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Sundance's biggest star

PARK CITY, Utah--"Do you consider yourself a photographer?" asked Tom Bernard. He is the co-honcho of Sony Classics. I held up my camera and shrugged.

"Good," he said, "Dylan wants a photographer backstage right now. Come with me."

This is like hearing that George Bush wants to meet a liberal. While photographers for People, Entertainment Weekly and Premiere were surging against the barricades, Bernard led me backstage to the Green Room at the big Eccles Center.

There are two premieres every night at Eccles. Big stars come and go. Only Bob Dylan inspired a media riot. His new movie, "Masked and Anonymous," was premiering, and two days earlier, the volunteer ushers were warning me, "It's gonna be crazy."

Consider. Dylan has never made a hit feature. He is indeed the fountainhead of half the popular music of the last four decades, but the flow has long since reached the sea. Yet it's clear he's the biggest star at Sundance.

Bernard and I made our way through the backstage gloom to the Green Room. The door opened. I looked inside, and it was like a Jack Davis drawing for Mad magazine--one of those drawings where dozens of stars elbow one another for floor space.

I saw (in alphabetical order) Bob Dylan, John Goodman, Daryl Hannah, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Laura Elena Harring, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rourke and Christian Slater. All but Hannah appear in the movie. A star-studded cast, you say? Ah, but the movie also stars (in alphabetical order) Jeff Bridges, Angela Bassett, Steven Bauer, Bruce Dern, Ed Harris, Shawn Michael Howard, Reggie Lee, Cheech Marin and Chris Penn.

Alas, Dylan's need for a photographer was no longer operational. Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the festival, asked the group to leave for the auditorium, and as they filed past me, I looked through my viewfinder for Dylan, but could not find him. I did, however, get photos of Daryl Hannah, Penelope Cruz and Laura Elena Harring, which was considerable consolation.

In the wings of the stage, I finally found Dylan, his hair falling down from under a Billabong knit hat. He wore a leather jacket and a winter scarf and looked as happy as a man unexpectedly delayed on his way to his execution.

As director Larry Charles of "Seinfeld" fame introduced his cast, there was applause for everyone--the atmosphere was electric--but a roar and then a standing ovation for Dylan, before the movie had even started. Then we all settled in to watch what Charles described as "a work in progress."

It's a work, all right, but progress eludes it. Dylan stars as Jack Fate, a singer once famous, now on the skids, who is recruited by promoter John Goodman to do a benefit concert in a war zone of a Third World nation (downtown Los Angeles supplied the locations).

Dylan travels to the concert by bus, wearing a quasi-military uniform that looks like a khaki version of a Michael Jackson castoff. Once there, he is plunged into a plot involving Bassett as his father's former lover, Bridges as an insulting journalist, Cruz as Bridges' wife and Lange as Goodman's assistant or wife, I'm not sure which. She is another example of the movie character who is required to smoke all the time in every single scene, as a trait. No one else in the movie smokes at all.

"Masked and Anonymous" can be described as homage, if you are a Dylan fan, or idolatry, if you are not. His character is treated by all the others as an awesome legend. He occupies his scenes like a judge, gazing at the others as if measuring their worthiness to share the frame with him.

How is Dylan as an actor? It is impossible to tell, because he never has dialogue that is more than one sentence in length, never engages in actual conversation with any of the others and looks enigmatic and-or ridiculous in a second braided and buttoned Michael Jackson castoff and an oversize cowboy hat. A similar costume might be appropriate for the band members at an impoverished Southwestern high school.

Charles uses an unvarying strategy to shoot Dylan: (a) Let Goodman, for example, fulminate and expostulate; (b) cut to Dylan; (c) Dylan utters an enigmatic one-liner; (d) cut away. Occasionally this format is interrupted by Dylan deadpanning a song, and the songs are indeed good to hear, although it is a little puzzling why he thinks a revolutionary war zone in the Third World needs to hear "Dixie." Maybe it works as film criticism: Look away, look away!

"Masked and Anonymous" is one of the oddest movies I have ever seen. Obviously everyone involved in it was besotted, if not mesmerized, by Dylan. All of those big stars must have agreed to their cameos because this was Dylan's first important dramatic role since--I dunno, Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (1973). Oh, wait, I forgot "Renaldo & Clara" (1978). It's a little sad to see them acting their hearts away in scenes where Dylan sits there like a toad, impassive, unmoving, oracular, waiting for the closeup in which he utters yet another oblique epigram.

The thing that comes across is his lack of generosity. If the party is in your honor, you should make an effort to have a good time. Dylan seems to be appearing as a favor. Whether he wrote his dialogue or someone else did, he might have suggested that Jack Fate be given more dimension, more depth, more humanity, more ... words.

As the Goodman character prepares for the big benefit concert, he introduces Jack Fate's warm-up acts, which include a magician, a "rubber woman," a ventriloquist and celebrity look-alikes of the pope, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi. These last three stand around pointlessly. How much wiser if a celebrity look-alike of Dylan had also been used, and Jack Fate had been portrayed by somebody who came to play.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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