Bombs Away

'Masked & Anonymous' director Larry Charles lets it fly

 Masked & Anonymous is a bomb, but it's a spectacular, beautiful bomb. It's the story of Jack Fate, a Bob Dylan figure played, appropriately enough, by Bob Dylan, who walks through the movie with all the expressiveness of a blinking oak tree. Dylan also wrote the hilarious non sequitur dialogue that swirls around him and the rest of the unlikely red-carpet cast (including Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, Penelope Cruz, etc.). I'm no Dylan fan, but the movie still got to me--maybe because Dylan fans constitute a generation, or maybe because I care more about Dylan fans than I do about Dylan.

The movie imagines a Third World America guarded with rifles at every fence, mired in civil war but still decadent enough to keep the TV shows running on time. It's the U.S. as Liberia: Big Brother drunk on tequila, with a Tropicalia twist. As in 1960s Brazil, the regime allows national TV to air the counterculture, leading to the movie's best joke: Jack Fate is sprung from political prison by his old manager (a greasy John Goodman) to do a prime-time concert, and the manager rattles off a list of possible songs--"Won't Get Fooled Again," "Eve of Destruction," "Kick Out the Jams"--that are as ridiculous and impotent in this context as they are in real-life classic rock. The regime's publicist (Jessica Lange) wants to know who the fuck would want to watch Jack Fate anyway. The manager heaves against his ruffled tuxedo shirt and sweet-talks, but the publicist isn't buying it. "I can't believe you're going to turn this disaster into a seduction," she says.

"Is this room bugged?" he asks.

The answer, my friend...: Director Larry Charles (left) with Bob Dylan (center) on the set of 'Masked & Anonymous'
Sony Pictures Classics
The answer, my friend...: Director Larry Charles (left) with Bob Dylan (center) on the set of 'Masked & Anonymous'

At a local screening of Masked & Anonymous, I leaned over to my editor and asked, "Is this a Hal Hartley movie?" "No," he replied, "but it might be a Dennis Hopper movie."

It sure smacks of 1971, not a year earlier or later: It has that freshly disillusioned feel. The rebels, we learn from Giovanni Ribisi's soldier, no longer know which side they're fighting for. The regime is a bunch of white hippies in suits, its muscle made up entirely of people of color. Conceived by Dylan and director Larry Charles, Masked & Anonymous might be a self-lacerating parody of the counterculture as establishment. But it's diffuse, too: Try parsing, in two hours, a fearless leader who resembles Joseph Stalin, a successor played by Mickey Rourke, a cameo by Mark E. Smith of the Fall, jokes at the expense of banjo players, and Dylan delivering the line "Sometimes it's not enough to know the meaning of things. You have to know what things don't mean as well."

Masked & Anonymous offers us the potent confusion of a little black girl singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (surprisingly missing from the soundtrack recording), with the accompanying revelation that she had been forced by her white mother to learn it. There's also a white ventriloquist whose dummy is black, Ed Harris in blackface, and Jeff Bridges as an interviewer who never asks a question, but harangues Jack Fate with an awed yet condescending take on Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock: "You could hear the tears in every note: 'Love me, love me, I am a native son.'" Dylan's heartfelt live rendition of "Dixie" puts the anthem of the Confederacy in the mouth of a civil rights troubadour.

During a recent interview with the director, I find myself reduced to the old journalistic chestnut: "What the fuck?"

To which Charles replies: "That's a fair question."

Charles is an interesting guy. He got his start writing for the live TV sketch show Fridays, L.A.'s answer to Saturday Night Live, and was present when they decided ahead of time to have Andy Kaufman go off script. He directed episodes of Seinfeld, working with writer Larry David, and continues the collaboration with HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. You can imagine Charles being Kramer to David's Jerry: The director is a dyed-in-the-hemp freak who believes that GM smothered a CBS pilot he had made with Michael Moore. (For the full interview in Q&A form, see complicatedfun.com.)

"Dixie," he explains, was written by freed Northern slaves as a nostalgic song about the South. It has been misunderstood--much like his collaborator in the movie, whom he discouraged from acting in any fashion.

"Basically I just wanted Bob to be," says Charles. "I felt like if I could just get that face on camera, his silence would speak volumes."

In fact, Charles claims that every question you've ever had about Bob Dylan is answered in this movie. Which may be why Masked & Anonymous is a bomb: No one has looked to this particular icon for answers since his last fiction film, 1978's Renaldo and Clara. If there's a vacuum at the center of the picture, it's that we know all too well what it doesn't mean.

 
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