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Published: 2004/04/29
by Benjy Eisen

Masked and Anonymous

It is important to note that Masked and Anonymous is not a Bob Dylan film. It is also important to note that Masked and Anonymous is a Bob Dylan film. The plot is built around the character of Jake Fate based on a parallel-universe Bob Dylan and portrayed by this universe’s Bob Dylan.
In addition to several live performances, the film’s soundtrack is assembled from Dylan’s own catalog along with several tributes (including Jerry Garcia’s version of "Senor" and the Grateful Dead’s take on "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.")
The film’s flavorful characters are not unlike ones imagined in Dylan’s songs. Making his feature film directorial debut, Larry Charles (noted for his television work on "Seinfeld," "Mad About You," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm") has created a fantasy version of America that is both literate and musical. He slyly uses Bob Dylan’s portrayal of a fictional character based on Bob Dylan as a window to the ultimate mysteries of the film.
The plot circles ambiguously around the planning of a benefit concert that is somehow tied to a fuzzy civil war. Jake Fate is recruited as the headliner and rescued from prison by his former manager, Uncle Sweetheart. Vague absurdities threaten the concert’s success, a journalist covering the event sets off his own weird chain of events, and a political power change which Fate is bizarrely related to all come into (the) play.
Standing-ovation performances from John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Penelope Cruz, and Luke Wilson (as well as memorable cameos from Christian Slater, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke, Cheech Marin, Angela Bassett, Giovanni Ribisi, and others) all help to ensure that Masked and Anonymous a very non-anonymous affair. But that’s an unfair underscore of the film’s title for the sake of cleverness. Truthfully, the title of Masked and Anonymous is perhaps the greatest key to its understanding. The plot is intentionally masked; the language is intentionally anonymous. As Charles says in the director’s commentary: "It seems like you recognize where you are but I’m constantly trying to subvert your sense of comfort, of setting, of place."
If you were one of the few who saw this flick in the art houses during the theatrical release, I’d encourage you to buy or rent this DVD, listen to the director’s commentary, and then watch the film again. I hate director’s commentaries. I don’t need to know what scene was difficult to shoot or what outfit had to be readjusted to fit what actor. But Charles’ commentary is the rare exception. Charles enlightens the viewer as to some of the intentions without ruining any of the mystery it is evident that these mysteries remain even for Charles (and for the actors who brought the characters to life).
At one point in the film, Jeff Bridges’ character Tom Friend, the journalist declares, "Life is the meaning of life!" And the film is the meaning of the film. It’s a movie aware of the fact that it’s a movie and the only reason I’m searching for its meaning, as if there was one, is that it largely pretends to be about meaning. Meaning is just another one of the story’s masks. Its advice, its wisdom, its actions, its deeper truths all pertain to a fictional time and place one that is meant to mirror the world we know but one different enough to be separate. Through it all, the film remains aware of its own fiction. The President dies on a stage. A black-faced actor reminds Dylan/Fate, "All the world is a stage" (one of many Shakespearean throwbacks). The faux-climactic ending occurs in front of a stage, as if to place an act on top of an act in a never-ending Russian doll trick. And even though the storyline is based on events leading up to a benefit concert, a colorful array of circus acts, illusionists, and impressionists float around the sole musician confirmed for the performance, Jake Fate.
In the end, Masked and Anonymous is really a film about language and costumes and music and poetry; all things Dylan himself is famous for. It is an experiment in the rhythm and the anonymity of language, and it is also a meditation on the elusiveness of the magic contained in music. In that sense, I suppose, Masked and Anonymous is a fantasy film. Kick the philosophy students out of the room when you watch this one, but let the Dylan fans stay, provided they bring the soda and popcorn.

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