Like a Complete Unknown

I'm Not There and the changing face of Bob Dylan on film.

Don't Look Back premiered two years later at the same Summer of Love Montreal Film Festival that opened with Bonnie and Clyde — with Dylan already many months into post-motorcycle-accident seclusion. Hardly a substitute for a new album, Pennebaker's film reprised the uneasy last days of Dylan's pre-electric incarnation. It was nevertheless received as a breakthrough, the first feature-length vérité pop-star portrait. Dylan, however, must not have cared for it: He appropriated the footage that Pennebaker shot of his 1966 British tour (meant for a TV documentary) and — working with filmmaker Howard Alk — produced his own perversely pulverized version. At once withholding and self-indulgent, Eat the Document fragments brilliant onstage performances in favor of Dylan's backstage riffs with soul mate Robbie Robertson and other members of the entourage.

Although much of the footage would appear, even more perversely re-normalized, in No Direction Home (and provided material for the Jude Quinn sequences in I'm Not There), Eat the Document was never really released. As befits a would-be underground movie, it had its theatrical premiere at the Whitney Museum. Dylan, meanwhile, was down in Mexico, making his first "real" movie, Sam Peckinpah's hippie western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Peckinpah supposedly had no clear idea who the singer was. Both the star, Kris Kristofferson, and the screenwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, would take credit for recruiting Dylan to play the Kid's smirky sidekick; Dylan, however, was surely responsible for naming his character "Alias."

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."

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