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Bob Dylan’s 115th Million Dream
Masked and Anonymous
dir. Larry Charles, U.S.A./U.K. Sony Pictures Classics
“So what happened to you?”
“What happened to me? How far back you wanna go?”
Masked and Anonymous, the new Bob Dylan movie, goes back pretty far indeed—all the way back to “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” an outtake from Dylan’s self-titled 1962 Columbia Records debut, and comes all the way forward to Articolo 31’s Italian hip-hop remix/cover of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Along the way there’s a little bit of everything from every period in Dylan’s career, sometimes barely overheard, sometimes buried in an indecipherable cover version, but always unexpected. It’s a Dylan Fantasia, or actually two: The World According to Dylan as well as Dylan According to the World. These incompatible projects are reflected in the production credits (written by a pseudonymous Dylan, directed by an anonymous TV veteran, Larry Charles) and are equally responsible for the fascinating and frustrating aspects of the film. It should go without saying that the result is only explicable as a Dylan artifact, not an actual movie, but the same could be said for any film featuring rock stars playing some version of themselves. The audience for such a film is both guaranteed and automatically limited. A Hard Day’s Night (which most people would probably agree is the pinnacle of the genre) may be a genuinely great film, yet even so it will always remain inaccessible to those with no preexisting interest in or affection for the Beatles. This difficulty is obviously magnified many times over when dealing with something as muddled and ornery as Masked and Anonymous, which actually serves to increase the distance between the star and his audience—it certainly isn’t going to win him any new fans. But Dylan’s followers will just shrug and repeat the familiar mantra: “It’s their loss.”
There’s little point in dwelling on the plot, since you can easily read about it in the scores of mocking and condescending reviews the film has generated. There you can read how “embarrassing” it is that Dylan plays a character called Jack Fate, how this kind of “archaic vanity project” should never have been released, how he “can’t act,” and so on. It’s always stunning to realize just how badly so many people still want Dylan to fail, to be able to laugh at him, shrug him off, or feel confident that he is merely ridiculous. It can be enraging or saddening (like thinking about Orson Welles’s final years) yet at the same time proof that he’s still important and hardly the “forgotten troubadour” that is one of the film’s conceits. Suffice it to say Masked and Anonymous gives him ample opportunity to perform and ruminate in a carnival atmosphere seemingly conjured up from one of his songs, and cooks up plenty of juicy dialogue for the fine supporting cast, each playing what amounts to some surrogate or aspect of the man himself: Showman (John Goodman), Businessman (Jessica Lange), Journalist (Jeff Bridges), Fan (Luke Wilson), and Believer (Penelope Cruz). If it never comes together in any satisfactory fashion—I’m still not sure if the big benefit concert actually happens or not—moment to moment it’s consistently involving and quite funny to those attuned to Dylan’s cranky brand of deadpan humor. (A characteristic example involves Dylan’s character getting on a bus, asking if it’s bound for the border, finding out it’s going the wrong direction, and getting on anyway.) It may ultimately amount to just another footnote in a career that has long since surpassed anyone’s ability to catalogue it, but at the very least it’s a beacon of seriousness and maturity—of a concern with anything beyond first weekend grosses—in one of the most dreadful movie seasons in memory.
Much of the criticism of Masked and Anonymous has been directed at the fact that Dylan doesn’t really move or speak much when he’s onscreen. (While all of the praise seems to have been reserved for the film’s most sentimental and self-important moment: a little black girl singing “The Times They Are A-Changing.”) The only exception is when he’s performing, and even then he never really acknowledges the audience and seems to be uncomfortable with the fact of being onscreen at all. Dramatically, of course, it’s suicide, but this is exactly what makes this so-called vanity project so fascinating—Dylan’s attempt to hide within his own creations. Throughout the decades, this mystery has increasingly become the chief subject of his art, and his primary contradiction as a musician and celebrity. He seeks out the spotlight so that he may shield his eyes from it. “Dylan is a strange, dubious character,” writes Greil Marcus. “He has more to do with the Lone Ranger than John Wayne—‘Who was that masked man?’ He keeps his distance. He is from somewhere else.” Pauline Kael had already started to notice the same phenomenon in her original New Yorker review of Renaldo and Clara from 1978: “He is overpoweringly present, yet he is never in direct contact with us—not even when he performs. We are invited to stare at the permutations of his masked and unmasked face in close-up to perceive the mystery of his elusiveness—his distance.” In that same film Dylan reportedly tells Allen Ginsberg that he wants to be buried in an unmarked grave. (At the very least, this should indicate that Masked and Anonymous’s title is not “irrelevant” as the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson foolishly called it.) It is this paradox of celebrity and obscurity—of immortality and oblivion—in the case of a legendary man with no knowable center, that leads me to believe Todd Haynes may have been on to something when he posited, in Velvet Goldmine, that if Citizen Kane were to be remade today, it could only take a rock icon as its subject. (And now it seems that Haynes himself is going to revisit this very subject in a film about Dylan. Let’s hope he gets it right this time.)
If nothing else, Masked and Anonymous fixes an image on film of the new Old Man Dylan we’ve had since Time Out of Mind. Historical evidence would seem to indicate that whenever he’s at a creative peak, it segues into a filmmaking urge. Thus from the 1965-66 electrified tour with The Band came the unfinished, unreleased Eat the Document, and from the Seventies’ Blood on the Tracks/Desire era resurgence emerged the barely released (and later butchered) Renaldo and Clara, both more or less directed by Dylan himself. (This latter film was trashed by critics to an even greater degree than Masked and Anonymous, and consequently hasn’t really been seen except on video bootlegs for almost 25 years. Can anyone really remember if it was as bad as all that?) So regardless of whether anyone sees it or likes it, the fact that this film exists at all should be taken as some kind of indicator, if anyone still needs one, that Dylan is going through a creative phase to rival even his glory days. I hesitate to call it a return to form because it’s something new entirely. Not long ago, in a review of Éloge de l'amour, Kent Jones compared Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma to Time Out of Mind, noting that Godard’s true followup to that film—his “Love and Theft”—would also have to be made on video. Think about it for a moment and you’ll realize what a resonant parallel these two figures make. Both arose from a specific cultural movement (the New Wave and Folk Revival) that they soon outgrew; both underwent a period of intense commitment to dogmatic principles (Maoism and Evangelical Christianity) that they never so much jettisoned as managed to fold back into their ongoing evolution as artists; both have been written off more than once as gone for good and managed to come back. They have presently reached a place where all their various phases, triumphs and failures alike—which as they happened could feel totally closed off from each other—seem to exist simultaneously for the old man now surveying them. Masked and Anonymous in fact feels a lot like many of Godard’s recent films (from Nouvelle Vague on)—the thinnest skeleton of a plot providing a platform for characters to exchange quotations and allude to their creator’s personal historical pantheon. While Godard is likely to name characters after those in The Barefoot Contessa and re-stage certain shots from Tati, Dylan cracks wise about Stagger Lee and sings “Diamond Joe” with his band. In their own way, each seeks to maintain a connection to a past that is unfinsished, still evolving, and which they have, in fact, come to embody.