Masked & Anonymous, starring Bob Dylan as “Jack Fate” and a whole host of other characters with so many cameos that I eventually lost count, though to note a few: Bruce Dern, Giovanni Ribisi, Luke Wilson, Val Kilmer (as an animal rights activist and farmer), Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Christian Slater, Mickey Rourke, Penelope Cruz, and on and on… is one film worth seeing.
Here is the set-up: Jack Fate, played by Bob Dylan, is in jail, though why exactly is unclear. Let’s just say it has something to do with the corrupt sort of guerilla government in the country in which the film takes place, supposedly America. But no ordinary America, this is America at some point in the future, and boy, it is a mess. It is run by corrupt officials, rebels, a sort of Sandinista government and to really top it off, the leader the entire mess, as we will find out in due course, is Jack Fate’s own less than beloved father, El Presidente, and though we never meet him directly, we see his image carried throughout the film, either directly in front of us as a frame or hovering in the background as a framed poster on the wall. He is a lurking presence and a not-so-gentle reminder of Big Brother who sees all and could give a shit.
People are diseased, dying, vomiting in the streets (I have it on good authority that Dylan once asked how come Hollywood never made a film of people vomiting on the streets, because that would be the Truth with that ever-present capital T and Dylaneze drawn-out italics..
So Dylan finally gets his way, and though he doesn’t put his name on the writing credits, (he uses a pseudonym,) the fact remains, did Dylan co-wrote this film and yes, he finally gets his scene of someone being sick or close to it on the streets of squalor.
The streets of this America (this America?) are lined with filth, the buildings dilapidated and no, not in that elegant of the Matrix with the dilapidated mansions and sort of Armani chic clothes falling apart at the seams, but no, this is dilapidated in a truly gross and yes, you can imagine cockroaches everywhere way, because as we all know from school, only the cockroaches will survive the nuclear holocaust – end of the world – Armageddon
This seedy quality inherent in the film that is the backdrop is there to support Dylan/Jack Fate and all of the other character’s disillusionment and to illustrate that the things they tell us of their, that is to say our, world has or is going to shit. As fellow train-rider with Jack Giovanni Ribisi says “the rebels have infiltrated everything.” There is corruption, disease, and decay. There is some sort of fascist dictatorship, we are to see, and who better to play that role than Daddy himself, as I said earlier. Hey, isn’t that who daddy is to all little kids at some or other stage, especially boys? Isn’t there that whole Oedipal thing about killing Daddy and so on that we cannot discount. Is it heavy handedness in this film or is it just there for us to note. Perhaps for some of us, maybe even for Dylan, Daddy really was a sort of fascist and so remains one. Whatever the case, for Dylan, Dad, here anyway, is the head honcho that has guided the whole country and its people up ole shit river.
And now, the plot inside the plot or the setting; (however you like) The two rather seedy promoters (John Goodman and Jessica Lange) need a star for their benefit show. Apparently, they’re stuck and the last person they think of, or so we’re lead to believe by Jack Fate (Dylan, of course, though in real life Dylan, like anybody, can be and is remarkably insecure for someone of his stature – Christ, I can hear him now, “What is sheeee talkin’ ‘bout maaaan, my ‘sttaaaturreee…..?’) There’s just the one hitch; Jack Fate is in prison. Somehow, they get him instantly released (yes, it doesn’t make sense and the government is so corrupt that it seems unlikely they would just release ole Jack, but hey… suspend your disbelief as you would for any, a –hem, good fiction so you can bloody well do it for Bob Dylan’s film because it’s fun, after all, and worth it just to see the performance of that Dylan gives in his little Western outfits, very Conway Twitty cum Hank Williams – I rather like the silly cowboy get up. It makes sense to me that a man such as Dylan would romanticize cowboys and the Wild Wild West (does Hibbing< Minnesota count as the wild wild west? Did it ever? That’s where Dylan is from….)
The viewer, having now seen all of the corruption and sleaze, has little doubt that Jack Fate is in jail for reasons that are totally unfair and corrupt, and because he is, as Goodman says of Fate when booking him for the “benefit concert” – “the real leader of The Revolution, ” with open arms to the homeless, drunks, the underworld and the American underworld. In other words, Give me your poor… & etc. We know Jack Fate is a good guy. He may not be our Hope – maybe he cannot be our hope, maybe he sees too much, too much that isn’t good to be hope; but he can be our Fate. He knows where we are headed and makes no bones about it.
John Goodman figures they have booked The Legend Jack Fate, though it’s an interesting way to put it, since Dylan himself has so often denied or shirked off the role of Prophet or Legend and the like, preferring instead to say publicly or defer and say he keeps a low profile. That said, there can be no denying that no matter what he may have said or say, Dylan has courted the myth of who he is as much as he has denied and hated it at times (and I believe he has genuinely hated it).
Giovanni Ribisi is a Jack’s train-mate and fellow traveler as he makes his way from jail to the show where he’ll perform. Ribisi, looking the part he does so well (what does he look like in real life, I wonder), which is strung out looking, clammy, those beautiful hazel eyes bulging out of his head in that googly way he does. He fills Jack in – what the world is like. “Violence is the only thing they know…” Ribisi tells him nervously. “It’s the only tool in their box…” But are these rebels? The government? Are rebels and the government one and the same, like a sort of corrupt republic, which we can safely assume this is.
What we find out, and this is most interesting of all, is that El Presidente, the leader of this whole mess of homelessness and junkies and hookers and corruption and a government that senselessly shoots people (as Ribisi will be for confronting the masked rebels using his “tool” which we don’t see, so I’m assuming he means or meant his brain or some such thing or logic. Anyway, something abstract and intangible. Needless to say, this is no match for the automatic weapons of the hooded men outside the bus at the checkpoint. Ribisi is gunned down, plastered with bullet holes.
Jack arrives at his destination and meets joker John Goodman who he refers to as “Sweetheart” since Goodman takes a rather condescending attitude toward him from the beginning anyway, calling Jack a “skinny thing:” and “no more than bones” with the “jail pale” and so on. Obviously, though a promoter, Goodman is just doing his job and has booked the legend but is no fan. Not really.
Dylan calls Luke Wilson – a bartender who is full of such lines, as he says to one thirsty customer who wants a drink and says My glass is empty. Wilson answers, “The glass is always half empty.”
The film is full of lines like this. Are they platitudes? They’re just general statements that are thrown out there, and though they may sometimes or even often be true, the volume has been bumped up. Jack Black tells us A chemist invents a new drug and doesn’t care about the side effects so the pharmaceutical industry is not immune. and Expect the worst and you’ll get it, but is that last a warning to us – to not think the very same way that Jack Fate is thinking here, or is it a wry comment – a Jack’s Truth: Expect the worst and it will come anyway or rather, Expect anything and you’ll get the worst no matter what.
The latter seems more like what he is saying, but here again; it’s all interpretation and will depend on who is doing the looking here. You’d have to watch for yourself to determine the meaning of each individual line, but clearly, the overall message is that, his father, El Presidente, is one corrupt sonofabitch who cares nothing for the people, nothing for his son.
Even Jack’s seedy hotel room has reminders of his father; after all, he is the leader of what we assume is supposed to be, ironically, the “free world” and his picture hangs over his bed, like a Stalinist propaganda poster. It rather reminded me of my own recent visit to a government building where, after I had gone through the usual security measures necessary at government buildings and so, having been through the metal detector and seen men remove their belts and shoes, I felt all warm and snuggly safe. I looked up and saw framed photographic prints of our own President and Dick Cheney and though it had not occurred then (call me stupid), it occurred to me as I was watching this film that perhaps the photographs that seem to occupy most classrooms and even university lecture halls and the like of our current leaders are perhaps not so different from the Russian propaganda art of Constructivism around the time of the revolution (1917) and the early
Jack Fate tells us, I may as well make a list here, since that perhaps tell us what we need to know in some ways – these are spoken through Jack or through other characters in the film, but really, every character, like in a dream, is Jack Fate. Remember learning that ages ago? That to interpret a dream, you must first understand that you are every character in that dream, not just one. Once you understand this, you can then begin to understand the dream and there is a lot of talk about dreams and dream imagery in this film, so it makes sense that Jack Fate is, essentially, everyman, and everyman is also you, the viewer:
Read through, and you could create a small, compact volume of Jack Fate’s Gripes and Comforts. More, remember that many of the other characters are really Dylan/Jack Fate speaking as well – they may be playing other roles, but they serve as conduits to say what Dylan wants, like Giovanni Ribisi’ s train comments about having only “one tool” which is obviously not the right one and is the simple answer of annihilation and murder. Even the hotel keeper, (recognizable from many other films, though the name evades me right now ~ ), when asked about politics by Jack responds, “I ain’t no member of any political party…I guess that makes me a feminist.”
This film is, or rather provides, a venue or a way for Dylan to say all those things he has always wanted to say. To point out the inaccuracies and absurdities or big government and big business, the corruption of men, the evil forces; the “they” of the film, that are referred to again and again (though they could encompass a whole number of people or industries, so let’s just assume it means all. It is “Them.” it is “They” “They” are the perpetrators whatever the crime, and They always will be. It was Them officer, I saw it.
Bruce Dern, another co-star whose role I can’t quite grasp, says in conversatin with Jeff Bridges (a journalist) that this is all “a nefarious play to weed out the rebels.” It is anti-government, anti-establishment, pro The People with a capital P. Dern seems to work with Jeff Bridges or knows him anyway.
Bridges is a write a journalist – , who is mocked by Jack Fate’s sidekick, Luke Wilson, who serves as protectant and friend, keeping away others, and sort of a mini-me of Jack Fate – an acolyte who assists at the altar of his god, or his friend, as the case may be. He says to Bridges, there to interview Fate; So, you’re a writer … Ya ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . “Hemingway… he was a writer.”
We all know of Dylan’s legendary distaste and perhaps even contempt of journalists in real life. We’ve seen it for ourselves on such tour footage as “Eat the Document” and “Don’t Look Back” and seen how a cocky, elusive, and slippery Dylan continuously plays a game of cat and mouse (with him obviously playing the role of Cat) with various members of the press. As Dylan so aptly has noted in his career (from an early age) the press seem to expect him to have all the answers, to be able to dissect himself, explain himself, get into the inner depths that we ourselves would be hard-pressed to explain. If we cannot do this ourselves, why in the end do we expect more of Dylan than we demand or can give of ourselves? I have to agree, it does seem fucked up.
What Dylan wants us to see, through his buddy Luke Wilson as his sidekick is that there are those who “call themselves writers” and those who are “real writers” and that the two are quite different.
In the end of the film, Jack Fate and Bridges, our journalist, will come to blows, with Jack Fate holding a bottle of Jack Daniels to the journalist’s neck; Fate could easily take his life, yet chooses not to. His point has been proven. It is then that we see the journalist has a gun, which he turns on Fate. Fate has done the “right” thing and walked away, though he could easily have taken him, but it was Fate’s fate, one could say, to be shot by the journalist, to be injured in some way, as surely Dylan has felt at times, by those he has been good to, including various members of the press to whom he graciously granted interviews.
Well, thank God for Luke Wilson, who turns up and bashes Bridges to death with a guitar (how apt), rendering him helpless and dying, with the redemptive Penelope Cruz (who appears out of nowhere) at his side, offering him his absolution from all sin. As he lies dying, he talks of white doves, cathedrals, and the like. It’s all so very unreal, so very strange. So very much like the lyrics to a Dylan song, come to think of it.
I am a bit loathe to use the word, true regarding writers, the way Luke Wilson and Jack Fate throw it around here. A “true” writer, I suppose, would know that writing means more than jotting down a few notes and writing out whatever occurs. Yes, write what occurs, but it must be done with some regimen and regularity. With discipline and desire and drive, like any other “job” the job of being a writer is a tough one to fill. . It is a daily job and task. It is something you go at with a vengeance, as with any job. You do not give up, get writer’s block or quit or not write because you “don’t feel like it.” You write. It is a calling as much as any ministry of any kind. A real and true calling is hard to come by… and likely that definition or feeling will differ from person to person. No two callings are likely the same, at least, not in my experience.
The point here is that Dylan, though Luke Wilson, is able to insult this journalist (you can almost hear the contempt and the ooze in the word here, as if by saying it one would be tainted by something unclean). Wilson, like Dylan believed (believes?) is saying that the journalist makes a mockery of “real” writing.
So the scene illustrates Dylan’s dislike, even disdain of interviews, proven once again not do long ago on the disastrous 60 minutes interview with Ed Bradley. Hell, even I thought the freakin’ Victoria’s Secret commercial Dylan did was more interesting than that, and I hated that he did that, even though I understood it and knew that I was holding him to some ridiculous standard that I did not hold myself to. That if someone had offered me millions of dollars to do some ad with busty models dressed in panties and wings, I would do it in a heartbeat. So, I am not only a journalist (yuk), I am also a hypocrite.
But Bridges echoes Jack Fates’ views as well: The world is overcrowded, there is a long line at the cluster, and it’s hard to get to the top. Bridges’ girlfriend, Penelope Cruz, who, quite literally, kneels and worships in front of a small, home altar every day and praying (praying for what? For hope…? Some sign? To save the world?) Cruz may be our sacrificial virgin. Our Madonna, pure and good.
Cruz may be representative of the only good and pure thing in the film, and though obviously in love with and involved with Bridges, the ticky-tacky flim-flam journalist man, she offers him some redemption simply by her presence and her very Goodness. IN short, she offers, A soft place to fall, and all of Dylan’s heroes in songs (essentially, Dylan himself) need a soft place to fall because lord knows, he has needed one for so long that the fatigue is visible on his face. And I want to give him that.
Christ, to look at Dylan, even in his mid-sixties, is to see a man far beyond his years. He has aged too fast, too soon, and though much of that we know, or have heard, is drugs – especially heroin and crystal meth will age you decades in just three years (check out link below for more on this), I want to find or give him that place and say Rest now. He may say he doesn’t need a lover, that he is a lone man. That we shouldn’t “think twice, it’s alright” but that is not what his affect says. His affect is one of cynicism and sorrow, a push and a pull tango and feelings of great ambivalence: should he choose Love or Not Love? Is Love worth believing in again? It’s a question only Dylan can answer, and I don’t expect he will ever tell us outright. The best we can do is listen carefully to his lyrics, his music as he continues to make it… that is where the answers lie.
As Jack finds himself on the way back to jail, he sums it up in his head, as the voice-over, Dylans voice, says:
“I was always a singer and no more than that. it’s not enough to know the meaning of things. sometimes you need to not know the meaning…. what the person you love is capable of.
“climb to a higher plateau and you’ll see plunder and murder.”
“I stopped trying to figure everything out a long time ago.”
The deleted scenes are telling, so don’t skip over those, since they often offer up the parts that the director didn’t want us to see. Such as, Jack Fate being approached by a woman in a bar, he tells her that he has “a radical hostility towards sexuality.”
Doesn’t that sound like the older Dylan? The songs about love and loss, the post-Sarah songs, after the divorce and the bitterness that followed, no matter that he remarried and supposedly was or is in love, he doesn’t appear to be. Or perhaps, to be fair, I should say, he keeps that well-hidden. No matter what the truth, He very clearly makes a statement here and it rings true. But is it “sexuality” as he says, or is that simply a marker – a stand – in for “love.” Only Jack (our boy Dylan) really knows the answer.
The Soundtrack is excellent – so if you can purchase that, definitely do – the covers of Dylan songs are amazing and to hear Dylan to hip-hop just rocked my world, as well as Dylan to Reggae and more. Do check it out. And do rent this DVD. Netflix will have it as will other, better stores and rental shacks.