Conceived over a period of 10 years, and edited down by Howard Alk and Dylan from 400 hours of footage, Renaldo and Clara was shot during the 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue, whose participants make up a cast that includes Bob Dylan (Renaldo), Sara Dylan (Clara), Joan Baez (the Woman in White), Ronnie Hawkins (Bob Dylan), Ronee Blakley (Mrs. Dylan), Jack Elliott (Longheno de Castro), Bob Neuwirth (the Masked Tortilla), Allen Ginsberg (the Father), David Blue (David Blue) and Roger McGuinn (Roger McGuinn).
"Who Are You, Bob Dylan?" was the headline in the French newspaper read by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin. And the mystery of Renaldo and Clara is: "Who is Bob Dylan?" "Who is Renaldo?" and "What is the relationship between them?"
I decided to ask Bob Dylan himself.
"There's Renaldo," he told me, "there's a guy in whiteface singing on the stage and then there's Ronnie Hawkins playing Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is listed in the credits as playing Renaldo, yet Ronnie Hawkins is listed as playing Bob Dylan."
"So Bob Dylan," I surmise, "may or may not be in the film."
"But Bob Dylan made the film."
"Bob Dylan didn't make it. I made it."
"I is another," wrote Arthur Rimbaud, and this statement is certainly demonstrated by Renaldo and Clara, in which characters in masks and hats — often interchangeable — sit in restaurants and talk, disappear, reappear, exchange flowers, argue, visit cemeteries, play music, travel around in trains and vans and, in one exhilarating scene, dance around at the edge of a beautiful bay, where they join hands and begin singing an American Indian/Hindu Indian–sounding chant to the accompaniment of a bop-shoo-op-doo-wah-ditty chorus — a religion and rock & roll reunion.
To the anagogic eye, however, the film seems to be about just one man — who could pass for the Jack of Hearts, the leading actor of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," a card among cards, an image among images — and just one woman. Together they find themselves in the grip of a series of romantic encounters that are reenactments of the Greal Mystery, culminating in the confrontation of the Woman in White (Joan Baez), Clara (Sara Dylan) and Renaldo (Bob Dylan) — a meeting at the border of myth and reality. Using his physical image and name as the raw material of the film, Bob Dylan — like the Renaissance kings of masque and spectacle — moves daringly and ambiguously between fiction, representation, identification and participation.
Renaldo and Clara, of course, is a film filled with magnificently shot and recorded concert footage of highly charged Dylan performances of songs like "It Ain't Me, Babe," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" — the last of whose delicate and eerie instrumental breaks makes you feel as if you were entering the gates of paradise themselves. Avoiding all of the cinematic clichés of pounding-and-zooming television rock & roll specials, the cameras either subtly choreograph the songs — revealing structures and feelings — or else look at the white-faced Dylan and the accompanying painted musicians in rapturous and intensely held close-ups.
Around these musical episodes Dylan has woven a series of multileveled and multileveled scenes — unconsciously echoing similar moments in films by Cocteau, Cassavetes and especially Jacques Rivette — each of which lights up and casts light on all the others. Scenes and characters duplicate and mirror each other, are disassociated and recombined — all of them, in the words of the director, "filled with reason but not with logic." Thus, when Clara (Sara Dylan) says to Renaldo: "I am free . . . I can change," it brings back to us the words spoken earlier on by the Woman in White (Joan Baez) to Renaldo: "I haven't changed that much. Have you?" To which Renaldo replies: "Maybe."
And then there are the correspondences and the doubled worlds. The scenes in the bordello — with Joan Baez and Sara Dylan playing prostitutes and Allen Ginsberg playing a kind of Buddhist john — become an image of Vajra Hell — the Tantric Buddhist idea of the unbreakable, diamond bell. And a musician blocking someone's way backstage becomes the Guardian at the Gates.
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