Freewheeling with Bob Dylan: ‘Masked and Anonymous’ (Blu-ray)

❉ One of the more willfully strange pieces of fuck-it-all-cinema that’s ever been released.

“Critics were, shall we say, unkind to Masked and Anonymous when it debuted in limited release 17 years ago, and it barely made a blip on the box-office radar. But over time, it’s gathered a strong cult following, and is definitely a drink-and-smoke item for erudite college kids and Generation X audiences.”

I was lit-up like a Christmas tree when I saw Masked and Anonymous on opening weekend in Los Angeles back in February 2003, and over the years, it rightfully became one of those late-night offerings that would get trotted out when the social vibe was oh-so-right. Resembling more of a freewheeling cinematic rambling of ideas, notions, and motifs rather than something traditionally coherent, this mysterious piece of jibber-jabber does have some rather interesting things to say about celebrity, greed, and the creative process, but in reality, this served as the ultimate “Let’s Hang Out with Bob” moment for so many A-listers that it must have been hard to say no. The fact that the story was concocted from random written bits on hotel notepads and bar-napkin makes it even more intriguing to consider.

Directed by Larry Charles, who had previously been best known for his darkly comedic work on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and would later go on to helm Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator, and co-written by Charles with Bob Dylan under the respective pseudonyms of Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov, this is one of the more esoteric and willfully strange pieces of fuck-it-all-cinema that’s ever been released. The ultra-laconic and always-squinting Dylan leads an absurdly packed cast including Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Penélope Cruz, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Angela Bassett, Bruce Dern, Mickey Rourke, Steven Bauer, Michael Paul Chan, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Cheech Marin, Chris Penn, Giovanni Ribisi, Christian Slater, Fred Ward, Robert Wisdom, and Richard C. Sarafian. As I said, it’s an absurdly stacked cast.

Dylan plays the perplexing Jack Fate, a former travelling musician given to speaking in poetic circles, who is released from jail by his shady manager in order to headline a bizarre benefit concert for the country as a whole; America is crumbling at its sociopolitical seams and there’s only one man who can possibly make sense of the madness. Or something like that; this movie doesn’t really pretend to make any rational sense, and that’s half the fun of the entire thing. There’s no point in even trying to decipher the film’s inner logic, as it exists in a moment-to-moment sense of being, with people coming and going, reappearing and then disappearing again, with dark, satirical comedy rubbing up against melancholic musical melodrama. The messy-on-purpose visual aesthetic from esteemed cinematographer Rogier Stoffers and estimable editor Pietro Scalia further underscores the project’s bizarre nature.

But what about the soundtrack? This is a movie that stars Dylan as a singer, so what’s there to offer? In addition to choice cuts from the legend himself (Drifter’s Escape, Blowin’ in the Wind, I’ll Remember You, Watching the River Flow, Dirt Road Blues, Amazing Grace, Not Dark Yet, live versions of Down in the Flood, Diamond Joe, Dixie, and Cold Irons Bound), there’s tracks from The Grateful Dead (It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue), Jerry Garcia (Senor: Tales of Yankee Power), Shirley Caesar (Gotta Serve Somebody), Los Lobos (On A Night Like This), and many more. The special features reveal that Dylan’s Standing In The Doorway and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door were used in alternate/deleted scenes, and a new fiddle arrangement of If You See Her, Say Hello was filmed, but used only as background music. Dylan was also meant to do a cover of All Along the Watchtower for the film, but at the last minute decided against it.

Critics were, shall we say, unkind to Masked and Anonymous when it debuted in limited release 17 years ago, and it barely made a blip on the box-office radar. But over time, it’s gathered a strong cult-following, and is definitely a drink-and-smoke item for erudite college kids and Generation X audiences. Shout! Select’s spiffy new Special Edition Blu-ray sports a gorgeous visual transfer for the 112 minute film, retaining the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio; colors are rich, bold, and very cinematic looking, and are showcased in 1080p high definition color. The sterling sound design is showcased in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and sounds absolutely fantastic, with the entire soundtrack presented with excellent clarity and force. Extra features include a new and very informative interview with Charles, full length audio commentary by Charles, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and various theatrical trailers.


❉ Shout! Factory to issue ‘Masked and Anonymous’ on Blu-ray Disc, 10 March 2020. CLICK HERE to order.

❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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