The New York Times

July 27, 2003

Bob Dylan Plays Bob Dylan, Whoever That Is


JACK FATE isn't exactly Bob Dylan, although he's the central character in Mr. Dylan's new movie, "Masked and Anonymous." Then again, he's not exactly not Mr. Dylan, either.

He has Mr. Dylan's poker face, his song catalog, his wardrobe of cowboy suits, his reputation for making songs unrecognizable and his illustrious past. "Nobody could be like you, and a great many have tried," a sleazy promoter named Uncle Sweetheart tells him. Jack Fate has Mr. Dylan's band, which appears on screen as a cover band named, well, Simple Twist of Fate. And he has Mr. Dylan's gift for dry, knowing one-liners: when Uncle Sweetheart tells him, "You're all skin and bones," he calmly replies, "Aren't we all?"

Then again, everybody's a philosopher in "Masked and Anonymous," which opened on Thursday. Thug, promoter, journalist, girlfriend, revolutionary, television executive, dictator, prison guard they all speak in parables and aphorisms and wisecracks that might just be wisdom, borrowing the diction of the King James Bible and of the blues. Their conversations ponder freedom, love, politics, time, conscience and death. And the tone prophecy switching to zinger and back is familiar to anyone who's ever heard a Dylan song. The screenplay is credited to Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine, pseudonyms for Mr. Dylan and the movie's director, Larry Charles.

Identity has long been a shell game for Mr. Dylan. "You may call me Terry, you may call me Timmy, you may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy," he sang in "Gotta Serve Somebody." But always, he has confounded and intrigued the many listeners who have tried to figure him out.

His voice and his songwriting are immediately identifiable, yet he's utterly mercurial, racking up as many inconsistencies as there are gigs on his perpetual touring schedule. Ever since he realized, very early on, that being the voice of a generation was a thankless, impossible role, he has strewn his songs and public appearances with hints and contradictions. He dodges even the slightest chance of being pinned down: He has been a believer and a skeptic, a traditionalist and a rebel, a heartbreaker and a man left lonely, an activist and a cynic.

"Masked and Anonymous" title duly noted steps back enough to let viewers see how much Mr. Dylan enjoys his elusiveness. He has registered what people have said about him through the years, and he doesn't necessarily mind a little hyperbolic praise, including being compared to Jesus walking on water. Characters in the movie discuss his songs in the manner of rock critics or discussion-board fans.

He's also well aware of how far his songs have traveled. The first one heard as the movie begins is "My Back Pages," sung in Japanese by the Magokoro Brothers. Searing performances of songs like "Drifter's Escape" (which is mysteriously absent from the soundtrack album) and "Cold Irons Bound" by Mr. Dylan and his band share the soundtrack with various unlikely versions of Dylan songs, including a turntable-scratching Italian remake of "Like a Rolling Stone." They provide yet another batch of alternative Dylans to toy with.

Mr. Dylan has had a sporadic film presence since the 1960's, appearing in jumpy documentaries like "Don't Look Back" and "Eat the Document" and making an incongruous appearance as a retired rocker and mentor in the 1987 "Hearts of Fire." In Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," he wrote the soundtrack music (including "Knockin' on Heaven's Door") and played a knife-wielding character with an apt Dylan name: Alias. But Mr. Dylan took charge of a film only with the rambling 1978 "Renaldo and Clara," which he wrote (with Sam Shepard) and directed during the ever-mutating mid-1970's Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

He called himself Renaldo while Ronnie Hawkins (who brought together the Band) was billed as "Bob Dylan." Other people are also mistaken in the movie for Mr. Dylan, including the musician Bob Neuwirth, who explains, "I'm not Bob Dylan, I'm the Masked Tortilla."

In a way, "Masked and Anonymous" is a latter-day sequel to "Renaldo and Clara," with a star who's had an additional quarter-century of hard-traveling mileage. Like "Renaldo and Clara," the new movie has rockers, preachers, prisoners and backstage machinations, and it teases at questions about the songwriter as public figure, hired hand and lover. But there's a major difference: "Masked and Anonymous" plays like a feature film, complete with an intelligible plot, vivid professional camerawork and well-known actors, rather than like a stoned, hand-held home movie.

It also plays like a Dylan song: a shaggy-dog story about power, love, show business, prodigal sons, faith and destiny. And it flips easily between the attitudes of Mr. Dylan's two most recent albums: the death-haunted estrangement of "Time Out of Mind" and the gallows-humor cackles and shrugs of " `Love and Theft.' " Jack Fate seems familiar because he has inhabited Dylan songs for many years.

"Masked and Anonymous" takes place "somewhere in America," where Spanish and English words blare from radios. (It was shot on digital video in some vividly seedy locations in Los Angeles.) A bloody revolution and counter-revolution are raging; the dictatorial president, whose portrait seems to be on every flat surface, is dying. Jack Fate, the faded rock legend, is released from prison to play at a dubious humanitarian benefit organized by Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman). A trusted roadie (Luke Wilson) returns with an old bluesman's guitar, and a bitter, 1960's-obsessed journalist (Jeff Bridges) shows up to write a story. Whose son Jack Fate is, and why he was jailed, are among the twists.

The narrative sounds bleak in summary; there's no happy ending, and there are some grim, sudden bursts of violence. "Every period in history has been more or less tragic," the journalist observes. Mr. Dylan's prognosis for America is a ruthless clampdown on everything from behavior to collective memory. But just as often, the movie is droll, filled with pithy, hardboiled comebacks. "You ever coming back?" a friend asks as Fate ambles away. "I did come back," he says.

Mr. Dylan and Mr. Charles (best known as a writer and producer of "Seinfeld" and as a director for "Curb Your Enthusiasm") have packed "Masked and Anonymous" with enough enigmatic visual cues and in-jokes to make Dylan fans long for the freeze-frames of a DVD. The fictional TV network's schedule board lists Dylan-titled shows like "Jokerman," "Empire Burlesque" and "Hurricane." An office building directory includes a character out of William Burroughs, Dr. Benway. More mysteriously, the journalist's girlfriend (Penélope Cruz) prays while wearing a Metallica T-shirt, and her hand is tattooed "333." And are those stigmata on one character's hand?

The movie ends with Fate, and America, worse off than they were when it started. But his craggy face looks somehow satisfied, as if he never expected anything else. "Sometimes it's not enough to know the meaning of things, sometimes we have to know what things don't mean as well," he says in voice-over. Fans will prise meanings from "Masked and Anonymous"; its author has put them there. And as they do, he makes one more drifter's escape.

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