Masked and Anonymous
Top Ten List: #10 of 2003 (U.S. releases)
A 2003 NicksFlickPicks Honoree in Three Categories!
Director: Larry Charles. Cast: Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Mickey Rourke, Angela Bassett, Giovanni Ribisi, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris, Christian Slater, Chris Penn, Tracey Walter, Richard Sarafian, Cheech Marin, Bruce Dern, Susan Tyrrell, Fred Ward, Steven Bauer, Davenia McFadden, Larry Campbell, Tony Garnier, George Receli, Charlie Sexton. Screenplay: Bob Dylan and Larry Charles (pseudonymously as Sergei Petrov and René Fontaine).

Photo © 2003 Sony Pictures Classics
Masked and Anonymous may not be a great movie, not in the strictest sense, whatever the strictest sense is these days. It is, however, the great neglected movie of 2003, a rambunctious, provocative, genre-defying, and constantly surprising experiment that occasionally lands with a thud, but much more often soars on wit, tunefulness, and a piquantly contemporary sense of ire and dismay. It plays a little like Altman's Nashville as directed by Spike Jonze from a script by Amy Goodman, or some other National Public Radio hard-lefty. Plus, star cameos. And great songs. I suppose filmmakers should know by now that delivering unexpected material without any conspicuous "structure" or nifty, face-saving gimmick is a fool's mission, guaranteed to raise hackles or else plain indifference, even among critics and audiences who should frankly know better. Masked and Anonymous was a big-ticket item when it premiered at Sundance '03, and almost immediately plummeted into the valley of the unmentionable, dogged by a reputation for being incoherent and pretentious. I doubt it will catch fire any more on DVD than it did during its nanosecond release in cinemas—but surely more people will take a chance on this scruffy, risky little whatzit and find out they've missed out on one of the real parties of the year?

The blend of wit, tunefulness, and dismay that I mentioned earlier shouldn't be a surprise, given that Masked and Anonymous is largely the handiwork of Bob Dylan, who is variously the star, co-screenwriter, featured singer, real-life model, and lurking shadow of the film, and whose albums are properly lionized for this same beguiling blend of tones. Dylan's stamp is everywhere on the movie: in the broken but hilarious rhythm of the jokes, in the portentous names of the characters (Tom Friend, Pagan Lace, Uncle Sweetheart...), in the political attitude that seems simultaneously shrewd and naïve. And of course, he is visually and aurally unmistakable as Jack Fate, the smudged-up, hobgoblin little folk singer who, at the film's outset, is hauled out of a spider-hole jail in order to appear on a televised benefit concert.

The frayed coat and little bum's cap on his head aren't half as seedy as Dylan's own face: he, not Jamie Lee Curtis, really does look like the Crypt Keeper, and part of the film's bizarre fascination lies in how hyper-aware we are of Dylan's presence and yet how impossible it is to get a bead on that sinking, imploded physique. What does Bob Dylan really look like? Who is he really? Beneath all the sagacious turns of phrase, social protests, and assumed alter egos, Dylan himself has never been easy to find at the surface of his elliptical songs. Even more weirdly, what is true in the songs is also true in peformance. In the film's wondrous little musical numbers, which are largely inserted as tone-setting cutaways rather than diegetic performances, the riddle of Dylan's identity persists. The man's mouth never moves and his expression rarely changes, and yet all these impossible sounds and artful conundrums come streaming from him, as though some lively vaudevillian is still trying to be heard from within this plastic, haunted-looking shell. How does a such a spectral-looking oddball become such a reliable jokester, a vivid raconteur, a nearly indispensable figure in a cultural landscape in which he himself is almost invisible, and illegible? Dylan's ambiguous relation to racial and religious categories (born a Jew but seemingly non-observant and non-identified, himself the father of children with an African-American woman he never married) has only made this man harder to read.

The mysteries of Dylan, which are always a little bit funny and sad and unanswerable, are writ large to compose the entire tone and structure of Masked and Anonymous, whose plot in some ways seems like a totally obvious, even overdetermined scenario, and in other ways seems impossible to grasp. The purpose of the concert is a little vague, though in some sidelong and desperately cynical way its organizers, played by John Goodman and Jessica Lange, profess to be raising money for all the vagabond Americans who have been disenfranchised by a recent military coup. The coup itself, though, and its resulting cultural landscape figure into the movie the same way the concert does: much-discussed but only half-perceived, indicated by all sorts of visual signs which imply that somehow, someway, the order of things has changed. A Latin American general (Richard Sarafian) is now the leader of the nation, but as he withers on its deathbed, Mickey Rourke (!) waits in the wings to inherit his office. The television networks are entirely run by African-American pokerfaces who are gruff in their exercise of power and unapologetic in their pursuit of cash. In one of this very funny movie's most uproarious sight-gags, the poster-sized programming schedule behind the network's conference table bespeaks a new, dank future in reality TV, with hour-long programs like Lava Flow, Slave Trade, and Apocrypha. Art director Bob Ziembecki, who's already proved his mettle on projects like Boogie Nights, is wonderfully cheeky and inventive with his work here. On the one hand, the ragamuffin aesthetic of the movie makes some of his most inspired swoops harder to appreciate; the camera wobbles around through so many crowd scenes and cavernous spaces, you have a hard time catching all the details, and you may even give up trying. Then again, this same aesthetic gives Ziembicki's inventions the aura of hidden, revelatory pleasures when you do notice them. (A second viewing of Masked and Anonymous is, by the way, a great idea.)

As the movie continues, it eschews narrative momentum and character development in favor of a different kind of forward motion, highlighting instead the submerged personal connections bewteen even the unlikeliest people. For example, Jack Fate, the Dylan character, is revealed to be the estranged son of the Latino dictator; their drift away from one another, and maybe even Jack's long imprisonment, are somehow traced to their sharing of Angela Bassett's character as a mistress. (The credits, in a move that would do Heart of Darkness proud, bills this character simply as Mistress.) Tom Friend, the reporter derived by Jeff Bridges from his own Big Lebowski recipe, has a dogged interest in unearthing this scandal, although he had seemed notably indifferent to it when his editor (Bruce Dern) assigned him the story. He hauls his girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) along for his quasi-investigation and then seems perturbed that she seeks out her own conversations with the people they encounter. By the time Bridges' temper really flares, leading to some guitar-busting fisticuffs that go on much longer than the climactic concert itself, the movie does seem overextended and a little lost.

Indeed, perhaps the tonal and structural project of Masked and Anonymous, which seems like a kind of freewheeling incorporation of all kinds of American stock characters, punchlines, and anxieties, is too nebulous and too resistant to narrative principles to hold together for a full two hours. When the film sends Jack Fate on into some uncertain future on a public bus, musing to himself, "What does it mean not to know what the one you love is thinking?", this particular meditation, though quintessentially Dylanish, doesn't really seem like an organic extrapolation from what has come before.

And yet, how new and interesting to watch a movie that does seem quintessentially Dylanish. While acknowledging that the movie isn't a fully satisfying experience, this does seem like one of those cases where a viewer's demand for conventional readability or classical resolution seems much more misguided than the film itself ever is. The movie, particularly near the end, may not cohere quite as impressively as Dylan's most recent album, Love and Theft, though I would argue that both works are possessed of essentially the same spirit, frisky and nostalgic and deceptively lightweight. And yet, there have been many terrific Bob Dylan albums and no memorable Bob Dylan movies: the transcription of his distinctive poetics into a film feels like a tougher and fresher endeavor. Its regard for the rules of cinema is rebellious, to say the least, but what else do we want from a Dylan film? Like Cassavetes' Shadows or Altman's The Long Goodbye, Masked and Anonymous feels a little ramshackle in conception, but the more powerful impression made by the movie, at least for me, is that its bold inconsistency as a total work simultaneously frees the movie to shape flamboyant, libidinous characters and vivid, isolated anecdotes that would necessarily be dulled by any movie that needed to wrest them into a generic format. It's so rare these days, especially as "independent film" becomes such a gentrified, almost meaningless term, to see a movie whose single apparent desire is to press the moviegoing experience into some new realm, some totally off-the-wall grammar that doesn't just repeat the same, tired notions of postmodernist fracturation (viz. I??rritu's 21 Grams). I hated Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66, which I found preening and grossly lascivious, never demonstrating Gallo's alter ego to be any better or more interesting than the worst slanders of his enemies would have us believe. At the same time, it's the most recent film I can think of that seems as happily, scrappily disobedient to audience expectations as Masked and Anonymous, and perhaps since Dylan is a much more estimable wit and blurrier enigma than Gallo, Masked and Anonymous feels like a far worthier project, deserving of our benefit of the doubt even when it seems to lurch or sputter.

And even then, if Masked and Anonymous never wins you over to its unique vibe, the banquet of spirited performances offer pleasures of their own. Jessica Lange and John Goodman, radiating the spunky energy of longtime friends and comfortable improvisers, have a ball playing two avowed vultures of the Hollywood disestablishment, and the actors' joy is contagious. Lange in particular is wonderfully fetching, her performance choices as boldly frilly as her couture outfits. Besides that fantastic scene where Lange begs for mercy from the Lava Flow producers, Lange has a great, throwaway moment where she has to describe the "plot" of "Jailhouse Rock" for Jack Fate, who's been assigned to perform the song during the telecast. She can't quite hold back her own giggles, whether at the asinine scenario of "Jailhouse Rock" or at the by-now alien notion that even "political" performers need to mean or even know what they are singing. As Lange's character observes earlier in the script, "The only way to get big stars to do TV is to give them an award or invite them to do a benefit." Her complete indifference as to whom is being "benefitted" would be even more scandalous if it didn't seem like such a refreshingly honest testimony—one of several moments where Masked and Anonymous feels like a corporate-Hollywood satire at least on the level of The Player. And besides all that, it's so good to see Jessie doing comedy again, after the long drought since Tootsie, and after all those waspish meanies from Hush and Titus.

Dylan's performance, too, is a gas. One big reason is that his mealy persona is such an engrossing oddity even when he isn't trying—and truly, he does seem confused and limited on more than one occasion. The other joy of the performance, which again has little to do with design or intention, is that it forces lots of more practiced pros (Bassett, Bridges, Rourke) and amiable upstarts (Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi) into some interesting actor's dilemmas: how on earth do you share a scene with Bob Dylan? Most of them respond with stylized impersonations that will jar fans of "good acting" but would fit right at home in the Dylan songbook. The variety of personalities and moods among all these walk-on characters is a lot of the fun of Masked and Anonymous; it saddens me that, for so many reviewers, it's just been a labor to sit through. Which isn't to say I have any idea what to make of Ed Harris' blackface guitarist or Val Kilmer's blind animal wrangler, except that I'm inclined to enjoy any movie that can bring them into such proximity, enveloping them within a musical portfolio that puts them strangely right at home.

And oh, those songs. Of course, neither Dylan's performance nor the movie are complete without the songs. We don't hear much of the tried-and-true Dylan standards, though cover versions, not all of them in English, hover over several scenes in the movie, and a ten-year-old girl belts out a memorable "The Times, They Are A-Changing"...memorable in large part because only a sad world can produce a ten-year-old who feels this song. While all these others do proud by his songs, Dylan is elsewhere fiddling around with the American folkie and regional repertoires. His rendition of "Dixie" is a showstopper, and even better is his version of the rueful "I'll Remember You," which director Larry Charles—yes, this film has a director—uses as the occasion for a strangely melancholy character montage unlike anything else in the movie. Again, the visual emblem I hark back to is Lange, who has shut her trailer door to all the carnivalesque human comedy outside and is lying in some sort of reverie: erotic, exhausted, disappointed?

Nothing else in Lange's performance anticipates this moment, but the effect isn't incongruous: it's as though the music has coaxed a whole new facet of the character, unmasking a loneliness that few people outwardly exhibit in Masked and Anonymous but which feels, suddenly, like the common element uniting them all. The whole film feels like a braid between the strange, colorful figures people cut in public and the bottomless sadness they nurse in private, which again is a passable paraphrase for the underlying timbre of Dylan's music, and a resonant idea for our own troubled times, which apparently hope to drown a growing, growling international heartache beneath fluorescent layers of sensation, titillation, and decay. Masked and Anonymous is too humble and weird and unassuming to be anyone's movie of the year, not in the blurby, hyperbolic sense in which that phrase is usually intended. But in flouting all the rules, even common sense, it winds up evoking better than any fiction film I saw the underlying spiritual disarray of 2003. That's a lot for a movie to accomplish, especially an apparent comedy-satire with no agenda or precedent or plot-foundation anywhere in sight. It's also, for better or worse (worse, I think!), the best-kept secret of the past year at the movies—I hope more viewers find it out. Grade: B+

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