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Photograph by Lorey Sebastian

And I Thought David Lynch Was Weird: 'Mulholland Drive's Laura Elena Harring attempts to penetrate the eternal mystery that is Bob Dylan.

Mighty Windy

Bob Dylan can't escape his own Fate in baffling, misbegotten 'Masked and Anonymous'

By Richard von Busack

WHILE Masked and Anonymous is just about the most pretentious film ever made, it robs you of the pleasure of wondering that such wowsers usually provide. It's obvious why all the stars got caught up in it. Every man jack of 'em, from Christian Slater to Luke Wilson, signed on because they wanted to meet Bob Dylan--even if it meant wearing blackface, as Ed Harris does, or menacing bunny rabbits with a knife, as Val Kilmer does, or pretending to take a punch from the old coot, as Jeff Bridges does.

This catastrophe was directed by Larry Charles, a producer for the Seinfeld show and director of episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm--no one is so cynical that his common sense can't just vanish in a twinkling. Trying to re-create the name-checking poetry of the song "Desolation Row," Dylan and Charles collaborated on the script (both are masked and anonymous under the pseudonyms "Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine").

In a border town in America akin to the Zone in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, the messiah figure "Jack Fate" (played by Dylan) has been sprung from jail. Looking even more like Vincent Price than ever and clad in some dude-ranch cowboy suits, Fate prepares to play a benefit concert for victims of the political violence. The scheming promoter Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) glad-hands the show into shape. Unbeknownst to most, Fate's father is the dying dictator of the country. Fate is a Hamlet, sorrowing over the death of his mother, killed by his all-powerful father.

Cryptic utterances abound. A Bus Driver: "They have no integrity! They push both Jesus and Judas aside!" No, wait, the better line comes from Kilmer, as a menacing Animal Wrangler: "I won't even look at a human being. They disgust me so much with their atom bombs and blow dryers and automobiles. They build hospitals as shrines for the diseases they create! Human beings alone with their secrets ... masked and anonymous. We live in fear because we know we're going to die."

Between eight live songs--spiritedlessly played, with Dylan a weary ghost of himself--what coalesces is a story of a great musical star being pressured by the press and his management alike. Then a magic weapon, Blind Lemon Jefferson's guitar, defeats both. Think of the moolah Dylan's promoters have dug up for him over the years. Consider the rock critics who--even during stretches when Dylan's barrenness and contempt were unignorable--bent themselves into shapes that a yoga teacher couldn't assume, all for the sake of defending this musician. "Jesus didn't have to walk on water twice," says Jack Fate. Yeah, but Jesus never inflicted an album like Saved on the public. When Dylan compares himself to Jesus--let alone Blind Lemon Jefferson--it's evidence of a self-pitying streak you wish he would outgrow. This film is so egregious it makes me temporarily forget how much Dylan means to me.

Masked and Anonymous (Unrated; 112 min.), directed by Larry Charles, written by Bob Dylan and Charles, photographed by Rogier Stoffers and starring Dylan, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Val Kilmer and Laura Elena Harring, opens Friday at the Towne in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the July 31-August 6, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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