We were driving down Sunset Boulevard — Christmastime in L.A. — looking for a place to eat, when Bob Dylan noticed Santa Claus, surrounded by hundreds of stuffed, Day-Glo animals, standing and soliciting on the street. "Santa Claus in the desert," he commented disconcertedly, "it really brings you down."
A few minutes later, we passed a billboard which showed a photo of George Burns pointing to a new album by John Denver and praising it to the skies. "Did you see that movie they appeared in together?" Dylan asked me. "I sort of like George Burns. What was he playing?"
"I saw it on the plane coming out here. He played God," I said.
"That's a helluva role," Dylan replied.
Bob Dylan should know. For years be has been worshiped — and deservedly so. His songs are miracles, his ways mysterious and unfathomable. In words and music, he has reawakened, and thereby altered, our experience of the world. In statement ("He not busy being born is busy dying") and in image ("My dreams are made of iron and steel/With a big bouquet of roses hanging down/From the heavens to the ground") he has kept alive the idea of the poet and artist as vates — the visionary eye of the body politic — while keeping himself open to a conception of art that embraces and respects equally Charles Baudelaire and Charley Patton, Arthur Rimbaud and Smokey Robinson.
"Mystery is an essential element in any work of art," says the director Luis Buñuel in a recent New Yorker profile by Penelope Gilliatt. "It's usually lacking in film, which should be the most mysterious of all. Most filmmakers are careful not to perturb us by opening the windows of the screen onto their world of poetry. Cinema is a marvelous weapon when it is handled by a free spirit. Of almamal the means of expression, it is the one that is most like the human imagination. What's the good of it if it apes everything conformist and sentimental in us? It's a curious thing that film can create such moments of compressed ritual. The raising of the everyday to the dramatic."
I happened to read these words during my flight to Los Angeles — having just finished watching the "conventional and sentimental" in-flight movie — hardly knowing then that, just a day later, I would be seeing a film that perfectly embodied Buñuel's notion of the possibilities of cinema.
Renaldo and Clara — an audacious and remarkable four-hour movie that will open in New York and Los Angeles on January 25th and soon thereafter in cities around the country — is Bob Dylan's second film. His first, Eat the Document, was a kind of antidocumentary, a night journey through the disjointed landscapes of Dylan's and the Band's 1966 world tour, a magic swirling ship of jump cuts, "ready for to fade." It was a fascinating work, but it came and went after only a few showings.
To remain on a given level, no matter how exalted, is a sin, a spiritual teacher once said. And just as it is impossible for Bob Dylan "to sing the same song the same way twice" — as he himself puts it — so his new film is a departure from Eat the Document, as it announces the arrival of a visionary cinematic free spirit.
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