The Sleepless Film Festival Presents - The Tears of a Clown Double Feature: Renaldo and Clara and Les Enfants du Paradis
Good morning, comrades.
Today - for your enjoyment - another chapter in our ongoing programming at The Sleepless Film Festival. Today's pick will be Bob Dylan's 1975 epic, Renaldo and Clara.
More than just a concert film, Renaldo' clocks in at nearly 4 hours and is packed with improvised scenes featuring Mr. Zimmerman as well as the revolving cast of characters that peopled the fabled Rolling Thunder Revue tour, including: Joan Baez, Scarlett Rivera, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Allen Ginsberg, Ronnie Hawkins, Sam Shepard and others.
Shepard was brought on as a screenwriter for the film, but ended up spending most of the tour holding on for dear life, taking enough notes to pen his classic Rolling Thunder Logbook - a great companion to the film.
Dylan is ultimately credited with writing and directing the film, and the influence of Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis is evident throughout - particularly in Dylan's infamous use of whiteface, clown makeup.
As a special treat, we are also including Carne's classic for a kind of Dylanesque double feature. But first, here is the films synopsis from the good people at Film Threat:
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..
And now - Renaldo and Clara...
Our second feature - Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis - also deserves an introduction. This one comes from our pal at the Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Roger Ebert:
All discussions of Marcel Carne's ''Children of Paradise'' begin with the miracle of its making. Named at Cannes as the greatest French film of all time, costing more than any French film before it, ''Les Enfants du Paradis'' was shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi occupation and released in 1945. Its sets sometimes had to be moved between the two cities. Its designer and composer, Jews sought by the Nazis, worked from hiding. Carne was forced to hire pro-Nazi collaborators as extras; they did not suspect they were working next to resistance fighters. The Nazis banned all films over about 90 minutes in length, so Carne simply made two films, confident he could show them together after the war was over. The film opened in Paris right after the liberation, and ran for 54 weeks. It is said to play somewhere in Paris every day.
That this film, wicked, worldly, flamboyant, set in Paris in 1828, could have been imagined under those circumstances is astonishing. That the production, with all of its costumes, carriages, theaters, mansions, crowded streets and rude rooming houses, could have been mounted at that time seems logistically impossible (''It is said,'' wrote Pauline Kael, ''that the starving extras made away with some of the banquets before they could be photographed''). Carne was the leading French director of the decade 1935-1945, but to make this ambitious costume film during wartime required more than clout; it required reckless courage.
Despite the fame of ''Children of Paradise, most of the available prints are worn and dim. It used to play every New Years' Day at Chicago's beloved Clark Theater, and that's where I first saw it, in 1967, but the 1991 laserdisc was of disappointing quality, and videotapes even worse. Now the film has been released in sparkling clarity on a Criterion DVD that begins with a restored Pathe 35mm print and employs digital technology to make the blips, dirt and scratches disappear. It is likely the film has not looked better since its premiere. There are formidably informative commentary tracks by Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron.
The film's original trailer (on the disc) calls ''Children of Paradise'' the French answer to ''Gone With the Wind.'' In its scope and its heedless heroine, there is a similarity, but the movie is not a historical epic but a sophisticated, cynical portrait of actors, murderers, swindlers, pickpockets, prostitutes, impresarios and the decadent rich. Many of the characters are based on real people, as is its milieu of nightclubs, dives and dens, theaters high and low, and the hiding places of the unsavory.
Carne plunges us directly into this world with his famous opening shot on the ''Boulevard of Crime,'' which rivals the ''street of dying men'' scene in ''GWTW,'' reaching seemingly to infinity, alive with activity, jammed with countless extras. This was a set designed by the great art director Alexander Trauner, working secretly; the credits list his contribution as ''clandestine.'' To force the perspective and fool the eye, he used buildings that fell off rapidly in height, and miniature carriages driven by dwarves. The street is a riot of low-life. Mimes, jugglers, animal acts and dancers provide previews outside their theaters, to lure crowds inside. One of the first attractions we see is advertised as ''Truth.'' This is the elegant courtesan Garance, who revolves slowly in a tub of water, regarding herself naked in a mirror. The water conceals her body, so that she supplies ''truth, but only from the neck up.'' This is also what she supplies in life.
Garance is played by Arletty (1898-1992), born as Leonie Bathiat, who became a star in the 1930s and was, truth to tell, a little old to play a sexual temptress who mesmerizes men. Like Marlene Dietrich, to whom she was often compared, Arletty's appeal was based not on fresh ripeness but on a tantalizing sophistication. What fascinates men is that she has seen it all, done it all, admits it, takes their measure, and yet flatters them that she adores them. Even cutthroats fall under her spell; when the criminal Lacenaire tells her ''I'd spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds'' she looks him in the eye and replies, ''I'd settle for less.''
Around Garance circle many of the movie's most important characters. The mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) sees her from her stage, defends her in pantomime against a pickpocket charge, is rewarded by a rose, and falls for her. So does Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), as an actor who dreams of doing something good--perhaps Shakespeare. And Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who with his ruffled shirt, curly hair, villain's mustache and cold speech is the Rhett Butler of the piece. And the Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou), who thinks he has brought her but discovers he was only renting.
It is possible that Garance truly loves the innocent Baptiste, who triumphs in a bar brawl and brings her home to his rude rooming house, where he rents her a room of her own and retires separately for the night. But Frederick, who lives in the rooming house, has no such scruples--and, for that matter, Baptiste is no saint. He marries the theater manager's daughter, sires ''an abominable offspring,'' in the words of Pauline Kael, and cheats on his wife by still loving Garance. Lacenaire, who strides through the underworld like a king, basking in his reputation for ruthlessness, thinks he can have Garance for the asking (''you are the only woman for whom I do not have contempt''), but it is the Count whose money makes her his mistress. When Lacenaire pulls back a drapery so that the Count can see Garance in the arms of Frederick, so many men think they have the right to her that the actor observes, ''Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to none.''
Most of the movie is frankly shot on sets, including exteriors. A misty dawn scene involving a duel provides a rare excursion outside Paris. He had ''an eye for the sad romance of fog-laden streets and squalid lodging houses,'' David Thomson writes. His characters live artificially in the demimonde, actors who are always on stage; if we meet a street beggar, like the blind man Fil de Soie (Gaston Modot), we are not much surprised to find he can see well enough indoors.
Carne's screenplay was by his usual collaborator Jacques Prevert; they not only set their story in a theatrical world but divert from the action to show the actors at work. Kael counts ''five kinds of theatrical performances,'' and they would include Baptiste's miming and a scene from ''Othello'' that provides oblique reflections on the plot. It is Baptiste whose art leaves the greatest impression. Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994), then a star at the Comedie Francais, is first seen in clown makeup, glumly surveying the Boulevard of Crime, brought to life only by his mimed defense of Garance. Later, he stages his own extended mime performance--only to see, from the stage, Garance flirting in the wings. No one's trust is repaid in this movie.
If Carne was France's leading director, Prevert was the leading screenwriter, at a time when writers were given equal billing with directors. They both continued to work for decades--Prevert into the 1960s, Carne into the 1980s--but never surpassed ''Children of Paradise.'' Indeed, it was precisely this kind of well-mounted, witty film that was attacked by the young French critics of the 1950s who later became known as the New Wave. They wanted a rougher, more direct, more improvisational feel--theater not on a stage but in your face.
If the Cannes festival were to attempt again today to choose the best French film ever made, would ''Children of Paradise'' win? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Just as American audiences prefer ''Gone With the Wind'' or ''Casablanca'' while the critics always choose ''Citizen Kane,'' at Cannes the palm might go to Godard or Truffaut, or Jean Vigo's ''L'Atalante.'' But ''Children of Paradise,'' now finally available in a high-quality print and ready to win new admirers, might have a chance. Few achievements in the world of cinema can equal it.
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