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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ringing true and singing off

Blank Generation

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ulli Lommel
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: English
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Masked and Anonymous

Rating: * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Bob Dylan no Atama no Naka
Director: Larry Charles
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: English
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The list of rock stars crossing over into the movies continues to grow, but the way they've been deployed hasn't really changed much since Elvis. Whether it's Mick Jagger in "Performance," Prince in "Purple Rain" or Eminem in "8 Mile," musicians are invariably cast as themselves, or, rather, the public persona they've already honed to perfection.

That rule holds true for a pair of releases out this month. "Blank Generation," a 1980 film rescued from oblivion, features punk icon and ex-Television member Richard Hell with his band the Voidoids in a semifictional portrait of the suffering artist. "Masked and Anonymous," meanwhile, marks Bob Dylan's long-awaited return to the screen (his last acting gig was in "Pat Garret and Billy the Kid" in 1973), but judging from the results, he should have stayed home.

News photo
Richard Hell in "Blank Generation"

"Blank Generation" is what the French would call "un film maudit," a cursed film, a failure in some respects but ultimately fascinating. Directed by German filmmaker and actor Ulli Lommel, "Blank Generation" plays like a haphazard attempt to meld punk and Godard. Lommel was initially a Fassbinder protege, but his output as a director overwhelmingly leaned toward B movies. (Indeed, Lommel also released "The Boogeyman," a post-"Halloween" fright flick, in 1980.) But in "Blank Generation," shot on an extremely low budget and written with his co-star Hell, Lommel lets his artistic side run wild; perhaps the B-movie half of his brain was confident that he was tapping into a hot new youth movement, punk rock.

It didn't work out that way: Lommel's film slipped by largely unnoticed, and it wasn't until "The Decline of Western Civilization" (1981) that punks really had a movie they could rally around. Still, like "Rude Boy," the documentary of a Clash hanger-on, "Blank Generation" becomes a lot more interesting as history. It's filmed on the exhaust-tarred snowy streets of late '70s New York City, features lots of shots in CBGB's at its peak (surprisingly with the audience seated before the stage) and captures perfectly the punk self-image of romanticized, messed-up hopelessness amid an environment of urban decay.

Richard Hell -- with a face that looks like a mask, all dark-ringed, buggy eyes and wine-red lips set against a vampiric pallor -- plays Billy, a tormented singer who seems to be on the cusp of stardom. He plays with his band (the Voidoids, a band that actually exists) regularly at CBGB's, and records in the studio ("New Pleasures," "Blank Generation"), but his career commands less attention than his emotional roller-coaster ride with Parisian girlfriend Nada (a young and stunning Carole Bouquet.)

Nada, frustrated by Billy's lack of ambition, is constantly squabbling with him, at one point kicking him out of his own car and driving off. She's the kind of girl who breaks up with a guy by disappearing into the night, and she leaves just a brief videotape of herself saying "it's better for you, and for me." She vacillates between Billy and her European lover, Hoffritz (director Lommel), who is in town trying to land an interview with the elusive Andy Warhol (who makes an appearance late in the film). Where Billy is needy and confused -- he flees the stage at CBGB's because he feels he can't connect with the audience -- Hoffritz is dismissive and driven. Nada, however, manages to drive them both nuts.

"What are you going to do when your good looks are gone?" chides Nada in one of the film's more poignant lines, and Billy/Hell can't reply. Some 25 years later, after Hell had seen many of his stylistic innovations stolen and ridden to fame by The Sex Pistols, his musical career largely a blank, he may still be asking himself that question. "Blank Generation" is, in a sense, a document of how integrity nearly always loses out to ambition.

The film is full of sharp, Godard-ian jump cuts and never misses an opportunity to throw in a good digression, whether it's an aspiring filmmaker who describes her plan for a "random" film (which sounds like a blueprint for Richard Linklater's "Slackers"), or a bunch of punks mouthing off in an interview.

"What is your occupation?" asks telejournalist Nada; "Lying," answers the punk. "What are you afraid of?" "We're all going to die anyway, so who cares?" Now there's the spirit of 1979. Some of the dialogue here is laughably pretentious in the way it's delivered, but there are enough lighter moments and scenes that ring true to make this well worth a look.

* * *

The same can't be said of "Masked and Anonymous," which is without doubt the most unbearably pretentious, portentous, confused film you'll see -- or not -- this year.

News photo
Bob Dylan in "Masked and Anonymous"

With a cast that includes, besides Dylan, Penelope Cruz, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris, Mickey Rourke, Cheech Marin, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, hopes were high for this one. All this goes to show, however, is that Dylan has an impressive Rolodex full of actor-fans, not that director Larry Charles had any idea what to do with them.

The story has to do with some unnamed Third World country where there has been a coup d'etat, and the new leaders are pressuring Uncle Sweetheart (Goodman) to organize a charity concert to buttress their image. The only musician Sweetheart can convince is local hero Jack Fate (Dylan), who has just been released from jail. Bridges plays a cynical, alcoholic reporter with babe in tow (Cruz), who seeks to confront Fate in an interview. Kilmer plays a crazed butcher, Wilson a sycophantic bandmate, and Ed Harris turns up in minstrel blackface. The entire plot is as clotted as cream, basically existing only as an excuse to drop lots of self-consciously "cryptic" one-liners. The film's very last line is "I stopped trying to figure things out a long time ago," and the viewer will surely agree.

Director Charles, making his first feature after a career of writing for the small-screen, obviously adores Dylan, and seems to want to reflect the songwriter's metaphoric, allusive imagery in film. This doesn't sync well with a "plot," however, and Charles fails miserably. Bits like when a tiny, frail Dylan fells a combative Bridges with one punch, or when Dylan confronts his "father" on his death bed and he looks younger than the 64-year-old singer, are embarrassing enough, but larger problems loom: Dylan himself is aiming to be Sphinx-like, but comes off only as stiff, wooden and expressionless -- a total cold fish.

Worse yet is the dialogue, which just seems to fly about with little connection to anything except that the writers want to sound profound in a vaguely Dylan-esque way. It's the type of film where somebody just plops into a bar, and the bartender's solemnly intoning, "the more you know, the more you suffer."

Dylan is forever dropping non sequiturs like, "in the end, it's the strongest arm that stretches the bow," or "it's like cellulose; cows can digest it, but you can't." And in case we don't get what a genius Fate/Dylan is, Charles has just about every character in the film say as much.

Well, as they say, you don't need a weather man to know which way the wind's blowing . . . especially when it carries a stench as strong as "Masked and Anonymous."

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