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The Duke On “Masked And Anonymous”

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Who would go see a movie by the name of, I dunno, The Film Where Adam Ant Deconstructs His Psyche unless you really loved Adam Ant? Well, maybe quite a few folks. That was a bad example on my part.

Let’s say a film is released what is written by and starring a rock star who is renowned for stunning feats of self-obsession with regards his work. Who would go see that, unless they really loved that particular artiste?

Not very many folks, is what I’m guessing. I mean hell, maybe Justin Timberlake is just about the most fascinating motherfucker in Popular Culture what you ever did see, but if he goes off and makes a film about it, chances are I’m gonna stay at home, maybe watch something about GG Allin shitting on folks.

But the point is, some folks will go and see the Timberlake opus, and they’ll come away yacking about how it was profound and witty and incredibly sharp with regards the tearing apart, or, indeed, the accentuating of a mythos.

Or some such motherfucking waffle.

And everyone else goes, “Yeah? Well I thought it was pretentious piss spraying from the cocks of demons.” Or something equally insightful.

Which brings The Duke to this piece by the name of Masked And Anonymous, a film about Bob Dylan trying to figure out who in the hell Bob Dylan might really be. And also about America. And also about the failed ideals of the sixties.

All that jazz.

Some folks maybe expected that it might have something to talk about other than Bob Dylan, and sure, it does on occasion say some other stuff, like “The” or “Hello“, other words not immediately connected with the Zimmerman cannon. But these few syllables did nothing for these folks, so what happened was that Roger Ebert complained about how it was the biggest motherfucking vanity project what he ever did see. I mean, really, seemed to be the point of Ebert’s critique, Dylan might just as well have spunked all over the screen for two hours.

Harry Knowles, over at The Harry Knowles Digest, saw fit to fling it into his Worst Of 2003 list.

Chances are these fellas never sat in the dark listening to Every Grain Of Sand or Ballad In Plain D. Chances are they probably don’t even care that Another Side Of Bob Dylan is among the wittiest records ever produced, in as far as a recording artist happily throwing bait to his fan base might go.

Hell, they probably thought Infidels sucked, too.

When those opening scenes graced the screen, stock-footage of riots and brutality culled from the archives of co-financers The BBC, and an Asian rock band start singing My Back Pages in their native tongue, these folks, these critics, they probably just thought it was some kind of hilarious punk cover like when Blink 183 or The Some 41’s do the Married With Children theme song. They probably didn’t care that it signified something, a theme, by God, something most soundtracks in the last few years have forgotten all about, something bypassed in favour of the latest unreleasable pish to be cast off Tupac’s third record or something. Masked And Anonymous makes its soundtrack mean something.

Because this cover of My Back Pages isn’t just there for the purposes of providing a catchy introductory number, although it does that too. It’s not just there for quirk-value, although it has plenty.

It’s a signal, motherfucker. It’s an act what is representative of the levels of interpretation Dylan’s work has been subjected to, about how Dylan has thrown this into the world and it’s been picked up, reassessed, and has underwent some kind of metamorphism so that it no longer resembles that stunning acoustic lament from Another Side Of…, and in fact bears little relation to Dylan in anything but name.

It’s fitting too, that it’s My Back Pages, a song about how the narrator is totally lost in the mythos he has built around himself. A plea for us, and for him, to move on.

“I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.”

Masked And Anonymous is first and foremost concerned with interpretation, and more so, interpretation of who in the hell this Dylan cat really is. Where has cocky young Robert Zimmerman gone, the fella who waltzed into a recording studio armed only with his battered acoustic, as his partner watched in awe outside, and tore into See That My Grave Is Kept Clean or Freight Train Blues? Where did he go?

Fuck knows, is the answer.

Thing is, maybe it was us lot who shooed that young fella out of the way, in order to create this deity by the name of Bob Dylan.

Well, not me, man. I wasn’t even born. Don’t blame Self Portrait on me, motherfucker.

It was you lot. You folks who poured over the lyrics and debated his obviously fabricated life-stories. Who perched him on some pedestal that shy, backward Robert Zimmerman couldn’t cope with, and rather than go the Kurt Cobain route, he underwent a fundamental transformation. Compare the giggling, playful Dylan of the recently issued 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert to the unknowable, enigmatic, sarcastic creature of the night slinking through Eat The Document a couple years later.

It happens to em all, man. Folks hear so much nonsense about being the voice of some generation or other, or how fantastic they are, and how transcendent and full of truth their work is, that they start to become just as obsessed with themselves as all those fans are, the folks what hide outside hotel rooms, or pick through garbage to find clues to the inner soul of the idol in question.

Those discarded boxes of Corn Flakes. They tell you all you need to now about a man’s narcissism and / or prophetic abilities, apparently.

Look at how Morrissey went from being the articulator of universal angst to being the prime chronicler of How Hard It Is Being Morrissey. If Morrissey wrote and starred in a film, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be that far removed from Masked And Anonymous. Except it’d be a mythical England and not a mythical America. And it’d be about the decline of civilisation post-1959, instead of 69. And it’d have lots of stuff about court cases.

But it’d still be about Morrissey, because however brilliant he undoubtedly is, his work communicates only how much he frets over every slight and injustice committed against Steven Patrick.

Whilst Dylan doesn’t worry so much about the injustices or what-not, and has more of a tendency to deny that any of this stuff has anything to do with him whatsoever, he is just as concerned with the product that is Dylan, and what it means, and, perversely, what it doesn’t mean, but what he’d like to suggest it might mean.

So in Masked And Anonymous, we get Dylan as Jack Fate, a once-great rock star who slid into obscurity and, eventually, prison, on account of some never-fully-explained sexual transgression.

America has been lost amidst some civil war of some kind, and is now under the watchful glare of a Big Brother type dictatorship. Fate is released from prison that he might perform at some fundraising concert, under the managerial wing of John Goodman, here playing a combination of his bumbling role in Barton Fink, and an occasionally very transparent caricature of onetime Dylan manager Albert Grossman.

Goodman’s partner (Marital? Business? Who knows?), played by Jessica Lange, is less than overjoyed about this development. I mean what the fuck has this cat done in the last forever, is what she’s getting at? Sure he released a few “seminal” records, but who the hell cares anymore?

Goodman replies with one of the best lines in the film;

“Did Jesus have to walk on water twice to make a point?”

You could even argue about how this all reflects Dylan’s own late-90’s resurgence, following years of floundering in the unforgiving waters of mediocrity. With the release of the ever-cheerful Time Out Of Mind, perhaps the most frankly honest album he ever made, and the subsequent mass critical orgasms, he too was granted a release, a rebirth, one which he actually made good on with the equally wonderful, although much more upbeat, Love And Theft.

I mean we were here before, man. Everyone thought Oh Mercy was gonna herald some messianic return. All it heralded was Under The Red Sky with that motherfucker from Guns N Roses. The one with the big hair.

Into all this stumbles Jeff Bridges, who at first appears as he did in The Big Lebowski, looking dishevelled and apathetic. He soon reveals himself as a radical journalist, out to uncover some sort of scandal behind this whole concert fiasco.

But of course he’s not really playing that at all.

What he is in fact performing, is a pretty much dead-on reprisal of the Dylan of Don’t Look Back, his hair slicked back yet haphazard, his tall frame decked out entirely in black. His eyes hidden behind sunglasses. When Bridges confronts Jack Fate in a trailer, it is a virtual re-run of the infamous hotel-room interview from Pennebaker’s film, where Dylan ran rings around the young student assigned to ask him a few questions, spinning taunting, barbed, impenetrable answers around the young man’s trembling notepad.

Here, the Real Dylan stands back, and lets Bridges perform the aural assault.

Of course, when Fate finally gets the upper hand, an upper hand which grips a broken bottle directed at Bridges’ neck, he can’t do it.

As much as Dylan may no longer identify with the young “poet of a generation” that he once was, he can’t bring himself to truly exorcise that particular poltergeist.

Which is maybe why, in a film so concerned with the fruitlessness of interpretive approaches to popular culture, we are constantly being invited to look beyond the events onscreen, to see what’s really being said. Which is usually something along the lines of “What Bob Dylan has to say about Bob Dylan is this…”

We also get plenty of scenes positively vibrating with the torrents of seemingly random gumpf being cast into the ether.

These, too, however, are the butt of the film’s wit.

One scene has Dylan sitting on a bus next to a revolutionary, played by Giovanni Ribisi, best known as Phoebe’s Brother in Friends In The City or whatever. Ribisi rhymes off a five-minute monologue utterly drenched in pompous, paranoid drivel. Twenty seconds after his nonsense has come to an end, he steps off the bus only to be shot. Dylan looks utterly nonplussed.

Some folks saw this as an example of “actual” pretentious-bullshit instead of the very, very obvious mockery of such which it undoubtedly is.

Another moment has Goodman and Luke Wilson look on as Dylan and band (his actual current touring band, named in the film as “Simple Twist Of Fate”) play in the background. They engage in a highly involved conversation about what the song “means”, both offering wildly varying interpretations, both of which seem ridiculous.

Dylan, in fact, whilst being the focal point of everything the film has to say about anything, is in fact something of a drifter in the overall affair. His character is really little more developed than when he played Alias in Pat Garret And Billy The Kid, and whilst he is onscreen pretty much constantly from his introduction ten minutes in, he never really says very much.

After all, he’s just an aging Robert Zimmerman awash in a sea of iconic Bob Dylan’s.

And really, anything he has to say, he lets others say it for him.

Interestingly, Jack Fate never actually performs any Pre-M&A Dylan compositions, playing mostly a mix of traditionals and the odd new number. The film is built on the words of those earlier recordings, though. At one point a young girl is brought up to Fate, a girl aged about 5 years old, who has learned the words to every one of the great mans songs.

“Why’d she do that?” asks Dylan.

“Because I made her”, answers her mother.

The child begins a beautiful rendition of The Times They Are A-Changing.

This Dylan rebirth is all well and good, but all these kids are ever gonna know is those great, classic, seminal songs what Dylan wrote in 1963.

Changing the times may very well be, but as far as the career of this particular artiste is concerned, folks would often prefer the times changing back, as Bob Roberts so memorably stated.

Time Out Of what, now?

Despite the obviously alien America in which the narrative unfolds, it isn’t explicitly apparent just when this all happens. One might presume it to be one of those Sometime In The Future… deals, but if so, it must be like, next week. Folks still talk about Hendrix at Woodstock, about The Grateful Dead. At one point Penelope Cruz prays as she wears a Master Of Puppets t-shirt.

I’m gonna go ahead and offer my own bout of the old interpretation right here, and suggest that this isn’t the future at all, but is in fact now. This fallen America, this wilderness of corruption and political deviancy is in fact how Dylan sees his home now. The big reference point for virtually every character seems to be Woodstock. After that, it seems nothing happened that was worth anything. All those bright, shining ideals, they all festered, turned sour and rancid, and left us with this.

Jack Fate is like a post-Room 101 Winston from George Orwell’s 1984. He is granted access back into this insidious terrain, but no longer poses any threat to it. He observes it all with a kind of pained resign, but has nothing to say. The revolutionaries are all still there, but he is no longer personally fit to be part of them. He has to work on sorting himself, before he can offer any hope to anyone else.

It’s a fucking amazing film is what The Duke thinks about it. I devoured every scene, laughed at every backhanded remark paid either implicitly or explicitly to almost every major figure ever involved in the star’s existence. Larry Charles direction is pleasingly idiosyncratic, creating a fittingly timeless aura stained with grit and dust, with help from cinematographer Rogier Stoffers, who at times utilises the same exaggerated colour palette that Alfonso Arau played with in Picking Up The Pieces.

Which, incidentally, also dealt with idolatry in modern America, and also starred a notoriously self-obsessed but amazingly talented fella, this time in the form of Woody Allen.

And it also shares a little more with those Coen Brothers than just a few character tics. In fact, the whole thing appears on occasion to be an ever darker vision of the world glimpsed in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another film which painted a mythical Southern American landscape, and which told its story through music as much as the spoken word.

Masked And Anonymous? Dylan certainly remains so, and something tells me that despite the apparent protestations that he is not some kind of faceless, mystical entity, up to an including his forthcoming volumes of autobiography, he’d like, in some part, to remain that way.

The film after all is written by Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov. And they are?

Director Larry Charles and… Bob Dylan.

Masked And Anonymous indeed.

The Duke resides at Mondo Irlando

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  • Chris Kent

    Excellent work El Sunor Duke on a film shreaded by the critics. Some fascinating observations on the Dylan mystique. When reading the reviews of this film, was reminded of an old Alex Cox flick Straight To Hell, which was equally loved by film connoisseurs. I believe Joe Strummer and even The Pogues made appearances in the one long hip in-joke. I actually loved it, and perhaps the folks just didn’t get it?

  • Chris, im sorry for the delay in my reply. Something odd happened when Blogcritics shifted, and AOL was sending all my comment notifications into the SPAM folder for some reason!

    Glad to hear someone else yack with praise regarding Straight To Hell. Being a somewhat obsessive fan of Shane MacGowan, frontman with The Pogues, i had to see it, of course, and was really pleasantly suprised. Even if Shane and the boys hadn’t been it, i think i would still have loved it. And yes, i too was reminded on it throughout M&A.
    Thank you for the kind words, friend, and again, sorry for the delay.