Something’s always happening in the world of Bob Dylan, even if you don’t know what it is, but this fall sees an unusual amount of activity on the part of the Bard of Minnesota. Before the end of the year, he will exhibit new paintings in Denmark (and release an accompanying coffee table book, “The Brazil Series”), as well as release two new CD sets: the 9th installment of the official Bootleg Series, focusing on demos recorded in the early ’60s, and an 8 disc set of his first 8 albums in mono (the way they were originally meant to be heard), all on compact disc for the first time. And of course, his never-ending tour will roll on with fall dates across the U.S., including a show in Champaign on October 22nd.
To commemorate, here is an essay I wrote about Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s unjustly maligned 2003 movie collaboration with director Larry Charles. The original version appeared in the English Dylan fanzine “Isis” but this has been substantially reworked.
Masked and Anonymous Unmasked
“I’m in the amusement business, along with theme parks, popcorn and horror shows.”
– Bob Dylan
“What’s so bad about being misunderstood?”
– Bob Dylan
You would probably have to look to Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless Bob Dylan has cited as the kind of film that made him feel like he could make films himself, to find a movie as audaciously perverse in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s 2003 (and presumably final) foray into fictional narrative filmmaking. Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum might as well have been describing Masked and Anonymous when he wrote in the late 1980s that Godard’s King Lear “. . . has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form – director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics – look, and presumably feel, rather silly.” Like most of Dylan’s post-Don’t Look Back filmic output, Masked and Anonymous was considered a mess by most critics upon its initial release while simultaneously being hailed as a masterpiece by members of the Dylan faithful. Larry Charles, the film’s director, would later split the difference, pronouncing the film a “messterpiece.”
When news broke in 2002 that the legendary singer/songwriter might return to the big screen after a fifteen year hiatus (his starring role in Hearts of Fire in 1987 being the arguable nadir of his career in any medium), it was couched in the disingenuous terms that Dylan was “in negotiations” to star in a new film. It was soon discovered that Dylan was in fact responsible for the film’s conception and that he and Charles co-wrote the film under the pseudonyms Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Yet right up until the film’s Sundance premiere, many Dylan fans thought it was some kind of elaborate hoax. And who could blame them? Prior to production, press reports suggested Dylan would play the ridiculously named “Jack Fate,” a jailed musician sprung from prison to play a benefit concert, the aim of which was to “save the world.”
The curiosity and confusion aroused by the film’s seemingly outrageous concept was then exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding the film’s production and the almost daily updates of an increasingly long list of Hollywood stars (Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and so on) who agreed to work for scale for a chance to share the screen with Dylan. Shot on digital video in just twenty days in the summer of 2002 and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result turned out to be a dense collage of image and sound, a film that almost overwhelms the senses but never quite does, regularly threatening to plunge the viewer into some horrific, unfathomable abyss but continually pulling back from the brink in a strange spirit of shaggy-dog-tale charm.
The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal and portentous, all adjectives we’ve come to associate with Dylan’s work as a recording artist. Larry Charles has been quoted as saying, “I tried to make it like a Bob Dylan song,” which appears to be the strategy of anyone directing a Bob Dylan film, including Todd Haynes and Dylan himself. Whether or not this is desirable or even possible is open to debate but Masked and Anonymous is probably more successful in capturing the “feel” of Dylan’s music than any other Dylan movie. This is no doubt in part due to a cut-and-paste style of screenwriting that mirrors Dylan’s own songwriting process; in describing the writing of the film, Charles said, “He [Dylan] had a pile of scrap paper with little notes written on them. He threw them down on the table like a jigsaw, and we started playing with the pieces. . . . One thing about working with Dylan is you learn to trust your instincts.” Charles also confirmed that lines that began as dialogue in Masked and Anonymous ended up as lyrics on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album and vice versa (“I’m no pig without a wig” from the song “High Water” being one such example).
Of course, songwriting and filmmaking are vastly different art forms and Dylan-the-songwriter’s latter-day fondness for allusion, quotation and theft doesn’t always successfully translate into film dialogue as meant to be spoken by coherent, three-dimensional characters. But in a risk-averse age where more and more American indie films function merely as Hollywood calling cards, Dylan and Charles’ complete lack of interest in creating Screenwriting 101-style characters is so pronounced that they should be applauded for the sheer audacity of turning their backs on the demands of commercial narrative cinema alone. Unfortunately, Dylan’s status as an interloper from another medium, even if a legendary one, has made it all too easy to write Masked and Anonymous off as nothing more than a “vanity project,” as Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics have done.
One thing we didn’t know in 2003 that has since become obvious in hindsight is that Larry Charles, a veteran Seinfeld writer making his feature film début with Masked and Anonymous, developed into a very interesting director, a kind of “invisible auteur” along the lines of Raul Ruiz. Although all of Charles’ movies share stylistic and thematic similarities, he is hardly ever credited as the dominant creative force behind these films; due to his habit of collaborating with co-writers/lead actors with bigger than life personalities, Masked and Anonymous is seen as a “Dylan film,” Borat and Bruno are seen as “Sasha Baron-Cohen films” and Religulous is a “Bill Maher film.” Yet all of these movies are unified by their status as subversive political satires that attempt to blur the line between documentary and fiction. Masked and Anonymous is especially interesting as a companion piece to Borat in this regard since both films are essentially about the creation of government-sponsored, made-for-television documentaries (the aforementioned “benefit concert” and Baron-Cohen’s foreigner’s eye-view work of video journalism).
If Borat and Bruno seem like quintessentially 21st century, YouTube-age films (especially by way of enticing audiences into google-searching anecdotes about their methods of production so as to determine what is “real” and what is not), Masked and Anonymous melds fiction and documentary in a way that looks more to Hollywood’s past. In writing about the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age, film scholar John Belton has noted, “Musical sequences interrupt the linear flow of necessity – the narrative – and release the actors from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a world of pure spectacle: in this fantasy world, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and others drop the pretense, for a moment, that they are playing characters and perform for us simply as Astaire and Kelly.”
A similar shift occurs in Masked and Anonymous whenever “Jack Fate” plays a Bob Dylan song with Dylan’s touring band, and Charles and Dylan muddy the waters further by self-consciously studding the film with references to Dylan’s life and career. The result is a fascinating self-criticism of the myth by the author, perhaps the only kind possible when the author is a “living legend.” In this respect, the film most comparable from the history of cinema may be Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, another highly personal and thinly disguised self-portrait by a master in his autumn years. (One obvious allusion to Dylan’s career is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan’s own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman’s size and boorish demeanor don’t give it away, the Coke-bottle glasses do. And a similar case can be made for Luke Wilson’s Bobby Cupid, who bears a strong resemblance to Dylan’s former road manager, Bobby Neuwirth.) Ultimately, what these personal references suggest is that, like Chaplin’s Calvero, Jack Fate the washed up troubadour is both Dylan’s fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.
The story: in an alternate-reality, civil war-torn America, Jack Fate, a legendary singer jailed for unspecified crimes, is released from prison on the condition he agrees to play a benefit show live on television. As he gradually makes his way to the sound stage where the show will be held, Fate’s first significant encounter is on a bus with a confused young soldier played by Givovanni Ribisi. The soldier regales Fate with a monologue about joining a group of insurgents, only to realize that these rebels are being funded by the very government they mean to topple. When the young man finally admits that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality, you don’t know whether to laugh or scream; it’s the story of John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” as told by Italo Calvino. Fate laconically responds that he no longer pays attention to his own dreams. This scene sets a tone and a narrative pattern that the rest of the film follows; the plot proceeds in fits and starts as the taciturn Fate encounters a series of eccentric, speechifying characters, each of whom reminds him in some way of his past. Flashbacks are introduced to Fate’s childhood and we learn that the troubadour is actually the son of America’s dying, dictator-like President.
Subplots involving the President’s former mistress (Angela Bassett) and a Vice President (Mickey Rourke) who is preparing to take over the position that once seemed destined for Fate, indicate that Charles and Dylan had Shakespeare on the brain. Apparently without trying to be perverse, Charles has mentioned Shakespeare and John Cassavetes in the same breath as influences on Masked and Anonymous. As befitting such a wild hybrid, the film’s structure is alternately “loose” (a bunch of actors wandering around warehouse-like interiors and shouting cryptic, occasionally meaningless dialogue at each other) and “tight” (a surprisingly elegant symbolic use of staircases in the film’s most crucial scenes). To direct the heavyweight Hollywood cast to speak the script’s poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors, for the most part, do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony.
Everyone that is except for Bob Dylan. Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and Charles gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Dylan’s deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it’s like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the 1940s and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science fiction landscape – the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remain hilariously intact. Of course, Dylan’s non-acting was offered as Exhibit A by most critics who wanted to write the film off as a folly but I would give most of post-9/11 American cinema for that one shot, “badly acted” but infinitely moving and worthy of Robert Bresson, in which Fate visits his father’s deathbed and looks toward the heavens with glycerine tears streaming down his cheeks.
At the film’s Sundance premiere, Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him not to worry about the film “in the short term.” The film was indeed a critical and commercial disappointment in 2003. But, like the story of the tortoise and the hare, years later Masked and Anonymous is holding up just fine on DVD, looking better and more interesting than most of the acclaimed American films that surrounded it at the time of its release.
Me and director Larry Charles at the film’s 2003 Sundance premiere
For a list of Dylan references in my own short film, At Last, Okemah!, go here:
1. Gunderson, Edna. “USATODAY.com – Tell It like It Is.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 09 Sept. 2001. Web. 19 Aug. 2010.
2. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Importance of Being Perverse”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.
3. Belton, John. American Cinema, American Culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.