Monday, December 12, 2011

BD's Masked & Anonymous: A Review By B Corbett

It was no surprise that, like Bob Dylan 's earlier cinematic ventures, his 2003 film Masked and Anonymous got mixed reviews. For the critics that doled out the praise, just as many dished out the swipes, calling the film inaccessible and alienating. Not that criticism concerns Dylan too much. Back in 1978, despite the fact that his four-hour experimental film Renaldo and Clara was universally panned, Dylan told Mark Rowland that he was definitely going to make another film. “I don't know whether that's gonna get accepted either, ya know,” he said. “But that's really not too much of my concern.”

Cast & Soundtrack

Contributed By Ben Corbett

If the film's structure seems uneven, the acting is enough to keep you glued till the credits roll. Naturally, when word went out that Dylan was making a film, everybody and his brother wanted to audition. Directed by Larry Charles (Borat), the film became a two-hour tour de force of explosive acting by Hollywood's finest. With few redeeming characters, the principal cast includes Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, and Angela Basset, while secondary roles are filled by Christian Slater, Chris Penn, Ed Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Steven Bauer, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Fred Ward, Bruce Dern, and others.

As for the soundtrack, opening with a rendition of “My Back Pages” by the Mokogoro Brothers that bleeds into the same song by the Ramones, the film highlights Dylan's music as covered by popular musicians from around the globe. For instance, “Come Una Pietra Scalciata” (Like a Rolling Stone) by Articulo 31, “It's All Over Now Baby Blue” by the Grateful Dead, and “Most of the Time” by Sophie Zelmani. Peppered with multilingual (even rap) versions of Dylan's songs, the scope widens to show the far-flung influence of his music.

Meantime, Dylan performs live with his regular band throughout the film, as the stage setup turns the screen into an old-timey tableau of Western Americana, the word “Vaudeville” stretched across a velvet curtain. Dylan's performances include, “Down in the flood,” “Dixie,” “Drifter's Escape,” “Watching the River Flow,” “Diamond Joe,” “I'll Remember You,” “Dirt Road Blues,” and “Cold Irons Bound.”

The Storyline(s)

The film's poster tagline reads: "Would you reach out to a drowning man if you thought he might pull you in?"
In what might best be described as Leslie Silko's novel Almanac of the Dead-meets-Fellini's film 8 ½-meets John Kennedy Toole's satire Confederacy of Dunces, the film has two major functions; one examines the evils of globalization while the other acts as a portal into the seedy bowels of the music industry. There is a people's revolution going on—a south of the border guerrilla front is about to overthrow the current North American empire. Meanwhile, greedy promoters Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange) and Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) host a benefit concert to aid the victims of the revolution's violence. The cheapest act they can find is washed-up musical icon, Jack Fate (Dylan), who they bail out of a Mexican prison to headline the show.
En route to the concert, Fate visits his dying father, incidentally “The President” of the about-to-be-overthrown government, with Edmundo (Mickey Rourke) waiting in the wings as the coming Latin-style dictator. As all this is unraveling, sleazy reporter Tom Friend (Jeff Bridges), is assigned to cover the benefit. The action finally converges backstage at the concert site, as the story unfolds in a set of circus tents, production trailers, and the typical milieu of carneys and crew.

Being Bob Dylan

Running parallel to the social commentary-driven storylines, an underlying subtext satirizes Bob Dylan's own experience as a popular musician. Fans who have some background knowledge about Dylan and his position with the press and the music industry will quickly get the humor.
For instance, in a hilarious commentary on how fans always try to decipher Dylan's songs, during the benefit, as Jack Fate and band are onstage ripping through “Drifter's Escape,” the camera cuts away to various characters engaged in conversation about the song. Flanked by the Pope and Gandhi, the mousey Pagan Lace (Penelope Cruz) tells her pious audience, “I love his songs because they are not precise. They are completely open to interpretation.” Meanwhile, Uncle Sweetheart tells Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson), “The song is written from Hyde's point of view. It's about doing evil and trying to kill your conscience, if you can. It's not like those other songs of his, the ones about faithless women and booze and brothels and the cruelty of society.”

Process as Prize

Perhaps a better title would be Deconstructing Bob Dylan, as the film is primarily a parody on all the different perceptions of Dylan (thus masked), as well as an exploration of how the songwriter digests and processes the world. With Masked and Anonymous, Dylan approaches filmmaking the way he approaches songwriting—a visual poet deciding on which fragments to leave in or out to most effectively tell the story.

On top of several subplots unfolding simultaneously, the film is host to a constant barrage of asides that have no seeming relation to the main action, yet are integral to pushing the film's undercurrent of questioning reality. For instance, the title comes from a scene with Jack Fate and Uncle Sweetheart walking through a carnival-like street bazaar. Mid-walk, they stumble on The Animal Wrangler (Val Kilmer), who is surrounded by caged animals. In a long rant, he tells Fate, “I avoid looking at human beings. They disgust me so much with their atom bombs and their blow dryers and automobiles. They build hospitals as shrines to the diseases they create. Human beings alone with their secrets... Masked and anonymous. No one truly knows.”

As Director Larry Charles explained in an interview about the movie, for Dylan the process itself of creating is more important than the end product: “One of the things I've learned is the path is the destination; the path is the goal. The result is irrelevant... This whole thing has been about process.”

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