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Masked and Anonymous

Masked and Anonymous - Bob Dylan, Larry Charles      Elvis started out awfully as an actor, a pouty, callow cub in Love Me Tender (1956), but he worked at his craft until he was fairly pliable and comfortable in later movies, between the hot songs. In contrast, Bob Dylan has severely regressed: a coiled, charismatic, sexual presence in the early documentary, Don't Look Now (1967), an amiable eccentric in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), he's now sleepy-eyed, stone-faced, slurry of speech, and uncaringly inert appearing in Masked and Anonymous, his first picture in fifteen years.

     Though he has dialogue, Dylan doesn't really try to act, or bother to emote, and mostly his mind seems blowin' in the breeze. Has there been such a passive, expressionless lead since Bruno S., the stunted and retarded German star of 1970s Werner Herzog movies?

     For the first minutes of Masked and Anonymous, Dylan is in absentia, like waiting for Tartuffe. In an unnamed tropical-clime country somewhere on earth, the country's leader has ordered a celebrity concert, the revenues of which will bring relief to his downtrodden people. But this leader (Richard Sarafian), whose oily portrait in military uniform is on every wall, is a Saddam-like (and Saddam-looking) dictator, who'll keep the money for himself. The loot that he doesn't plunder will line the pockets of a sham rock impresario, Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), and a glam, dyed-blonde producer, Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange.)

     But who should appear live at the charity concert? To Uncle Sweeetheart's chagrin, the "A" list of performers say "No": Paul McCartney, Springsteen, Billy Joel. Without time left to explore the "B" or "C" list, Uncle Sweetheart digs down low for his headliner, opting for the fading, forgotten singer, Jack Fate, whose career he once managed. What choice does he have but to spring Fate from prison?

     Enter Dylan, walking out from a baked, underground, overcrowded cell, the kind where the early Christians were stowed before becoming lions' lunch. Our first sight of Dylan's Jack Fate is an underweight, wilted little man with a Lee Van Cleef mustache, a tight old-fashioned suit, and a Stetson hat: Hank Williams 1950. A wino out of detox. Tossed over his shoulder is a bag holding a change-of-suit, and he's got a guitar in hand. Fate's off to meet with Uncle Sweetheart, but not before, on purpose, taking a packed, third world bus which is heading in the wrong direction.

     As his bus wobbles through the rough terrain, Fate peers out the window at ugly scenes of trash and poverty. Fate's face registers nothing at all. He's equally impassive when an anxious young man without a name (Giovanni Ribisi) sits next to him on the bus and spins a tale of woe. It's a wild monologue of political disillusionment and despair. The young man, repulsed by the dictatorship, joined the rebels trying to topple the government. But the rebels turned out equally corrupt, so he joined a third-stream group of counter-insurgents, who turned out to be secretly paid off by the government. So he joined the government, trying to rout the rebels. But one day, when he was with government forces, those forces did terrible things. So he...

     Though Jack Fate is unaffected and unamused by the twists and jerks of the young man's quixotic saga, it's pretty funny stuff, and the first hint that there's a screenwriter at work behind the loose story. Actually two screenwriters: Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. These are pseudonyms, and one of them has been unveiled: Larry Charles, who also directed Masked and Anonymous. He's an acclaimed television writer for Seinfeld and, more impressive, HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. When the script of Masked and Anonymous has some bite, some misantrhropic acid, credit Charles for supplying it. (And who is the real "Rene Fontaine"? Some say it is Dylan himself.)

     Several more times in the film, Fate stands by while someone he's bumped into talks crazy stuff in his face. There's a great mankind-hating monologue from Val Kilmer, playing a rabid animal activist stroking rabbits and snakes while he holds forth. There's a peculiar, uncomfortable scene with Ed Harris in Al Jolson blackface. What's up with that? And there's a potent scene in which Jeff Bridges, playing a self-congratulatory Hunter Thompson-style reporter, interviews Jack Slade by shouting at him hostile, revved-up questions: why wasn't he at Woodstock like Jimi Hendrix was?

     When Dylan and John Goodman are in the same scene, its Goodman who supplies the energy. When the big fat man reaches out and hugs little Bobby Zimmerman to his barrel chest, it's a puffy catcher's mitt squeezing a baseball.

     Some of the famous actors in the movie have things to do on screen, but not all of them. This isn't the kind of project a performer can ask the director, "What's my motivation?" Figure it out yourself. I have no idea why Luke Wilson, playing someone named Bobby Cupid, saunters into the movie in the middle and hangs around in many scenes. And why in the world did Penelope Cruz agree to appear here as Bridges's moping, cry-baby girfriend? Or Angela Bassett as a one-dimensional mistress?

     In fact, why are all these well-known actors willing to blend into the ensemble in this tiny weird movie? Obviously, Dylan is the draw, their chance to rub against the rock god. It's the way actors go weak in the knees for Robert Altman, and, at moments, Masked and Anonymous feels like a lesser, sketchy Altman picture, one for which (Altman admits this) marijuana flows freely.

     So what else is there to admire about this movie? Certainly the brilliant production design of Bob Ziembecki and the Art Direction of Kristan Andrews. They create a masterful mythical country which sometimes looks like a spot in a Carribean James Bond movie, sometimes like a messy backstage (a movie of a movie?), always something at once African and Hispanic and American. I searched the final credits to figure out what country the film was shot in (Mexico? Honduras? Jamaica?) to discover that it was all made in LA. That's quite a feat, like when Orson Welles lensed the Mexico-set Touch of Evil completely in Santa Monica.

     Also, the live music of Dylan and a band is really superb. He performs six songs on camera, four of his own and two standards, Diamond Joe and Dixie. The latter number is the high point of the whole film, Dylan appropriating the rallying cry of the Confederacy and making the archaic tune, soulfully and spiritually, his pinched-voice own.

     But what's the point of Masked and Anonymous, beyond the fabulous music, and the entertaining riffs by some of the actors, and the fine sets? On a press tour, Larry Charles has described this movie as "Shakespeare done by John Cassavetes" and as a "post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, film noir, spaghetti western." Bob Dylan, of course, isn't talking.

(September, 2003)


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