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Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s Elegy for a Lost America


Bob Dylan’s new film, “Masked and Anonymous,” has met with almost universal condemnation (or worse, condescension) from critics in the corporate media. According to most reviewers, in lieu of a plot the film offers “rambling incoherence” and “incomprehensible dialogue.” It is “an exercise in self-indulgence.” Several reviewers have actually worried in print that Dylan made the movie in order to have some kind of joke at their expense. Dylan’s character, Jack Fate, has little or nothing to say, we are repeatedly told, and more or less just “sits there like a toad,” in the words of Roger Ebert, who should be the last person to accuse anyone of that.

Could the movie really be this bad? It wouldn’t matter if it were equal to “The Tempest” or “Julius Caesar,” it has already been pronounced D.O.A.

Anytime the nation’s media are this unanimous about anything, one would do well to be suspicious. After all, President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction” was met not with skepticism but with near-unanimous cheerleading and boosterizing in the corporate media.

Reviewers had already effectively killed Dylan’s film by the time it arrived in Portland, Oregon for a perfunctory one-week run. Although attendance grew steadily during the week, it started sparse and grew toward respectable.

Not ten minutes after the opening credits I could see why the film had been marked for assassination by big newspaper media critics. They are the villains of the piece! “Masked and Anonymous” portrays the reporters who wrote the bad reviews as people who have to wear ankle monitors. Editors hold the keys that control them. Who owns the editors is pretty clear, too. The sight of superstar critic and Sixties specialist “Tom Friend” (Jeff Bridges) being beaten to death with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar must have been too much for them.

“Friend,” obsessed with his own memories of the Sixties but oblivious to what is going on outside the window, never seems to notice that Fate, his quarry, answers none of his questions.

Officials of the “network” televising the “benefit” on which Fate is to appear see him as self-indulgent, too. They want him to sing “Jailhouse Rock,” “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Revolution — the slow version.”

He gives them “Dixie.”

The infamous “rambling and incomprehensible” plot is in fact rather well-constructed and makes abundant sense. Although the project could have used some tighter editing and more attention to minor issues of continuity, anyone who couldn’t follow this movie probably couldn’t be trusted with a comic book. The storyline is no more “obscure” or “disjointed” than “A Hard Day’s Night.”

But it hits a great deal harder. When the camera pans slowly down a desolate L.A. avenue, and Dylan is heard singing “Seen the arrow on the doorpost, saying This Land is Condemned, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem,” try to keep tears from welling. (Or sit there like a toad eating popcorn and stuff the feeling, it’s your call.)

Whereas the concert finale of “A Hard Day’s Night” is witnessed by screaming teenagers and an adoring TV audience, the concert performed by Fate in “Masked and Anonymous” is seen by no one except stage hands and extras because it is pre-empted by a presidential speech and interrupted by guns and bayonets.

In spite of what you may have read, the film is not “set in some imaginary third-world country at some point in the future,” anymore than King Lear is about prehistoric England. Failure to recognize the true setting should immediately disqualify any reviewer. “Masked and Anonymous” is a spot-on accurate portrayal of what is going on RIGHT NOW, seen through the eyes of someone with vision and not just eyesight, someone who has looked through the eyes not only of Charley Patton and Elizabeth Cotton but also of Emmett Miller and even Daniel Decatur Emmett.

All America’s chicken-hawk foreign wars have come home to roost. The horrors once visited upon El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq are now rolling through the streets of California. All the electoral disgrace of recent campaigns has been compressed into one presidential speech. As for the major media as portrayed in this film, it is impossible not to think of Christiane Amanpour’s recent admission that CNN “was intimidated” by the Bush administration and operated in a “climate of fear and self-censorship” during the invasion of Iraq.

When the new president (Mickey Roarke) concludes his “war-is-peace” oration at the end of the film with the sarcastic words “May God help you all,” it is merely what anyone with a perceptive imagination can hear Bush or Cheney saying when they conclude their speeches with the formulaic “God Bless America.” Certainly the administration portrayed in “Masked and Anonymous” is no more thuggish than the one currently rooting at the trough in Washington.

Or, as Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) puts it, “It’s the dark princes, the democratic republicans, working for a barbarian who can scarcely spell his own name.”

When a soldier (Giovanni Ribisi) tells Fate of fighting first with the rebels, then with the counter-insurgents, then with the Government, then with the rebels again, only to discover that some of the rebels are in fact funded by the very Government they’re supposed to be opposing, how strange does that seem to anyone familiar with the betrayals and capitulations of contemporary politics, especially movement politics? It’s like finding out who sponsors “Earth Day.”

My favorite exchange: “I’m trying to be on your side, Jack,” says Uncle Sweetheart, the promoter who is, naturally, “only trying to help.”

“You have to be born on my side, Sweetheart,” says Fate.

To be on the side of workers, of animals, of oppressed people, of love, of the truth is to court destruction. Before singing his final song and meeting his own fate, Jack Fate experiences a visitation by his ghostly forerunner, Oscar Vogel (Ed Harris), a banjo-playing entertainer who worked in blackface and who disappeared after raising his voice against the times. When Fate looks back to catch a last glimpse of Vogel, the vaudevillian has been replaced by a young Black man who could be a janitor, a Reggae artist or a rising Hip-Hop truth teller, next in the line of destiny, or line of fire.

This film isn’t perfect. I have read the original screenplay and far too much has been cut out of it to try to make it acceptable to people who would have had none of it under any circumstances. But it is the only motion picture I have seen so far in this millennium that seems to have a clue about what is going on in America. Moviegoers will get it or they won’t. Great pains have been taken to ensure that they won’t even see it.

It is a tale of almost unbearable sadness and loss. When Dylan sings “I’ll Remember You,” as electrifying a performance as has ever been caught on camera (all the songs are performed live, there’s no lip-synching in this movie) you feel that he may well be singing not merely about a person but also about that “lost America of love” that Ginsberg mourned in “A Supermarket in California,” a work that in its visionary aspect and intensity “Masked and Anonymous” resembles. (Its ultimate antecedents are of course Shakespeare’s history plays.)

When Dylan’s character, Fate, is reunited with his lost/doomed love (Angela Bassett, magnificent in the role), she endeavors with great tenderness to console him for his losses, and without a word Dylan manages to convey that Fate’s grief is inconsolable. It is a scene of considerable beauty and delicacy.

Dylan’s performance has been called “inscrutable.” But who else could have played this role? There are people who find his songs inscrutable as well, and I suppose arguing with them would be as pointless as trying to answer “Tom Friend’s” interview questions. (These days, anything an idiot can’t or won’t bother to understand is “incomprehensible” and “inscrutable.”)

The most daring (and intriguing) line in the film slips by almost unnoticed: moments after Jack Fate is arrested for a sudden act of violence committed by his sidekick Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson), he thinks to himself, “Sometimes it’s not enough to know the meaning of things. Sometimes we have to know what things don’t mean as well. Like, what does it mean to not know what the person you love is capable of?”

Unlike D. A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” which showed a young Dylan eating dumb but presumptuous critics alive, “Masked and Anonymous” depicts an aging Jack Fate with nothing whatever to say to them. “I was always a singer and maybe no more than that,” he says.

So much for “self-indulgence.”

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here.

He can be reached at:

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

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