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Some Direction

By RD Heldenfels Published: July 14, 2005

I'm starting this blog at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. I should be in bed, since I have to catch a 4 a.m. shuttle to the Emmy Awards nominations (and, I hope, more blog fodder). It's not that far, it's just that they start very early so they can get attention on the East Coast morning-show telecasts.

But I'm not sleepy right now. In fact, I'm completely wired, because I saw Martin Scorsese's ''No Direction Home,'' a documentary about Bob Dylan that airs on PBS in September. I loved it, and have written a column saying that for Friday's Beacon Journal. But for now, I wanted to tell you about how I saw it.

Supposedly because of a fear of piracy, PBS did not send out review copies of the film. Nor did it show it on the hotel's closed-circuit system, where someone might try to record it. Instead, PBS invited critics to sit in a theater on the 20th Century Fox lot for 3 1/2 hours -- the length of the film, which will air over two nights.

Except for those of us old enough to remember when big-room screenings were common, this was an adjustment from watching videos at your own speed, or watching in the relative comfort of a hotel room. Some critics early on grumbled about having to take notes in the dark, so upon arrival we were handed clipboards with little flashlights on the top.

Group viewing has its hazards. One reason that networks got away from them is that a couple of disenchanted viewers could wisecrack an entire room into laughing disdain. Besides that, it also means having to deal with other people's viewing habits, as when the critic sitting next to me decided to sing along with a clip in the movie. But, hey, when you've managed to watch a tape in the middle of a noisy newspaper department, a little singing along is easily bearable.

Still, I don't know how much the environment affected my feelings about ''No Direction Home.'' This was a top-quality theater. The picture was amazing, and the sound even better. When Dylan in the '60s is ripping, while members of The Band back him up (and push him along), the big screen probably makes it seem even more impressive than it will be at home. At the same time, when you're watching at home, you won't have to sit through the whole thing at once. And your seat will probably be more comfortable than mine.

I'm nonetheless giving the movie an unqualified recommendation. While Dylan is as elusive as ever,  his elusiveness has a context of ambition and determination; there's an old still photo where he looks like the hero on the cover of an Ayn Rand novel. Even if you come away angry at him, or baffled by him, the songs he delivers will carry you through.

This is the kind of production that makes me happy to do what I do. I had gone to the screening in a bit of a funk. I haven't adjusted to the time change here, and my sleeping habits are a mess. I had a bad bout of homesickness today. But as Scorsese's presentation of Dylan rolled across the screen, I was taken out of myself to a place full of ideas and sparks and energy. I'll pay a price for that tomorrow, but I'm glad to have the feeling tonight.

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