by Mark Carter




I come to praise Masked And Anonymous, not to bury it, and if you are at all surprised by reading that, you’re not as surprised as I am writing it. I had been primed to not like it, mainly by the American press but also by the comments of some fans who had seen it. I was prepared for a celluloid version of Tarantula – a wordy and meandering jumble of images and deep and meaningless dialogue. The concensus of opinion from those who had managed to glean something positive from it seemed to be that there are hidden messages to be found within the myriad folds of the movie if you are prepared to – you know – dig for them. I am not, and never really have been prepared to dissect a Bob Dylan movie, which is why – 20 years after I first saw it – I still view Renaldo And Clara as a 4-hour documentary on Dylan’s greatest ever tour with a bit of amateur dramatics thrown in for good measure. 

However, Masked And Anonymous fair rattles along, given that it has no plot as such, and the live material – as with Renaldo And Clara – is interspersed throughout to keep it interesting, just when attention to the action (sic) may be beginning to wane. 

This is a Bob Dylan movie, make no mistake. It was either written for him or (as I believe) at least partly by him. Jack Fate is a mystery, a cypher, and over the course of 105 minutes we learn a little of his history but nothing of his present, of what he thinks or feels.  He witnesses an apocalyptic America torn apart by Civil War with a stoicism bordering on the comatose. When a brief travelling companion unburdens his tortured soul to him, barely choking back the tears and vomit of self-disgust, Fate/Dylan shows not a jot of emotion, neither sympathy, understanding or compassion. When the aforementioned companion is machine gunned in cold blood and Fate views it with all the interest of watching grass grow I can’t decide whether we are supposed to assume that he has seen it all before – and worse – and can no longer be shocked by anything he sees (or will not allow himself to be) or whether Dylan is such a lousy actor that he simply couldn’t even summon up the tiniest crumb of emotion.  I prefer to lean towards the former. 

For all that, this is a good movie. Not something I would seek out if it didn’t feature Dylan, but something that, should I catch it late one night on BBC 2 or Channel 4, I would gladly watch to see how it ends and not feel that my time had been wasted once the credits were rolling. It’s fair to say that Dylan has played himself in all his movies, especially Renaldo And Clara and, to a lesser extent, Hearts Of Fire, but this film perhaps portrays Dylan playing Dylan best of all.  In an early scene – and one that really works for me – Fate is gazing out of a bus window at this mythical America’s Third World streets, with their poverty and crime and decay, whilst the opening the opening lines of Blind Willie McTell play over the soundtrack; “Seen the arrow on the doorpost saying this land is condemned, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem”. It is, perhaps, Dylan’s vision of what America really looks like once you scrape away it’s gloss. It’s another peek into Desolation Row – the whole movie is, really – and it’s not pretty. It’s beyond saving, beyond salvation, and you get the feeling that Fate/Dylan is only travelling through it with stoic resignation waiting for something better on the other side. 

The movie is also awash with religious imagery, from the most obvious character of Pagan Lace (about whom we learn absolutely nothing) to the more subtle touches, many of which again convince me that this is at least partly written by Dylan. I also like the surreal touch where we learn that geologists have discovered that the earth is hollow and that, from the centre, the wails of thousands of souls can be heard. The expressed wish of at least one person that whatever was down there stayed down there suggests that hell may not be too far beneath our feet after all. It’s a hint that we may be not so much in an alternative America, but an alternative future where all the rules are changed and nothing is what it should be, in other words, all bets are off. 

This is reinforced by a couple of lines of dialogue almost thrown away and lost within the movie’s labyrinthine sprawl; one, a reference to aliens stacked up in a warehouse somewhere and the other, delivered by Fate shortly after his release from jail, that he is heading off to Roswell. The sense that something is wrong, that something is seriously off kilter and out of whack is heightened. The allusion could merely be that the government – any government – keeps it’s secrets and keeps them well and that the more we deserve to know something the more it will be kept from us, but for me it simply helps to suggest that something is very very badly wrong, that something is going to break open and take this crumbling civilisation with it for better or worse. The End Days are here.  The apocalypse is rumbling. 

Then there is Mickey Rourke’s promise to reopen the football fields (another hint that things have gone badly wrong) and fill them with prisoners to be trampled by elephants, which reminds me of the Colosseums of Ancient Rome where the prisoners died while the civilisation that watched them also died, or, perhaps, Norman Jewison’s 1975 movie Rollerball, where, in a soulless future, the public’s blood-lust was sated by watching two teams of men maim and kill each other in a bizarre sport that had become a worldwide religion. 

Jack Fate’s enigmatic smile at the end of the movie as he is being taken away to – what? – a fair and honest trial where he can finally speak out against all that is rotten and corrupt and become the new Messiah?, a return to a stinking overcrowded prison?, a swift and quiet execution?, a trip to a football field to be trampled to death by elephants? – suggests that he realises that his fate (whoops) doesn’t matter because everthing is going to come crashing down soon anyway. It’s all over now, baby blue. Or perhaps Blowin’ In The Wind playing on the soundtrack is supposed to offer hope – that there is a chance for redemption and that there’s always a chance to hope for a better tomorrow.  Perhaps Dylan’s Fate’s songs will save the world after all, even if the man cannot. I would love to think that the little girl’s rendition of The Times They Are A-Changin’ marks Fate passing the baton of responsibility onto the younger generation, but his leaden expression suggests not. 

How many more deaths? How many more roads? How many more years? How much longer? How? Why? When? The answer, it seems, may be blowing in the wind but it isn’t in this movie and it isn’t supposed to be. 

“I gave up trying to figure out what it all means a long time ago.”