Masked and Anonymous

Of course it’s ludicrous to discuss Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous as a movie. It only signifies as part of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, as a kind of self-mythologizing metacommentary on his persona(s) and his music.
For what it’s worth, Masked and Anonymous has a barely coherent plot, apocalyptic themes, and gnomic utterances by everyone in the cast. Dylan himself is the enigmatic absence at the center, much as he was in his earlier cinematic opus, Reynaldo and Clara. He sings and plays, and everything in the movie revolves around him, but his actual lines are few and far between, and his actual role in the narrative (such as it is) is minimal and passive.
Now, I’m not one of those Dylanologists, like Greil Marcus and Christopher Ricks, who analyze every line, every tic, every verbal or musical allusion in Dylan’s collected works for hidden depths of significance. It seems to me, when I’ve read such analyses, that they don’t get me very far into understanding the affective power of Dylan’s music. And power the music does have, although intermittently: for every masterpiece like Bringing It All Back Home or Blood on the Tracks or Love and Theft, there’s been a real stinker like Self-Portrait or Street Legal or (sorry, gospel fans and Dylan revisionists) Slow Train Coming.
Masked and Anonymous is interesting for Dylan’s ravaged look — although when he’s on stage, or otherwise opens his mouth, he seems to have weathered his 62 years much better than this look itself would indicate — and in general for the game it plays of making Dylan charismatic precisely by denying us any possibility of an affective connection to him. Nothing is more alluring than the impossibility of pinning another person down: this is what fuels fascination, with a love object or with a celebrity. Dylan just pushes it to an almost absurd ne plus ultra, by being impenetrable to the point of an apocalyptic collapse into a black hole, or some other form of uninterpretable nothingness. There is actually no solution to the enigma, because there isn’t really anything there at all. It’s stupid, but realizing this somehow doesn’t free us from being under the enigma’s spell.
But what does this really tell us about the music, as opposed to the artist’s persona?
(I’m aware, of course, that one can only imperfectly separate the two).
Penelope Cruz’s character in Masked and Anonymous remarks at one point that Dylan’s songs are great because they are completely open to interpretation, they can mean anything you want them to. I don’t believe this for a second; I think that the ambiguities and jokes and mysteries that the Dylanologists enumerate at such exhaustive length are really just smoke and mirrors, distracting us so that the emotional impact of the songs can punch its way through our defenses, and wrench us inside. (And I don’t mean to imply that Dylan has just one emotional tone, either; there’s a great distance between the prophetic surrealism of Bringing It All Back Home, the excruciating intimacy of Blood on the Tracks , and the old man’s jesting apocalypticism of Love and Theft; and the bad albums I mentioned above are themselves failed experiments in generating other affects and moods).
So my final take on Masked and Anonymous is something like this: I enjoyed it, sort of, though not enough to want to ever see it again; I don’t buy its intimations of summing up what/who Dylan really is (and I really don’t care); but I did love how the soundtrack was suffused with versions of Dylan’s songs played by numerous other bands and musicians, in various languages in addition to English, as if the entire world of sound and music had been recreated in Dylan’s image (if that is not too mixed a metaphor).

4 Responses to “Masked and Anonymous”

  1. http://www.diepunyhumans.com/archives/000235.html

    Steven Shaviro on Bob Dylan: Masked and Anonymous is interesting for Dylan’s ravaged look — although when he’s on stage, or otherwise opens his mouth, he seems to have weathered his 62 years much better than this look itself would…

  2. Masked & Anonymous

    Here’s what my ex-prof Steven Shaviro had to say about Masked & Anonymous, which was just recommended to me by my dear Mum….

  3. roBlog says:

    Dylan as affect wall

    The Pinocchio Theory: Masked and Anonymous Cool article about a Dylan movie I haven’t heard about, plus a neat thingy about his affect as a wall between him and us. Implies that Dylan does it on purpose. Interesting read. “Dylan…

  4. Masked & Anonymous

    Here’s what my ex-prof Steven Shaviro had to say about Masked & Anonymous, which was just recommended to me by my dear Mum….