourage to stage production to relations with the media, management and public officials.
Finally, and most importantly, both Dylan and Madonna reveal an astonishingly serious and radical artistic agenda. Both self-consciously recognise the powerful role they play in the politics of their times. They are — often obnoxiously, always aggressively — disrespectful of every official moral and political belief of their day. Madonna says, late in the film, that her goal is "to push people's buttons" and that her art is essentially "political". Who could deny that Dylan, while he would never say anything so revealing, had the same mission?
If Dylan and Madonna are major cultural figures of their eras, then the differences between them, as seen in the comparison of the two films, are particularly revealing of what has changed in the past 25 years of US cultural politics.
Three things stand out: the always problematic relationship between serious popular artists and the media, the main issues that define the times and the changes in gender relations.
The most amazing aspect of Dylan's great celebrity was that he became a superstar in spite of his almost religious refusal to give interviews, appear on television or follow any of the gambits every celebrity must engage in to ensure even a shot at success.
Looking back, Dylan's stance toward stardom — his insistence upon an absolute separation between his "private", "real" self and his "art" — seems unbelievably innocent and romantic. It is rooted in a time long past when a celebrity could actually see her/himself as "outside" the industry parameters and as having the power to thwart the media's
efforts to define her or him by simply refusing to play the game.
In Bed with Madonna is, by comparison, a canny expression of the end of such romantic innocence, of the acceptance of the post-modern truism that there is no more inside/outside distinction for major media figures — although Madonna does not reveal the "real" person any more than Dylan did.
Madonna knows that she exists within an all-encompassing media world, and she aims to beat it at its own game by playing its rules for all they are worth. Unlike Dylan, she flaunts herself and lures the camera shamelessly.
Much has been made of the scenes where Warren Beatty chides her for filming a throat examination. Sarcastically, he comments upon her narcissism, "If it's not on camera what's the point of saying anything at all?"
But it's not these bits of trivia that make her relationship to celebrity so different from Dylan's. Don't Look Back shows similar moments with like intent: to demystify stardom and humanise the star. It's Beatty's comment, based on an obviously intimate knowledge of her, that reflects what distinguishes the two approaches. No one in Dylan's 1965 entourage would have accused him of courting celebrity. The whole point of Don't Look Back was to track the artist as he thwarted and confused the mainstream media.
Don't Look Back was itself a counter-cultural film; it was Dylan's own version of what he was about as a deconstruction of the Time version. One of the film's great scenes is one in which the 25-year-old singer insults an older Time reporter by explaining in the most contemptuous terms why he wouldn't bother to say anything to a publication like Time because it is so clearly a lying, immoral magazine.
Madonna wouldn't dream of doing that. She is no deconstructer of media; she's a major player, producing her own very mainstream version of her own heartily embraced celebrity. She doesn't want to knock the media; she wants to bend it to her own ends from within because she accepts its terms entirely.
Madonna's answer, in interviews, to charges of narcissism and self-exploitation is that she wanted to show the "real" side of celebrity in juxtaposition to the staged version; that In Bed With Madonna is a film "about celebrity". So, of course, was Don't Look Back.
But whereas the earlier film stressed the conflict between the artist as person and the artist as star, the current one elides the distinction utterly. Both artists create mere constructs of their supposedly "real" selves. But Madonna's self-construct stresses celebrity as her quintessential feature; Dylan's denies it
entirely. And this difference says volumes about the massive changes in the contested terrain of media politics since the 1960s.
Now for the content of the two films — the issues raised by the stars' lives and concerts. In In Bed With Madonna the issue is obviously sexuality. We see Madonna in bed with everyone, exposing her breasts, simulating oral sex on a bottle of Evian water, calling Beatty "pussy man" and generally being as "lewd and lascivious" (in the Toronto authorities' words, when they threatened to arrest her if she didn't tone down her show. She didn't.) as imaginable not only on stage but off.
Her on-stage performance is as sexually daring and aggressive as anything I've seen short of actual porn. Watching the "Blond Ambition" concert in its entirety on Home Box Office recently, I was so overwhelmed by the woman's physical intensity and sexual aggressiveness that I could not get her out of my head for days.
She and her dancers challenge every "normal" sexual convention, belief and value. Men and women change sexual identities continuously. Madonna simulates sexual intercourse while singing "Like a Virgin", all the while switching positions in a way that defies all standard, sexist notions of sexual propriety. She makes fun of US censorship advocates, curses like the toughest of tough guys and masturbates on stage. The effect of all this is literally stunning, and much of it is shown in the film.
Of course Dylan — the politico of 1960s rock — would never have done such things for the camera. Nor would he have cried on screen as Madonna often does. This is not only because of differences in personality or film strategy; it's also because of changes in the political priorities of our day, changes wrought by the feminist and lesbian, gay and bisexual movements with which Madonna identifies.
In the '60s we were mostly obsessed with the economic and political corruption of our institutions and national policies. Dylan's targets in Don't Look Back were bosses, racists and masters of war. Now there is a different, or at least an enlarged, agenda. Issues of sexual identity and power relationships and of the boundaries of "good taste" in public expression are in the forefront in our community discourses.
One reason for this, of course, is the power of the visual media. More than Dylan needed to, Madonna pushes the limits of what is allowed, emotionally and sexually. This is because the media are so much more ubiquitous and powerful today, and because one of their major agendas is setting the rules for sexual and emotional representation and behaviour.
I have saved the issue of gender relations for last because, once
mentioned, it tends to override everything else about the significance of this woman and this film.
In the 1960s it was impossible to imagine a female performer being the subject of a film like Don't Look Back or playing the role in US culture and politics that Dylan played. His counterpart in artistic importance and celebrity was Joni Mitchell, a performer who has yet to receive a fraction of the appreciation she deserves, although in the sixties she was clearly "the queen of rock and roll", as Rolling Stone recently put it.
When you see In Bed With Madonna, you will see a public female presence so powerful, so self-contained and authoritative, so sexually assured as to be frightening. The woman is truly scary, whether you like her or not. She's scary because she stands there — out on her own — facing down most of the Western world and being absolutely and obviously comfortable about it.
Her sense of humour, irreverent and lusty, is a celebration of female freedom from sexist constraint of all kinds. Her sexual bravado, seen here in live performances, as opposed to on video, cannot possibly be misunderstood as the behaviour of a sexual object. In the tradition of male rock stars, she exudes a kind of sexual energy and aggressiveness that is unbounded.
She is so at ease with her sexual power, so fearless of its effect on others, so outrageously candid and open that she stands as a living symbol of the liberating power of breaking social taboos.
If however, this film is meant to comment on the nature of celebrity and (implicitly) how much women can now achieve, it is not a pure celebration of either. Critics have commented on the sense the film gives of a "lonely, lost child in a storm". This strikes me as a hackneyed repetition of the "it's lonely at the top" cliché. It has nothing to do with what, in my view, the film reveals about the down side of feminine power and success. That, it seems to me, had to do with the place of men in the film and in her life.
Madonna is surrounded by men who adore her, lust after her, sycophantically and opportunistically bow at her feet. She mocks most of them and mothers some. She and her friend actor/comedian Sandra Bernhard have a hilarious conversation about the inadequacies of their lovers. When a friend suggests she read Susan Forward's Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, she says, "I think I could have written it". And when asked who the great love of her life was, she replies with obvious emotion, "Sean, Sean", referring to her ex-husband, actor Sean Penn. Herein lies a truth about how far we've come and what's still left to deal with. Let me explain with a personal anecdote.
I left this film almost walking on air, so exhilarating was its sense of female pride, power and progress. When I got home, I got a call from a friend. Before I could start raving about the film and recommending it as a tonic for all current female ailments, my friend began her own story, her reason for calling. It was bad news about the end of what had seemed like a promising relationship with a man who was up to the emotional job of relating to a woman as self-sufficient, successful and tough as she is. The guy was returning to his much needier, more traditional wife.
This is a story I hear often. Hearing it yet again, in the midst of my "Madonna high", my understanding of In Bed With Madonna shifted a bit. If men find Madonna troubling (and they do); if they like her less and criticise her more than most women (and they do); if, in a weird irony, they worry publicly about her sleaziness and object to her on "feminist" grounds (and they actually do!); I think this personal anecdote points to why. Madonna represents the ultimate challenge feminism has made to men from the start: "This is what the future is gonna look like, baby, and if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen".
Most male reviewers have been cautiously, almost fearfully, respectful of this film, but none has credited it with the kind of sexual and political power it has. To do that would be to face up to this ultimate feminist challenge. That so few — even in 1991 — are willing to do so is the darker political message behind the almost blinding light of its feminist euphoria.