Seven Ways of Looking at Bob Dylan’s ‘Renaldo & Clara’

Voice writers Karen Durbin, Richard Goldstein, Mark Jacobson, James Wolcott, Tom Allen, Terry Curtis Fox, and J. Hoberman weigh in on the 1978 film


He Speaks Good English and He Invites You Up into His Room

Gone with the Idiot Wind
By Karen Durbin

A few years ago, a friend of mine found himself, to his shy delight, having a drink with Bob Dylan. Dylan allowed as how he’d like to get around more but felt hampered by his superstardom and didn’t know what to do about it.

“Make yourself more accessible,” said my friend. “Perform more, be more pub­lic. Mystery and elusiveness feed the adu­lation. Being available will defuse it.” Dylan has pursued that advice with a vengeance. First he started touring again, and that was great. Then, last year, he treated us to a nasty divorce case, and that was not so great (although headlines like BOB DYLAN’S WIFE SAYS HE BEAT HER do tend to take the edge off the old hero-worship). Now, he’s delivered the coup de grace in his de-adulation campaign, Renaldo & Clara.

For a hard-core fan, the first couple of hours of Renaldo & Clara are mild fun. The last couple are excruciating. It isn’t just that the movie is bad, or even that it’s long. The problem lies elsewhere, pointed up by a late scene in which Dylan and Allen Ginsberg ask a group of children about God. “Does he have teeth?” asks Ginsberg. “Yes!” shout the children. “Does he play a guitar?” asks Dylan. “No!” they yell.

You’re glad someone finally told him. I don’t know how many moments there are in Renaldo & Clara that invite the viewer, with no humor at all, to associate Bob Dylan with Jesus Christ, but one would have been more than enough. It’s what you might call a theme. There’s also a scene where Joan Baez and Sara Dylan wrangle at great length over Dylan’s affections. Finally, he looks at each woman and asks, with the ponderous innocence of a dull-wit­ted child, “Do you mean do I love her like I love you?” Dylan never answers the ques­tion; there’s no need to. What with the Jesus images piling up, and the women looking anxiously on, and the long, slow shot toward the end when the camera lingers for what feels like five minutes but is doubtless only two or three on the weary figure of the artist resting after a perform­ance — it has become smotheringly obvious that Dylan could love no one like he loves himself.

Renaldo & Clara is not, as it first seems, an artsy-fartsy muddle about Truth, God, and Identity. It’s a monster movie starring Dylan’s ego. A great pul­sating mass of self-love comes welling up off the screen like The Blob, rolling and swelling across the rug, pushing against the walls, engulfing the rows in front of you. By the last 20 minutes, it’s up to your neck and it’s still growing. Help, you think, this has got to stop, the movie will end, Dylan will make a joke, he can’t possibly be serious about thismrriphbllghspfffttt… ■

Caveats and Cavities
By Richard Goldstein

Renaldo & Clara is by no means a successful film, but it contains enough that is arresting to justify about three of its four hours. Though Dylan the auteur has gone to embarrassing lengths to avoid producing a “musical,” it is unquestionably the onstage moments, close-up and through richly fil­tered light, which carry you through the poorly mounted and clumsily improvised “fictional” interludes.

Much of what is good about this film has to do with the attitude of its photographers toward the landscapes (and stagescapes) through which the performers and their audiences move. We have passed the age of Leacock-Pennebaker, in which the camera focuses sharply and often sentimentally upon audience reactions which were especially extreme. In Renaldo & Clara, the audience is sometimes bored, most often delighted, but always well within the bounds of moderation. There is no lighting of matches in any balcony, and one might assume that if there were, Dylan the director would have excised it from the final cut as surely as Pennebaker clipped the yawns. For the aim here is to suggest a populistic framework for the rock experi­ence — much as the decision to use only simple rhythms and chords, for many punk musicians, stems from a desire to create music anyone can play. It’s been Dylan’s contention (since Nashville Skyline) that rock is American pop music which ought to be accessible to great numbers and varie­ties of American people. With this film, he suggests that the contradictions between image and reality which have plagued him throughout much of his work can be recon­ciled by the audience through its reinforce­ment of an artist’s style. The mask and make-up he wears through much of the film struck me as an attempt to tell the audi­ence: don’t look for me, I’m yours.

But there is another aspect of Renaldo & Clara that I found quite powerful, even though its execution stupified me. The people in this movie, who made such gripping music in the ’60s, no longer exist as a cultural force. They are phantoms who continue to live and work, and therefore must face the painful process of separating their craft from its erstwhile public aspira­tions. That the hipster-folkie milieu which merged with Anglo-blues to create what was later called “progressive rock” no longer feeds the mainstream of popular music means that its practitioners are free to recover their identities. And their identi­ties are every bit as quirky as Dylan presumes them to be. They are vulnerable, insufferable, deceitful, indulgent, and terr­ibly regional — more so now that their hold on the American dreamlife is so tenuous. These are troubadors in a frayed America, and they make music in a tradition as arcane as delta blues.

Go see Renaldo & Clara because the people in it really are like that. Talk or neck through its indulgences. There are moments in Altman which are almost as insufferable, and moments in this film which are as moving as anything you’re likely to experience in a rock-concert film. If nothing else, you come away with a profound sense of how agile Dylan’s phras­ing is, how powerfully he connects with his material, and how bad his teeth are. Any tycoon with caveats and cavities — there’s hope for him. ■

Tangled Up In Gray
By Mark Jacobson

I wish Bob Dylan died. Then Channel 5 would piece together an instant documen­tary on his life and times, the way they did Hubert, Chaplin, and Adolf Hitler. Just the immutable facts. Seeing all those immut­able facts about Elvis made his dying worthwhile. What a sum-up. You don’t get much gray, but like the reporter in Citizen Kane found out, gray doesn’t necessarily amount to shit.

Of course, you couldn’t expect facts from Dylan, and who wanted them? After the intermission of Renaldo & Clara, I was cruising along. The first half of the film ended with a nifty allusion to the beau­tifully incomprehensible Belle de Jour, a nice touch. Renaldo & Clara hadn’t amounted to shit, just a collage of charmingly old-fashioned Mailer-Rip Torn-type incantations of ’60s obsessions. Still I de­fended it in the lobby, happy to be satisfied that nothing was revealed.

Unfortunately, Renaldo & Clara goes on for three or four more weeks, and although it doesn’t get any more specific, the following are painfully revealed: all Indians and Hadassah ladies are fat, Allen Ginsberg is completely insipid, Bob Dylan is the skinniest Jew living, Rubin Carter was a bore and probably killed those people, Dylan had a perfectly good reason to beat Sara (she being as whiny a hippie as any Gibran quoter), Dylan is totally bored of all his songs or else he wouldn’t up-tempo “black is the color, none is the number,” Dylan’s concept of matched cuts would get him a B at NYU film school, and after 20 years I still hate Joan Baez.

As for anything new or revealing about Bob Dylan, it didn’t come clear. Halfway through Renaldo & Clara, I was screaming for Westbrook Van Pegler. Or Jack Webb. I am sick and tired of vagueness in Bob Dylan. What is he afriad of? Four hours is a long time for nothing to be revealed. Just a succession of mystic-cryptic elusive ladies in the night and somber young men.

Maybe there is nothing to reveal. Where does this Malibu-dwelling record-industry macher get off making a film three times as long as Citizen Kane and then bleating in the production notes about Americans being too spoiled to sit still for art? A guy who only made one good record in eight years can’t expect everything to be taken on faith forever. Goddamn, the only audible line Dylan speaks in the film is “Volks­wagen bus.”

I write off Renaldo & Clara as rich kid’s vanity project. But of course I could be wrong. Missing the gray. So I called up A.J. Weberman to check it out. A.J., as any Dylanologist knows, was the Minister of Information of the Dylan Liberation Front. Reached at his Bleecker Street townhouse, A.J. (now a well-known assassinologist) said, “I  can’t talk about D. He just sued my ass for the second time. Folkways Records released the Weberman-Dylan phone tapes. D is suing me. The schmuck. Any­way, I haven’t seen the picture. I couldn’t comment yet. I’ve got to see it 10 times on video cassette. Even then, I might not be able to talk. I’m sure it’s all symbolism. D is the greatest symbolist of the modern age. To understand his movie would take 10 years of serious study.” ■

I, Dylanus
By James Wolcott

Somewhere in I, Claudius, our stammer­ing hero tells Caligula, “My happiness comes from c-c-contemplating your h-hap­piness.” So it must be for the cast of Bob Dylan’s Renaldo & Clara. Bob Neuwirth frisks after Dylan like a spaniel panting for scraps of encouragement. Joan Baez car­ries an offering of a single red rose when she visits him; Helena Kallianiotes, the rancorous hitchhiker of Five Easy Pieces, leans on his shoulder dreamily, exultantly. Nearly everyone in the movie is vying for the role of sorceror’s apprentice, but since there is no sorcery here — Dylan’s singing is a hoarse scrawl; his acting pouty and dim — all we see is shamelessness, self-deception, and unmasked envy. So many reputations are sunk by Renaldo & Clara that it’s like watching the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Among the shipwrecked victims: Sara Dylan, Rubin Carter, Ronee Blakley. For years, Sara Dylan has been the Dark Lady of the counterculture: exotic, aloof, a sen­suous blur. In the shadows is where she should have stayed. Like Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve, Sara D. is a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts; every word, every gesture, is tinny and coarse. When she runs her hand lovingly through Dylan’s celestial curls, you want to look away — it’s like watching a hooker stroke her john.

The film’s boho colonialism is symbo­lized by the brawny figure of “Hurricane” Carter. Even though Carter is touted as a Promethean martyr, he’s photographed from the back in unflattering close-ups: His head looms across the screen like an angry black planet. His prison press conference is intercut with Harlem man-on-the-street in­terviews, which are in tum interrupted by blasts of “Hurricane.” We’re given insultingly little information about Carter’s case so that another message can be tele­graphed: That no one knows or cares more about the black man’s plight than Bob Dylan.

For me, the movie’s sorriest casualty is Ronee Blakley. A number of people I know speak scornfully of her, suggesting that she gets what she deserves in Renaldo & Clara. Can’t agree. Even if she was a pain-in-the-ass prima donna on the tour — which isn’t clear, since her only sin here is dawdling at the make-up mirror — Dylan shouldn’t have sabotaged her solo by prefacing it with an ugly improvisational scene involving a foul-mouthed lout. Her performance of “Need a New Sun Rising” is the only sensational moment in the film, and Dylan damn near wrecks it.

The spitefulness of Renaldo & Clara — the revenge of an artist on his groupies — might be tolerable if the film had a hateful energy. But it doesn’t. It’s droopy and disconnected, like a fuckless porno. What’s sobering about this four-hour, purgatorial home movie is that Bob Dylan truly be­lieves he’s sired a work of art. Hieronymo’s mad againe. ■

Fight the Document
By Tom Allen

With a guitar, he’s a philosopher; with a harmonica, he’s a poet; with film, he’s a Kleenex dispenser. Or is Bob Dylan in 1978 only a tissue-paper shadow of himself in music also? His obscure objects of banality in Renaldo & Clara are begging for a negative reaction. I know that the film transformed this distant admirer into an immediate cynic. The mix of one hour of standard, professionally recorded concert footage and three hours of fey, ama­teurishly familial posing induces such an acute mental and sensory underload that my system fights to reassert itself. Anyone who just sits there and takes this outrage politely is crazy. The Rocky Horror Show groupies at the Waverly have the right idea. Now they can take along two changes of costumes four hours before the midnight show and outtalk and outact anyone on the screen in Renaldo & Clara. After all, not all of us have the outlet of Jonathan Cott in Rolling Stone to lob metaphysical love pats at Dylan in his guise as benevolent, despotic guru.

There’s more ego showing in Renaldo & Clara than purpose. Bob Dylan as performing star, as Indian savior, and as black messiah are all reverently worshiped in the straight passages; but when you think about the overwhelming warped side, there is very little hint about what Dylan finds erotic, dramatic, cinematic, and, above all humorous. He shot four times the footage of The Battle of Chile to give birth to this parody of the freaked-out, pot­-shredded mindlessness of the post-Kerouac survival in which symbols obtain where you find them and in which the backstage amateurs of the Rolling Thunder Revue are pitilessly exposed to the camera without material or direction. The only sane act of self-preservation about Renaldo & Clara is that no film album will be on sale. Now critics can’t advise you to stay home and listen to the record. ■

Movie from Big Pink
By Terry Curtis Fox

Renaldo & Clara is not as cute as the cover painting for Music From Big Pink, but it is a good image to keep in mind. In essence, this is the stuff of five films: a concert film (but one that does not, sur­prisingly, capture the feel of the Rolling Thunder concert I saw), a backstage docu­mentary, a melodrama by Sam Shepard (mainly scuttled but kind of interesting), a political documentary about Rubin Carter reminiscent The Murder of Fred Hampton (which was made by Howard Alk, cameraman and editor on this film), and a bit of Dylan’s old mask/myth-making, an extension of the poem which used to grow from concert program to concert program in the early days.

Everyone makes Dylan movies in their head: the narrative force, romantic pas­sion (here revealed as woman-as-­ephemeral-object, something better heard than seen), and simple life-identification of the songs make it inevitable. So perhaps it was inevitable that Dylan would try for film himself. But when a director truly committed to rock wants to make a rock film (viz. Scorsese), he can slap the real stuff on the soundtrack; Dylan, on the other hand, is in the position of an Alan Rudolph or Agnes Varda, filmmakers who wanted to control their own scores and ended up with bad music. Like Norman Mailer and the Maidstone fiasco, Dylan abandoned the structure of a language he did know for one over which he has merely rudimentary control. ■

A Solipsist Is Born
By J. Hoberman

As Bob Dylan is an authentic sacred monster and his new film is in large part a self-dramatization, Renaldo & Clara evokes such exercises in superstar behav­iorism as Al Jolson’s reenactment of his life in The Jazz Singer, Chaplin casting himself as Hitler or M. Verdoux, Norman Mailer’s Beyond the Law, and Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born. Although the promising notion of using Ronnie Hawkins in the role of “Bob Dylan” gets lost early on in the shuffle, Renaldo & Clara — even more elaborately than his previous Eat the Doc­ument — plays with the idea of Dylan’s public self as a fictional character.

The film’s four hours are shot through with masks and religious icons appropriate to the condition of American stardom, but Dylan may be more baffled by his aura than the rest of us. Do we love him for his music or his personality? If, in the film, Dylan’s onstage presence is characterized by intelligence and passion, his offstage persona (Renaldo) exudes a narcissistic passivity which finally turns embarrassing in the lengthy sequence wherein Joan Baez and Sara Dylan compete for his affections; while scenes like the one in which he dotes on the consternation caused by his com­missioning some unauthorized filming in the lobby of the CBS building as he is en route to see his producer recalls the aging punkery of Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s 11.

The Rolling Thunder stage performances for which many people will see the film are often wonderful, but their focused energy is, all but missing from the film as a whole. Renaldo & Clara is almost petulant in its demand to be taken seriously as film, and as such a good deal of it is dreadful. Like its star-auteur, seen in his dressing room even as he is heard singing on stage, the film is everywhere at once — juxtaposing Brooklyn cowboys with real Indians, interviewing the Manon 125 Street and filming revivalists by the Stock Exchange, laying flowers on Kerouac’s grave and flashing Ginsberg’s ass — in a frantic bid for significance. It’s as though John Cassavetes had run amok in a half-baked Robbe-Grillet treatment of Nashville. Considering the reported 25 to 1 shooting ratio and the sycophancy which attaches itself to stardom, the film’s lack of perspective is unsurprising.

Perhaps Dylan wishes to confront the world with the confusion that fertilizes his art, but what one comes away with is a sense of his solipsism. It would be easier to praise Renaldo & Clara‘s modest but real achievements — the ethereal mise-en-scene of a New England “sporting house” run by an 80-year-old Italian lady with a green mandolin, the expert scene-stealing Baez carries over from Don’t Look Back, a witty evocation of life at the Cafe Wha? circa 1960 by a pinball-playing ex-folkie, the film’s effective punchline, and its associative editing style (a vast improvement over Eat the Document) — were the whole enterprise not so grossly inflated. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 28, 2020