Michael G Smith

I could not possibly have set up the original website without the help and knowledge of Michael G Smith, who contributed more than I did to the content of the website, who wrote numerous reviews and who attended the original screening at Sundance. Below is all the work he contributed to the website back in 2003.

Michael G Smiths Review : Sundance Preview

Originally printed in Isis Magazine.
 "I'm in the amusement business. That goes along with theme parks, popcorn and horror shows." - Bob Dylan 

"What's so bad about being misunderstood?" - Bob Dylan

You would probably have to go back to early Godard to find a movie as audacious, shockingly funny and brilliantly incisive in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, the new movie from Bob Dylan and Larry Charles. As with some Godard, I can't say whether it's a comedy or a tragedy - but it's definitely a masterpiece. The very idea of Masked and Anonymous has always seemed farfetched and unreal, even as a hypothesis: early reports suggested that Dylan would play the ridiculously named "Jack Fate", a jailed musician sprung from prison to play a benefit concert whose aim was to "save the world". The curiosity and confusion aroused by the concept has only been exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding the film's production and, for a while, the almost daily updates of an increasingly long list of Hollywood stars who agreed to work for scale for a chance to share the screen with Dylan.

When the news first broke that the legendary singer/songwriter might return to the big screen after a fifteen year hiatus, it was couched in the disingenious terms that Dylan was "in negotioations" to star in a new film. We now know that Dylan was, in fact, responsible for the film's conception (the notion of anyone else playing Jack Fate is preposterous) and it's also worth noting that this story broke the day after the Grammy awards; it was as if Dylan, knowing the world of "entertainment news" would have bigger fish to fry, had decided to strategically minimalize the publicity of his latest project. Now, less than a year after news of the film was first announced, Masked and Anonymous has arrived. Shot on digital video in just 20 days and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result is a wonder to behold: a dense collage of sound and image that threatens to overwhelm the senses but never quite does, thanks to the rigor and precision of director Larry Charles and his team of talented collaborators.

The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal, terrifying, funny and deeply moving; in short, all of the virtues we've come to associate with Dylan's greatest work as a recording artist. Some of what has been written about the film is false. The setting is not "an unnamed country" but rather "Somewhere in America", as a title at the beginning makes clear. After a montage in which unkown groups are seen rioting, carrying out terrorist acts and/or military operations, the viewer soon realizes that "America" is a totalitarian police state. The model for this country seems to be the negative utopias depicted in the novels of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (images of a dictator-like "President" canvas almost every available public space) - but instead of being set in the future to comment on the horrors of the present day, references to recent world events suggest the film _is_ set in the present, only in some kind of alternate reality that just happens to bear a strong resemblence to our own.

In an interview in 2001, Dylan said, "We're living in a science fiction world whether we realize it or not." Masked and Anonymous then is the story of that world. This is the world that Bob Dylan sees and responds to; Tom Friend, an aggressive reporter played by Jeff Bridges, is clearly meant to stand in for all journalists, even while Dylan puts his own words in Friend's mouth. Similarly, the organizers of the benefit concert make demands of Fate that must represent the kind of idiotic commercial concessions that Dylan is faced with on a regular basis: the setlist they want him to play includes (tee-hee) "Eve of Destruction". If Dylan's vision seems bleak, there is a ray of hope. There is one genuine human relationship in the film - between Fate and his former roadie, Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson, in his prime). I believe the warmth and real affection between these two characters, which stands in stark contrast to all of the other relationships depicted in the film, is key to understanding the agenda of Masked and Anonymous, and especially its surprise ending (which I won't give away). Of course, it is impossible to separate the story of Jack Fate from the legend of Bob Dylan.

There are so many references to Dylan's life and career studded throughout the film that it ends up being a kind of fascinating and wide-eyed self-criticism of the myth by the author. (In this respect, the only film in the history of cinema that is comparable is Chaplin's Limelight - not coincidentally, another masterpiece by an artist in his autumn years.) One obvious example is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan's own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman's size and obnoxious demeanor don't give it away, the glasses do. What these personal references ultimately suggest is that Jack Fate, the washed-up troubadour, is both Dylan's fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.

The story: after being released from prison, Fate gradually makes his way to the soundstage where the benefit show will be held. His first significant encounter is on a bus with a confused young man (played to perfection by Giovanni Ribisi) who regales Fate with a monologue about joining a group of insurgents, only to realize that these rebels are being funded by the very government that they mean to topple. When the young man finally admits that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality, you don't know whether to laugh or scream; it's the story of John Walker Lindh, "the American Taliban", as told by Italo Calvino. Fate laconically responds that he no longer pays attention to his own dreams. This scene sets both a tone and narrative pattern for the rest of the film to follow; the plot proceeds in fits and starts as Fate encounters a series of characters, each of whom reminds him of his past.

Flashbacks are introduced to Fate's childhood and we learn that the troubadour is actually the son of the country's President. To reveal more would spoil some of the film's surprises, but let's just say that subplots involving the dying President's former mistress (Angela Bassett) and a Vice President (Mickey Rourke in a welcome comeback) who is preparing to take over the position that once seemed, um, destined for Fate, indicate that Larry Charles and Bob Dylan had Shakespeare on the brain. When Charles mentions Shakespeare and Cassavetes as influences in the same breath, he's not kidding. To direct the Hollywood cast to speak in the script's poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony. Except, that is, for Bob Dylan.

 Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and director Charles gets a lot of comic mileage out of the contrast between Dylan's deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it's like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the '40's and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science-fiction landscape - the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remains hilariously intact! The very idea is inspired and the execution is flawless.

The performance footage of course is terrific. Dylan and His Band play seven songs live on camera and there is a warmth, an intimacy and a relaxed quality to the performances that you will only see at Dylan's best club shows. Although none of the songs are heard in their entirety, these sequences are nonetheless beautifully filmed. There is none of the rapid-fire editing and pointlessly roving camera moves that mar the filmed footage of so many live performances. Instead, Charles' strategy is to have the band crowd together and film them in close-up with a wide-angle lens. There are numerous long takes in which all of the band members can be seen and when the camera does move, it's deliberate and meaningful. A few notes about some techinical aspects of the film: I have called it a "dense collage". There is so much going on in all corners of the frame at all times that it's impossible to process it all in one viewing. The clever production design of Bob Ziembecki (Dead Man) is largely responsible for this. There are many Dylan in-jokes involving signs, brand names and television schedule listings.

A dvd and a remote control should come in handy in sorting all this out. The cinematography of Rogier Soffers (Character) also deserves mention. The colors are nicely saturated and the resolution of the image is the best I've seen in a tape-to-film transfer. Stoffers lights his scenes with a noir edge - reminiscent of Edward Hopper's paintings - and he shows a particular knack for capturing nighttime exteriors. On a low budget with minimal set design, a crumbling civilization is successfully suggested through the cinematography and a careful choice of locations. The film's soundtrack though may be its densest aspect, containing a wealth of overlapping aural information: nearly wall-to-wall music is interspersed with dialogue delivered at a machine gun clip and a creative use of off-screen sounds, including omni-present gunshots and the whir of helicopter blades.

The nearly constant use of Dylan cover songs is particularly complex and intelligent. As in Dylan's film Renaldo and Clara, these songs are used, with varying degrees of directness, to comment on the plot and characters and to underscore the film's themes. In a recent interview, Larry Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him long ago not to worry about the film "in the short term." However the film is received in the short term, the richly orchestrated tapestry of sound and image that is Masked and Anonymous is sure to keep Dylanologists and film fans alike busy for decades.

Allusions and References
By Michael G Smith

1. "I put a spell on you because you're mine . . ."

Uncle Sweetheart, Jack Fate's scheming, scamming manager, sings the opening line to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' lascivious r&b voodoo cult classic from 1956. The song has been covered many times, most famously by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Nina Simone. The complete lyrics can be found here:


2. "Down on Coliseum Street, the Inferno Club; I was the lady in red."

The Lady in Red, a woman from Jack Fate's past, makes two references to ancient Italy; "Coliseum Street" is a reference to the ancient marble amphitheater where 80,000 Roman citizens would go to be entertained by gladiators fighting wild animals and each other. (The Vice President proposes to bring back gladiatorial sports later in the film.) The "Inferno Club" refers to Dante Alighieri's Inferno, a story of the author's adventure through hell that draws heavily on Christian and Greek mythologies. (Dante is also widely believed to be the "Italian poet from the 13th century" referenced in Tangled Up in Blue.) Fittingly, this scene ends with Francesco de Gregori's Italian-language cover of If You See Her, Say Hello. The "lady in red" probably refers to the nickname given to John Dillinger's mistress, who betrayed him to the FBI on the night he was gunned down outside of The Biograph Theater in Chicago.
note: this scene was cut from the theatrical release version of the film

3. "How do you know he's not like Claude Rains in that movie The Invisible

Uncle Sweetheart, attempting to allay Nina Veronica's fears that Jack Fate will not show up for the benefit concert, refers to James Whale's classic 1933 film adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel about a scientist who discovers the secret to becoming invisible but also becomes insane in the process.

4. "This place looks familiar. I think I stayed here before."

Upon being released from prison, Jack Fate checks into The Whitman Hotel. The hotel is probably named for the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman whose book, Leaves of Grass, is arguably the most celebrated collection of verse ever produced in America. Whitman was also a Civil War nurse who wrote extensively about the war; Dylan recently alluded to Whitman's poem "To You" in his neo-Civil War ballad 'Cross the Green Mountain: "Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams"

5. "Eatin' from the tree of knowledge of good and evil."

Uncle Sweetheart explains the fact that he's "put on a few pounds" by claiming to have partaken of the "tree of knowledge" in the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, they acquired knowledge of good and evil, precipitating mankind's fall from grace.

6. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me."

In the midst of his philosophical monologue, The Animal Wrangler speaks the opening line of this beloved 18th century hymn. The scene ends with a version of the song performed by Jack Fate and his band. The origin of the melody is unknown but the lyrics were written by one John Newton. The complete lyrics can be found here:


7. "I don't know. Stack-a-Lee?"

Jack Fate offers this suggestion when Uncle Sweetheart can't remember the name of a famous star from the jazz age who was "disfigured on stage" during a live show. This of course refers to the title character of the famous traditional murder ballad covered by just about everybody (including Dylan on World Gone Wrong).

8. "Diamond Joe"

Not the traditional folk song from Good As I Been to You but rather another traditional song with the same title but different music and lyrics altogether, performed in a bluegrass arrangement. Diamond Jo was the name of a steamboat that ran on the upper Mississippi in the period 1864-83, owned by "Diamond Jo" Reynolds. (He also built his own railroad from Malvern to Hot Springs, AR, after a painful carriage trip to cure his rheumatism in the healing waters of Hot Springs). The refrain line "Diamond Jo come and get me" could be a reference to the boat.
Early versions of the song were recorded by the Georgia Crackers (1927) and Charlie Butler (1937), then a prisoner at the Parchman prison. Chords and lyrics can be found here:


9. "I don't need no stinkin' passport."

Jack Fate's friend and roadie, Bobby Cupid, dismisses Uncle Sweetheart's question about how he got to the soundstage by alluding to this famous (yet often misquoted!) line from John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): "We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!"

10. "That my friend is Blind Lemon's guitar."

As a present, Bobby Cupid gives Jack Fate a guitar that allegedly belonged to blues giant Blind Lemon Jefferson, explaining that Blind Lemon gave it to Lightnin' Hopkins when the former was leading the latter around Dallas, Texas. Blind Lemon Jefferson was the most popular male blues artist of the 1920's and arguably the most influential. He recorded at least one hundred songs between 1925 and 1929. On his debut album, Bob Dylan covered Jefferson's See That My Grave is Kept Clean.

11. "Sittin' here wondering would a matchbox hold my clothes/ Ain't got so many matches but we got so far to go"

Uncle Sweetheart sings the opening lines of Blind Lemon Jefferson's Matchbox Blues. The song became a rock-a-billy hit for Carl Perkins in the '50's and was recorded as a duet by Dylan and Johnny Cash in 1969 (though never released).

12. "Dixie"

During the American Civil War this song served as the unofficial national anthem of the seceded South. Ironically, the song was written in New York by one Dan Emmett prior to the beginning the war - the chorus line "I wish I was in Dixie" was an expression popular among northerners and referred primarily to the cold northern winters. Complete lyrics can be found here:


The story of the song's composition can be found here:


13. "Hey, you ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls? Hemingway?"

Bobby Cupid taunts journalist Tom Friend by referring to Ernest Hemingway's novel of the Spanish Civil War as an example of a book by "a guy who could write." The title of Hemingway's novel is itself an allusion to a poem by John Donne that served as the source of a lyric in two later Dylan songs: Standing in the Doorway and Moonlight
14. "Behold the dreamer cometh."

Uncle Sweetheart greets Bobby Cupid by quoting Genesis 37:19, "And they said one to another, 'Behold, this dreamer cometh.'"

15. "One sad cry of pity in a town without pity."

In his monologue about Gene Pitney, Jimi Hendrix and the pilgrims, Tom Friend bumps two of Dylan's favorite song lyrics together; "One sad cry of
pity" comes from the traditional bluegrass song Baltimore Fire ("All the world was one sad cry of pity") and also served as the (jokey?) name of a
tour listed in the World Gone Wrong liner notes. "Town without Pity" was a hit song for Gene Pitney in 1962 and the theme song to a film by the same title. Dylan has alluded to it before in his song Tight Connection to My Heart: "Madame Butterfly lulled me to sleep/ in a town without pity where the water runs deep."

16. "What strikes you about the song is the Jekyll and Hyde quality."

Uncle Sweetheart compares Drifter's Escape to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic psychological horror novel about the dual nature of good and evil.

17. "Lord, all she wanted was a Mercedes Benz."

While asking Jack Fate about Janis Joplin, Tom Friend quotes her popular song Mercedes Benz. It's an interesting allusion considering the song was
co-written by Bobby Neuwirth.

18. "Ah, yes, the stage. The whole world's a stage."

Oscar Vogel quotes Shakespeare's play As You Like It ("All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players")

19. "You know when the Roman Empire fell? You know what Caesar and the rest of them Romans were doing when the barbarians were at the gate? . . .Shooting craps and gambling."

Uncle Sweetheart alludes to a line in Blind Willie McTell's Broke Down Engine Blues (covered by Dylan on World Gone Wrong): "Been shooting craps and gamblin'/ Mama and I done got broke"

20. "Truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is a cliché but by throwing in "Truth", Fate may be alluding to a line in John Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"--that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
21. "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me, many are they that rise up against me" - Reference found by Trev Gibb

Pagan Lace quotes verbatim from Psalms Book 19, 03:01 
22. " for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly"- Reference found by Trev Gibb
Spoken by Pagan Lace (same verse as the above)....The cheek- bone holds significance in that to break it is to disarm an animal of all defence and thus perhaps a symbolic commentary on man's disregard for the sanctity of nature

23. "This is Mrs. Brown and she has a lovely daughter." - Reference found by Tricia J.

Uncle Sweetheart refers to the '60's bubblegum pop hit Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter by Herman's Hermits. Dylan was aware of the band as far back as 1965; he can be heard referring to them as "Herman and the Hermits" in Don't Look Back.

24. "John the Revelator"

After Fate storms off of the soundstage, Uncle Sweetheart can faintly be heard singing a line from Blind Willie Johnson's gospel classic. The complete lyrics can be found here:

25. "I like Stravinsky and Beethoven. Schubert's really good. Modern music doesn't do much for me, and frankly it doesn't do much for the  .......president either"
Edmund is referring to Stravinsky, the same pioneering and subversive Artist who's 'The Rite of Spring' caused shockwaves throughout the music/art establishment for its use of tribal rhythms and musical discordance. 
26. "My old man he went down the tunnel of the love, the dark ride" 
Tom Friends mournful recount of his life here draws parallels with the Bruce Springsteen song 'Tunnel of Love"
 "you've got to learn to live with what you cant rise above" - Tunnel of Love (1987)

Politics and masked and anonymous
by Michael G Smith

Among other things, Masked and Anonymous is a film about war. Current events will definitely alter the way M&A is perceived. Some people are going to read it as a thinly veiled critique of the Bush administration. I think this is made fairly explicit when the Vice President gives a speech in which he says that "evil doers" will be rounded up and trampled to death by wild animals in football stadiums. I don't think one should take this as "evidence" that Dylan or the movie is espousing a progressive liberal point of view though - I think, if anything, one could argue that Dylan is fiscally conservative and socially libertarian - but I do think M&A reflects a fear that Dylan has implied in countless interviews in recent years: that America could potentially slide into fascism; and he probably thinks this could happen whether there is a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Remember when he was asked if he followed the 2000 presidential election and he responded that anyone and anything could be bought or sold? One of the movie's real masterstrokes is to draw a parallel between Bush and Hussein. This is, of course, something countless political commentators have already done but it seems a fresh idea to see it depicted in a fictional nightmarish Orwellian movie like M&A. Once again, this idea comes directly from the script, which asks you to visualize the ubiquitous posters of the U.S. President by thinking of contemporary dictators, including "Hussein". I don't think the fact that Fate is the President's son is a commentary on nepotism though because Fate is a disgraced former star who is imprisoned and estranged from his father. The war, however, is only one of many political aspects of M&A. The film is rich with a lot of other themes, including the concept of freedom, and it is implied that even in prison one can be free - emancipated from the chains of mental slavery, as Bob Marley would say. Another important theme is whether or not art can act as a catalyst for social change. This is chewed over a_lot_ in the dialogue but there are no clear cut answers and this is consequently one of the trickiest parts of the movie and one that is undoubtedly going to be hotly debated; for instance, the state-run television network asks Fate to play Jailhouse Rock at the benefit show ("The warden threw a party at the county jail - they see it as a song of hope!") and it's hard to tell at moments like this whether the movie's ambivalence is tinged with cynicism or not. It's a scary film but, personally, I also think it's an optimistic one. You just have to look a little harder to see the silver lining.

Religion and masked and anonymous
by Michael G Smith

Masked and Anonymous is studded with references to religion. The first audible line of dialogue in the film is a radio evangelist asking, "Are you humbled before God?" It is an audacious and hilarious way to raise the curtain; are you humbled before this movie? Indeed, there are parallels drawn between Jack Fate and Jesus Christ throughout the film - from Uncle Sweetheart's comment that the legendary Fate doesn't need to "do anything" because, he asks, "Does Jesus need to walk on water twice to make a point?" to the fact that Fate's mother is named Mary (a not-quite-neutral name fleetingly glanced on a tombstone). Of course, this is nothing new to Dylan's work. For better or worse, Dylan has drawn parallels between himself and Christ since at least as far back as Shelter from the Storm in 1974 ("In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes . . .) and he was criticized in some circles for drawing similar parallels between Renaldo and Jesus in his 1978 film Renaldo and Clara. It is Uncle Sweetheart, however, Jack's larger than life manager, who quotes the bible. He refers to the book of Genesis twice - explaining the fact that he's "put on a few pounds" because he's been "eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil" and, later, greeting Bobby Cupid with a sarcastic, "Behold the dreamer cometh." Those familiar with Dylan's recent recorded work will not be surprised by an abundance of fire and brimstone references to hell and the apocalypse; the "Lady in Red," a femme fatale from Jack's past, refers to working at "the Inferno Club" and, during the film's climax, a news report on the radio informs us that geologists drilling a hole into the center of the earth have inadvertently opened the gates of hell (where millions of souls are screaming from inside).
Finally, the movie's crudest joke involves impersonators of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul "Deuce", who are brought on board by Uncle Sweetheart to round out the bill for the benefit concert. In one brief shot, as the performers are hanging around the soundstage, waiting for the show to begin and enjoying refreshments, "the Pope" can clearly be seen eating a bagel

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