On May 24th, cultural icon Bob Dylan – and a huge number of his devoted fans all over the world, will celebrate his 80th birthday. Since 1961, his talents for singing and composing have captivated audiences not only for their musicality, but also for their incredible impact as cultural and political protests.
Dylan has appeared in a few feature films including Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, Hearts of Fire, and Paradise Cove, as well as many video shorts. He only acts in one feature film in the 21st century. It’s an oddball movie called Masked and Anonymous from 2003, that was co-written by Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, and Dylan himself, and directed by Charles. The movie apparently was filmed digitally in only twenty days.
A year ago, Masked and Anonymous was released on Blu-ray, and it is readily available for home viewing and streaming. Masked and Anonymous is a movie made for one purpose: to be a cult favorite. The cast is so impressive that you feel “masterpiece” just by reading off the names of some of the actors: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Bruce Dern, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Penelope Cruz, Jessica Lange, Val Kilmer, to name only several. The prominent cast members took salary cuts just to share the frame with the iconic Dylan.
Still, this movie is a dud. But it may be the kind of dud that viewers want to sit through just to experience a failure of geniuses. With Dylan’s influence and Larry Charles’s know-how, it’s actually shocking how much of a failure Masked and Anonymous turns out to be.
The script is a compendium of confusing chitchat, philosophical tidbits and wry remarks, and a stupid plot device that brings the Dylan character from a crowded jail hardly fit for pigs to a fairground of sorts, south of the border. Goodman’s character tells Dylan’s character, “It’s all politics, and money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Later he tells him, “You got jail pale. You look good.” In a Luke Wilson and Jeff Bridges conversation, we hear, “You’ve heard of For Whom the Bell Tolls? Hemingway, now there’s a guy who could write.” Is any of this dialog worthy of a cult favorite??
One reviewer wrote that Dylan’s performance was so stultifying he could have been replaced by a stick of wood with a photo of Dylan’s face attached. I agree. Dylan seems paralyzed – not with fear but with passivity. He sings, and that is terrific. How could it not be? Among the songs are “Diamond Joe,” “Dixie,” “I’ll Remember You,” and “Shadows Are Falling.” Over the end credits, we hear a mellow concert version of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Dylan looks bad. He is really skinny. His face is marred by lines and wrinkles. He looks ten years older than his 62 years.
While I have expressed my own thoughts about the limitations of this film, I shouldn’t be so quick to assign Masked and Anonymous to a nearby waste basket. Reading the viewers’ remarks online, it becomes clear that some Dylan fans have come to appreciate this slapdash affair. I respect their views. After all, Dylan claims plenty of onscreen time, and he keeps that distance, that air of mystery, about him that has helped to form his persona through the past 60 years since he first came to the attention of America’s liberal youth.
Masked and Anonymous has had a generally poor reception among critics for close to twenty years, but critics’ viewpoints alone do not make or break a film, especially one that stars such an idol. While I will stick by my opinion that Masked and Anonymous is a bomb, a fiasco, some loyal viewers will celebrate the glory of its existence!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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