It is an age of revelation. Tell one, tell all--and get paid for it. Writers write novels about writers, reporters report about the media, even as competent a pop singer as Jackson Browne records an album telling about the life of a pop singer on the road. Even Bob Dylan... but like a smirking James Dean (the star of perhaps the first rock and roll movie, Rebel Without a Cause) on a cheaply-paneled witness stand, we knew Dylan was never going to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter how solemnly he promised. There was always the wink, the knowing aside. About Dylan there were only rumors--his face is horribly disfigured from the motorcycle crash, he's in Nashville, no I mean Jerusalem, did you know he sends his kids to the Putney School? And did you know there's a Bob Dylan movie coming out, something better than Don't Look Back, the film of the '65 British tour he withdrew from circulation? Rumors all, kid--don't believe a word of it--and get away from me, you bother me.
But earlier this year, surfacing in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York, was the new Dylan movie, Renaldo and Clara. It even hit Cambridge for two weeks, and you know that if it bombed here it's probably not going to go over that well in the hinterlands. The reasons Renaldo and Clara is a bad film are well-documented; it seems there is little reason to go into there here, at least at length. But Dylan-watchers are like sinologists--what is the significance of this wall poster, that party member's rehabilitation? And it is my private contention that what Dylan gave us in Renaldo and Clara is the greatest two-hour concert film of all time, spliced together with and wrapped around two hours of sheer garbage.
History I, or The Rolling Thunder Tour Gets Under Way: Back in the late summer of 1975 Dylan returned to New York from California, that godless land of Linda Ronstadt, and began to put together a touring band of gypsies--old friends like Allen Ginsburg and old New York folkies like Bobby Neuwirth and Ramblin' Jack Elliot, cut with hard-core rockers at loose ends like Roger McGuinn and Mick Ronson--and took it out on the road. He called it the Rolling Thunder Revue, and it was to be everything the 40-data tour with The Band in 1974 was not--small arenas, no set schedule, everybody doing their own songs, in short, a good time. The Rolling Thunder Band often had to make up in electricity what they lacked in technique, but when they cooked they cooked with gas, and Rob Stoner's bass lines and the spark of Scarlet Rivera's soaring violin often made you forget how muddy the drums were, and if they didn't Dylan and Joan Baez generally opened the second act with "Blowin' in the Wind," and if that didn't satisfy you had no right to sit there and should have given your ticket to someone who would have appreciated it.
History II, or The Myth Beneath the Whiteface: When Dylan gathered the Revue together, it was not only with the promise of good times--it was also something like an imperial summons. Most of the old New York folky crowd's careers were floundering; they were only too happy to tour. One who desperately also wanted to come, and who never got the call, was Phil Ochs. The Rolling Thunder bus pulled out of New York without him; a month later Ochs was a suicide at 41. Ochs and Dylan had fallen out way back in 1965 over "Please Crawl Out Your Bathroom Window"; Dylan, like rock and roll, never forgets. And Rolling Thunder, while showcasing the old folkies of Dylan's Village days, also pointed up their dinosaur-like qualities: Bobby Neuwirth's beer belly, and his inability to hit the high, or low notes; Ramblin' Jack's memory loss in the middle of songs that seemed never to end. In a way, Rolling Thunder was a cruel joke--Dylan's goodbye to all that, his smug see-how-I've-changed-and-they-haven't-and-aren't-they-pathetic-but-give-them-a-good-hand-and-we'll-do--"Black Diamond Bay." The Moral: While Rolling Thunder was the name of the tour, it was also the codeword for the American bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, after Tet.
History III, or Now At a Neighborhood Theatre Near You: Dylan was supposed to hand out only three interviews--to hand out any interview at all was regarded by Dylan-watchers as phenomenal, a sign of instability within the regime--to Rolling Stone, New Times, and to John Rockwell of The New York Times. But soon a spate of interviews appeared--in Playboy, in lots of places--and to Dylan-watchers it indicated panic in Malibu. It did not bode well for Renaldo and Clara. For the first time, Dylan was downright solicitous of interviewers, especially the simpering Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone. It seemed Dylan only wanted free ink; the rebellious posture that had led him to attack a Time Magazine reporter in Don't Look Backwas revealed as only a posture.
This brings us to the movie itself. According to Dylan, the Rolling Thunder Tour's sole purpose was to make money ($1.25 million worth) to support the movie, and now we have the finished product to judge, all three hours, 52 minutes worth. It opens with Dylan singing "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and closes with "Knocking on Heaven's Door," and every song between those two clicks; Dylan singing with demonic intensity as he did on neither the Rolling Thunder television special or the live album. Renaldo and Clara also contains some of the best concert footage ever shot, including the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter. But as relief from the concerts we get documentary-style interviews, the best of which--David Blue and his speed freak raps at the pinball machine, an interview with black street kids uptown in New York about Hurricane Carter--are moderately interesting. The worst of which--any scene with Allen Ginsburg, most scenes with Ronnie Hawkins, generally everything else--are just boring.
When the movie opens we see Dylan singing onstage. He's traded in the whiteface for a Nixon mask, which he pulls off. Dylan grins--the first of may shots of his incredibly bad teeth--but revealing...ah hah, this is art now mind you...masks within masks. You see, Dylan doesn't play Dylan in this film; corpulent Ronnie Hawkins does. Dylan plays Renaldo, a somewhat logical cross between the Jack of Hearts and the lone rider of "Romance in Durango"--"Hot chile peppers in the blistering sun/Dust in my face..." Sara Loundes Dylan plays Clara, while Ronnie Blakelee plays Mrs. Dylan, and Joan Baez is the Woman in White. Basically, this is the movie--it appears nothing was planned, nothing "directed," and the cinema verite we are left with is a pastiche of extraordinarily fine concert film and meaningless vignettes, none very illuminating, some extremely offensive.
Although Dylan's face fills the screen constantly, his voice is heard only five or six times, most of those coming from off-camera. Dylan does it with a wink and a nod, the subtle eye brow raise of a born actor; it is very much his film. But like the Rolling Thunder Revue itself, we are left with the idea that maybe it's all a big joke, Dylan giving all those people a last laugh and cruel shove. Allen Ginsburg as some sort of earth father reminds us that the Beats for all their wildness never had the discipline for truly great poetry and points up what an old fool he is today, with his mantras and Indian charms--someone should drape a sign over his nose "Gone east. Be back in another incarnation." Hawkins is a bare survivor of '50s ock; his Hawks went on to better things as The Band while he grew bloated. Ronee Blakelee is as terrified of Dylan in the movie as she was on stage in the tour. Only Blue keeps credence, unstuck in time as he is, recalling the time he took a bus to New York and came back with Camus' The Myth of Sysiphus.
As for the women--I never felt I would be able to feel sorry for anyone who would title their autobiography Reflections in a Crystal Teardrop, but Joan Baez manages to come out from under the weight of Dylan's cynicism with her dignity intact. There is one long scene--perhaps we could call it "Diamonds and Rust Comes to the Silver Screen"--in which Baez and Sara stage a tug of war over the bemused Renaldo. Sara is shown as a made-up 35-year-old housewife, a sort of pushy Zelda Sayre; it is hard to believe that Dylan could have written "Sad-eyed Ladies" for her, let alone describe her as "So easy to look at, so hard to define." The characters are stuck, including Dylan/Renaldo, in a horrible world of farce in which even Dylan comes in for cynical scrutiny. He winks at us; the camera never does.
In the end, the only standard of criticism we can apply is one that considers what Dylan tried to do, and how well he did it--no theories of cinema or pop culture hold. No confessional this--only more rumors. If he tried to show us only another in the unending series of masks he has worn since Huck Finn came down from the North Country with his Elvis Presley haircut. All this stuff about his tremendous egotism does not apply--as somebody else has already pointed out, what is art except egotism? Renaldo and Clara is just another step on the many roads of Bob Dylan. In the '60s, he came to prominence as the Voice of a Generation, as some publication like Time would bill him; by the early '70s, when he sang about George Jackson, he was less sure of his constituency. When he sang, he sang "This is what I believe..." As time goes on, he writes more songs about himself, about the rebels of America, the Jacksons and Carters, the Jacks of Hearts, individuals above all else. It is obvious Dylan wanted this movie to succeed very much. That's understandable; what else do middle-aged rock stars do? Renaldo and Clara is a failure, and not a heroic failure but a cheap one. Dylan has fractured himself even further, until finally it consists of only himself, or maybe just himself and the strange leather-jacketed figure who appears at one point in Renaldo and Clara with a guitar, saying he has to get to one more gig. "But there are no more gigs for you," says the equally-strange woman in black as she pulls him down. Maybe the black-jacketed figure is Phil Ochs. Estranged from his wife, his children in school in Vermont, beset by space-shot gurus like Ginsburg, Mr. Tambourine Man must sit in Malibu and wonder the same thing