Bob Dylan
Expecting Rain
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John Goodman, Luke Wilson and the legendary Bob Dylan
in Larry Charles' MASKED & ANONYMOUS.
July 2003:

MASKED AND ANONYMOUS
-- By Andrew Motion, Professor of Creative Writing at UEA
(University of East Anglia) since 1995; he has been a Poet
Laureate since 1999.

Bob Dylan's songs make a wonderfully direct address to their
audience: they're beautiful, and we remember them easily. But
their appeal is inseparable from the way they deal with all kinds
of slippery things - with shifting personalities, with disguise,
with the changes time brings, and with costume. The title of this
new film comes straight to the point. It shows us some of Dylan's
masks (the means by which he conceals his actual appearance) in
order to examine what lies beneath them, and it also looks at his
personality in order to suggest how he has protected, changed and
diffused it. It gives us a good deal of truth about Dylan, but
realises that in his case the best route to the truth is 'slant'.

Casting him in the role of 'Jack Fate' is essential to all this;
it means we are pushed a step back from Dylan himself, and
therefore see him more clearly. In some respects, Fate is not
like Dylan at all - he is a rock star past his sell-by date, who
has spent the last twenty-odd years playing in obscure honky
tonks and bars and refusing to deal with the dodgy administrators
of the music business. At the same time, he has qualities we
recognise as Dylan's own: he shares Dylan's deepest
preoccupations, and he plays his music (of course). In
particular, Fate is like Dylan because he exists at the point
where an amazingly creative imagination is permanently
scrutinised by its audience. He wants to think of his work as a
self-sufficient universe, but his is constantly - sometimes
threateningly - required to interpret it, and to justify or
explain its connection to surrounding events.

The plot is simple, yet appropriately full of mysteries, oddities
and jokes. A bloody revolution in some unnamed Americanised state
(the film is shot in LA, but has a broadly South American feel)
has spawned an equally bloody counter-revolution. The streets are
lined with derelicts, armed guerrillas roam the streets, fires
rage, and corruption is rife. Everyone is glum-faced and
trigger-happy - especially since the President is dying, and his
successor seems likely to (and eventually does) release a new
tide of anarchy on the country.

In the midst of this mayhem, a benefit concert is organised to
raise funds for medical relief. It's a notion which allows for a
few good asides about rock stars who 'like doing benefits but
only if they're in places they don't get shot', and introduces us
to the apparently washed-out Fate - the only musician willing to
do the gig. We first see him in prison, follow him through the
ravaged city-scape, and eventually watch him join forces with the
concert organisers: Uncle Sweetheart (his former manager,
brilliantly played by John Goodman) and a disillusioned TV
producer (played with equal conviction by Jessica Lange).

Preparations for the concert - which are punctuated by glances
out to the wider world of politics and the state - form the heart
of the film. Set in the confined space of the theatre, and
reminiscent of the Rolling Thunder tour in its weird assemblage
of caravans, impersonators and hangers-on, the set dramatises
Dylan's imagination, and many of the ideas which drive it. Here
we not only meet the backing band - ingeniously called 'Simple
Twist of Fate', and the devoted acolyte Bobby Cupid, but the
Animal Wrangler who forces a conversation about how human beings
are 'held back' by their 'fear of death', and the aggressively
intrusive journalist Tom Friend. Friend (with friends like
these…) admits that newspapers give 'a false map of the world',
but this doesn't stop him bullying Fate into facing difficult
questions about his work and his past. Has Fate engaged directly
enough with the woes of the world? Has he sold out? What do the
words of his songs mean? Is he 'all used up'?

Looked at from one point of view, these questions are all
ridiculous, as well as coarse. The songs we hear Fate rehearsing
for the concert - whether they're Dixie numbers or Dylan's own
material - remind us very movingly that his music has always
married the big issues of our time to his own lyric impulse. From
another stand-point, we value the questions, since they compel
Fate to utter some fundamental verities. 'The secret is in the
ordinary', Fate says; 'the common things of life'.

At the film's savage climax, Friend attacks Uncle Sweetheart, and
is in turn attacked by Fate then Cupid - who murders him. As we
watch the journalist bleed to death, it's hard not to think that
Fate/Dylan is getting his revenge for a lifetime of intrusion -
but when Fate is falsely accused of the murder, and taken off for
sentence, we realise that things are not as straightforward as
that. Fate meets his fate without complaining, and in his silence
seems to assent to the accusation made against him.

On the face of it, Masked and Anonymous is a film about political
corruption, the tensions between religions, and shady business
deals - all subjects close to Dylan's heart. Its deeper concerns
are closer still: do artists have a responsibility to interpret
their work? What value does art have in a corrupt world, and what
use? How can the artist protect his gift from his admirers, let
alone his detractors? And then there's a third and even more
personal level of interrogation. Can happiness be pursued, or
must we wait for it to come to us? Are dreams an acceptable
alternative to realities? Can our tangled relationships with
family and loved ones ever be 'straightened out'?

At all these depths, and in all these respects, the film is
deeply engaging. It is also revelatory - in the paradoxical sense
that it allows Dylan to say some important things out loud, and
to keep the silences, and retain the elements of mystery, which
are essential to his genius. We should ask for nothing else. And
if there are people watching who still can't resist trying to rip
off the mask, and shatter the anonymity - well, they should
concentrate on the face we see in the film, and the music we
hear. The face with its extraordinary mixture of immobility and
expressiveness. The music with its exhilarating sweep and range,
and its delivery in a voice which with every passing year has
become more haunting in its grace, more compelling in its
command.



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