In a fictional America caught up in a civil war that is tearing the nation apart, a benefit concert is being organized. A traveling troubadour named Jack Fate is sprung from jail by his scheming former manager, Uncle Sweetheart, to headline a concert with the expectations to bring peace to a country that is entrenched by chaos, lawlessness and pandemonium.
After months of rumors, whispers, gossip, tall tales and idle speculation, we are finally face to face with Masked and Anonymous, a film directed by Larry Charles with the black humor he brought to Seinfeld and starring Bob Dylan as an aging rock legend who once upon a time wrote songs such as The Times They Are a Changin' and Like a Rolling Stone. Talk about typecasting.
The film also stars John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Luke Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Angela Basette, Giovanni Ribisi, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Ed Harris and Bruce Dern in roles that seem like the lyrics of Highway 61 Revisited come to life, from the roving gambler to the promoter who nearly fell off the floor. Dylan has been cagey about how much of a hand he had in writing the script, but (by inspiration, innovation, or imitation) these characters sure talk like Dylan songs. It's a lot of fun to see what happens when a dark woman from Infidels bumps up against a drifter from John Wesley Harding and a prodigal son from Slow Train Coming.
It might make sense to see this film not as a continuation of Dylan's previous movie work (anyone who can come up with a thread to connect Don't Look Back, Eat the Document, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, and Hearts of Fire can get tenure at a big university or a job as a critic in France) but rather as the conclusion to his most recent albums, Time Out of Mind and "Love and Theft".
Those are complex works that don't deserve to be boiled down to single sentence descriptions, but who's looking? Time Out of Mind was an album in large part about a lone wanderer making his way across a rough landscape, with better days past in his head and one eye on the worse times coming. The man in those songs was taciturn, like John Wayne in The Searchers or Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter.
"Love and Theft" was jam-packed with colorful characters, a whole village full of classic American barkers, soldiers, preachers, minstrels, and wise-asses. That record was fast-talking and verbose, like P.T. Barnum, Leadbelly, and Barbara Fritchie unwrapping their bedrolls by the flagpole, while Rufus T. Firefly made a speech.
This is the kind of speculation that can get a writer's throat slit with a guitar neck, but if one were being paid by the word one could sure make a case that Masked and Anonymous shows what might happen if that tight-lipped wanderer from Time Out of Mind made it through the wasteland and arrived in the "Love and Theft" community.
What if Luke the Drifter wandered into the backstage of an MTV satellite charity concert? And what if they couldn't book Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney, and they had to actually put this hillbilly ghost on national television? Anyone who has worked on a TV charity concert could tell you: if the public knew how much of Masked and Anonymous is true, We Are the World would never sound the same.
Larry Charles has put all these con men, two-timers, and fallen women into an environment that looks like the place we all worry we're going to end up in if government services fall into the deficit hole and our retirement funds get moved into some CEO's beach house. It's not Post-Apocalyptic, it's not that highfalutin. Masked and Anonymous takes place in a country that could be California or Cuba ten years from now, could be El Salvador or Haiti ten years ago, or could be Texas today if Santa Anna had won the war. It's a mythic America all right, but no more mythic than the America displayed in most Hollywood films.
Could be that this movie should be looked at like a painting and played like an album, where every track works on its own but it all builds up to something bigger. It's hard not to get a kick out of a story in which Bob Dylan is handed a list of songs the network wants him to sing, and it's Revolution, Won't Get Fooled Again, Ohio and several other selections from some VH1 or Mojo Magazine pick of The Top Ten Protest Songs. Dylan shrugs and pretends to consider it, and then picks up his guitar and plays a mournful version of Dixie. As if to say, You want rebel songs? Here's the all time number one.
At least that's one way of looking at it. The next fellow could watch the same scene and see something altogether different. Thats how these things are supposed to work, whether you get them from a book or on a canvas or a record or projected on a screen. If everything's clicking you see some things that look familiar and others you never saw before. You might see some people you recognize and some you don't and maybe someone who reminds you of yourself.
And you get a world familiar enough to make sense, but different enough to suggest new possibilities.
If you can take that much away from a motion picture or a record, book or painting - then thats a fair deal. Thats worth your time. Throw in a few tunes and a couple of good jokes and, bingo, youre in show business.