Bob Dylan turns 73-years-old this Saturday. (Can you believe that Charlie Brown was depressed about the guy turning 30?). My Dylan/movie-themed birthday-tribute post this year — the latest in a series of four — is an analysis of the bard’s misunderstood and rarely seen 1978 masterpiece Renaldo and Clara. Happy birthday, Bob!
“(Dylan) has given himself more tight close-ups than any actor can have had in the whole history of the movies.”
— Pauline Kael on Renaldo and Clara
“It’s like a tapestry. What he did was, he shot about 110 hours of film, and he looked at it all. Then he put it all on index cards, according to some preconceptions he had when he was directing the shooting; namely themes; God, rock ‘n’ roll, art, poetry, marriage, women, sex, Bob Dylan, poets, death, maybe 18 or 20 thematic preoccupations. Then he also put on index cards all the different characters, all the scenes, the dominant colours blue or red, and certain other images that go through the movie, like the rose and the hat and American Indians, so that finally he had an index of all of that. And then he went through it all again and began composing it thematically, weaving in and out of these specific compositional references. So it’s compositional, and the idea was not to have a plot but to have a composition of those themes.”
— Allen Ginsberg on the editing of Renaldo and Clara
Renaldo and Clara, Bob Dylan’s four-hour cinematic magnum opus, is one of the great unseen movies of the 1970s. Shot just prior to and during Dylan’s celebrated Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the fall of 1975, and edited by Dylan and cinematographer Howard Alk throughout 1976 and 1977, this unusually ambitious American art film received a very limited theatrical release in the U.S. beginning on January 25, 1978. Unfortunately, it was not successful critically or commercially and closed after only a few weeks. A re-edited version, only two hours in length, was released later in the year and fared marginally better. Predictably, Renaldo and Clara was more successful in Europe, screening in the Director’s Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 (where it was generally well received) and winning an award at the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in Germany. The four-hour cut was eventually shown on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom at some point in the 1980s, perhaps only once, and has never been officially released on home video in any country in any format. All circulating copies, even on DVD, are bootleg versions sourced from VHS recordings of the European television airing and are consequently of poor image and sound quality. Nonetheless, even when viewed under these less than optimal conditions, something of the movie’s greatness still manages to come through. On a formal level, Renaldo and Clara continually cross-cuts between three distinct modes of filmmaking: the concert film, the documentary and the fictional narrative. The rest of this article will focus on each one of these modes and how Dylan interweaves them to create a unique work of cinematic poetry.
The concert sequences are undoubtedly the movie’s most accessible aspect, which is not surprising given that the Rolling Thunder Revue is widely regarded as one of Dylan’s all-time great tours (the two-hour cut supposedly focuses more heavily on this footage). In the long version there are a lot of great scenes of Dylan performing live while wearing white-face make-up (a reference to Marcel Carne’s 1945 film Children of Paradise, a Dylan favorite) — including urgent, occasionally incendiary renditions of then-new songs like “Isis,” “Romance in Durango,” “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Tangled Up In Blue.” The last of these is filmed in a single long-take close-up that probably single-handedly prompted Pauline Kael’s hyperbolic claim that Dylan gave himself more “tight close-ups” than any actor had in the “whole history of the movies.” (I know Kael prided herself on not seeing any movie more than once but surely The Passion of Joan of Arc could not have faded that much from her memory.) Kael’s dismissal of Renaldo and Clara as the ultimate vanity project is contradicted by the communal spirit of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour whose epic shows involved a large and diverse gaggle of performers (some of whom were reuniting with Dylan from his Greenwich Village club days, others of whom were more recent recruits), and this spirit is reflected in the film itself: there are terrific live performances by Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, and Rob Stoner, among others — pretty magnanimous for a man who, according to Kael, made a four-hour film “about himself.”
The fictional narrative sequences undoubtedly pose the biggest challenge to viewers. Dylan originally hired playwright Sam Shepard to write dialogue scenes before the tour began and gave him only vague instructions about his intentions for the movie, referring Shepard instead to French art films like Children of Paradise and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Once the tour was underway, however, Shepard realized that Dylan had little interest in working with a screenplay and it appears that only a single scene in the finished film was scripted: Shepard himself, in his screen debut as an actor, appears alongside of Dylan’s wife Sara as a pair of quarreling lovebirds. In this sharply written scene, Shepard plays a rodeo rider and Mrs. Dylan plays his girlfriend or wife. The two argue about the future of their relationship. She tells him he treats her like an “amulet” and says that she would stay with him but only if he asks her the right way. She warns him he will end up living in a mobile home. He responds by saying, “I happen to like mobile homes. I think they’re a true American . . . aw, fuck it.” (Shepard ultimately received an “additional dialogue by” credit for his efforts.) The rest of the fictional scenes appear to be improvised by the performers and were shot in long takes with little or no editing. Nonetheless, a distinct theme does recur throughout these fictional scenes: nearly all of them are centered on a conflict between a man and a woman — where the conflict arises from the man’s being torn between his love for his profession and his love for the woman. Armchair psychologists and Dylanologists, make of that what you will.
In addition to Sam Shepard and Sara Dylan, some of the other musicians and actors who incarnate eternally-battling Man and Woman in the fictional scenes include: Bob Dylan, Harry Dean Stanton, Steven Soles, Rob Stoner, Ronnie Hawkins, Joan Baez, Ruth Tyrangel, Helena Kallianiotes and Ronee Blakley. Not unlike some of the films of Jacques Rivette, these scenes feature a weird but strangely poignant mish-mash of acting styles: some of the performers are naturals while others, including Dylan himself, appear distinctly uncomfortable. In the former category are singer Ronnie Hawkins, cheekily credited as “Bob Dylan” in the end titles, who displays some crack comic timing and figures prominently in three separate fictional scenes (in spite of the fact that he was not a part of the tour), as well as Ronee Blakley, fresh off of her stint in Robert Altman’s Nashville (for which she would soon receive an Oscar nomination). Blakely, emoting her ass off as a woman in a loveless marriage credited as “Mrs. Dylan,” has to share screen space with the guitarist Steven Soles who is clearly out of his depth playing “Ramon,” her husband or lover. Soles, like most inexperienced improvisers (see Mick Ronson elsewhere in this same film) merely repeats the same few lines over and over again. And yet, I would argue that the tension between the performance styles of Blakley and Soles mirrors the tension between their characters and makes this “badly written” and “badly acted” scene more effective than a more polished and professional approach ever could.
Renaldo and Clara‘s documentary sequences are fascinating and diverse in and of themselves: Dylan and Alk alternate between showing what various Rolling Thunder Revue musicians do during the day while not performing and showing more traditional “journalistic” documentary segments that are nonetheless somehow tangentially related to the tour. In the former category, there are scenes of Allen Ginsberg performing “Kaddish” in a nursing home, Dylan and Ginsberg visiting Jack Kerouac’s grave, Joan Baez being serenaded by an elderly gypsy woman named “Mama Frasca” inside of her “Dream Away Lodge” boarding house, and most of the musicians visiting an Indian reservation. In the latter category, there are scenes of a group of diners talking to a restaurant owner about the legacy of the 1960s, a press conference in which imprisoned boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (RIP!) talks about his quest for a retrial, some amazing “man on the street” interviews, and musician David Blue playing pinball while reminiscing about the Greenwich Village folk revival of the early 1960s (these sequences, in which Blue proves himself a funny and colorful raconteur, function as a kind Greek-chorus commentary on many of the other scenes). The “Hurricane” section is the film’s most artful and powerful: footage of the shaven-headed Carter delivering kernels of wisdom (“There is no ‘no,’ there is only ‘yes’) — one understands why Dylan called the boxer “Buddha in a 10-foot cell” — are intercut with interviews of the denizens of a black neighborhood talking about Carter’s plight. This sequence frequently utilizes freeze-frames on the interviewees’ sometimes-angry faces while Dylan’s majestic song “Hurricane” fades in and out on the soundtrack.
As the Allen Ginsberg quote at the beginning of this review suggests, the whole of Renaldo and Clara is greater than the sum of its parts because the strength of the film lies in its very careful and clever editing patterns. Unfortunately, it must be noted that much of the negative reaction to the film has come from Dylan’s own fans who, after all, are practically the only ones who have even seen it. What the fans wanted was a conventional concert movie and what Dylan gave them was an art film that applied the same free-association poetic logic to its crazy-quilt editing that Dylan usually brings to his songwriting process (funny how people who have no problem with “abstract” song lyrics find the very same quality in cinema unbearable). Dylan and Alk’s editing of the film progresses not based on temporality then but on the filmmakers’ tracing certain visual and aural motifs like the ones Ginsberg noted. To give one detailed example, take the American Indian motif: early in the film Dylan and his violinist Scarlett Rivera can be seen tuning their instruments backstage before a show. On the soundtrack we hear a non-diegetic version of Dylan running through a rehearsal of Hank Williams’s “Kaw-Liga,” a song about a cigar store Indian. The song continues to play over the next scene in which a truck emblazoned with an Indian-head logo can be seen barreling down the highway (presumably alongside of Dylan’s tour bus). Over this shot, a disc jockey’s voice can be heard announcing that Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue is coming to town. The Rolling Thunder tour was named for a Native American medicine man, we soon learn, when the tour’s performers visit an Indian reservation. The reservation scene is scored to a non-diegetic version of Dylan rehearsing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” a poignant way for Dylan and Alk to link the plight of Native Americans to the civil rights struggles of African Americans. The train imagery in the lyrics to “People Get Ready” then serves as a bridge to the next scene — of the Rolling Thunder Revue performers riding a passenger train. And so on and so forth.
It is clear, from interviews he gave to promote the film in 1978, that Bob Dylan was proud of Renaldo and Clara. He was unusually open and honest with reporters when talking about his intentions for it and the process of making it. The negative reviews must have stung (the Village Voice had four different critics review it, all of whom panned it — and one of whom wished in print that Dylan were dead), which no doubt accounts for the film’s unavailability today. There have been rumors in recent years that Dylan’s camp has been preparing a sequel to Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed Dylan-doc No Direction Home (2005) that will focus on the Rolling Thunder tours of 1975 and 1976. Since the release of such a movie would undoubtedly involve all of the extant footage shot for Renaldo and Clara receiving a new HD transfer, one can only hope that Renaldo and Clara will itself soon receive the Blu-ray release that it deserves. It will be easier to appreciate the film’s abundant riches if they can be seen and heard in great quality. But even if the masses who haven’t yet seen it end up thinking it’s a bunch of pretentious nonsense, most of them should at least be able to appreciate the awesome spectacle of Harry Dean Stanton and Joan Baez making out while singing a duet of “Cucurrucucú Paloma.”
There are numerous poor-quality video clips of Renaldo and Clara floating around the internet. Here’s one on YouTube of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing a terrific version of Never Let Me Go: