I can’t in all good conscience tell you that Renaldo and Clara is a good film, but I have to be honest with you: there was more stuff in the movie that I liked than I disliked, and even at four hours, I never felt it was too long. Indeed, parts of it I wish had been much, much longer.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this thing. I guess the idea that Dylan thought that this was a good idea to make a film like this is probably the logical starting point. In his interview with Rolling Stone he makes it pretty clear that the main reason to do the Rolling Thunder Revue was to finance this movie – and certainly the second leg, in 1976, may have been exclusively about that. After receiving a lot of Hollywood offers, he opted to go independent, self-finance the film, produced, star and direct in it so that it would be his vision. He hoped to change cinema the way that he had changed popular music more than a decade earlier. And, well, that certainly did not happen. Check this exchange in Playboy:
PLAYBOY: How much of your money are you risking?
DYLAN: I’d rather not say. It is quite a bit, but I didn’t go into the bank. The budget was like $600,000, but it went over that.
Add into this the fact that he built an expensive house in Malibu and that he lost half his income from the previous decade to his ex-wife and you start to see why he started touring incessantly in 1978….
Since we’ve started there, let’s start with some words from Dylan himself:
PLAYBOY: Do you really feel it’s an accessible movie?
DYLAN: Oh, perfectly. Very open movie.
PLAYBOY: Even though Mr. Bob Dylan and Mrs. Bob Dylan are played by different people….
DYLAN: Oh, yeah.
PLAYBOY: And you don’t know for sure which one he is?
DYLAN: Sure. We could make a movie and you could be Bob Dylan. It wouldn’t matter.
PLAYBOY: But if there are two Bob Dylans in the film and Renaldo is always changing….
DYLAN: Well, it could be worse. It could be three or four. Basically, it’s a simple movie.
So, okay. Dylan lies in interviews. Maybe he is lying here when he says that he believes this is an accessible film. I mean, there is really no way on earth that he could have been alive on planet Earth in 1978 and thought that this was an “accessible” movie. It is four hours long. It is composed in kind of equal parts of live concert footage, tour documentary, and horribly acted scenes in which musicians (plus, inexplicably, Harry Dean Stanton) act out improvisational scenes that look like they come straight out of Boogie Nights. There is no definition of “accessible” that could possibly apply to this. But, here’s the key, maybe that’s not Bob’s fault, it’s yours!
(from Rolling Stone):
Renaldo and Clara has certain similarities to the recent films of Jacques Rivette. Do you know his work?
I don’t. But I wish they’d do it in this country. I’d feel a lot safer. I mean I wouldn’t get so much resistance and hostility. I can’t believe that people think that four hours is too long for a film. As if people had so much to do. You can see an hour movie that seems like 10 hours. I think the vision is strong enough to cut through all of that. But we may be kicked right out of Hollywood after this film is released and have to go to Bolivia. In India, they show 12-hour movies. Americans are spoiled, they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there.
Here’s the weird part! I agree, it actually doesn’t seem too long at four hours – in parts. As I say, there are parts of this that I would have watched for days.
The concert footage is easily the most watchable part. I listened to the Montreal show a lot a couple of weeks ago, but a good percentage of the footage here is from that show (other parts are from Boston and Providence). Seeing it live makes it so much more vivid. I was enraptured by the whole thing – such a magnetic, bizarre performance, with the white face make-up and the powerful vocals. Most of the concert footage is shot super-tight on Dylan – you only occasionally get to see the rest of the band. It’s almost as if you are sitting at the feet of the master here. I would have watched endless, endless hours of live Dylan footage from this tour and been happy. (Long circulating rumours are that the next Bootleg Series set will be to Blood on the Tracks what Another Self Portrait was to Self Portrait, and that they will cobble together a lot of this concert footage. We’ll see. I hope they do that, but we’ll see).
The documentary footage I could probably even watch. One of the very first scenes in the film is a backstage scene with Larry Sloman demanding a per diem and more access, just like he says that he did in his book. I had a weird sense of deja vu watching this scene, because Sloman is so good about reporting it. There are all kinds of other weird documentary moments – at the native reserve, at Kerouac’s grave – and all of that could have made a good film like Dont Look Back or Eat the Document. But Dylan doesn’t seem to think so.
Here’s Dylan again from Rolling Stone:
“The Death Mother is represented in the film, but I don’t know what I should say or can say or shouldn’t say about who is who in the movie. I mean who is the old woman everyone calls Mamma — the woman who sings, plays guitar and reads palms? She reads Allen’s palm, saying: “You’ve been married twice.” And me, later on I’m looking at the gravestone marked HUSBAND; Ginsberg asks: “Is that going to happen to you?” And I say: “I want an unmarked grave.” But of course I’m saying this as Renaldo.”
Seriously – What. The. Fuck? For Dylan to claim that he is “Renaldo” in that scene makes no real sense, partly because Renaldo is a total non-character. As an alter-ego, Renaldo is a total non-starter. And this is where the film goes horribly awry. Dylan seems to honestly think that he is making a movie about “The Death Mother”, but there is no sense that any thought at all has gone into any of this. Indeed, the Sloman book pretty much indicates that none did. When you read that book you get a strong sense of the way that Dylan worked, which was, essentially, show up somewhere and tell people what role they were suddenly playing and then begin improvising. Sam Shepard was around to help put the script together (in one of the concert scenes there is a great moment where he is glowering at the stage…), but that doesn’t seem to have actually gone anywhere (I just learned the other day that Shepard published a book about his experience – I’ve ordered it, but it hasn’t arrived yet).
Here’s Dylan explaining his vision of the Renaldo parts:
“Yeah, way back then I was thinking of this film. I’ve had this picture in mind for a long time — years and years. Too many years . . . Renaldo is oppressed. He’s oppressed because he’s born. We don’t really know who Renaldo is. We just know what he isn’t. He isn’t the Masked Tortilla. Renaldo is the one with the hat, but he’s not wearing a hat. I’ll tell you what this movie is: It’s like life exactly, but not an imitation of it. It transcends life, and it’s not like life.”
Again, seriously: What. The. FUCK?!?! “He isn’t the Masked Tortilla”. Unh huh. Got it. He’s not Bob Dylan, because Ronnie Hawkins is playing Bob Dylan. He’s the one with the hat that isn’t wearing a hat, but Renaldo is mostly wearing hats in the film. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Here’s the biggest Bob Dylan lie of the whole thing:
“It has nothing to do with the breakup of my marriage. My marriage is over. I’m divorced. This film is a film.”
The best “scripted” scene in the whole film, by a country mile, is the scene with Dylan, his wife Sara, and Joan Baez. It is positively charged with dramatic tension. When each asks him “Do you love her?” it is an incredible scene. But not about the breakup of his marriage. Dylan, please. When Baez, as “The Woman in White”, arrives for that climactic scene Dylan cuts to himself – or Renaldo? – performing “Sara” at the Montreal Forum. Not about his marriage, nope, not one bit. The whole thing is really incredible, particularly for the way that they layer in Dylan and Baez singing “Water is Wide” in the background, an incredibly poignant:
The water is wide,
And I can’t cross over,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Build me a boat
That can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I.
Basically everything with Baez in this film is great. When she says “What would have happened if we’d got married back then?” it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I’ve already noted that the Dylan/Baez relationship is an incredibly fascinating one, and Baez really lets it all hang out here. Maybe all this ridiculous improv is worthwhile just for its ability to generate those kinds of moments.
Here’s what I loved about Renaldo and Clara:
Dylan’t long fingernails as he plays guitar in the motorcycle garage
Gordon Lightfoot singing “Ballad in Plain D” as Dylan walks the streets
The Montreal performances. If this had just been a concert film, it might have been the greatest of all time.
The roadies setting up the stage. Why is this here? What can it possibly have to do with the rest of the film? Why does it go on so long?
Dylan driving his RV. Awesome.
Joan Baez with “Mamma”.
The chanting at the sea – the most 1970s thing ever.
Contemplating David Cross playing Allen Ginsberg in a biopic.
When it suddenly becomes a documentary about Rubin Carter and an exploration of black rage about the justice system in New Jersey – very raw.
Harry Dean Stanton!
But as a film – it makes no sense at all. There are parts that are interminable and seemingly pointless (the cabaret!). This isn’t a “so bad, it’s good” film. It’s a “so good, despite the fact that it has about two hours of awful in it because the other two hours are awesome”. If you get what I mean.
I’ll watch it again, of that I can be certain.