I saw “Don’t Look Back” for the first time when I was going to school at Berkeley. It was playing at the great old UC Theater (the same place where Werner Herzog ate his shoe) as a midnight movie. I was living kind of far away from campus (which can be said for every school I ever attended) so I drove my car. I remember leaving the theater with my nerves jangling and ideas flying out of my eyes. I had seen verité documentaries before but nothing hit me like this one. And I loved the title, maybe even more than I loved the movie. Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” had a title that carried a dreadful promise that the movie delivered exquisitely. But “Don’t Look Back” was clean. Stop living in the past. There are no answers behind you. Just live. I couldn’t get those words out of my head. But why do I remember this 25 years later ?
Well, because while driving home after 2 in the morning, I ran a red light and got a ticket. This led to traffic school a month later at the Sheriff’s station around the corner from the theater on MLK Drive. And I remember that particular monotony for two reasons.
First, I remember the Sheriff wanted to kill time by asking each of us what we did wrong to end up in traffic school and how each of the thirty or so people in the room made sure to explain that although they were cited for this or that infraction, they actually didn’t do it ; the Sheriff didn’t seem to find this hilarious, and when it was my turn, and I said “I ran a red light,” he asked me, “And.…?”
“That’s all. I did it.”
He rolled is eyes and said, “No shit.” I had thought he’d be impressed with my willingness to admit my guilt, but he clearly thought I was a dick for not playing the game. I didn’t understand this at all then, but I can see his point now. After all my answer only burned 30 seconds of the 8 hour class. If I had lied and protested my innocence it could have taken a full 3 minutes — maybe more if some of my classmates pretended to not to understand my story and asked questions.
Second, a woman sitting next to me handed me some home made brownies after the halfway break. Berkeley. Brownies. You get it. I didn’t, though, and by the end of the fifth hour, I was tripping balls. I kept trying to get her attention to ask her what the hell ? But she had decided to spend her waning hours of sanity doodling on the back of her hand. At that point I had never tried any drug, and I’d been drunk exactly once. Now I was hallucinating in the Sheriff’s Department. Plus I had to drive home.…
I understand the contradiction here. I just wrote that I adopted the phrase “Don’t look back” as a personal credo, and here I am turned all the way around. But the truth is, I didn’t really adopt that idea so much as I realized I could use it to explain my already selective memory.
I can remember that film — Dylan putting up with and shutting down reporters, Donovan, Baez, and sycophants, Dylan tearing a hole through the silence at Royal Albert Hall — and I can remember that late night ticket and all that traffic school jazz. But I cannot remember the names of any of the friends I made there, or the name of the kind and sad widow who rented a room to me. I can remember spilling a bucket of paint on her floor while priming the trim. I can remember watching Miami Vice with her one night when she was crying, and I can remember riding in her Porsche as she raced through Oakland where her husband used to work, but I can’t recall her name. I remember my parents divorced that year, but I can’t remember my reaction to the news. I remember being crazy about a girl who didn’t want to be with me anymore, but I can’t remember why. And if I were to ask my family or friends (if I could recall their names) about that year, I’m sure they would have stories of things I did or said that I will be news to me.
So it has always been easy to turn this strange malady on its ear : “The past is done. The future is later. What matters is now.” Memories are for chumps. Internalize and get on with it. That kind of braggadocio coalesced nicely with another credo I had grown fond of : boldness and ignorance. You can slide through life pretty nicely like that for a few years, but sooner or later you will run up against something classic (betrayal, disappointment, failure, loss, death, and so on )and just implode.
The thing is, Dylan never said “Don’t look back,” in the film, nor did he ever, as far as I know, espouse living a life without reference, all now and no then. In fact, I learned much later that D.A. Pennebaker took the title from baseball legend Satchel Paige’s sixth rule for staying young : “Don’t look back, because something might be gaining on you.” The dependent clause will bite you in the ass every time.
And if you think about it, it’s bad advice. A very smart guy I know used to say that “it’s not enough to plan where you want to go. Check your mirrors, because what you fear the most might not be ahead of you — it might be coming up from behind.”
That’s something I’ve learned slowly, later than I should have, but early enough to still do some good. Look back, I’d say, because something is always gaining on you. At least that way, you stand a fighting chance of getting out of the way.