This article originally appeared in Pop Matters and is reprinted by permission of the author
By Christopher John Stephens
Here’s a pitch for a documentary about Bob Dylan to be released only after his eventual death. It’s a hybrid cousin of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries No Direction Home (2005), Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), and Todd Haynes’ strange 2007 beauty I’m Not There. Somebody willing to risk entering the dark waters of an artist who is consistently sabotaging his career and reputation, first studies the debacle that was director Richard Marquand’s 1987 swan song Hearts of Fire. In this film, Dylan stumbles his way into the role of Billy Parker, an ageing reclusive rock star in a love triangle with Rupert Everett over the affections of a younger star.
Dylan’s presence as a leading man in Hearts of Fire didn’t go deeper than his halo of curly hair and heavy-lidded blue eyes — eyes that burned into their targets but betrayed nothing about the man inside. What were they thinking, that Dylan could carry the lead in a dramatic movie?
Sixteen years after the release and crushing commercial failure of Hearts of Fire, Dylan and writer/director Larry Charles collaborated to write, produce, and release Masked and Anonymous, a film so reviled at the time by torchbearers of artistic credibility that any chance at career rehabilitation seemed impossible. At this point, the future documentarian will have to ask: Did Dylan care about anything? Consider these thoughts from legendary film critic Roger Ebert:
Ebert’s review is careful, detailed, and as much about the crowd reaction at Sundance as it is about the film itself. The viewer today (and the future documentarian covering this era of Dylan’s life) will empathize with Ebert’s predicament as he considers how to assess this movie.
As plots go, the premise is deceptively simple. We open in a ravaged country. Is it our own? What has happened? Dylan plays Jack Fate, an imprisoned legendary folk singer who finds himself a pawn in the game of his boisterous manager Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) and Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange.) The former is playing a variation of all his hucksters from the Coen Brothers movies, and the latter is performing a doomed mixture of malevolent vulnerability seen best in a Tennessee Williams heroine.
Uncle Sweetheart and Nina release Fate from prison to headline a benefit concert. Who will it benefit? We don’t know, and Jack Fate doesn’t care. Here’s what Fate tells us in the final scene:
That seemed to be the point in 2003 and it remains the point today. Masked and Anonymous is a movie about the dispossessed and disoriented. Dylan only takes the lead on four of the 14 soundtrack cuts. Several more are performed in the film by Dylan (as Fate) and his touring band. Familiar Dylan songs like “My Back Pages”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, and “If You See Her, Say Hello” are heard in Japanese and Italian. Where is this world? Have all barriers been torn down, or all ethnicities and cultures firmly entrenched in their worlds forcing those who only speak English to listen to songs they’ll never understand?
In true Dylan fashion, one of the best music moments in Masked and Anonymous does not appear on the soundtrack. It’s a brief, subtle yet powerful performance of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” performed by Tinashe, years before her breakout as an R&B star. In Masked and Anonymous she’s a little girl who’s gotten backstage and manages to charm Jack Fate (Dylan) with an a capella rendition of a song from his past.
It’s an especially striking moment for 2003 America, still reeling from the effects of 9/11 and looking for hope wherever they could find it. For a brief moment, whatever mask Dylan wants to pretend he’s wearing melts off and he’s entranced by the beauty of this performance.
In the world of this movie, there is no hope, no future, and no possibility of progress or difference. In the world of Bob Dylan that we know, and the man playing Jack Fate knows, what this song meant to the world in 1963 still had the power to move us 40 years later, whether or not we were willing to admit it.
There is certainly a strange, cheap feeling that pervades most of Masked and Anonymous, and even the most fervent diehard Dylan apologist (this writer included) will have to admit a queasy feeling trying to detect any sort of emotional reaction on Dylan’s face. Is he, like Buster Keaton of many years earlier, supposed to have a stone face?
The world view, as espoused by the journalist Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges) regularly badgering Fate as he prepares for the concert, is suitably dark. He wants Fate to surrender to nostalgia, to do his old songs and give the people what they want, but it’s not going to happen. Instead, like Bob Dylan the performer, Jack Fate finds purpose in the standards, even something as problematic as “Dixie”,
Delmore Schwartz’s most famous story, 1937’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” resonated for readers because it spoke to the potential for change in the life of a young man on the eve of his 21st birthday. For a soldier on the bus spilling his heart out to Jack Fate as they both embark on a journey to nowhere, dreams were something different altogether.
Masked and Anonymous was written by Dylan and Larry Charles under the pseudonyms of Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Charles went on to direct Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), among other films. The list of cast members who had won or would win Academy Awards is impressive. (Lange in 1995, Dylan in 2001, Cruz in 2009, and Bridges in 2010.) With that sort of pedigree, and the expectations in 2003 as to what it was going to mean, the angry reaction is understandable.
What should resonate stronger for the modern viewer is to understand what the 2003 viewer was missing. Masked and Anonymous came out in a world before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and all manner of instant smartphone social broadcasting (and communication). It can be seen in 2019 as a prescient story of a nation broken by troubled street battles, divisive political leadership, and a traveling singer interested only in the next gig. There was no “United States of America” in the world Dylan gave us in 2003, and the nation in which we find ourselves today is unrecognizable, as well.
Masked and Anonymous certainly didn’t work in 2003 as a cohesive, coherent film. It’s star-studded cast and poorly realized plot development didn’t pay off as expected, and Dylan’s wooden simulation of a human inhabiting a character is impossible to penetrate. Still, somehow, he makes it work.
In 2019, with a nation ready to impeach its “elected” leader, Masked and Anonymous is making surprising, chilling sense. The future documentarian choosing to assess this part of Dylan’s career and artistic choices will more likely than not conclude that the strangeness of Masked and Anonymous and the wooden quality of Dylan’s performance was everything it needed to be.
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