Masked and Anonymous:
the best film ever?


by Paula Radice



I was going to write about something completely different this month (to be specific, I had planned a review of Andy Gill's book on the making of Blood on the Tracks, a very exciting book) but on this, the one evening this week when I could sit down to Freewheelin' writing - given that there are a series of long Parents' Evenings at school this week - a friend dropped the official DVD of masked and anonymous through my door, and blew all my plans out of the water. 

I've seen the film already, of course, but tonight was the first chance to see the deleted scenes and the "masked and anonymous exposed" feature, and to hear Larry Charles' director's commentary on the whole film. Schoolwork went out of the window, making dinner became out of the question, writing about anything else became impossible. 

Why is masked and anonymous so exciting? For many, many reasons. Initially, the excitement is for what the movie is not: it's not the clunker that seemed inevitable while it was being made. Bob Dylan acting has always seemed a perilous undertaking. In Hearts of Fire, granted, he was the least painful thing to watch on the screen, but apart from in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (in which he had only a small part) Bob's acting has invariably been too self-conscious, too out-of-step and off-rhythm with those around him. Dylan moves, grimaces, speaks and looks differently to anyone else on the planet (that is on this planet; we haven't yet discovered whether those on the planet he comes from behave as he does), and placed next to smoother, more polished actors, his eccentric mannerisms become yawning gulfs of idiosyncrasy. And what were to make of the skeleton plotline: Bob playing an ageing ex-legendary singer called Jack Fate (yuk!) called out of years of inactivity to play a benefit concert to try to save the world? The omens were very, very worrying indeed. 

So the immediate sweep of relief is that the film is not anywhere near what we feared it could be. Not only is the plot hugely more interesting and multi-layered than the initial rumours suggested, but Bob's acting is extraordinarily good. Not perfect, but wonderfully, staggeringly powerful, and moreover, it resonates perfectly with what the rest of the cast do.

This seems to me to have two bases. Firstly, that the vastly experienced cast really, really wanted to work with Bob, as all accounts testify, and they were de facto sympathetic with his ways of thinking and writing, and open-minded about trusting to his instincts as to language and emotion. Without exception, they all act their socks off, and are obviously wholly committed to what they are doing. John Goodman is a tour de force throughout the film (and his bulk is a tremendously comic foil to Bob's feather-light physical slightness - when Uncle Sweetheart first embraces Jack, he completely engulfs him but  the point is completely made: the man with all the power in the film isn't the voluble giant, but the quiet little man). Two of the most powerful scenes in the film (those with Val Kilmer as the Animal Wrangler, and Giovanni Ribisi as the soldier) are those where actors' intense monologues are absorbed by an almost silent, almost completely passive Dylan whose silence and passivity does all the talking for him. 

Secondly, Dylan, and indeed all the actors here, are speaking his own words. The rhythms, the musicality, the thought-processes, the phrasing are all pure Dylan and therefore Dylan's acting is only a tiny fraction of Dylan's words. They are all Dylan's words. He is part of every scene and has all the voices in the film, and therefore the heat is off his acting. He has given himself the power over what he speaks and when he speaks - and, much more importantly, when  and what he doesn't. In other words, the same power that he has spent all his adult life honing and perfecting. 

This is not to minimise Bob's achievements when he does act. He is - by an exponential factor - much more credible in this rôle than in any other he has created on film, even in difficult scenes such as the one where he sits by the bedside of his dying father and merely looks and weeps. His speaking voice is very beautiful, and he uses it to great effect. Like his present singing voice, it has both power and tenderness, strength and softness, and Dylan shows excellent control of its nuances. (Larry Charles makes a very telling point, I think, in the director's commentary, about the amount of control Dylan has over his singing: if his voice sounds a particular way, it is because it is the way he has chosen for it to sound. Those who claim his voice is blown - and I point the finger here at some recent writers in other Dylan magazines - are way off the mark. Like those who say that Dylan "can't play the guitar", and have been proved wrong by the testimony of the very accomplished musicians Andy Gill interviewed for Simple Twist of Fate, who were astonished by the extent Dylan's technical proficiency on the guitar, they simply underestimate the man: if things are a certain way with Dylan, it is because he has chosen for them to be that way (or rather, chosen to present them that way). His ability to channel his own creativity - what might be termed his willpower - is astounding).

Having said all that about masked and anonymous, I do concede that there are obstacles for the viewer to overcome; obstacles, moreover, that many reviewers have not been able (or willing) to overcome. On a very simplistic level, there are decidedly creaky moments. Some of them are due to nothing more than the tight budget and shooting schedule of the film. In twenty frantic days of shooting (working days of up to 22 hours) and working around unforeseen problems, Charles had to cut some corners. A few of the scenes - most notably those set in the TV network office - are in sets whose walls are only of the flimsiest kind, sometimes obviously just corrugated metal sheeting. And the first-time viewer has to be forgiven a sense of incredulity that Bob and his dying father look much of an age; at times, indeed, Bob looks decidedly older that his bedridden papa. And how come the hugely-significant "benefit concert" is being filmed on a small stage set watched by about three people? And how come the tiny, tiny Jack Fate can land a punch that cripples the infinitely more powerfully-built journalist Tom Friend? All these are immediate issues with which the viewer has to deal. Suspending disbelief can be hard even for the Dylan fan. It is easy to imagine how much more difficult it must be for non-Dylan-diehards. 

These are just first impressions, of course, of the sort that most movie-watchers never get beyond. Just a little thought can get you into the alternative mind-set that is a prerequisite for masked and anonymous. The whole thing is nothing more or less than a play: Uncle Sweetheart says it explicitly at the start of the film. There are numerous mentions of "the stage" ("Got to get back to the stage" says Fate/fate, meaningfully, to the ghost of Oscar Vogel). It is all make-believe; none of it should be taken as "real". The word "vaudeville" is prominently visible behind Dylan's shoulder during many of the key songs, on the old-timey music-hall curtain (very reminiscent of that used in the Rolling Thunder shows). The message is clear: don't take anything at face-value - listen to the words. 

On first hearing, the dialogue of the film is very strange, and sounds a little forced and false, rather like the false/forced naturalness of E.M. Forster dialogue or that of the film The Spanish Prisoner a few years back. It's not wise-cracking, oh-so-predictable Hollywood-movie-speak. It has to be heard repeatedly to even begin to unpick its full resonance. It strikes strange tangents, shoots into unfathomable analogies, darts behind and within itself, cross-references just about everything, and ends up sounding like The Old Testament meets Tennessee Williams, with a bit of William Shakespeare thrown in for good measure (for measure). It is, in other words, Bob Dylan. A one-and-a-half-hour-long Bob Dylan song, peopled and narrated by exactly the same menagerie of desperate, flawed and on-the-edge characters as any Dylan album. 

John Goodman in the "masked and anonymous exposed" feature of the DVD popped my eyes open on this one. Of course the dialogue sounds stylised, mannered: it is mannered, and has to be accepted on a whole host of different levels, in just the same way as Shakespeare plays or those of Marlowe or Molière (as Goodman puts it). They create their own reality. And many things have to be accepted on a level beyond the superficially "real" or rational. A little man like Fate can bring down a bear of a man like Friend because he alone has retained the power of integrity. Fate's age, in relation to his father or anyone else, is simply irrelevant compared to the weight of his understanding of situations, his ability to see through what the surface of things seems to suggest to the underlying meanings (meanings which may well not be palatable or easy, like the news announcement of the "millions of suffering souls" in the newly-discovered hollow  core of the earth.) It cuts to the core. It ain't easy being human. In fact, it's kinda like a curse. Does it matter when you see Romeo and Juliet  by the Royal Shakespeare Company if the two leads are not played by teenagers?  Does it matter if the scenery flats look painted-on, and wobble a bit?

I can feel myself in danger of getting carried away. I love this film. I love Bob Dylan in it, and I rejoice for him in the artistic achievement it represents. Everything seems to have come together with an elemental synchronicity: finding a director and co-writer so sympathetic to his artistic vision, and so trusting in his own, Dylan and the cast's talents; gathering such a wealth of actors together who were willing to work with the flow (in ways very different to those they would be familiar with on Hollywood blockbusters: as Charles says, they were all "risk takers") and for no money (even more incredible, and telling of the pulling power of Dylan's charisma); working so effectively against the constraints of time and money; even down to the felicitous choice of international cover songs for the soundtrack, which was absolutely spot-on. The whole feel  of the thing is right, and that's what matters. 

Which all beggars the question: when will we in Europe get to see masked and anonymous on a big screen? The promised "New Year screenings" have not materialised, and indeed all has gone silent. Surely nobody is craven enough to think that just because a few cretinous critics in America didn't get it, the film doesn't deserve a cinema release outside the USA? The rumour that a European release for the DVD may be scheduled for May this year could, ironically, be very bad news in its suggestion that the film is not going to make it onto the cinema screens over here. If so, it would be a great pity, and a very great mistake, and would seem ironic in that it was the BBC's money (and therefore that of the British TV licence-payers, in other words, that of every British Bob Dylan fan) that did so much to get masked and anonymous made in the first place. Who can we lobby to get it screened?  If you have any ideas, please let me know. Bob Dylan and Larry Charles made this film to be seen on the large screen, and I want to see as they intended me to see it. 

I hope it brings you as much enjoyment as it does me.