Dare to be Interesting
Litigation Duties Call

Bad Film 'n' Motion [We're Gonna Penalize You]

Since I am returning to subjects raised in earlier posts, it's time again to consider Bob Dylan.

That gentleman appears in the large ensemble cast of Masked and Anonymous, a film that is opening this week in Los Angeles after previously showing at Sundance. That large cast includes any number of impressive names: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris . . . it goes on and on, up to and including Shirley Jones (!) in the role of "Third-World Prostitute (uncredited)." (Full cast and crew credits are here.)

Interesting actors notwithstanding, the reviews to date are uniformly awful. The review in the Hollywood Reporter [via RottenTomatoes.com - so you can look at all of the disparaging notices] is typical, calling it "a movie bloated with pretension, unplayable scenes, snarled dialogue and an erratic neither-here-nor-there look."

Now, here is the detail that struck me: in the print ad in the Los Angeles Times, a single review is quoted. It is not from any established outlet in the print or broadcast media. It is not from any of the innumerable blurb factories operating online. It is not from some faceless network affiliate in the hinterland [e.g., "A non-stop Oscar-worthy thrill ride for the senses!" Huffy Puffington, UPN, Hoople, North Dakota.] No, this advert trots out a quote from no less a figure than Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate of Great Britain.

Now, the quote in the ad comes from an essay [Danger! Contains Spoilers!] that the Laureate has contributed to the film's online presence. A second such essay -- not quoted in the ad I've seen -- comes from Princeton professor and New Republic contributing editor Sean Wilentz.

The circumstances under which these pieces were written are not entirely clear. There is no way to tell whether the writers' opinions were solicited (or paid for) by the filmmakers. I assume they actually hold the opinions they express, and that these are not the scholarly equivalent of the fabricated blurbs of the fictitious David Manning.

What is clear is that these essays immediately join the ranks of Hopelessly Pretentious and Self-Important Musings that Dylan has long provoked in Deep and Serious Thinkers. Wilentz, as if unable to help himself, even invokes the white whale:

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 Laureate, for his part, praises the film as a sort of apotheosis of all things Dylanesque and provides an exhaustive summary of the plot. He can't seem to sort out just what any of it means, but you can tell that whatever it is is Important:
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'?
Grab your popcorn, America!


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