Like a Complete Unknown

The changing face of Bob Dylan on film

Did Bob Dylan really exist? Such was the question posed four years later, when Dylan directed his celluloid magnum opus, Renaldo & Clara. This four-hour extravaganza was born as a rockumentary of the 1975-76 "Rolling Thunder" tour; its purpose, according to the filmmaker, was "to put forth a certain vision which I carry around, and can't express on any other canvas."

Hired to write dialogue — little of which would be used — Sam Shepard was enjoined to study the epic backstage love story Children of Paradise (the one previous movie that Dylan thought to have successfully "stopped time") and Truffaut's New Wave noir, Shoot the Piano Player. ("Is that the kind of movie you want to make?" Shepard asked, receiving the laconic reply: "Something like that.") Scorsese, who first met Dylan when he was shooting The Last Waltz in late '76, remembers a more suggestive model: Dylan spoke to him about R.W. Fassbinder's Beware of the Holy Whore, "a film about the collective idea and about its impossibility."

To dream the impossible dream: Fassbinder would have had an easier time imagining Dylan than vice versa. Shortly before Renaldo & Clara's release, Dylan gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he took care to name-check (and patronize) the two key filmmakers of the '60s: "Warhol did a lot for American cinema," he explained. "He was before his time." As for Godard, Dylan recalled that, although he had never seen a movie like Breathless, once he did, it seemed totally familiar; he remembered thinking, "Yeah man, why didn't I do that, I could have done that."

A monstrously curdled ego was about to be uncorked. "My film is about identity — everybody's identity," Dylan declared. Asked about the running time, Dylan expressed surprise "that people think that four hours is too long for a film. As if people had so much to do. To me, it's not long enough . . . Americans are spoiled, they expect art to be like wallpaper with no effort, just to be there." Advertised as "a motion picture mural about relationships, about Bob Dylan, about all of us," Renaldo & Clara opened with a performance of "When I Paint My Masterpiece."

Truly, pondering Dylan brings out the grandiloquent in everyone, even himself. The height of psychodramatic self-deification, Dylan's movie presented the filmmaker as Renaldo, a man in the clear plastic mask, a Third World savior, venerated by Native Americans, African-Americans, and beatnik Americans alike. When not performing in clown-face, Renaldo swanned around bare-chested as the Woman in White (Joan Baez) competed for his attention against long-suffering Clara (wife Sara, who would divorce Dylan during editing). The character "Bob Dylan" was played by fat Ronnie Hawkins, the onetime leader of the band that became the Band.

This humorless, solipsistic spectacle was hell on audiences but heaven for headline writers: "Gone With the Idiot Wind" or "Ballad in Plain Dull." The Village Voice sent six writers to review, five of whom panned it. "So many reputations are sunk by Renaldo & Clara that it's like watching the defeat of the Spanish Armada," James Wolcott cackled; Mark Jacobson put his life in jeopardy, beginning his review, "I wish Bob Dylan had died." In The New York Times, Janet Maslin nailed the star's peculiar narcissistic diffidence: Dylan gives the impression "that he isn't really interested in acting, and that he is always acting anyway."

New Times reported that Dylan now considered himself a filmmaker with a dozen movies planned. But after Renaldo & Clara's critical bludgeoning (and $2 million loss), he retired from the field. Although stranger things have happened, it seems unlikely that the movie will receive a 30th-anniversary re-release. Still, the 2003 Masked & Anonymous, directed (pre-Borat) by Seinfeld's Larry Charles and starring Dylan, revisited Renaldo & Clara on a lower, less grandiose key and was more fondly shrugged off. Although The New York Post called Masked & Anonymous "a strong contender for the worst movie of the century," few critics managed much indignation; more typical was Michael Atkinson's assessment in the Voice of the film as "the final survivor of a dying dinosaur species . . . a trash-can monument to Dylan's aging coolness."

Certain cultural figures have a particular inevitability. Charles Chaplin and Elvis Presley rode technological waves, surfing to superstardom on powerful socio-economic currents. Had Chaplin never come to America, another slapstick comic would have emerged to reign over the nation's nickelodeons; Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock and roll.

No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Minnesota would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world's first and greatest rock and roll beatnik bard and then — having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning — vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.

Lerner opens The Other Side of the Mirror with ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert introducing Dylan at the 1964 festival. This artist, she tells the crowd, "grew out of a need." The times demanded him, and so did the audience. "You know him — he's yours." It may be pretty to think so, but that's a social function against which Dylan would spend decades rebelling. Not until the debacle that was Renaldo & Clara would Dylan's fans fully appreciate the monster they had wrought.

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