Monday, September 8, 2003

The Cheetah Who Didn't Ever Try to be a Rabbit

"He's the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the '60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock, who donned makeup in the '70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse, who emerged to 'find Jesus,' who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears and released some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s."
-Jeff Miers Buffalo News

When the news came out that Seinfeld writer Larry Charles and Bob Dylan were collaborating on a project it seemed an odd pairing indeed. At first it was reported that the two would produce a variety show and with Dylan in a phase of telling corny jokes, "My old girlfriend was a tennis player. To her love meant nothing..." visions of a modern Hee Haw sprung to mind. It would be just like Bob to do that since it is that last thing one can picture Dylan doing (or at least doing comfortably). Instead what Charles and Dylan ultimately produced was the movie Masked and Anonymous that opened Friday in the Twin Cities.

The national criticism of the movie has been (somewhat) predictably harsh. "Two thumbs way down, as far down as thumbs can go," Ebert and Roeper declared on their TV show. And while I must admit that I don't think I'm capable of being too critical of anything Bob does (except perhaps the few times in his career where he has seemingly taken the safe and easy path) I approached my seeing Masked and Anonymous with some trepidation. From what I read I expected to see the same thing I saw in high school creative writing class, a story of stifling pretentiousness pondering the meaning of (and cruelty) of life at the same time basking in its own cleverness. And yup some of that is definitely there.

What I didn't expect was an at times witty farce. It's Bob making fun of his own legend, of how his work is taken so seriously by fans and critics alike and where every move is scrutinized for a deeper meaning. There's a definite wink to the movie and those who are trying to keep an open mind (as closed as that can sometimes be) may miss that wink if they should happen to blink too soon. One of Ebert's criticisms of the movie was that every line Bob mutters sounds like it comes from a fortune cookie. And while that is true, in a way it is deliberately true. It's what our culture requires and those who can deliver such lines better than others are the ones that critics revere and tear to shred almost randomly. "Cellulose is found in the grass and cows can digest it but you can't... and neither can I," Bob informs us (and for me comically so).

The movie is full of appearances by some great actors and actresses from John Goodman to Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges to Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson to Angela Bassett, Ed Harris to Christian Slater, Mickey Rourke to Fred Ward. It's like those in Hollywood were standing in line to participate in a Dylan related movie. And of course all the characters in the movie have these deep (and silly names) from Dylan's Jack Fate, to Goodman's Uncle Sweetheart, from Wilson's Bobby Cupid to Bridge's Tom Friend and Cruz's Pagan Lace. Most of the acting is way over the top (particularly Goodman, Lange and Bridges) that stands in stark contrast to Dylan who sort of swaggers throughout his scenes in a Chaplinesque manner. The man has the most expressive stoical and inscrutable face ever captured on celluloid. He's awkward and he moves funny and he mumbles his lines in a reverent tone but there's a charisma that's undeniable that explains some of his devoted following.

Masked and Anonymous may either be a great movie or it is dreadful dreck and it's hard to distinguish between the two but that is what makes it fascinating to see. Dylan definitely tried a Triple Salchow here and while he didn't exactly stick the landing there is so much in this film that you won't see if you should wander into any other movie theater. You either appreciate the satirical humor (the stabbing look at Dylan puncturing his own legend) or you hate how serious the movie seems to be taking itself. (I tend to lean toward the former seeing how Dylan opened most of his shows the past year with the quote from the aforementioned Buffalo News' summary of his career before he took the stage. Wink Wink...)

For those who marginally appreciate Dylan and especially Dylan's music (the movie makes a convincing argument that there may be a difference between the two) Masked and Anonymous is probably worth seeing for the music scenes alone. Never mind there are several wonderful covers of under-appreciated Dylan songs ("Senor," "One More Cup of Coffee," and "If You See Her Say Hello" in particular) the scenes with Bob and his band are at times eye and ear popping stuff. Midway through the film Dylan sings a bluesy and wistful "I Remember You" that is probably the best version I've heard since the day I was lying in a faraway Rochester bed wondering what could ever come next and if I'd be around to see it. People kill so much time when time is really killing us I heard somewhere. So lock me up Suze I'm gonna kill time seeing this movie again I promise you.

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