Dylan in darkest America
In "Masked and Anonymous," this summer's strange and brilliant
must-see film, an aging troubadour is the last gleam of hope in a
corrupt and dictatorial nation.
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By Stephanie Zacharek
July 24, 2003 | There are going to be people who will see "Masked &
Anonymous" five times, if not 20, simply because there are hundreds
(if not thousands) of people in this world who think, "When it comes
to Bob Dylan, why do something just five times when you can do it 20?"
They'll search the movie arduously for every in-joke and reference
(and there are lots); they'll ponder it, fetishize it, pick it apart
as if they were trying to figure out what makes a pocket watch tick.
But my advice is this: See it in one glorious shot, grab as much from
it as you can and run like hell.
I say that not because I hated "Masked & Anonymous," but because I
loved it. "Masked & Anonymous" -- which opens in New York on Thursday,
in Los Angeles on Friday and thereafter in other cities -- is an
exhilarating and sometimes puzzling jumble that explores the dangers
of power, the nature of Americana and the Bob Dylan myth, among many,
many other things. I think the picture is less complicated than it
thinks it is -- although perhaps it's complicated in ways that not
even its director, Larry Charles (who has worked as a writer and
producer on shows like "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You," and directed
several episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), or its star (and,
reportedly, its screenwriter), Bob Dylan, would be able to explain.
But one of the movie's wonders is the way it recontextualizes the work
and legend of Dylan -- even at a time when we may begin wondering if
there are any new contexts for Dylan at all. And another is the way it
reminds us that Dylan is, first if not foremost, a guy with a sense of
"Masked & Anonymous" is a sideways allegory about an alternative
America, a what-if scenario in which our United States -- our republic
-- is ruled by a president who looks more like a South American
dictator. As is usually the case in countries run by dictators, his
image is everywhere, hung with a mix of reverence and contempt. With
his dark nail-brush mustache and his cheap white officer's suit, he
suggests menace more than benevolence.
But in the world of "Masked & Anonymous," it's often impossible to
tell who's good and who's bad. It's not made clear exactly what has
happened in this new America, but we get the sense that sometime a
while back, a group of people tried to change the world, and their
efforts backfired. This is an America torn by civil war. Rebels open
fire on country roads. Innocent people are imprisoned simply for
valuing their freedom. The government controls the media, which is,
incidentally, completely run by black men -- the shows in their lineup
have names like "God's Mistake," "It's Alright, Man" and "Terror Tots"
-- even though, of course, their power is only symbolic.
In the midst of all this, a sleazy concert promoter named Uncle
Sweetheart (John Goodman) and his manipulative, tough-as-bonded-nails
colleague, Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange), are trying to organize a
benefit for war relief -- or something. In reality, it's their own
interests they have at heart. Unable to find a star headliner, they
dig up a legendary has-been, an artist that Uncle Sweetheart used to
manage (and take advantage of) back in the old days: Jack Fate
(Dylan), who has long been imprisoned for an unknown crime.
Fate is a troubadour, an artist who, when he's not in jail, lives for
the sheer thrill of taking his music on the road, bringing it to the
masses. Released from his sentence so he can play the concert, he hits
the road in a cowboy hat and a high-buttoned Hank Williams suit, with
a guitar in one hand and a garment bag slung over his shoulder -- the
uniform and accoutrements of the working musician. He looks dapper and
fit in his Douglas Fairbanks mustache, seemingly none the worse for
the wear after his stint in the clink. Before springing him, his
jailer pronounces, "Keeping people from feeling free is big business,"
and it's just one of many places in "Masked & Anonymous" where you
feel a song coming on -- at least in the metaphorical sense.
In fact, "Masked & Anonymous" is kind of like one long, messy Bob
Dylan song -- or, more specifically, a dream version of a Bob Dylan
song that folds in just about every motif he's ever written about. The
intricacies and not-so-hidden evils of politics, the potency of
religion and symbols, hypocrisy, love, betrayal: You name it, "Masked
& Anonymous" has it.
Through it all, Dylan's Jack Fate wanders like a grizzled Candide. The
great joke of "Masked & Anonymous" is that for once, everything Dylan
says is clear and comprehensible; it's everyone else around him who's
mad. He takes it all in, sometimes bemused and sometimes amused, and
sometimes clearly angry. In one of the movie's funniest sequences,
Uncle Sweetheart and Nina Veronica give Fate a list of songs the
government has insisted he play (they include "Street Fighting Man"
and "Eve of Destruction"). Later, they hand him the words to
"Jailhouse Rock," but he brushes them away, obviously miffed beneath
his cool demeanor. His explanation (as if he needed one) is like a
deadpan sermon. He asks Sweetheart if he knows what cellulose is, and
then goes on to explain. "It's in the grass. Cows can digest it, but
you can't. And neither can I."
Fate's journey back into the outside world brings him into contact
with a misanthropic animal freak (Val Kilmer), a ghost from his
daddy's past (Ed Harris), a squeaky-mouse religious obsessive named
Pagan Lace (Penelope Cruz, who is, for once, funny instead of merely
annoying) and, perhaps the most brilliantly realistic character, an
arrogant rock journalist (Jeff Bridges) who doesn't ask questions so
much as spew fountains of opinion. The images in "Masked & Anonymous"
highlight the ways the stuff of entertainment often becomes legend,
and vice versa: There are allusions to circus sideshows, to the legacy
of minstrelsy, to the legend of Staggerlee (who, famously, and for
reasons no one knows, shot Billy Lyons down cold, even though Lyons
pleaded for his life; in the "Masked & Anonymous" version, the murder
weapon is Blind Lemon Jefferson's battered, mythic guitar, and it's
used as an instrument of truth, justice and honor).
Fate also meets up with an old friend, a bartender, mechanic, guitar
tech, you-name-it known as Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson). Cupid is a
version of Fate's younger self -- Wilson plays him, wonderfully,
wearing the same pencil-slim curved mustache and even mimicking the
phrasing of Dylan's everyday speech. Principled, upstanding,
resolutely uncorruptible -- Cupid isn't a purer version of Fate, just
a less weary one. His enthusiasm is youthfully fresh, but it's well
Does Cupid represent the old days and the old ways? Is he a reflection
of a simpler time -- the '60s, which, somehow, we have come to think
of as "simpler" -- when people had ideals and stuck to them? Maybe.
But I don't think "Masked & Anonymous" is so much about the death of
idealism as about accepting its limits. For one thing, the songs
included in the movie -- nearly all of them Dylan songs, of course,
although not all of them are sung by Dylan -- sound bitingly fresh.
That's one of Dylan's trademarks, and it will be one of his greatest
and most lasting legacies: Every Dylan fan knows that he never sings a
song the same way twice. His phrasing rivals that of even the most
innovative jazz singer for sheer variety and spontaneity. Sometimes he
twists his songs into mysterious phantom shapes. (As Uncle Sweetheart
says of Fate, "All of his songs are recognized, even when they're not
"Masked & Anonymous" explores the Dylan legacy in some obvious ways,
and in some not so obvious ones. The movie's soundtrack includes an
extraordinary reading of "My Back Pages" in Japanese (performed by the
Magokoro Brothers) and the equally astonishing "Come Una Pietra
Scalciata" (that's "Like a Rolling Stone," rapped in Italian by
Articolo 31). And the movie's killer moment comes when a little black
girl (played by Tinashe Kachingwe, and she's marvelous), whose mother
has taught her every Jack Fate song in existence, steps out to sing an
a cappella "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
The obvious point is that Dylan's influence is a web that has been
cast over the whole world. But the less obvious one is that even when
Dylan sings one of his own songs, he sings it as a cover. It's never
just a "version," but a reinvention -- he comes at it from the outside
and works his way in, instead of the other way around. In "Masked &
Anonymous," Dylan as Fate sings his own songs with his own band (a
youthful and vigorous outfit consisting of Larry Campbell, Tony
Garnier, George Racile and Charlie Sexton).
But the Dylan songs done by other people and the Dylan songs done by
Dylan-as-Fate aren't copies and originals, respectively. They're a
type of call-and-response -- a way of magnifying and expanding the
material, whether the person singing is the guy who actually wrote the
song or an enthusiastic bunch of Japanese musicians. When Dylan
performs "Blowin' in the Wind" -- a song I always think I've heard far
too many times, until I hear Dylan singing it, again -- he sings as if
he's presenting us with something completely new, a little something
he scribbled on the back of a matchbook on his way to the gig.
Is there a greater gift than that?
"Masked & Anonymous" is, inadvertently, about how much Dylan has given
us. It is also, again inadvertently, about what we've taken away from
him. The whole movie is one giant in-joke about Dylan's career and his
destiny -- about the person he has become and is becoming, a person
who grows increasingly mysterious to us, instead of more
The movie also asks some tougher questions: What happens when you're
strangled by your own revolution, and tangled up in your own myth? At
the end of "Masked & Anonymous," Dylan walks away from it all, intact,
but there's a catch: He walks away in handcuffs, and we watch him go,
his image getting smaller and smaller as he drifts away from us. Dylan
in handcuffs, Dylan not being "free," Dylan being beaten down by the
Man -- those are images right out of a horror show as it might have
been conceived by the '60s counterculture, a nightmare vision of the
future worse than anything George Orwell (or even just Aldous Huxley)
could have imagined.
Handcuffs represent the worst kind of restraint, but are they more
constricting than the slipknot of your own legend? Not by a long shot.
Dylan-the-icon doesn't need freedom, because we long ago decided that
Dylan-the-icon is freedom. Handcuffs mean nothing to an icon -- he can
slip out of them like a comic-book superhero. Dylan-the-icon is
Plastic Man or Reed Richards, the stuff little kids think about, and
pretend to be, in order to conquer their own fears. Grownups cling
harder, and more tenaciously, to their superheroes than children do.
That's why I like the image of Dylan walking away in handcuffs. This
is not just an aging Dylan, a Dylan with a few little wrinkles, whom
we can still claim as "young," just as we like to think of ourselves
as young. This is a Dylan who is almost -- almost -- an old man. And
he walks with a country gent's gait, as if he's more accepting of that
than we are.
The key to that final image, and maybe the key to all of "Masked &
Anonymous," lies in a song by Tammy Wynette, who sang from another
quadrant of the 1960s -- a place of picket fences and clapboard
houses, a place that seemed far away from the wild plains that Dylan
roamed. But in Wynette's corner of '60s America, just as in Dylan's,
safety was never guaranteed. Idealism is essential to the spirit of
any country, at any time. But idealism isn't a guarantee of safety; it
doesn't make you invincible. If anything, it turns you into a walking
target. Idealism is more dangerous than plutonium.
In those handcuffs, Jack Fate is facing up to the reality of idealism
in a way that hundreds of millions of Bob Dylan fans can't. It's a
tough job, but someone has to do it. Why shouldn't it be Dylan,
playing a fictional character that is, in so many ways, himself? In
loving Dylan as much as we do -- because the question always boils
down to how we could not love him -- we have rewarded ourselves with
the luxury of sitting back and doing all the fancy interpreting and
analyzing, while we leave the heavy lifting to him. For God so loved
the world that he put his own son in handcuffs, so to speak.
And, as Tammy Wynette sang, after all, he's just a man.
Thanks for the post Michael.
"Michael G Smith" <mikey...@hotmail.com> wrote in message
My feeling is that Dylan has always been quite the existentialist. I say
'feeling' because I really haven't taken the time to do an academic analysis
of that aspect of his lyrics. I hear it, and that is enough for me. In any
case, he has several masterpieces that center around freedom despite harsh
circumstances - I Shall Be Released and Up To Me are two particularly fine
"Looking for the right kind of live free or die" - Jay Farrar
laissez-faire, laissez-passer, le monde va de lui-même
My excitement about this review is tempered by the fact that Stephanie Zacharek
is the same critic that hates the films of Wes Anderson but loved 'Daddy
"JamesFoe314" <james...@aol.com> wrote in message
> My feeling is that Dylan has always been quite the existentialist. I say
> 'feeling' because I really haven't taken the time to do an academic analysis
> of that aspect of his lyrics. I hear it, and that is enough for me. In any
> case, he has several masterpieces that center around freedom despite harsh
> circumstances - I Shall Be Released and Up To Me are two particularly fine
I would add some of the gospel songs to this list for the sense of
spiritual release they provide. Two good examples are What Can I Do
For You ("Pulled me out of bondage") and City of Gold ("Far from the
ratrace and the bars that hold").
Bite your sarcastic tongue!
Peace and all,