THE BOOTLEG FILES: “RENALDO AND CLARA”

BOOTLEG FILES 127: “Renaldo and Clara” (1977 Bob Dylan nightmare).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: It stinks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

BOOTLEG OPPORTUNITIES: Scratch and it will surface.

Being a film critic, I’ve been able to see an awful lot of movies. And, also, I’ve seen a lot of awful movies. But when it comes to the movie misfires, there is always a nagging question: when do you hit the bottom of the barrel? Surely there must be one film that can stand out as being the very, very, very worst thing ever made.

Well, I found the bottom of the barrel. And it is occupied by “Renaldo and Clara,” the 1977 monstrosity that marked the film directing debut of Bob Dylan. Yes, that Bob Dylan. The one-time Robert Zimmerman put down his guitar, picked up a viewfinder, and brought forth something which could charitably be described as the single biggest waste of celluloid in the entire history of motion pictures.

Unlike classic baddies such as “Plan 9 from Outer Space” or “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “Renaldo and Clara” does not lend itself to the so-bad-it’s-good charm. You cannot laugh along, MST3K-style, at its awfulness. Instead, you are left numb, dumb and completely baffled at the thorough incoherence and painful lethargy of this endeavor. If I could, to borrow a Cher lyric, turn back time – well, I would turn back the four hours (yes, four hours) of the “Renaldo and Clara” running time that I put myself through.

Four hours of what? Even after watching it, I have no idea what the f**k the movie is supposed to be about. Bob Dylan plays Renaldo and his then-wife Sara plays Clara. Who these people are and what they are supposed to do is never defined. Three-hundred-pound Ronnie Hawkins plays Bob Dylan and Ronee Blakely (fresh off her Oscar-nominated debut in “Nashville”) plays Sara Dylan. Joan Baez is also the Woman in White – if only because she wears white in the movie. Baez’s character and Sara are at odds over Renaldo’s love, or maybe not – this is not clear in Dylan’s mishmash of a screenplay.

Much of the footage was shot during Dylan’s now-legendary Rolling Thunder tour, although the reasons for Dylan’s eccentric on-stage appearance (wearing plastic masks or white paint on his face) is never explained or entirely clear.

In the course of the film, folk singer David Blue plays pinball alongside a swimming pool (huh?) while talking about New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and 1960s. A group of street preachers hector indifferent New Yorkers about the alleged end of the world. A belly dancer entertains the patrons of a restaurant by wiggling her solar plexus to “Hava Nagila,” and she is followed by a sleazy lounge singer performing “Wilkommen” from the musical “Cabaret,” who is then followed on stage by Allen Ginsberg. Then we cut back to David Blue at his pinball machine. Then we go to an Indian reservation. Then Ginsberg returns to read poetry.

It is not surprising that Steve Pulchalski, the editor of Shock Cinema, described the film as being “edited together with a Weed Eater.” Midway through the movie, the action switches into a concert benefit for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who was framed for murder in a controversial and long-running criminal case. Some scenes later, Harry Dean Stanton turns up as a convict escaping from prison. Joan Baez and Sara Dylan later turn up in a bordello dressed like prostitutes. Dylan (the real one, not Ronnie Hawkins) sings part of “House of the Rising Sun.” Allen Ginsberg returns to recite his classic poem “Kaddish” while a woman in Gypsy clothing massages his head. David Blue comes back later to play more pinball (perhaps he thought he was filming “Tommy”?). Allen Ginsberg returns again to dance (to what?). The film closes with a black woman, who is never identified and who played no part in the previous four hours, singing about “castles in the shifting sands.”

Every now and then, Dylan sings something. Often the performances are magical (his cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga” plus “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” are standouts). But more often than not, he is a sullen and shadowy presence. A variety of oddballs ranging from Sam Shepard (in his film debut) to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to Roger McGuinn pop up here and there, with no clear purpose.

(This brief description fails to take into account the endless and pointless symbolism of such objects as flowers, horse-drawn carriages, rooms full of senior citizens and Jack Kerouac’s grave – all of which figure prominently).

Dylan’s relationship with cinema was never entirely satisfying. He loathed the documentary “Don’t Look Now” that enshrined him as a 60s icon, dismissing it as “somebody else’s movie.” His acting debut in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” was widely considered to be a disaster and an earlier attempt at directing, the 1972 documentary “Eat the Document,” was equally egregious. Deciding to take the reins and be his own director and writer may have seemed like a good idea, but in fact it was a disaster since “Renaldo and Clara” turned out to be little more than a rambling wreck of a home movie.

In an interview with Playboy timed to the film’s release, Dylan blithely declared “Renaldo and Clara” to be a “very open movie.” He also acknowledged the film (much of it financed by himself) ran far beyond its projected $600,000 budget – Dylan told the Playboy interviewer that his previous two tours existed to raise funds for this project.

“Renaldo and Clara” opened to overwhelmingly hostile and bewildered reviews, although a few critics (most notably David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor) were charitably in praising its uncommon approach to linear storytelling. Audiences, though, stayed away in droves. Even the thousands who packed the “Rolling Thunder” tour wouldn’t pay to see Dylan on the big screen. Word of mouth proved so fatal that Dylan withdrew the film and cut two hours from its running time. But the trimmer “Renaldo and Clara” was still a hodgepodge horror and the film was withdrawn.

To date, Dylan has refused to allow “Renaldo and Clara” to have a commercial home video release. Bootlegs of shaky quality can be found, and their origins are traced to a single telecast on the British Channel 4 some years ago.

Dylan’s failure with “Renaldo and Clara” did not end his film work. He turned up in 1987 as the star of “Hearts of Fire” and co-wrote and starred in the 2003 fiasco “Masked and Anonymous.” Incredibly, Dylan eventually won an Academy Award – for his song “Things Have Changed” in the 2000 film “Wonder Boys.” The idea that the man who made “Renaldo and Clara” could possess an Oscar is enough to bring illness to anyone who loves movies.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on April 29, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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