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On Re-watching "Masked and Anonymous" in the Age of Trump

article by Kevin Harvey


I should probably start by admitting that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Bob Dylan’s    one foray into poetry/free form literature, TARANTULA, a book I like more each time I read it. 
Only now after decades have I learned to recognize individual passages on sight. Experiencing TARANTULA is like looking into mirror and seeing a different face staring back.  Tarantula, quite simply, is a different book every time I read it. I realize that this is true of a great deal of fiction, but not to the disorienting degree of Tarantula.  What it did, that matters here today, is it trained me to hold off on making any quick decisions about any Bob Dylan release.  What works for Tarantula works equally well with his music: Empire Burlesque shrinks over time; Self Portrait opens up, deepens; Infidels feels freeze-dried; Under a Red Sky is sort of fun in a crappy way - Born in Time
is magnificent.

So think for a moment about Dylan on film: Don’t Look Back is a classic; Pat Garret and Billy the Kid is a terrific western, for which Bob can take no credit.  The full- length Reynaldo and Clara, seen the week it opened at the Waverly, was too long to digest, too clogged to comment on: David Blue? What exactly was he talking about? The edited version, screened a couple of years later at a college, felt stranger.  The street interviews were gone, but was this a one-scene movie with a couple of hours of padding? Or a misunderstood Dimensional Gateway? I’ve never re-seen Hearts on Fire, made during Bob’s Earing Period.  I did like watching him drive a truck.  There was something weirdly intimate about it.  Elvis could drive anything and did. McCartney actually handled a tugboat in one of his promotional documentaries; which made no sense but was still okay; but Bob in the truck was something else entirely.  He was there, doing something you never expected he’d do, and the scene was suddenly alive in the sneaky way that only film can be suddenly, shockingly alive. Think of Brando trying to pull on Eva Saint Marie’s glove or Chris Walken telling Dennis Hopper: I haven’t killed anyone in years, but I’m going to kill you.  Which brings me, I guess, to Masked and Anonymous.

Some films are every other time movies: Easy Rider, after many a year, is ragged and phony, even dull.  Two years later, a masterpiece still capable of stopping your heart.  Performance: a tedious, pompous, ass-pain; re-mastered on the right night an extraordinary document that captures the period like no other.  (Hey, I never noticed that Mick is painting a red wall black!)  Of course, I liked Masked and Anonymous the first time I watched it on screen: How could I not? It was odd, full of great in-jokes, unpredictable, and it starred Bob.  Watched again, the day the DVD was released,
I was disappointed.  It was okay, but self-conscious to a fault.  Two weeks into the Trump administration I realized I NEEDED to watch it again. Something told me that Bob might have
been on to something.
  
Which is putting it mildly.  M and A might be the most prescient of rock movies; quite a few capture the moment perfectly, even looking ahead a bit. None saw the themes and textures of what was coming with the stunning accuracy of Masked and Anonymous: it caught the cross-cultural fear of
an impending Police State, the whiff of the dictator, the possibility of crimeless arrest and Kafkian
jail time, the need to allow a young Black girl to sing a totally unexpected song, the new context of the song Dixie, the proximity of violence against a debased media.  Ending with Dylan, Jack Fate for two hours, arrested, on his way back to prison, staring at the viewer, daring us to get it. The film, ending with the arrest of a liberal icon, is nothing less than a dead-on prediction of the Trump years, a dozen years ahead of its time. Watch it again.  Had we been listening the year it came out, we might have heard him singing: Two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl.  But then he’d already told us that - and we know he never repeats himself.