Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz Essay

Masked and Anonymous
or, The Birth of a Nation
by Sean Wilentz

"Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row"

--Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row," 1965

 "It's a new day. God help you all."
--Edmund in Masked and Anonymous, Larry Charles, director, 2003

Masked and Anonymous is a manic film about the death agonies of one America and a chilling prophecy about the birth of a new one. The dying America is the one that, briefly, made Bob Dylan famous -- and now aging embittered men and women of that era try to do what they once thought would make the world better. They've had that idea of making the world better crushed out of them, but they carry on anyway, without much hope or reason. Others of their generation keep on hustling, living by their lying wits, talking on because it's the only way they can make sure they're not dead. There are still tendrils of beauty in this America - a battered old guitar; a little girl singing an old song about changing times - but they're not going to make it. The times have changed, they are blasted, and things will get ten times worse. 

The film is layered. It happens fast, and you won't get all of it the first time around. The themes are familiar to anyone who has attended to Dylan's work over the past forty years: politics, religion, the media, celebrity, entertainment, betrayal, and fate. And the materials from which it is constructed are also Dylan's materials: circus performers, the blues, vaudeville-style jokes and puns, the Bible, old movies, Gene Pitney's song "Town Without Pity," the down-and-out, Shakespeare. Above all, perhaps, it is constructed out of Bob Dylan himself. On Dylan's landmark album Highway 61 Revisited, there is a landmark song, "Desolation Row." One layer of Masked and Anonymous is a film called Desolation Row Revisited. Another layer is a film called The Birth of a Nation.
It is said that Bob Dylan's work is allegorical, and the same thing is bound to be said of Masked and Anonymous. Is it? The answer is: not exactly. Anyone looking, at any level, for exact correspondences between characters, things, and symbols, and history or current events will be disappointed. But the references, gestures, and hints all do pile up. In this way, Masked and Anonymous (like much of Dylan's work) operates as pop sensibility in an American tradition of high allegory going back at least to Melville's Moby-Dick. (Melville, 1851: "I had some vague idea, while writing it, that the whole book was susceptible of an allegoric construction, & also that parts of it were....) The film's principal character, the famous-long-ago troubadour Jack Fate, has some of Ishmael's detached, fish-eyed, all-observant qualities. The plot, such as it is, touches on things we know happened, but just barely touches them, describing a doomed America that is not exactly any America we know, but one that, like the Pequod, seems about to be splintered and swallowed up in a vortex. 

Masked and Anonymous is as rich visually as it is aurally, but no one should be intimidated. There are scenes in the film that, though integral to the whole, stand alone perfectly well, like cuts on an album, and that are simple if sometimes terrifying to comprehend. When Jack Fate runs into the strangely-solid ghost of a banjo-strumming minstrel, the minstrel's message about entertainment, truth, and consequences is plain. When Fate encounters a misanthropic, stuttering animal wrangler, their exchange makes complete sense. There are more than enough scenes like this to carry any viewer along. There are also scenes that are obscure on first viewing, and visual references that fly by unnoticed. (Keep a sharp eye out for exactly where inside the Midas and Judas Building you can find the offices of the evil Doctor Benway from William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch.)
The political layer may be the easiest to see. In an early scene, Jack Fate is riding on the back of a bus to the benefit gig which is the film's central conceit. A band of counter-revolutionaries stops the bus and pulls out the young disillusioned idealist with whom Fate has been talking. The denouement is brutally clear about political manipulation and political violence. 

With shocking clarity, the political story in the film builds to prophecy, as the new President Edmund, the usurper, proclaims his regime, in which all collective memory will be wiped out, where real violence will replace manufactured violence, where eagles will scream, and where great nations will fight large wars. Although Bob Dylan long ago renounced any pretensions to being a political seer, commentary that it all the more frightening for its obliqueness runs through this film. 

(Bob Dylan's last album "Love and Theft", with its song of destruction "High Water [For Charley Patton]," was officially released on September 11, 2001. The critic Gregory Tate later asked, "What did Bob Dylan know and when did he know it?" Viewing Masked and Anonymous for the first time in high summer, 2003, one is tempted to ask the same question.) 

Ten years after Moby-Dick appeared, Melville's prophecy was fulfilled by southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. Masked and Anonymous seems to be seeing and saying something similarly cataclysmic, which is one reason why you will not be able to get it out of your mind and why you will want to see it again.
Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Thanks to Joy Munsey (Larryb Campbell's webmaster) for permission to use these photographs)
(Larry Campbell, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, George Recelli)

(George Receli, John Goodman, Larry Campbell) 

(Larry Campbell, Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, George Receli)

(Photo taken by Jeff Bridges)

 (Photo taken by Jeff Bridges)

The Director

Larry Charles & Masked & Anonymous - by Michael G Smith

The director most often cited by Larry Charles as an influence on M&A is the maverick independent American filmmaker John Cassavetes. Charles has described M&A as "Shakespeare meets Cassavetes". Info on Cassavetes' films can be found here:

- - Charles has also cited Pier Paolo Pasolini, Werner Herzog and Robert Altmanas influences.

Much has already been written about Dylan's character, the "taciturn" Jack Fate. Larry Charles has described him as a "post-apocalyptic Humphrey Bogart" and a "spaghetti western hero".

The spaghetti western hero is a reference to the "Man with No Name" character that Clint Eastwood played in Sergio Leone's "Dollars" trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Jack Fate, like Humphrey Bogart's film noir characters and Eastwood's spaghetti western heroes, is a quiet, world-weary and cynical loner. Perhaps you could include pictures of the characters that influenced Jack Fate.

Here is Humphrey Bogart in the quintessential film noir, The Big Sleep:

Here is a Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:

Random shots from the DVD

Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion's Essay

Masked and Anonymous
by Andrew Motion 

 Bob Dylan's songs make a wonderfully direct address to their audience: they're beautiful, and we remember them easily. But their appeal is inseparable from the way they deal with all kinds of slippery things - with shifting personalities, with disguise, with the changes time brings, and with costume. The title of this new film comes straight to the point. It shows us some of Dylan's masks (the means by which he conceals his actual appearance) in order to examine what lies beneath them, and it also looks at his personality in order to suggest how he has protected, changed and diffused it. It gives us a good deal of truth about Dylan, but realises that in his case the best route to the truth is 'slant'. 

Casting him in the role of 'Jack Fate' is essential to all this; it means we are pushed a step back from Dylan himself, and therefore see him more clearly. In some respects, Fate is not like Dylan at all - he is a rock star past his sell-by date, who has spent the last twenty-odd years playing in obscure honky tonks and bars and refusing to deal with the dodgy administrators of the music business. At the same time, he has qualities we recognise as Dylan's own: he shares Dylan's deepest preoccupations, and he plays his music (of course). In particular, Fate is like Dylan because he exists at the point where an amazingly creative imagination is permanently scrutinised by its audience. He wants to think of his work as a self-sufficient universe, but his is constantly - sometimes threateningly - required to interpret it, and to justify or explain its connection to surrounding events. 

The plot is simple, yet appropriately full of mysteries, oddities and jokes. A bloody revolution in some unnamed Americanised state (the film is shot in LA, but has a broadly South American feel) has spawned an equally bloody counter-revolution. The streets are lined with derelicts, armed guerrillas roam the streets, fires rage, and corruption is rife. Everyone is glum-faced and trigger-happy - especially since the President is dying, and his successor seems likely to (and eventually does) release a new tide of anarchy on the country.
In the midst of this mayhem, a benefit concert is organised to raise funds for medical relief. It's a notion which allows for a few good asides about rock stars who 'like doing benefits but only if they're in places they don't get shot', and introduces us to the apparently washed-out Fate - the only musician willing to do the gig. We first see him in prison, follow him through the ravaged city-scape, and eventually watch him join forces with the concert organisers: Uncle Sweetheart (his former manager, brilliantly played by John Goodman) and a disillusioned TV producer (played with equal conviction by Jessica Lange). 

Preparations for the concert - which are punctuated by glances out to the wider world of politics and the state - form the heart of the film. Set in the confined space of the theatre, and reminiscent of the Rolling Thunder tour in its weird assemblage of caravans, impersonators and hangers-on, the set dramatises Dylan's imagination, and many of the ideas which drive it. Here we not only meet the backing band - ingeniously called 'Simple Twist of Fate', and the devoted acolyte Bobby Cupid, but the Animal Wrangler who forces a conversation about how human beings are 'held back' by their 'fear of death', and the aggressively intrusive journalist Tom Friend. Friend (with friends like these...) admits that newspapers give 'a false map of the world', but this doesn't stop him bullying Fate into facing difficult questions about his work and his past. Has Fate engaged directly enough with the woes of the world? Has he sold out? What do the words of his songs mean? Is he 'all used up'?
Looked at from one point of view, these questions are all ridiculous, as well as coarse. The songs we hear Fate rehearsing for the concert - whether they're Dixie numbers or Dylan's own material - remind us very movingly that his music has always married the big issues of our time to his own lyric impulse. From another stand-point, we value the questions, since they compel Fate to utter some fundamental verities. 'The secret is in the ordinary', Fate says; 'the common things of life'. 

At the film's savage climax, Friend attacks Uncle Sweetheart, and is in turn attacked by Fate then Cupid - who murders him. As we watch the journalist bleed to death, it's hard not to think that Fate/Dylan is getting his revenge for a lifetime of intrusion - but when Fate is falsely accused of the murder, and taken off for sentence, we realise that things are not as straightforward as that. Fate meets his fate without complaining, and in his silence seems to assent to the accusation made against him. 

On the face of it, Masked and Anonymous is a film about political corruption, the tensions between religions, and shady business deals - all subjects close to Dylan's heart. Its deeper concerns are closer still: do artists have a responsibility to interpret their work? What value does art have in a corrupt world, and what use? How can the artist protect his gift from his admirers, let alone his detractors? And then there's a third and even more personal level of interrogation. Can happiness be pursued, or must we wait for it to come to us? Are dreams an acceptable alternative to realities? Can our tangled relationships with family and loved ones ever be 'straightened out'?
At all these depths, and in all these respects, the film is deeply engaging. It is also revelatory - in the paradoxical sense that it allows Dylan to say some important things out loud, and to keep the silences, and retain the elements of mystery, which are essential to his genius. We should ask for nothing else. And if there are people watching who still can't resist trying to rip off the mask, and shatter the anonymity - well, they should concentrate on the face we see in the film, and the music we hear. The face with its extraordinary mixture of immobility and expressiveness. The music with its exhilarating sweep and range, and its delivery in a voice which with every passing year has become more haunting in its grace, more compelling in its command.
Andrew Motion is Poet Laureate of Great Britain

A Simple Twist of Fate

A Simple Twist of Fate
The words of Jack Fate

"Yeah I dream, in my dreams I'm walking through fire with intense heat.
but I don't pay any attention to my dreams"

"Some of us pursue perfection and virtue and, if we're lucky, we catch up to it.
But happiness can't be pursued. It either comes to you or it don't."

"The sacred is in the ordinary."

"Expect the worst and you'll get it."

"All of us in some way are trying to kill time. When it's all said and done, time ends up killing us."

"Sometimes it's not enough to know what things mean. Sometimes we have to
know what things don't mean as well."

"The way we look at the world is the way we really are. See it from a fair
garden and everything looks cheerful. Climb to a higher plateau and you'll
see plunder and murder."

masked and anonymous

  1. "Keeping people from being free is big business."
    - Prison Guard
  2. "As long as I keep talking, I know I'm still alive."
    - Uncle Sweetheart
  3. "Does Jesus have to walk on water twice to make a point?"
    - Uncle Sweetheart
  4. "I do not belong to any political party, sir. I guess you could call me a feminist."
    - The Desk Clerk
  5. "I avoid looking at human beings. They disgust me so much with their atom bombs and blow dryers and automobiles. They build hospitals and shrines to the diseases they create. Human beings are alone with their secrets. Masked and anonymous. No one truly knows them."
     - The Animal Wrangler -
  6. "Pilgrims - they didn't need any stinking passports, did they?"
    - Tom Friend
  7. "When inferior people want to revolt, they do. When they become equal, they want to be superior."
    - The Vice President
  8. "I like his songs because they are not precise. They are completely open to interpretation."
    - Pagan Lace
  9. "Good times don't last that long"
    - Tom Friend
  10. "Tragic? What do you know about tragic? Almost every period in history has been tragic"
    - Tom Friend
  11. The more you know the more you'll suffer
    - Bobby Cupid 
  12. "You're exhausting your emotional repertoire. If all of us are hanging by a thread we ain't got  a chance anyways"
     - Uncle Sweatheart
  13. "Signs and speech are in every conceivable language, every alphabet"
     - The Screenplay Scene Synopsis
  14. "Walks to a once grand, now dilapidated hotel. 'The Whitman'
    - The Screenplay Scene Synopsis
  15. "The only power the government has is to crack down on criminals. When there aren't enough criminals you make them. you make so many things a crime that it becomes impossible to live without breaking laws.
     - Radio Preacher
  16. "Life is like riding in a taxi. Even when your not going anywhere the meter is ticking
    - Radio Preacher
  17. "We live in fear. we're afraid cos we know we're going to die"
     - Animal Wrangler
  18. "The only way we can protect ourselves is by going mad"
     - Uncle Sweetheart

The Cast of Characters

Jack Fate Bob Dylan
A once-legendary musician and the wayward son of the
American President, currently residing in the county lock-up. World-weary
and resigned, Fate's best days seem to be behind him but he believes he may
still have "a few songs" left in him.

Uncle Sweetheart John Goodman
Jack Fate's former manager, a man of
questionable scruples who is in debt to mysterious creditors. Part P.T.
Barnum, part Col. Parker and perhaps a dash of Dylan's former manager,
Albert Grossman, Sweetheart springs Fate from prison to headline a concert
to benefit victims of a civil war.

Nina Veronica  Jessica Lange
A cynical, ruthless, fast-talking,
chain-smoking concert promoter. She is the uneasy liaison between Uncle
Sweetheart and the government-run television executives who will broadcast
the concert live.

Bobby Cupid  Luke Wilson
Fate's friend, fan and former-roadie; working as
a bartender when the movie begins, he drops everything to re-join Fate at
the benefit concert when he learns of his hero's release from prison
Pagan Lace Penelope Cruz
The girlfriend of Tom Friend, a
superstitious-religious fanatic who performs elaborate rituals in an attempt
to protect herself and her lover from the too-rough fingers of the world.
Tom Friend  Jeff Bridges
A veteran journalist assigned to cover the
benefit concert; having abandoned his youthful idealism long ago, Friend no
longer believes that writing can change anything.

Other Cast Members

Cheech marin
Oscar Vogel
 Ed Harris
 Steven Bauer

 Fred Ward
 Angela Bassett
Crew Guy #1
Christian Slater

Mickey Rourke
The Editor
Bruce Dern
The Soldier
Giovanni Ribisi

Crew Guy#2
Chris Pen
Animal Wrangler
Val Kilmer

Publicity Shots

These are the original publicity shots. There may be more available, but these are the only ones I have.

Here is the original Sony Pictures Classics 'press release'.