Bright Lights Film Journal

The Masked and Anonymous Carnival of Disappointment, Exploitation, and Profound Ironies

“We’re all trying to kill time, but time ends up killing us.”

“What’d the monkey say to the leopard at the card game? … I though you were a cheetah.” Late into Masked and Anonymous, bartender and professional hanger-on Bobby Valentine (Luke Wilson) recites a joke that addresses irony, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, the axis of this mad carnival of a film whose tents are spread over a broad and treacherous field.

There is no law, and truth is subjective. We are all manipulated by fate and dark forces we do not understand. These forces often manifest dangerously in people while we are driven to distraction, killing time. Nietzsche’s assertions on subjectivity, good, and even music being the purest form of truth and human expression run rampant in Masked and Anonymous, but recontextualized. Music, like truth, can be powerfully violent. Bob Dylan songs are interspersed and updated via hip hop and other incongruous forms and languages to further imply the confusing flux of a world where meaning is a dream. This deeply ironic film satirically comments on, and often plainly states, how we are designed to pursue not good (whatever that is) but our own desires — which are often twisted and destructive.

The world of Masked and Anonymous is an altogether disconcerting carnival parallel to the one the plot becomes. The colors are garish. The lighting burns. The camera tilts and sways drunkenly. Jump cuts describe how most words of certain people are wasted. Even some of the dialogue we hear is stiff and overstated, like something from a poorly written pulp, clumsily updated by a hack. The acting is often stagy as a result. And filled with cameos from Ed Harris, Cheech Marin, Val Kilmer, Angela Basset, and uncredited prostitute Shirley Jones, the film seems like a big in-joke — as deeper meaning on the title, perhaps Larry Charles “masks” the film as this, thumbing his nose at the people who might assume the mind behind the mediocre TV shows Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mad About You would not be capable of such sophistication. Any defensiveness is unnecessary because all in all, this is an enthusiastically rendered piece perfused with symbolic atmosphere and intentionally overwrought dialogue dripping with profundity. Wandering through this rich diegesis is freed pervert, avatar of washed-up folk singers, and bizarro Everyman Jack Fate, played by Bob Dylan. All facets blend together into a nauseating mix to suggest how little ground we have gained as a people.

The people are relentlessly misinformed. Indeed, in a world where meaning is constantly shifting and information is peddled by a naive newspaper publisher and an ignorant TV producer, the plot seems entirely appropriate. A perfectly cast John Goodman (as Uncle Sweetheart) is a seedy concert promoter and organizer of a benefit Jack Fate’s playing for a corrupt Central American dictatorship. Everything hinges on this ridiculous foundation.

Sweetheart is wonderfully introduced. After a montage of the city’s homeless with soundtrack alternating between a Latino cover of “Younger than Yesterday” and an evangelist spouting the end of the world, Sweetheart attempts to coax a pair of hoods into believing that he is intent on filling his coffers with the benefit money and then paying off his debts to their employer. Even though he informs them from his shabby desk that they are looking at god, these hardened thugs brutalize him anyway.

Sweetheart later meets up with old friend and TV producer Nina Veronica (Jessica Lange), who will later proclaim her ignorance by blaming Buddhists for religious wars. In Masked and Anonymous‘s warped milieu, those whose raison d’etre is information are the most misinformed. Veronica quivers in fear for her life in a nod toward and updating of the Putney Swope boardroom scene — as the pair of thugs seems very organized indeed, with additional members of the corporation promising swift death if the concert is not as successful as she swears it will be.

The film and concert turn into the stuff of carnival. This suggests not just exploitation, but that other dark element of the sideshow: disappointment. As the curtain is pulled back on the “Man Eating Chicken” tent, we see … a man eating fried chicken. Later, we learn that Jack Fate is a native son. His father (Mickey Rourke) is actually the dying dictator and his brother, Edgar (Steven Bauer), is set to take over rule. During Edgar’s especially classy inauguration/my father’s dead combination speech, he outlines the laws of his new totalitarian rule. No more rebellion — these people will be dealt with. Also, all prisoners will be freed and summarily trampled by wild elephants. His speech ends and the camera significantly pans up to imply an expressive, otherworldly p.o.v. Here, we are granted visitation into the passing dictator’s bedchamber. The velvet curtain lowers, ending another act; one we learned throughout the film was very sad, one just as disappointing as the man stuffing his face with poultry.

About halfway through the film, an animal keeper played with cheesy vigor by Val Kilmer in perhaps his first decent performance, remarks that we are all “masked and anonymous” because of our darker nature, and compared to animals, are essentially useless. Amid jump cuts that at once sophisticatedly mock and rehash Kilmer’s Jim Morrison quasi-mystification, the trainer loses his place. What he is saying is essentially true. He just sounds foolish and fails to gel his point; for in this world, you are either just like everybody else — and awful — or a fool. The trainer would “rather be a crack in the sidewalk” than a human being. “Must be hard to get up in the morning,” quips Fate.

“Who was that?” asks Uncle Sweetheart. Entirely discarding the profundities that had just been sharing the air with dung odors, Fate again nods toward irrelevance with “some animal keeper, I guess.” Like a good Bob Dylan lyric, symbolically rich yet ironically ignored dialogue peppers all of Masked and Anonymous. The Dylanesque quips and references would seem out of place in a film less aware, and less sure, of itself. But here they work. Every actor is played for his (often ironic) worth, so why not introduce the star’s backing group as the world’s only Jack Fate tribute band, “Simple Twist of Fate”?

Jack Fate’s performances alongside this patchwork band at first seem to be slotted throughout the film as simply avant-garde rhythmic changeups until they perform “I Wish I Was in Dixie” for gratuitous irony following a short conversation dismissive of banjos. Shifting from adorable to intensely philosophical, “I Remember You” drifts in to add meaning. Here, this muffled cry of a song presents the film’s first obviously meditative moment. A tune about confronting breakups, it begins with a full shot of Fate and his band. Then the illuminating symbolic montage begins. We do not know what Veronica is doing, but an effective trope in any art, especially film, is suggestion. She is framed from an outside window with a visage twisted one step beyond tears. Parallelly unifying shots show that the disparate figures in the film all have the most important thing in common: love and loss. Later, “Not Dark Yet” will provide somewhat heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Darkness falls and the end nears as promised. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s guitar (a gift to Fate by Bobby Valentine, who is ironically mistrusted by Sweetheart, since he seems to be the only character without a motive) figures violently. Chekhov’s rule of laying a pistol on the mantel in the first act will ring boldly true. Except in this twisted worldview, music is powerful, yes, but as aggression. Jefferson was the first of the popular country bluesmen, bringing blues out of its female-vocalist jazzy sound (Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, etc.) and into a plaintive, more personal expression. Along with Dylan’s (and Fate’s) folk backgrounds, a rich depth of country blues sadness subtly colors Masked and Anonymous.

True to Dylan’s experience, a Mr. Jones-type of columnist is mocked not by just Jack Fate’s unresponsiveness, but by his lyrical weight. “You have many contacts/ Among the lumberjacks/ To get your facts/ When someone attacks/Y our imagination.” Reporter Tom Friend — Jeff Bridges in a major nod to his best portrayal, “The Dude” — is relentless. Waggish jump cuts underscore this interview’s banality. A sample of Friend’s (further irony, this name) line of non-questioning signifying how useless, out of touch, and hyenaistic he is: “Remember Hendrix? Remember Joplin? Zappa? He didn’t take NO shit … That guy with the Bee Gees, sound just like Gene Pitney!” After this series of shallow observations and poorly phrased taunts, Friend remarks that he doesn’t want to be doing this any more than Fate does. “I doubt that,” groans Fate, implying “there oughta be a law against you comin’ round” with the stunning clarity the weight of Bob Dylan’s baggage lends this statement.

On the bus to the show, Jack Fate’s ear is chewed to shreds by what the viewer can only assume to be a trust-funded revolutionary. Giovanni Ribisi appears to be the typical American privileged enough to see everything from the outside. And like Bobby Valentine will later attest, the more you know, the more damned you are. Decked in fatigues and an expression impossibly adorable for its purported misery and suffering, the privileged revolutionary launches into a tale of his problems with finding out who to fight for.

First he joined the revolutionaries, quickly jumping ship when they demonstrated their own crooked agenda. Then he joined the counterrevolutionaries simply to learn they were funded by a corrupt government (run by Fate’s dad, an ex-brothel owner) they were supposed to be fighting. After joining another group, the kid realizes that toppling the government may not be such a good idea. He joins up with the government. On a mission, he accidentally lays waste to his own town.

The masked and anonymous prefer to remain as such because there is one simple truth: there are no good guys, so don’t bother looking. Only a fool thinks he is, and a fool will be punished. While we watch Ribisi’s character gunned down in the street for trying to save the bus from hijacking rebels, it seems pretty clear that everyone is out for himself and will do what it takes to get what he wants.

To cement this assertion, the only idealists in the film are used as comic relief. A stagehand for the corrupt Government benefit concert remarks to his colleague (Chris Penn), “You know there are no races … no black no white. Just bosses and workers.” His coworker, as pudgy as he is bored, simply replies, “You said that last week.” So true.

The clichéd revolutionary news editor (Bruce Dern) is the next ironic good guy. From a gloomy desk in front of a wall where everything hangs crookedly (perhaps symbolically so), he proclaims to his reporter, Tom Friend, that he wants to send him to the benefit to make sure there is nothing crooked, that it isn’t just PR for the sleazy government.

Of course, it is obvious to everyone that it is. That the countering voice, the news source of the beaten-down masses, cannot see this is one of but a series of bitter ironies in the wickedly sarcastic Masked and Anonymous. This is a bizarre carnival world without rules, laws, and completely conditional, ever-changing and often nonsensically so, a world where Blind Lemon “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean” Jefferson’s guitar is transformed into a pivotal weapon. The credits roll to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and in the transformative hands of Masked and Anonymous, the answer is no longer in the eyes of some greater force as the song originally seemed to suggest, but appropriated by Larry Charles, completely subjective, potentially very frightening, and possibly nonexistent.