Looking After Dylan

By Rob Patterson

As any regular reader of this column knows, I am quite the admirer of Bob Dylan. So why did it take me a number of years to finally watch Masked and Anonymous and I’m Not There?

Perhaps it was the experience of fidgeting through the four seemingly long hours of Renaldo and Clara in one of its first public screenings in unexpurgated form back in 1977. And how I don’t wish to be disappointed by a musical artist who, at his best, is the finest songwriter and performer of the modern day.

The scathing reviews of Masked and Anonymous kept me away from that film, and as a reviewer and Dylan buff, I should have known better. In short, the tale of a mysterious musical artist recruited for a benefit show in a chaotic postmodern world is a trip indeed. And to me, a quite delightful one at that.

As director and co-writer Larry Charles explains, “I wanted to make a Bob Dylan movie that was like a Bob Dylan song. One with a lot of layers, that had a lot of poetry, that had a lot of surrealism and was ambiguous and hard to figure out, like a puzzle.” But for those who follow Dylan, the freewheeling star-studded flick, shot in a mere 20 days, makes lots of sense and is both illuminating and at times quite amusing. It also pulls from the roots and edges of early independent cinema (and includes lots of sly in jokes for the Dylan aficionado), and I predict, over time, might well enjoy a reappraisal.

Or as Dylan says in the movie, it all depends on your point of view. After watching it, I called my best friend and fellow Dylanist to tell her how much I liked the widely reviled film. She noted how others we know who are into Dylan all liked Masked and Anonymous. And then there’s the wonderful live musical performances—an element too many dramatic musical films don’t get as essential to conveying the power of rock’n’roll—by Dylan and his best road band of recent years, which are worth the proverbial price of admission alone.

On the other hand is the Todd Haynes directed and written I’m Not There, which uses six different actors to portray Dylan in a rather loose but still revelatory biopic that deservedly won critical acclaim.

In a far different and even more powerful way than Masked and Anonymous, it gets the cryptic and evanescent nature of Bob Dylan, the man and the artist, and is rife with clues, hints and outright statements about who he is and where Dylan’s amazing musical creativity and vision comes from.

I figured that Haynes was the man for such a challenging endeavor, being a fan of his glam-rock movie Velvet Goldmine, which is an obvious and brilliant homage to Citizen Kane, a fact that so-called film buffs show their shallow grasp of cinema by scoffing at when I point that out. There’s much within I’m Not There to be praised, but nothing more so than Cate Blanchett’s riveting portrayal of the mid-’60s Dylan.

The key to both films can be found in such early Dylan lyrics as “he who is not busy being born is busy dying” and how “the answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind.” Dylan is all about metaphor and analogy, and both movies use that starting point to offer vivid and telling portraits of who and what he is for those canny enough to get it.

I wasn’t quite at the point when I saw Renaldo and Clara some three decades ago. But now I must seek out a copy of its original version (the film is not available commercially in that form or the two-hour cut that was later distributed), because I have a strong inkling that I’ll view it far differently now. I’ve come to the point where anything created by Dylan—or in the case of Haynes’s movie, about him by someone who understands the puzzle he may be—should never be dismissed.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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