Reviews & Criticism

Impressionism, Verlaine and masked and anonymous
by Christopher P. Dunn

It has been said that Oscar Wilde changed the sound of laughter.  We might say that Bob Dylan changed the sound of rock, giving it an intelligence, wit, and imagination.  It is the imagination, or more precisely the imagery, that truly sets his songs apart from all others. 
Countless fans, detractors, and academics have pored over his lyrics in an often ill-fated attempt to find “meaning.”  Meaning, in art, music, and the written word is elusive and Dylan has become a master of the elusive and illusion.  We don’t even know, for example, why he chose the surname “Dylan.”  Matt Dillon?  Dylan Thomas?  The golden-haired boy of Welsh myth?  And we don’t know why he chose particular images, Biblical and literary characters, and apparent non-sequiturs to populate his lyrics.  It is the stuff of his imagination that has fueled ours.
I have written on the parallels between Dylan’s life and lyrics (or, more precisely, his and his characters’ lives as hinted at in his lyrics) and Greek tragedies and the writings of Herman Hesse and Oscar Wilde.  Yet, it is the recent screening of the film “Masked and Anonymous” that has brought it all together; that has provided a more clear view of the artistic nature of the man.
“Masked and Anonymous” will likely not be a major hit, but it shows several sides of Dylan.  First, is the whimsical or what others might mistake as inconsistent.  As Vivian states in Wilde’s The Decay of Lying,  “Who wants to be consistent?  The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people…Not I.  Like Emerson, I write over the door to my library the word ‘whim.’”   The story in “Masked and Anonymous” is, on one level pure whimsy.  It is fantastic, unbelievable, funny, and engaging.
The second and more important is creativity.  It is the characters - Dylan himself being one - that are put in exactly the place identified by Wilde; namely, “The justification of a character in a novel [or film, in this case] is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is.”  In other words, the real people in the novel or film never existed and are complete creations.  It is this ability to create characters that populate his songs and film, and to create characters as surrogates for himself, that elevate Dylan to the pantheon of Wilde’s definition of an artist.  As Wilde’s character Vivian puts it later in The Decay of Lying, “…the object of art is not simple truth, but complex beauty…Art is really a form of exaggeration.”
In fact, art should not imitate (e.g., Norman Rockwell?), but should be creative and imaginative.  A major revolution occurred in art with the works of the French painter, Camille Pissarro.  He has been referred to as the “grandfather of impressionism,” although others such as Monet became much more successful and well known.  Nonetheless, the point is that the success and appeal of impressionism (and the continued popularity of, especially French impressionism) is largely owing to he substitution of the imitative with the imaginative…with imagery.  One has to stand back from an impressionist painting (e.g., think of Monet’s cathedral series) to “get the picture.”  The closer one looks, the less the painting is a painting.  The technique is visible close up, but the image is lost.  The same is true with any great poet or with a great lyricist such as Dylan.  Keep his lyrics and songs at a distance, and they are powerful and resonant.  Get too close, and they fall apart under the weight of scrutiny.  What is meant by that brushstroke, or that word; that colour choice, or that image?
I find Dylan’s work, and especially “Masked and Anonymous,” to be very much impressionist works.  The story, such as it is, will be lost on those who look too closely.  It is best to allow oneself to be enveloped by (rather than to try to swim in) the water.  I say this because impressionist works are by and large, still.  Look at Pissarro’s “The Artist’s Garden at Eragny.”  The woman tending the garden is dead still.  But we know, thanks to Pissarro’s composition and our imaginations, what she is doing and in which direction she is planting or weeding.  The trains in Monet’s railway station paintings hint at power and movement, despite the fact that they are still.  This is very unlike the earlier works of Turner, in which motion (sea, clouds, ships) is explicit.  As talented and as ground-breaking as Turner was in his time, his painting is more imitative than those of the impressionists.
Impressionism goes further, goes beyond painting.  Just as Pissarro lead a revolution against the established art forms, so did Paul Verlaine in poetry.  As one of his translators (Martin Sorrell) has stated, what set Verlaine apart is that he challenged the “hegemony of established metres.”  In his “Art of Poetry,” Verlaine calls for “music above all else, to be produced” by the use of new metres.  Mellarm√© referred to the “art of suggestion” in what was called poetry-music.
Verlaine was much taken with impressionism and saw symbolism as the supreme art form.  The hope, as Martin Sorrell puts it, “was to detach words as far as possible from the flux of the banal and contingent meaning, and to place them instead in the collocations far removed from the approximations of daily usage.”  This makes art (in whatever form) more challenging for the artist and the viewer, the listener and the reader.  But it makes it more real, in the sense that we must question the artist, ourselves, our emotions.
Certainly, one could say that an ambition of poets has always been to make words sing.  But it is an elusive goal and one that has rarely been achieved.  It took Verlaine’s changing the metre of French poetry to make it sing and to give it an impressionistic quality.  His poem “Autumn Song” (perhaps his most famous) is remarkable in that its shape in constantly changing while the whole is maintained.  It is that “don’t look too closely” quality of impressionist art.  Or, as Sorrell puts it, Verlaine’s rhymes have a lightness and “sometimes a freedom bordering on the approximate, and they ring more mellifluously for that.”  Few would deny that Dylan’s lyrics have exactly the same quality.
It is the emotional aspect of impressionism, the primacy of sensation, that characterizes its essence.  Verlaine resorted to tones, colours, and urban settings rather that pastoral ones, in much the same way as Pissarro, Manet, and Monet did with paint on canvas.  They (poets and painters) did not follow a story line, rather that created something static, unmoving, but infinitely more creative and imaginative.  In other words, things are set out unexplained, as Sorrell puts it.
Verlaine’s poem “Dans l’iterminable,” which has been translated as “Endless Sameness,” is a model of impressionism.  A picture is painted, excerpted here:
Endless sameness
Of the plain.
Uncertain snow
Gleams like sand.
A dull matte
Copper sky where
The moon appears
To live and die.
Like large clouds
Shrouded in mist
The oak forests
Nearby float gray…

In a seldom read poem, “White Moon,” Verlaine goes a step further in creating a mood:

White moon
Gleaming among the trees,
From every branch
Sound rising into
The canopies…

Oh my love.
The reflecting pool
Profound mirror
The silhouette
Of the black willow
Weeping in the wind…
A time to dream.
A vast and tender
Seemingly descending
From the heavens
Of coloured stars…
Exquisite hour.
(Modified slightly from Sorrell’s translation)

One operative word when dealing with Verlaine is the untranslatable, but universally recognized, ennui.  It is an explicit elusiveness, so to speak, that inhabits and enlivens his poems.   His “Setting Suns” is another model of movement within stillness.  As Sorrell describes it, it unfolds without going anywhere.

In “Falling Tears on my Heart,” it is this ennui that is both implied and stated explicitly.  Verlaine is feeling grief and pain without knowing why, not unlike sentiments in many of Dylan’s lyrics.  It is the attempt to find out why that is left to the reader, and the analyst.  Far be it from a master poet or lyricist to answer the question for us:

Falling tears in my heart,
Falling rain on the town.
Why this long ache
That pierces my heart?

I’m not happy with all of Sorrell’s translations, so I’ve modified them a little to more closely reflect what Verlaine wrote.  For instance, Sorrell translates, in the next verse of “Falling Tears” the line “Pour un coeur” as “for hearts.”  Sorrell was trying, I presume, to make the poem more universal, but for Verlaine, this was very personal with “un coeur” being his heart.  So,

Oh, soft sound of rain
On ground and roofs!
For a heart full of ennui
Oh the song of the rain!
Where is the story here?  And on he goes:

Tears falling without reason

In my sick heart.
What? No treason?
This grief has no reason.

It is tempting, given the use of words and images, to compare Verlaine’s poem with Dylan’s “Where Teardrops Fall” and to the mood of “masked and anonymous.”  Fair enough.  It is the seeming nihilism of “no reason” that permeates Verlaine (once he freed himself of his earlier realistic phase) and “Masked and Anonymous.”  But “no reason” does not mean worthless or useless or pointless.  To the contrary.

My initial view of “masked and anonymous” was that it was ephemeral, moody, quiet, but full of life, or hints of life.  I thought of some other works, particularly Russian, in which the same quality of the fantastic, unreal, and absurd are portrayed; works like Mikhael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or the recent Life of Insects by Viktor Pelevin.   However, in both, there is too much “action.”

Close, but not quite. 

In any case, be it Verlaine, Pissarro, or “masked and anonymous,” there are many layers that can be peeled away.  We are given glimpses, for instance of who Dylan’s character, Jack Fate is, who the old dying man is, who the journalist (as portrayed by Jeff Bridges) is.  In the case of the latter, I would suggest that the journalist plays the part of the often annoying and intrusive Chorus in Greek tragedy.  Otherwise, the sepia-toned film, the contradictory feelings of movement and inaction, the setting of a mood, of vaguely defined characters…these all invoke impressionism as expressed in the written word by Verlaine.   In fact, these lines from Agamemnon could just have easily have been Dylan's words at the close of  “masked and anonymous:”

Things are where they are, will finish
In the manner fated and neither
Fire beneath nor oil above can soothe
The stubborn anger of the unburnt offering.

But getting back to impressionism; there are numerous parallels in “masked and anonymous” to Dylan’s career, to others’ views of him, to history, to world events, to social and political forces, to examples of “money doesn’t talk, it swears,” that the notion of “shedding one more layer of skin” is an obvious allusion.  Whether this is a clever artistic method or not, the fact is that parallelism is a clear tool of impressionists.  Dylan is Dylan, but is not.  In the film, his father is, but is not.  The story is real, but is not.  The only truth is “fate,” something almost impossible to deal with or conceive.  Yet, even fate is something of a device.  What is, is not.  Just as Monet’s haystacks are, but are not.  And of all the haystacks, which is the “one?”  It’s all an allusion, just as Oscar Wilde would have us believe (“all art is useless”). 

Verlaine, like Dylan, the creator of parallels, of creating contradictions, wrote in his “Allegory” (a section of his larger Parallelement): sadden me, tired and naive subject.
Tell me, which poet among all artists,
Which moody artisan made you,

Faded and worn tapestry,
As banal as an opera set,
As false as my destiny?

“Faded and worn tapestry” evokes a color palette, a mood, a feeling, a smell, just as does “masked and anonymous.”  And the two final lines pull together the arts and human suffering, the centuries carrying the life-blood of artists from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to

Pissarro to Verlaine to Dylan…

It is with the impressionists and particularly with Verlaine, that “masked and anonymous” can be classified and discussed.  Pissarro puts paint to canvas, Verlaine puts words to paper, and in “masked and anonymous,” Dylan puts images to screen…a visual poem, of sorts.  Verlaine and Dylan portray scenes and emotion, rather than stories.  Language is removed, as Sorrell puts it, from the usual conventions of narrative and of the intellectual.  In fact, an intellectual assessment of Dylan is largely a wasted effort, but tempting all the same.  It is not just art we are talking about here, but the art of suggestion.

First Impressions : masked and anonymous
Peter Stone Brown
"Masked and Anonymous" is a wild ride of a movie and to appreciate it it's probably a good idea to try and put any preconceived notions about what a film is or should be aside. This is no typical or standard movie. At the same time where Dylan's other excursions into filmmaking ("Eat The Document," "Renaldo & Clara") may have faltered at times, "Masked And Anonymous" succeeds, but on its own terms.

The storyline and the plot are incidental to the movie. They are pretty much a backdrop or a frame. Basically, (singer) Jack Fate is released from prison to play a benefit concert. You're never exactly sure what it's for. You also don't know why Fate is in prison. What you do know is this is in a war-torn, violent, police state. You're not even sure when this happening though '60s references (particularly to music) abound throughout. The setting is a world gone very wrong where virtually every character apparently has suffered major burnout, and if it's not apparent in their speech, it is in their faces. There is no luxury or relief anywhere in sight, and confusion abounds. Soldiers, armed guards are everywhere. The cars, the rooms are old, dingy, cramped with hints of the third world. The people in the movie are not of any single nationality, race or religion, but it appears they are existing (not exactly living) in some crazed inferno. In almost every scene there is something going on in the background: People doing menial tasks, vacuuming, cleaning, constantly running around - it is rarely quiet. And if they're not doing menial tasks, they're praying though you're never exactly sure what religion they're practicing.

So with that as the backdrop, Nina Veronica (played by Jessica Lange) is trying to promote a benefit to be broadcast by the Network, which is the government. Unable to lure any of the big stars she wants, she contacts manage Uncle Sweetheart, played brilliantly by John Goodman who steals the movie who can only suggest his former client Jack Fate, a has been singer. The Network doesn't want him. Fate as it turns out, is also the son of the dying President whose picture is everywhere. While Fate is apparently considered a laughingstock, you know there's something special about him, which comes out of course in the music - Bob Dylan music. As the camera pans through some desolate urban landscape the opening verse of "Blind Willie McTell" plays and the key line, "This land is condemned" hits hard. Dylan music plays constantly through the film, whether by him or an assortment of covers from all over the world. And it is used to great effect.

And soon it becomes apparent that this movie isn't about Jack Fate at all (or is it?) but it's about Bob Dylan, whoever that is. At the same time, it's not about Bob Dylan, but what Bob Dylan (as Jack Fate) sees. This is his vision and it's not pretty.

Throughout the film various characters, each with their own unique insanity come and go, usually delivering an intense rant along the way. Fate is the mostly silent observer and you know nothing escapes his forlorn eyes. He says little, except when he sings and occasionally delivers fairly revealing commentary over the proceedings.

Various characters can be related to people in Dylan's life. Sweetheart could be based on Albert Grossman, Bobby Cupid, (Luke Wilson) could be loosely based on Bob Neuwirth. Tom Friend, the once hip journalist who constantly pesters Fate with moronic questions ("What did you think about Zappa?" "Why weren't you at Woodstock?") could be based on Al Aronowitz. However, whether they are or not doesn't really matter.

The key to "Masked And Anonymous" isn't in the story or the characters. It's in the background, what's written on the walls, what's playing on the radio, the quick one-liners that slip out in conversation.

Even the acting doesn't matter. Some people, are good, others aren't. Giovanni Ribisi stands out as The Soldier in the beginning of the film as does Ed Harris as Oscar Vogel, a blackface minstrel who mysteriously appears, almost like an angel offering Fate advice when things get extremely desperate.

And while the film's vision is bleak and the commentary unrelenting, it is not without humor. There are both hysterical and silly moments, though being a Dylan fan may help with some of the jokes.

Will "Masked And Anonymous" be a smashing success in the real world whatever that is? Probably not and who cares? Is it landmark cinematic achievement? It doesn't matter. It could become as Michael G. Smith has pointed out on various Internet forums a cult classic, a great midnight movie.

Like "Renaldo & Clara" it is at times like a painting, but this time, probably thanks to Larry Charles directing, it's much more focused.

Consider it another chapter in the Bob Dylan canon. Perhaps the things he's wanted to say he couldn't put in a song, though at times the movie is constructed like a song.

As for the critics and the general public, as this film makes clear, they never got it to begin with.

Those who are seriously interested in Bob Dylan and what he has to say will want to see it more than once because you are not going to get it all the first time.

And for those who wonder what Bob Dylan really thinks about this world we exist in, well you just might find it here.

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