Gates Of Eden part I
by Jochen Markhorst
I The Lady In The Water
In 2004, sports journalist Michael Bamberger meets director M. Night Shyamalan at a party. Shyamalan intrigues him. Bamberger talks, wins the director’s trust and is allowed to carry out his spontaneous plan: over the next two years, the senior writer for Sports Illustrated shall be a fly on the wall, he will follow the director on his way to his next film, in order to write a kind of Making Of about it. Shyamalan’s only condition is that Bamberger must be as brutally honest as in his recently published book Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School.
Whether he has succeeded therein, in being ruthlessly honest, in presenting an untwisted truth, is open to debate. Bamberger seems to be primarily a sports journalist, a chronicler who thinks mainly in terms of winning or losing, who first and foremost admires his protagonist’s unbridled work ethic and burning ambitions; his The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale (2006) is not quite a hagiography, but it comes close.
Dylan is a kind of mystical reference point for Shyamalan, or so it seems to be, a couple of times. “Night knew there was something telepathic going on between him and Michael Jordan, him and Bob Dylan, him and Walt Disney,” we read on page 12. And in the same vein, a little further on:
“If it came together, it would be like Dylan and Clapton and Springsteen and Eminem and Kanye West and Miles Davis and Bonnie Raitt and Joan Armatrading and Jerry Garcia and every musician you’ve ever loved joining George Harrison and belting out the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ at the same time.”
“It” being the film Shylaman is working on in the two years Bamberger has been following him, the flopped The Lady In The Water.
The film is yet another artistic disappointment after the world success of the staggering The Sixth Sense (1999), and even a low point within this line of letdowns. It is a dark fairy tale with a stumbling plot about a water nymph-like creature, “Story”, who has left her “Blue World” to save humanity, or something like that. And meanwhile, she is besieged by hellhounds with a coat of grass. The entire film takes place in and around a rather shabby apartment complex. Main character Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the caretaker of that apartment complex, and this setting offers a multitude of colourful side characters, to whom one can ascribe all kinds of metaphorical qualities. “The Healer”, for example, and “The Guardian”.
Director Shyalaman rather subtly weaves his telepathic soulmate Dylan through the film. Inevitably, after the happy end, when a cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” underlines the rolling credits, and equally evident on the CD edition of the soundtrack with James Newton Howard’s brilliant film music, which for obscure reasons is concluded with three more covers (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Every Grain Of Sand” and “Maggie’s Farm”). And much less obtrusive, almost like background noise, in a couple of film scenes. One of the flats, for example, is inhabited by a group of musty young adults who spend their days blowing weed and idly chatting. In the first scene, Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue” plays in the background.
The second time we hear Dylan is after about eight minutes, when superintendent Heep leaves the U-shaped complex late at night. He walks past the pool, crickets chirp and Dylan’s “Gates Of Eden” echoes vaguely across the courtyard.
A connection with the film is not very obvious. A multitude of colourful side characters, a fairytale, the search for the lost paradise… with a bit of wriggling, even a less creative analyst might be able to construct a shaky bridge – but one can just as easily do that with, say, “Child In Time”, “Blinded By The Light” or “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Perhaps Shyalaman was taken by the first line and a half;
Of war and peace the truth just twists Its curfew gull just glides
… the plot of The Lady In The Water does indeed revolve around finding a truth during a war, and salvation is ultimately provided by a bird that only flies at night, after curfew. Okay, not a gull but close enough: a large eagle, as big as the eagles from Lord Of The Rings, flies Story back home.
The Fool On The Hill
The opening lines of “Gates Of Eden” are of extraordinary beauty. Not only because of its wondrous, symbolic and allegory-suggesting content, but also because of an artifice that characterises more of Dylan’s most successful poetry: the clash of surreal, unconventional content on the one hand and the austere, classical form, larded with conventional figures of speech, on the other. And, again as often, the formatting of the texts in all publications (Writings & Drawings, bobdylan.com, Lyrics) obscures the actual form.
In the official publications, the lyrics of “Gates Of Eden” consist of nine seven-line stanzas, each ending with a refrain-like line referring to Eden. Dylan’s reading, the melody and the chord progression then reveal the “real” form:
Of war and peace the truth just twists Its curfew gull just glides Upon four-legged forest clouds The cowboy angel rides With his candle lit into the sun Though its glow is waxed in black All except when ’neath the trees of Eden
This restructuring can be applied to each of the nine stanzas, with the rhyme scheme remaining AABCD, and the opening lines always being fourteeners, or seven-footed, iambic heptameters, as the professor would call it. Classic, or perhaps even archaic. The first English translations of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey were written by George Chapman in these so-called fourteeners (1616), C.S. Lewis disliked the six-foot alexandrines, and passionately advocated the use of iambic heptameter (“The fourteener has a much pleasanter movement, but a totally different one: the line dances a jig”) and Lewis’ friend Tolkien regularly uses it for the poems in The Lord Of The Rings.
But actually, the form is already extinct, except among conservatives like Tolkien and Lewis. And with singing poets who are blessed with an exceptionally fine sense of rhythm, rhyme and reason, it still pops up every now and then – more or less spontaneously, we may assume. Paul McCartney’s “The Fool On The Hill” is one such rare exception:
Day after day, alone on a hill The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still But nobody wants to know him They can see that he's just a fool And he never gives an answer
… the same, rather unique rhyme scheme AABCD, and again a heptameter, though Macca, instinctively presumably, chooses to make the second verse a fourteener. No coincidence. It’s the same with the second verse;
Well on the way, head in a cloud The man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud But nobody ever hears him Or the sound he appears to make And he never seems to notice
In terms of content, it cannot be compared with Dylan’s “Gates Of Eden”, obviously. McCartney has neither the ambition nor the extraordinary literary instinct of Dylan, but it is certainly not lousy poetry. And the Beatle is also the man who wrote “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been”, and “Lovely Rita”, and “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door”, and “Blackbird” – lyrics that would not shame a Nobel Prize winner.
Anyway, the poetic Beatle’s superior sense of melody and rhythm unmistakably mirrors the poetry of Beat Poet Dylan – even if mainly in terms of form. Two lonesome sparrows whose songs harmonize, so to speak.
To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part II: As if he was just taking dictation
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
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