Directed by Larry Charles. USA.  2003.

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When Bob Dylan entered the room at last year’s Sundance Festival, the audience rose for a standing ovation.  After the same audience had finished watching Masked and Anonymous, the director Larry Charles and a handful of actors took to the stage for questions.  The rustle of not one raised hand was heard to break the agonising silence.  The question everybody wanted to hear answered was ‘What were you thinking?’ and it is this query, packed in much more reverential tones, that is the missing crown to top the many studies of Dylan that have been appearing in the serious music press for the last forty years.  With the startling release of Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan’s upfront autobiography, we hope it’s a question he no longer intends to dodge.  This film, undoubtedly penned by the poet’s hand, survives as his last attempt at cover-up.

Set not-so-many years from now, stock footage of marching guerrillas and newsreels of street riots introduces a culture where violence is endemic.  Here war is an Orwellian abstract commitment, referred to in terms that so evidently avoid details that we’re already looking to pin the analogy to present day foreign policy.  Media moguls are linked to politicians by their foreignness and their guns (the government is Hispanic, the TV people and armed guards are black, the all-star impoverished cast are the white oppressed) confusing this film’s scapegoat.  It is perhaps only accidentally racist, for the camera finds vestiges of Mexicana in the cluttered sets, meaning we cannot really be sure if this is the US at all.  Details go under-explained, so that we instead focus on our one source of hope.

There is to be a benefit concert with Jack Fate (Dylan of course) as the only act.  Jack who?  Nobody cares.  The world is at war and there’s gunna be some songs a-sung.  These two fundamentals are retold with such bluntness that only someone who’s never heard of Dylan would not realise that the one is going to be solved by the other.  Jack Fate strolls in, with his thin lips, narrowed eyes and thin and narrow frame.  And are we at all surprised when this man of mystery turns out to have a well-connected family?  Get ready for the deathbed apology scene.  Dylan passes through guarded gates, reminisces with his estranged brother, draws a chair before his ailing father, and then barely gets a chance to not say anything again before we cut to something even more trivial.  The singer seems to have decided that gravitas can be achieved by silence and occasional eyebrow raising.  Yet by only opening his mouth when he’s been given a guitar to strum, Dylan actually manages to redeem this piecemeal film.

To diehard Dylan fans and other moviegoers alike: stick with the soundtrack.  I wouldn’t want the groupies to lose their faith, nor would I want the cineastes to squirm before some of America’s best character players.  Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, John Goodman and Penelope Cruz don’t even make up half of the talented actors on display here.  Talented actors mind, not acting talent; as Larry Charles’ jumpy long takes don’t allow anyone much control of the frame.  This must rank as one of the most democratic directorial efforts ever seen as each performer save Dylan is peered at from an impartial, theatrical distance.  “The world is a stage” (man), says Ed Harris, bizarrely bedecked as a black minstrel.  Characterisations too, rarely extend further than costumes.  Entities like the two crewmen and the animal wrangler (Christian Slater, Chris Penn and Val Kilmer) are pitched just below the level of sophistication attained by Shakespeare’s mechanicals.

Every line of dialogue is constructed with just enough imprecision to hang onto its status as a sentence.  The characters speak as normally as naïve adolescents experimenting with dope.  In other words, they sound like the worst of Dylan’s songs.  This is not that bitchy, and just so you believe me, I did a quick count and found 18 Dylan CDs on my shelves.  I’ve been to his concerts and read essays on his lyrics - I like the music, but my faith is not blind.  True, he is a poet, so long as his poetry is backed by the forced rhythm and tone of the melodies he scores.  Read a decent song alone, and it stands up at times; convert it to prose and it’s meaningless.  We don’t have a long list of the writers that have mastered many mediums.  Dickens’ plays are just about as bad as D. H. Lawrence’s poems.

Dylan’s skill is making his words just un-deconstructable enough to make us want to keep on trying.  Like Hamlet, the music is interesting because its landscape is dotted with many paths each appearing to lead to a place of great beauty, of sublime understanding.  Each path criss-crosses with others, leaving us in a labyrinth of possibilities, more determined than ever to find ‘What were you thinking?’.  Ambiguity - the unanswered question - is his resounding note.  This film too, with its bank of recognisable faces, challenges us to find brilliance in it, then irritates the hell out us when we see nothing.  At one point, the trampy Nina (Lange) overhears a radio broadcast announcing the discovery that the earth turns out to be hollow.  But before we can jump to any conclusions, hear the name of the scientist leading this breakthrough: Dr. Samosa.  The stuffed food bursts the seams of this collision of contradictions.  And it gets worse; this empty earth is crammed with the screams of suffering souls.  Dylan’s need to perform perhaps?  (Some might say his performances themselves.)  But now we’re tangled up in his blues, making half-guesses at revelation.

In an at least consistently incomplete ending, Jack Fate is arrested and imprisoned with unsurprising indifference.  His resignation marks his certainty that it don’t matter anyhow.  Though primed to believe it, Jack Fate’s benefit concert would never end the war, just as Dylan’s songs of protest will never truly rid this world of its hate and hypocrisy.  This is the final dead-end path: this embarrassingly narcissistic exercise actually seeks to argue Dylan’s humility.

Dylan asserts in his Chronicles that he never asked to be the generation’s spokesperson, but once placed on this plateau he wasn’t permitted to descend.  This film contains a journalist (Bridges), who is immediately vilified for no other reason than because he asks questions.  He digs and prods with phrases ostensibly loaded with suggestion, and receives only disinterested silence back.  Eventually a hanger-on lacerates his throat with the jagged shards of a smashed guitar.  The said instrument once belonged to a great singer, and so we’re urged to deduce that musical legend silences the need to know the answers.  Blind faith in the presence of their Messiah has prevented the critics from faulting Dylan.

The likes of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and Dylan’s most anthemic pieces offer general but unquantifiable thoughts about matters of importance.  His current life style, on offer here, is to dash the words out urgently with a final leap upward in pitch at the close of each line.  Lyrics have become evermore incoherent as he strives to retain that indecipherable quality.  Bob Dylan succeeds best as an enigma, and he knows it.  If Chronicles continues to tell the straight truth, if it marks an opening-up as he takes off his many masks, I fear Dylan fans everywhere may be in for a disappointment.

Tim Roberts
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Material Copyright © 2003 Nigel Watson