Renaldo and Clara

Dylan cartoon Or:

 by Chris Cooper

Let’s move on to more interesting and less well charted, I am afraid, territory. 

So what prompted Uncle Bob to make his masterpiece, and what influences were exerted on it?  Now I am not claiming exclusivity here, these are simply my own observations. It is certainly not definitive, and probably off beam at times. But we have to start somewhere. There are many erudite writers here in FW House these days, so my lowly opinion may not count for so much. Personally I have never been comfortable with the notion that Dylan has an encyclopaedic memory and pulls these connections up from decades ago to produce fine art.  Extraordinary he may be, God like he is not. Like all of us I would imagine Dylan reacts and responds with his current environment. Recent incidents and happenings meld into ideas, and ideas become actions. I think I can demonstrate that here effectively.

So let’s start with what prompted the film. It seems pretty reasonable to assume that without the RTR tour of 75 there would not have been a movie. Remember all the footage was made during the tour, and a third of the movie is actually concert footage. (Some would uncharitably wish that was a higher percentage.)

Dylan had only the previous year returned to the stage, on a long, large venue affair that really was not suited to communication with the crowd. Rolling Thunder appears to have been a reaction to return to a more intimate setting. Throughout the summer of 75 Dylan had been recording his album “Desire” and was clearly pleased with the material. Towards the end of this project he was often turning up at clubs like The Bottom Line and the Other End in NYC and giving impromptu premieres of songs that had just been written. Clearly the action of a satisfied artiste. Of course many of the songs were co-written by Jacques Levy. The song that had started these recording sessions had been inspired by another man, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. I’ll not bore you all with Hurricane’s story as it is well known, Dylan had read Hurricane’s book “The Sixteenth Round” and felt he needed to champion Hurricane’s cause. Initially planned only as a single. Levy’s arrival had evolved the work into an album project. If Dylan was to get Hurricane’s message over then the song needed airplay and sales. In a word, promoting, the stage was being set, the easiest way was to tour with the song. (Hurricane was played at every show on the 75 tour.) 

Jacques Levy was already an experienced director when he met Dylan, having worked on the Broadway production of Doonesbury, The Musical, and Oh!Calcutta! For which he had commissioned John Lennon and Sam Shepard amongst others. With Shepard he had helped write off-Broadway productions of Geography of a Horse Dreamer, and Red Cross as well as writing the lyrics for The Musical, Fame (2). Nowadays he is Head Of Theatre Program at Colgate University. Levy had worked with many other musicians before Bob, and it was one of these who introduced them to each other, Roger McGuinn. McGuinn had mentioned Levy to Dylan, so after a chance meeting with Levy in the Village they began collaborating. McGuinn had advised Dylan that Levy “was a psychologist, he keeps my concentration on one subject until I get it right” (3) obviously these would be attractive enough reasons for Dylan, with his marriage now in its death throes.  So yet another connection is made.  

Bob’s group in ’74 had been the Band, but they were already busy with plans for their own “Last Waltz”, another mega – gig that was to become a superb film. If he wanted to tour he would have to use a different group, some of the musicians would be arrived at logically from the Desire sessions, such as Scarlet Rivera and Howie Wyeth.  Whilst showcasing the new songs Dylan began turning up regularly at the Other End in July to witness a residency by Jack Elliott. Dylan would join in occasionally at these gigs, and on July 4th joined Bob Neuwrith for two numbers (4) the following night it was Patti Smith, by the end of Neuwrith’s residency in July most of what would become the RTR band were joining Neuwrith’s group (The Family Jewels) on stage. 

With the group mostly in place rehearsals would start in Sept-Oct.  Dylan in the meantime putting in a performance on the John Hammond show in September. The program showcased a more stripped down version of Hurricane than the tour would see. Many of the rehearsals were recorded and many of these were later used as background music for many of the scenes in Renaldo And Clara.

Which reminds me; let’s get back to more direct influences? It is not my intention to do a show by show account of the tour. Up to now these developments were putting the tour in place. But, you ask, when did the tour become a film?  Evidence of filming right at the start and the inclusion of “scriptwriters” such as Shepard and Ginsberg show us that this was certainly developed before the tour started, so what coincidences led to that? 

Certainly I believe Levy may have well played some part in the development of the tour into a more theatrical event. But I think the main thrust for this can be leveled in another direction, and from a much earlier source. And for that we have to travel to France. 

Allen Ginsberg (more about his influence, later), in an interview for WBAI Radio in 1983 drew our attention to a French film “Les Enfants Du Paradis” (Children Of Paradise) stating that it had impressed and influenced Dylan when he started work on Renaldo and Clara (5). 

I don’t suppose we will know for certain how Dylan got to see this film, but it may be significant that he had stayed with David Oppenheimer (painter of the picture on the back of Blood On The Tracks) in May 1975. Dylan was there for 6 weeks soaking up the local culture. With his interest in film of course he may well have seen it much earlier, but what better way to experience French culture than watch the countries most famous film whilst you were there?

Children Of Paradise  

Children of Paradise was made in 1943-5 and screened originally as two films, in March 1945, part 1 “The Boulevard Of Crime” and part 2 “The Man In White”. It is an extraordinary achievement. In 1978 it was voted the best French film ever made. Bearing in mind that the film was made in war time it is an even greater achievement. The film has several oblique references to the war but for the censors benefit they are subtle, here of course they are not an issue.  The film is set in 1820 and paints a picture of a world obsessed with crime and theatre.  The original screenplay by Jacques Prevert drew its influences from such colourful personalities as Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the innovative mime (6). Francois Lacenaire, a murderer who went to the scaffold and Frederick Lemaitre a celebrated actor for who Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote plays (7).  The original plan for the film had come from a sensational trial when Deburau had been tried for murder but was found innocent.

Thousands had turned up in order to just hear the famous mime speak. This idea was soon altered as the story centers around a mysterious and alluring woman called Garance (played by Arletty, who would later be tried for having an affair with a German officer) (8).

Children Of Paradise

Children Of Paradise

Garance arouses passion and envy in four men, but refuses to be compromised in a world full of deception and decadence. She seems to effortlessly glide away from her suitors just when they appear to have ensnared her.

Children Of Paradise The film covers many years during which she moves from poverty to affluence, but despite her uninhibited manner she never loses her principles or her open minded vision of love “love is so simple” (heard that before somewhere). Set mostly on stage the difference between stage and audience is often blurred. Indeed the title of the film refers to the uppermost part of the theater called “paradise”, the Children of Paradise being the naïve and trusting audiences in the cheap seats.  The characters are amazingly detailed, and totally believable, whilst a little fantastic.

If there is a male hero it is “Baptiste” a soon to be famous mime, played by the already famous mime “Deburau.  Baptiste is always dressed in white, with white makeup on his face whenever he is acting. He falls in love with Garance but loses her to the flamboyant actor “Frederick.” Towards the end of part 2 Garance realizes she loves Baptiste who by then is married with a son. They spend the night together and are discovered by Baptiste’s wife. In fact all four main male characters have  a relationship with Garance and all end badly, and in the case of the Count tragically as he is murdered by Lacenaire.

Children Of Paradise

Children Of Paradise
The Count

Well so far I may have described an interesting film but where are those Dylan influences?  Let’s consider first the playwrights Carne and Prevert, both are homosexuals. I would not pass doubt on Shepard but we are aware of Ginsberg’s interests. Both were Jewish, a fact that had to be hidden from the Germans.  Both placed deceptive scenarios in the film that spoke out about Nazi occupation, but in a quiet way, the film is a performance film (on stage) but spills into the lives of the people off stage also. There is often overspill from stage to private performance.  Most of the characters in Carne’s film are based on real life people from that period. This characterization is quite accurate with the actors often stating so in the film. Lacenaire was a real man who went to the guillotine at 37 for murder. Near the start of the film he tells Garance “I will hold my head up until it falls into the basket.” (As indeed it does by the end of the film)  This methodology is used in Renaldo And Clara, here the characters play dramatizations of real people (namely each other) e.g. Ronnie Hawkins as Dylan, Ronee Blakely as Mrs. Dylan. 

The colour red, (though the film is black and white)  in the form of a rose features throughout the film, usually in the presence of Garance. Sometimes as a motif on her dress.  Notably the rose is dropped or left behind whenever violence is enacted on Baptiste or Garance. The name of the Inn they frequent translates to “The Red Breast”. And Garance’s name comes from a French red flower, resembling a rose. 

Garance is often placed high, in one scene she is quite literally, on a pedestal. She is the only character that remains in control whatever happens. This majestic aloofness, cold detachment, is Zen like in appearance, this  has often attracted Dylan himself (Sara was very interested in Zen philosophy when she met Dylan).  Most of the male characters are vagabonds, rascals, and opportunists.  They have few scruples and fewer morals. 

Several scenes are echoed in Renaldo and Clara. There is a scene near the start when Frederick is denied access to the Theater, which is very reminiscent of the scene with Ronson and Hawkins. Later Baptiste’s future wife Natalie is holding up a wedding dress and Baptiste enters with the rose given him by Garance which provokes an argument, very much like the scene with Dylan, Sara and Baez. 

The scene in Renaldo and Clara where students are asked what they dreamed about last night, is also echoed with the thief, Jericho, also  an informer, with a book, Interpretation Of Dreams under his arm, entering asking “Do you dream of cats, do you dream of dogs.” 

Of course throughout the film the stage curtain rises and falls. Dylan would use a curtain on the Rolling Thunder Tour (both 75 and 76) but has failed to use it since. The curtain in Children Of Paradise looks  very similar in design to the one we see in Renaldo And Clara. 

Near the end of part one Garance and Frederick have an argument about love whilst Garance sits in front of a mirror taking off make up. This reminds us strongly of the Ronee Blakely – Steve Soles scene. (The one with that classic quote from Soles “I don’t know what’s so fucking important about fucking!”) Part  two of the film is subtitled “The Man In White”  and as the film nears its conclusion Nathalie confronts Garance and Baptiste in the room in which they have just spent the night.  She protests to Baptiste that he must understand that she loves him the most. Garance is wearing a white dress, with roses on it.  Nathalie stands in the doorway looking at the lovers and saying “don’t leave me here like this”. 

The number of comparisons make this far more than coincidence, Dylan has clearly considered this film a great deal when making Renaldo and Clara. But whilst I am convinced that “Children Of Paradise is indeed a major influence on Dylan’s plans for Renaldo and Clara There were certainly others too, but that as they say, is another story. 


Till Next Time…. 

Children Of Paradise
The Curtain

Chris Cooper



Children Of Paradise
The Wedding Dress

Children Of Paradise
The Children Of Paradise?


(2) Jacques Levy Interview Isis 90
Rolling Stone, August 1975
 Ginsberg Interview WBAI  March 1983
 French Interview 1990  with Marcel Carne by Brian Stonehill
 French Interview 1990  with Marcel Carne by Brian Stonehill
 French Interview 1990  with Marcel Carne by Brian Stonehill