masked and anonymous

Masked and Anonymous
or, The Birth of a Nation
by Sean Wilentz

"Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row"

--Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row," 1965

"It's a new day. God help you all."
--Edmund in Masked and Anonymous, Larry Charles, director, 2003

Masked and Anonymous is a manic film about the death agonies of one America and a chilling prophecy about the birth of a new one. The dying America is the one that, briefly, made Bob Dylan famous -- and now aging embittered men and women of that era try to do what they once thought would make the world better. They've had that idea of making the world better crushed out of them, but they carry on anyway, without much hope or reason. Others of their generation keep on hustling, living by their lying wits, talking on because it's the only way they can make sure they're not dead. There are still tendrils of beauty in this America - a battered old guitar; a little girl singing an old song about changing times - but they're not going to make it. The times have changed, they are blasted, and things will get ten times worse.

The film is layered. It happens fast, and you won't get all of it the first time around. The themes are familiar to anyone who has attended to Dylan's work over the past forty years: politics, religion, the media, celebrity, entertainment, betrayal, and fate. And the materials from which it is constructed are also Dylan's materials: circus performers, the blues, vaudeville-style jokes and puns, the Bible, old movies, Gene Pitney's song "Town Without Pity," the down-and-out, Shakespeare. Above all, perhaps, it is constructed out of Bob Dylan himself. On Dylan's landmark album Highway 61 Revisited, there is a landmark song, "Desolation Row." One layer of Masked and Anonymous is a film called Desolation Row Revisited. Another layer is a film called The Birth of a Nation.

It is said that Bob Dylan's work is allegorical, and the same thing is bound to be said of Masked and Anonymous. Is it? The answer is: not exactly. Anyone looking, at any level, for exact correspondences between characters, things, and symbols, and history or current events will be disappointed. But the references, gestures, and hints all do pile up. In this way, Masked and Anonymous (like much of Dylan's work) operates as pop sensibility in an American tradition of high allegory going back at least to Melville's Moby-Dick. (Melville, 1851: "I had some vague idea, while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were....) The film's principal character, the famous-long-ago troubadour Jack Fate, has some of Ishmael's detached, fish-eyed, all-observant qualities. The plot, such as it is, touches on things we know happened, but just barely touches them, describing a doomed America that is not exactly any America we know, but one that, like the Pequod, seems about to be splintered and swallowed up in a vortex.

Masked and Anonymous is as rich visually as it is aurally, but no one should be intimidated. There are scenes in the film that, though integral to the whole, stand alone perfectly well, like cuts on an album, and that are simple if sometimes terrifying to comprehend. When Jack Fate runs into the strangely-solid ghost of a banjo-strumming minstrel, the minstrel's message about entertainment, truth, and consequences is plain. When Fate encounters a misanthropic, stuttering animal wrangler, their exchange makes complete sense. There are more than enough scenes like this to carry any viewer along. There are also scenes that are obscure on first viewing, and visual references that fly by unnoticed. (Keep a sharp eye out for exactly where inside the Midas and Judas Building you can find the offices of the evil Doctor Benway from William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch.)

The political layer may be the easiest to see. In an early scene, Jack Fate is riding on the back of a bus to the benefit gig which is the film's central conceit. A band of counter-revolutionaries stops the bus and pulls out the young disillusioned idealist with whom Fate has been talking. The denouement is brutally clear about political manipulation and political violence.

With shocking clarity, the political story in the film builds to prophecy, as the new President Edmund, the usurper, proclaims his regime, in which all collective memory will be wiped out, where real violence will replace manufactured violence, where eagles will scream, and where great nations will fight large wars. Although Bob Dylan long ago renounced any pretensions to being a political seer, commentary that it all the more frightening for its obliqueness runs through this film.

(Bob Dylan's last album "Love and Theft", with its song of destruction "High Water [For Charley Patton]," was officially released on September 11, 2001. The critic Gregory Tate later asked, "What did Bob Dylan know and when did he know it?" Viewing Masked and Anonymous for the first time in high summer, 2003, one is tempted to ask the same question.)

Ten years after Moby-Dick appeared, Melville's prophecy was fulfilled by southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. Masked and Anonymous seems to be seeing and saying something similarly cataclysmic, which is one reason why you will not be able to get it out of your mind and why you will want to see it again.

Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.