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 the sci-fi/film noir/spaghetti-western/Shakespearean musical-tragicomedy, 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.
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. His character, 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 eight 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 that mars the filmed footage of so many live musical 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.
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. By Michael Smith