Renaldo and Clara

(Bob Dylan, USA, 1978): Bob Dylan’s love affair with movies has never been exactly requited. From his charming but awkwardly self-conscious turn as one of the gang in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to those shield-your-eyes performances in Hearts of Fire and Masked and Anonymous, his mangling of D.A. Pennebaker’s footage in Eat the Document and long un-relented resentment of the same director’s Dont Look Back — Dylan’s finest moving picture moment, but as a non-fiction portrait clearly too close for comfort — the singer-songwriter has hit a wall with the screen. The man has never shrunk from singing, in verse and person, his heartfelt praises to the cinema. His lyrical imagery, both as still image and in sequence is incontestably cinematic in form and content. The movies just don’t love him back.

When asked in late ’78 by Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone what he made of the critical pile-on occasioned by the release of Renaldo and Clara, a four year in the making, self-directed home movie blending bits of verité documentary, semi-improved backstage drama, and performance culled from the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue  tour, Dylan didn’t so much bristle as snap: “Look, just one time I’d like to see any one of those assholes try and do what I do. Just once let one of them write a song to show how they feel and sing it in front of ten, let alone 10,000 or 100,000 people. I’d like to see them just try that one time.”

And that from the Dylan of his born-again Christian phase. The words came after Renaldo and Clara, in its original, four-hour incarnation, had sunk like Atlantis following a brief release following its Cannes debut, and a second cut, pared mostly to the performance material, didn’t exactly bob long on the surface either. Dylan had pulled the movie from release in both forms, and hasn’t budged since: about the only way to see Renaldo and Clara in anything close to original form today is on a bootleg DVD made from the film’s single broadcast on British TV in 1983, and the two hour cut appears to have gone the way of Jimmy Hoffa’s corpse.

As close to an object of religious veneration and contemplation as any pop singer ever was, Dylan has been scrutinized, interpreted, pondered and polished near as much as Jesus, and it’s true Jesus has never been that adequately represented in the movies either. But it’s also true Jesus never made his own movie, let alone Renaldo and Clara. (It may also bear consideration here that the one testimonial on Charles Foster Kane that Citizen Kane elects to omit is Charles Foster Kane’s. When the legend becomes autobiography, fact is a goner.) There’s also truth in the suggestion that traits like mystery and charisma, those things that tend to invite awe, veneration and devotion, are best left to the beholder. Self-ascribed, like humility, genius or beauty, they invariably shrink into ego. As a projection of profundity or enigma, Dylan performs splendidly: watch him in Dont Look Back or No Direction Home and marvel at the man’s shambolic insecurity. Watch him play himself as imponderable whatzit in Garrett, DocumentMasked and Anonymous or R&C, and shrink from the man’s all to unmysterious determination to write the script of his own gospel according to himself. If there was ever a point where the one messiah parts with the other so indisputably, this is it.

There is, for this viewer anyway, a thin line between interminable and unwatchable, and Renaldo and Clara didn’t cross it. Watched in three chunks, it might have been the former but never the latter. I wish I could concur with some of the film’s more fervent supporters say the movie’s a misunderstood masterwork, but it’s not. And it’s failures are, for me anyway, as front and centre as Dylan is on stage with the Revue. The dramatic sequences, notoriously conceived on the fly after Dylan rejected Sam Shepard’s initial script, are ineptly performed and pointlessly obtuse, suspending their performers more often than in single shot long takes that only make the discomfort of the proceedings that much more wincingly uncomfortable. The various strands of documentary material, which range from passages about Indigenous rights and rituals to Rueben Carter’s campaign for exoneration on murder charges, may have moments of fleeting clarity and force, but never speak to each other, let alone the rest of the film, as cumulative associative elements in a coherent whole. Dylan’s visit to Kerouac’s grave with Ginsberg is a fully-fledged, moving and meaningful short in itself, and Pinball Wizard David Blue’s extended reminiscence of the early Village folk days is funny, fascinating and insightful, but also adrift in this vast expanse of free-form, without-a-paddle aimlessness. And although the compromise concert-movie cut of the movie now seems vanished entirely, the instinct to reduce the movie to its concert highlights, which include renditions of IsisIt Ain’t Me, Babe and, especially, the close-up, white-mask rendition of Tangled Up in Blue, are as good as any live performances Dylan has ever allowed to be caught on camera.

But if you can bring two conditional viewing requirements to the movie — a generous fascination with Dylan and an appreciation of the movie’s historical context — Renaldo and Clara does attain a certain propulsive fascination. As a Dylan document, the film reveals much about the man’s idea of himself and his art, and the constant struggle — far more pointedly explored and articulated in music than film, at least for this artists — to both elude external attempts to label and define him and label and define himself, which might actually amount to something if Dylan’s version of himself amounted to more than asserting his ultimate unknowability, a presumption that winds its way through the movie from the plastic mask we first see him hiding behind to the kabuki whiteface he sports in concert, the almost-funny casting of the hulking Ronnie Hawkins as ‘Bob Dylan’, and the consistent presence of Dylan himself as possibly the vaguest and most anonymous member — offstage anyway — of the entire troupe. It’s like watching something somebody with the power and influence to do anything he wanted made simply because he could, and I do believe that’s exactly what it is. But Bob Dylan making a career out of being evasive, amorphous and existentially self-regarding in music and verse is one thing, and the thing he does best. Seeing him do it on film is like listening to Picasso attempt folk music.

As for context, I’d submit the following frames for consideration. First of all, there’s Dylan’s development as an artist and consciousness in the era of experimental, art and cinema verité cinemas, all of which were critical modernist forms in Dylan’s formative years. No wonder he felt an affinity and attraction to the cinema, as it seemed so organically enmeshed in the same process of busting through the walls of perception and convention that his music was. There is also the ambient influence of New Hollywood all over Renaldo and Clara — a shaggy-assed, hippie-grandiose, spiritually scatterbrained Dennis Hopper production in everything but the presence of the madman himself — and in this regard one can’t help but be tantalized by the story that Dylan nearly dropped out of appearing in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz because he didn’t want to compete with what he hoped would be the box office vitality of his own movie, or that the New Hollywood avatar Scorsese himself would be the one to pull something like a narrative out of Dylan’s life and cryptic testimonials with No Direction Home. Dylan, the filmmaker, was a creature of an age of indulgence, innovation and the untethered ego. But he was also no filmmaker.

Consider also that the year was 1978. (At least the year of the movie’s release and cultural context.) Scorsese himself had helped inaugurate the era of New Hollywood armageddon with New York, New York, a movie both brilliant and out of control, and only one of many that would bring the brief and singularly exceptional range-roaming of popular, studio-backed movies to a screeching halt. The day of the indulged movie brat was about to end, the recess bell rung. Soon would follow Apocalypse Now, 1941Popeye and the definitive terminus of — knock, knock, knockin’ — Heaven’s Gate, which would feature at least three of Dylan’s cinematic cohorts: Kris Kristofferson, Ronnie Hawkins and David Mansfield. These movies were all made by brilliant people without brakes or much sense of direction home. As a spectacular failure of art, commerce, restraint and judgement, this is the historical moment in which Renaldo and Clara might be most at home. (Bootleg)