Masked and Anonymous
by Andrew Motion
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.
Andrew Motion is Poet Laureate of Great Britain