Sunday, October 23, 2005

Picked Flick #96: Masked and Anonymous

Everybody and his brother seems to have a Bob Dylan project in the works these days, yet nonetheless, rarely do you hear a kind word (or, indeed, any word at all) about this freewheeling, epigrammatic, and carnivalesque project that Dylan himself brought to the screen a couple of years ago. Since I have reviewed Masked and Anonymous in full, readers already have a stronger sense than usual of what I like so much about the movie. And this is probably just as good a time as any to acknowledge that, especially by comparison to my Top 100, this list of Picked Flicks skews heavily contemporary—an honest reflection of where my enthusiasms lie these days, even if it turns out that the ardor cools in the next couple of years. I'm as fickle as they come, I suppose, but then, so is Masked and Anonymous, which only fully commits to a small handful of its characters (Dylan's, Bridges', Goodman's, Lange's, and maybe Luke Wilson's) while mostly preferring to pinwheel among first impressions, quick interludes, musical bridges, and defiantly self-contained episodes that obscure as many of Dylan's creative intentions as they reveal.

It's no wonder that Masked and Anonymous—whose title proudly proclaims its refusal to be known—isn't everyone's cup of tea. For what it's worth, I personally can't get enough of the way it plays such a mean game of three-card monte with our expectations and even our recognition of what we're watching: is Dylan "playing himself" or playing some alternative jam-meditation on the theme of himself? Is it okay to take seriously the movie's ramshackle vision of a tumbledown, Third World America, even as the major characters appear to joke and smirk about it? What do we make of the way that the screenplay's wry, aphoristic dialogue and allegorical figures hail straight from the lexicon of Dylan's own songwriting, and yet, minus the reassurances of melody and reputation, these same aesthetics feel even more inscrutable than usual? And does that make it easy not to respond to the roustabout humor that is all over Masked and Anonymous, fighting a worthy duel with the heartbroken sadness and the confessions of failure that infuse so many of its scenes? Are the actors in the movie simply flailing about without a flight manual, or is the free-verse, improvisatory style of these performances—beyond the immediate pleasures in turns as witty as Lange's or as crafty as Bridges'—germane to the message the movie is trying to convey? And what is that message, or is there no message? On the largest scale, I'd stick my neck out to say that Masked and Anonymous is a bright but scathing future-vision of the United States after only a few more years of the entertainment industry's profit-mongering and empty self-congratulations, not to mention of the impotence of modern liberalism and the factionalizing effects of a hubristic, hawkish, but increasingly shaky government. (In its tacit way, it's also one of the few American movies to presage a future of the country where Latino and Hispanic cultures come to permeate all levels of society, culture, and public provenance.) On the narrowest level, Dylan offers a kind of perversely private apologia for his own lapses as an artist and a man—which, the film seems well aware, is not fundamentally distinct from the other narcissistic enterprises that are suffocating the power of art even as, in many cases, they provide its steadiest fuel. No coward from paradox, this film.

On every scale, I admit that Masked and Anonymous keeps me perpetually grasping at straws, and perpetually eager to keep on grasping. Abstruse as it can get, the movie is also hugely entertaining, engagingly shot, and, at least in its early and middle stretches, very cleverly edited. The music can't be beat. And I'd sure rather take this kind of dense, cryptic, and wholly personal missive from one of our most challenging popular artists than the kinds of anodyne and awkward biographies that any outside-observer in the book can throw together. Here in late 2005, I'm still perplexed about what I'm supposed to make of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, J.M. Barrie, Che Guevara, Alfred Kinsey, John Kerry, and Ramón Sampedro. Even Mario Van Peebles' Baadassss!, which by all rights should have felt as radical and self-determined as this film does, has precious little of its idiosyncratic spark. If Masked and Anonymous has any close parallels among recent biographical pictures, it's probably Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, except that Dylan's back pages of shock, self-performance, and secret complicities have more complex harmonies than Caouette's, and they are also more persuasively our own. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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