Days Between Stations: Masked and Anonymous (08/03)

As I write, KFOG of San Francisco is broadcasting from the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, hosting “San Jose Idol,” in which members of the studio audience sing Bob Dylan songs in hopes of winning tickets to his upcoming show at Konocti Harbor, a resort featuring performers who appeal to a redundant demo­graphic. Men and women are stepping up to the microphone to offer the most clichéd versions imaginable of the likes of “All Along the Watchtower” or “Just Like a Woman”—moroni­cally drawing out the vowels, of course. “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard!” coos the Paula Abdul stand-in judge. “That’s horrible and you’re too fat!” barks the Simon Cowell. You listen and you think, Why do these people want to see Bob Dylan? Why would anyone?This is the premise of Masked and Anonymous, the new movie featuring Dylan—partly written by Dylan and directed by Larry Charles. Dylan plays Jack Fate, a semi-legendary, all-but-forgotten singer; people remember they’re supposed to remember him, but they don’t remember why. In a U.S.A. breaking up in a civil war between “rebels,” “counterrevolutionaries,” and a government that seems to consist principally of posters of a dying president, Fate’s been sprung from prison to play a “benefit concert.” It’s a scam for the promoter (John Goodman, in a grimy tuxedo jacket), who plans to skim the money, and a board of gangsters and racketeers who claim to represent the president and want to “aid the true victims of the revolution.” Or skim the money. As the film moves to the prison where Fate is being held, an amazing piece of music comes on the soundtrack, suddenly assembling various montages of urban massacres and ruined streets crowded with human wreckage, and noisy scenes between the corrupt Goodman and an even more cynical Jessica Lange. The images are a partial, unacceptable picture of the America the film is prophesying, all greed and death. The music—an Italian hip-hop version of “Like a Rolling Stone”—is the whole picture, all at once. Throughout Masked and Anonymous, all the music, save for two old folk songs Fate rehearses with Simple Twist of Fate (announced by Goodman as “the best and only Jack Fate tribute band!”) is Dylan’s: his own original recordings, cover versions (a wonderful “My Back Pages” in Japanese), and performances as part of the action in the film. Fate—who looks like Vincent Price, dresses like Hank Williams, and squints out at the world like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992)—is a fantasy of Bob Dylan. The music works in the movie as a fantasy of how Dylan’s music, or anyone’s, works in the world, or should, as something that exists as if its creator did not. “A crack in a dry lake bed is more beau­tiful to me than anything human,” Fate is told by Val Kilmer, who’s playing a dirt-smeared wrangler with a pen in a parking lot. That’s the life Fate wants for his songs.“I got something to tell you” you hear from what sounds like a distorted Dylan voice as Articolo 31’s version of “Like a Rolling Stone” opens. There’s the fanfare from Dylan’s 1965 recording, sounding tinny and far away, and then a relentless, strident male rap in harsh Italian, erasing the original but still riding its sense of glory like a horse. Running constantly under the flood of new words is a cutup of the original recording’s lilting piano-guitar theme—and then Dylan again, with “How does it feel?” only to be countered by a powerful female chorus throwing every line in English back to him in Italian. It goes on until it seems as if Dylan is singing directly to the women, not only from beyond the grave but from beyond their memory.In the film and on the soundtrack album, this is thrilling. It’s confusing. In this blasted version of the U.S.A., why has this affirmation of freedom, of a world to win, persisted in any form at all? It’s as if you’re hearing signals from a station that went out of business decades ago, now no more than interference on your radio.

Masked and Anonymous was dismissed as worthless at Sundance last winter. It runs a ruling texture of manic vision through a setting of unrelieved violence and sleaze. This is how it works: with one incident after another in which, as the picture moves toward the big concert—the movie, in its weird way, is like a remake of the original rock ‘n’ roll cinematic genre, the 1950s prom-crisis film—the singer remembers his own music, but it doesn’t remember him.


Interview, August 2003


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