This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past... he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise... This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. --Walter Benjamin, describing Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus," in Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX

At some point early in his career, perhaps in 1965 when he blew up the folk music establishment at the Newport Folk Festival by going electric, Bob Dylan grasped a primary characteristic of American life: the essential mutability of American identity. As a nation and as individuals, we are in a state of constant reinvention, encouraged by our society's fundamental promise of a fresh start and a better way of life. But progress is a double-edged sword, as Dylan learned, for it can lead to an all-consuming belief that whatever is "next" must be "better."

Over the last forty years, Dylan has surely reinvented himself, but he has always managed to avoid falling prey to the latest societal conceit. In fact, the older he gets, the more he seems to be looking backward into the fog of a rapidly vanishing era, trying to locate and preserve the essence of disappearing mythic American figures. The characters in his songs have an archetypal quality to them as if they represent prime numbers of American personality.

Dylan has built a career out of trafficking in identity. He learned early on that in order to survive as the icon of a generation, he would have to be able assume multiple identities. Seen in this light, Dylan's characters eventually becoming indistinguishable from him. Individually they represent slivers of his identity; together they create the personal mosaic that Dylan has chosen to reveal to us. In the end, Dylan himself disappears; there are only the songs, the stories, the characters and the meanings we draw from them.

As inscrutable as the enigmatic characters that populate his songs, Dylan has always shied away from the glare of popular society as it hurtles head-first with breathless anticipation toward a newer, faster, "better" existence. Ever since he plugged in that day in Newport and created his own legend, his own past, Dylan has always looked back, like Benjamin's angel of history. Quietly surveying the wreckage accumulating in the wake of modernity, Dylan operates like a shape-shifter, moving alone in the night amongst archetypal American ghosts, unable to alter their fate.

In Masked and Anonymous, his new film, Dylan takes a rare look forward, envisioning an American future that is every bit as dysfunctional as the one he has always described in his songs, only less romantic, with more dystopian brutality. True to form, Dylan surrounds himself with the essential American figures of his imagination. The gang is all here: criminals, hookers, jackbooted thugs, crooked politicians, unscrupulous promoters, nihilistic reporters, existential roadies and tragic drifters. What is new is a decidedly despairing prognosis of the future of America. War, poverty, and chaos are everywhere and threaten to overpower humanity with an immediacy not previously felt from Dylan's art.

Dylan has always been political. But the singular tragedy of love, not society's failed promises, has been the most powerful emotional force in Dylan's music. "Hurricane," "Idiot Wind" and "Positively Fourth Street" portray a hypocritical society cannibalizing itself. But "Isis," "Meet Me in the Morning" and "Simple Twist of Fate" portray a more personal tragedy: unfulfilled love.

In Masked and Anonymous, however, love of any kind, unfulfilled or otherwise, is hard to come by. The nearest thing to a love-interest Dylan has is a prostitute, who may or may not be his mother, played with grace by Angela Bassett. For the most part though, love is treated as an occasionally fatal health hazard to be avoided.

The film is set in the not too distant future, somewhere in America, and depicts a late modern society under siege from within. Unseen terrorists have destabilized the country as a decrepit and weakened despot (Richard Sarafian) slowly nears death. As society crumbles into an apocalyptic montage of terror and war, the despot's calculating son (Mickey Rourke) awaits his father's demise so that he may seize power and further eviscerate what remains of law and liberty.

Dylan plays faded rock legend Jack Fate, who is released from prison to perform at a benefit concert for the victims of the revolution, organized by an unscrupulous promoter named Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman). Sweetheart plans to steal the concert's revenue, and ominous thugs appear throughout the film to remind him of his debts. Goodman emulates the fat, drunk, disturbed oaf that he perfected in Barton Fink, with results that bear comparison to that film.

As protagonist Fate, Dylan spends much of the film listening to others speak at him, particularly a self-absorbed and damaged rock critic (Jeff Bridges.) Fate observes the critic's narcissism from a coolly aloof distance, seeming both bored by his self-absorption and somehow unable to fully understand it.

The only time Fate actually shows emotion is at his father's deathbed, in a scene that evokes Christian imagery and nods at Dylan's "religious phase." For the rest of the film, however, Fate encounters those trying to exploit him with an obtuse contempt, preferring to remain silent while they slowly humiliate themselves before him.

As for Dylan the actor, once the shock of actually seeing him walk and talk on the big screen wears off, it becomes clear that Masked and Anonymous, for which he and Larry Charles get pseudonymous screenwriting credits (as Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine respectively), is not a very well constructed film. While the set design is vivid and the acting occasionally earnest and engaging, the plot lacks direction and the dialogue is full of predictable clich├ęs. Ultimately, the film disappoints by failing to live up to the promise of its considerable ambition and pedigree.

The best performance of Masked and Anonymous comes when a confused, frantic young man, (Giovanni Ribisi) tells Fate how as a rebellious youth he left his mountain village to join the revolution against the government. He quickly becomes disillusioned with his rebel comrades, so he switches sides and joins the government counter-insurgency force. But he soon remembers why he hated the government in the first place and vows to return to his mountain village and rejoin the revolution. When he arrives home, he finds only a decaying shell of his former life.

This character is like Dylan himself: refusing to stay very long in one place, he traverses back and forth across the terrain of American identity in search of meaning and a rapidly vanishing past. And like Benjamin's Angel of History, Dylan watches helplessly as corpses, ideals and dreams, the detritus of modernity, accumulate at his feet as he hurtles backward into the future.

Sam Gustin
JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 8/11/03]

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