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The Masked Man

Flick Chick


Published September 24, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

Turn on the television to witness a Victoria's Secret commercial with scantily clad supermodels being serenaded by an off-camera Bob Dylan crooning his mournful "Lovesick." Head to The Roxy in Burlington to see the singer-songwriter on camera in Masked and Anonymous, a misanthropic mess of a movie that proves he's no slave to fashion -- or plot.

Costumed in ornate country/western outfits that overwhelm his already wispy frame, Dylan is cast as an enigmatic musical icon. Imagine that. Adept at hiding in plain sight, the Jewish boy from Minnesota long ago began to disguise himself as a cowboy-drifter with Woody Guthrie ideals, Johnny Cash mystique and Willie Nelson outlaw wiles.

Dylan's character, Jack Fate, emerges from jail in a post-apocalyptic society akin to the one depicted in Blade Runner. The 1982 sci-fi thriller envisioned Los Angeles as a decrepit Third World metropolis populated by Asians; Masked presents the City of Angels as a civil-war-torn banana republic, where most residents are Latino or black.

Fate is the estranged son of a mustachioed dictator, essentially an archetypal South American tyrant. There's a bit of Oedipal fandango in the script -- co-written by Dylan (with director Larry Charles) under the pseudonym "Sergei Petrov" -- when flashbacks reveal the protagonist dallying with his dad's mistress (Angela Bassett).

He is bailed out of the hoosegow by Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman), a flimflam man working on a questionable concert broadcast with TV producer Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange) -- ostensibly to raise money for an impoverished populace living in Baghdad-like ruins. Unable to book Bruce Springsteen or Sting, the promoters hire Fate but ask him to perform non-Dylan anthems from the 1960s such as "Street Fighting Man" and "Eve of Destruction."

Instead, he delivers a haunting version of "Dixie," an anthem from the 1860s. In this perplexing scene, the crowd is composed of non-white people seemingly so nostalgic for the land of cotton that they applaud and cheer.

Jeff Bridges portrays a journalist who probably typifies all the inquisitive reporters Dylan has ever ridiculed in real life; Penelope Cruz plays the writer's religion-obsessed girlfriend, Pagan. Listen for Dylanology in-jokes, and watch for cameos from an all-star cast, that includes Mickey Rourke, Giovanni Ribisi, Cheech Marin, Bruce Dern, Val Kilmer and Ed Harris. The benefit show takes place on a soundstage surrounded by a carnival somewhat reminiscent of Rolling Thunder Revue, a mid-1970s Dylan tour with an entourage that included a tightrope walker, a fire-eater and an astrologer.

Turkish vocalist Sertab Erener renders a tune from that era, "One More Cup of Coffee," with a catchy Middle Eastern arrangement. It's among more than a dozen Dylan songs on the soundtrack -- one played by a Japanese band and another by Italian rappers -- that lift the story from the chaos of its failed good intentions.

The self-referential picture gives cinematic life to the kind of lyrics that Dylan has always penned about wanderers, mythic lost souls, doomed romance and the corruption of humanity. Yet he remains bafflingly taciturn throughout the film's nightmarish narrative, inexpressive except for a few brief tears that might have been created with makeup. Fate doesn't even visibly react when a little girl (Tinashe Kachingwe) sings "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in a beautiful voice that's full of hope for the future.

Jack Fate's pal Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson) gives him a battered guitar that supposedly once belonged to Blind Lemon Jefferson. That legendary roots musician is one of many celebrated in a documentary series beginning this Sunday night on Vermont Public Television. The Blues is the brainchild of executive producer Martin Scorsese, who directs the first of seven feature-length programs.

His segment, "Feels Like Going Home," surveys the genre's origins. As host of this odyssey, young guitarist Corey Harris jams with Mali's Ali Farka Toure and the Mississippi Delta's Willie King, who says the blues must've been handed down by God for people "to ease their worried minds."

The second episode, Monday's "The Soul of a Man," is from German director Wim Wenders. Among other things, he considers some contemporary female purveyors of the blues: Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and Shemekia Copeland.

Charles Burnett explores the music's history through memories of his own heritage in "Warming by the Devil's Fire," on October 1. Two days later, in "Red, White and Blues," Brit Mike Figgis traces the influence of this American art form on U.K. rockers such as Van Morrison and Jeff Beck. The finale on the 4th comes courtesy of "Piano Blues," by jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood. A week of The Blues could be a balm for many worried minds.