But if you think that life can be prolonged
by the breath of mortal fame,
yet when the slow time robs you of this too,
then there awaits you but a second death.
with Bob Dylan’s weird, iridescent shell of a picture that washed up on this summer’s beach of bad films was in Ron Rosenbaum’s column for the New York Observer. The gist of Rosenbaum’s article—that if Dylan had a friend left on earth he would have been prevented from creating this pearl of pomposity—did not leave me overly expectant when friends and semi-serious Dylan fans came up from Philadelphia to see the film in its opening week. I went along anyhow, sparing them the details of the Observer review, and saw a movie that was, from all technical, cinematic, and literary angles, a bad one and a schlocky one, but rarely boring and not without charm.
We left the theater discussing the tragic nature of fame and decided that talent was better off without it. I suppose one could argue that this is precisely what the old troubadour wanted us to think. Maybe this was Dylan’s Hapworth 16, 1924, his version of the notoriously mediocre last published work of J. D. Salinger (coincidentally, also panned in Rosenbaum’s column), a book some theorize was released by the author to intentionally obscure his venerated name; to close the door of history gently as he left.
The foremost irony in Masked and Anonymous is that no one in it is masked and certainly none are anonymous. The cast is nothing but a list of names, many of whom we know have talent but don’t deign to make use of it here, maybe for fear of internalizing the leaden one-liners that make up the script. Perhaps Dylan, playing the character of Jack Fate, is searching for some kind of anonymity in laying such an egg of a film, yet it is an ironically public anonymity. In fact, the entire movie is a Zen-like exercise in capturing this elusive paradox: the famous everyman, the private star, the public mystery. Look at me—I’m nobody just like you.
First of all, why make a film about being harassed by the press and misunderstood by the world more than twenty years after the press has stopped harassing you and the public has given up trying to figure you out? One would think Dylan’s documents would be declassified by now. Quite the contrary. Rather than providing insight into the old bard’s life, Masked and Anon is a blatant attempt to resurrect the mystery of his existence, to allow him to enjoy a kind of mythological Shakespearian inscrutability while still alive. Maybe I’m really not Bob Dylan. Maybe I’m ten people writing in an underground bunker in Venice. Maybe I’m Francis Bacon.
Bob Dylan, puffed up as he may have become, has always kept an eye on the changing of the times. There is a grave evil that The Bob has observed under the sun: Because of the VH-1 “where-are-they-now” phenomenon, the rise in retro hyper-categorization among the nouveau hip, the techno-codification of culture, and that hallowed emissary from the future of television, The Osbournes, the death of one’s fame now occurs within one’s lifetime. The second death lamented by the medieval philosopher Boethius, the one that comes with the destruction or obsolescence of your fame, now precedes the first.
American fame has always been about the union of deeply fragile human qualities with divine omnipresence. Perhaps because of some vestigial aversion to the Arian Heresy, we crown as our biggest stars those whose humanity is undiminished by their divinity and vice versa. Britney Spears (an anagram for “Presbyterians” . . . coincidence?) is obviously fully human, someone whose course to stardom had been charted by her parents as far back as her preschool days. On the other hand, there was no question of her divinity, if only momentary, during halftime at the 2001 Super Bowl.
This formula has been applied more or less successfully since Elvis. Yet now, in late-stage pop culture, the molecule of fame has proven unstable. For the star not fortunate enough to die young, a split between the human and divine personae is inevitable. The fallen star, divorced from the substance of a life’s work, becomes not only post-famous but, having died once already, post-mortal.
Of course, the accelerated death of fame is as old as pop. After all, wasn’t this a flaw inherent in the prototype? We all know that the king of rock and roll died fat and stoned and holding court on a porcelain throne. And our favorite novelists have always been proud of the fact that they’re drunk and broke and can’t get laid in real life. The difference is that these fallen gods, these molten hunks of soul that burnt up on reentry, are now made to exist side by side on screen with their divine twins in a breaking of the cultural sound barrier—hence The Osbournes and Behind the Music. Pop itself is now its own entity and is actually moving faster than the stars or the fans or the critics can perceive. Pop culture is now minting itself in a future where humans do not yet exist. The light we see on our TV screens come from thousands of years from now.
But this is a great mystery that is difficult to comprehend. The effect on us is that rather than the story of the working-class British kid from a bleak industrial town who became a howling metal god, we have the story of how the working-class British kid from a bleak industrial town became disoriented middle-aged man, doddering around in a pastel fairytale world on the far edges of reality. The howling god ascended into the stratosphere in a puff of purple smoke somewhere along the way. This transposition of the first and second deaths is only made possible by the work of the classifiers, the kitchifiers, the mock rockers, and the late-night file-sharers.
These elements are the fungi on the trunk of fame and begin contextualizing an artist’s achievement even at its inception, shelving it into a subculture and an era, a genus and a species. The new “death” of the celebrity comes not when a person’s work is destroyed or forgotten, but on the contrary, at its most shining moment, when it is recognized not as the result of one individual genius but as an inevitable, self-creating form. The art becomes cultural currency and the artist is reduced to a craftsman.
As Uncle Sweetheart said in defense of Jake Fate at the beginning of Masked and Anonymous, “Jesus only had to walk on water once to prove his point.” Not so Robert Zimmerman. How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man? Well at one time, I suppose it was one. With the advent of the star as god it became two—onstage and off. Now there are three: Onstage, offstage, and a third when the stage follows you into your living room. Maybe what comes next is a kind of freedom, a way of returning to the ordinary life of an ordinary man.
Ozzie seems to be on the vanguard here, the man with the torch leading our huddled, celebrity masses out of the valley of the shadow of fame. After we watch him acting like a genuine person for a few seasons, (despite being chauffeured around in a talking BMW he does seem genuine) maybe he’ll be let loose, like an astronaut slowly re-acclimated to earth’s gravity after a long sojourn in space.
The outcome of this phenomenon, however, is something no one can foreknow. Ozzy may be simply condemning himself to die a third time—and a fourth and then again and again after that—a kind of celebrity zombie yearning in vain for the comfort of the grave. At any rate, he looks the part. But Dylan, Dylan is the reed that has been broken many a time but will never bend. I for one will put up with his corny films and Kermit-the-Frog-like stage presence just to witness the awesome sight of one old songwriter plummeting stiff-backed, like a cigar store Indian, off this crazy waterfall at the edge of time.
Matthew Kirby lives in Brooklyn. His favorite movies are Baxter (1989), Hana-bi (1997) and Jesus’ Son (1999).