Monday Editor’s Pick: We Can’t Go Home Again (1972-2011)

by on October 10, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Oct 17 at 7:00* at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Introduced by Susan Ray *Double Feature with new making-of documentary Don’t Expect Too Much


If you missed the brand-new restoration of Nicholas Ray’s final feature film at NYFF, here’s your second chance. Ray continued to work on the film from its premiere in 1973, until his death in 1979; this restoration was undertaken by his widow, Susan Ray. Don’t Expect Too Much, Susan’s own film on Nick’s life and work appears on the double bill, playing at 5:35 and 8:50.


Richard Brody for the New Yorker:

Nicholas Ray had been out of Hollywood for a decade when he started teaching at SUNY Binghamton in 1971; he was in immense sympathy with his students—their political idealism, their sexual openness, their curiosity—and terribly aware that they were living in an enclosure that allowed them to foster the finer flowers of their character and that hardly prepared them to face the withering winds of the wider world. Meanwhile, he himself was hardly at home in the university community, with its constructive norms and myriad rules. And he made a film—with his students—that dramatized their crises and his own, that captured his proximity to and distance from them, and revealed him to be at home nowhere either.


Reflections of his earlier classics of menaced and flailing youth, such as “They Live by Night” and, of course, “Rebel Without a Cause” (in which James Dean’s red jacket took on a life of its own) appear here, even as Ray—working now as an independent—charts an independent artistic course, devising a screen-within-screen schema that, without sacrificing his intense emotional engagement with his dramas, captures the furies of the day in a uniquely complex yet eruptive form. The early seventies was a time of lots of great new American movies; John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese, Barbara Loden, Francis Ford Coppola, Elaine May, and others captured the spirit of the times in films of great originality. Yet Nicholas Ray, returned from a literal and figurative exile, made what may well have been the most advanced and audacious film of the era. The fact that it has been invisible for decades and is only now becoming available makes a viewing—and its release—all the more essential. To quote a now familiar line: It isn’t that he was ahead of his time; he was in step with it when others were behind it.



David Cairns for MUBI:

Ray’s familiar eyepatch first appeared at this time, after the stress of the shoot caused him to blow a blood vessel. God knows what it did to his mind. From another perspective, mental collapse could be the film’s subject, and it’s filmed from the inside. The fragmented screen, the intense rushes of colour that infuse the images, seemingly at random, the stop-start scenes and playfully abstract editing rhythms: the only real dramatic conflict that matters is the struggle between the film’s desire to break apart, and the weaker desire to cling together.


It’s not a comfortable film to watch. It goes beyond a mere head-fuck. It’s a head-cluster-fuck. The multiple images suggest the POV of a dying fly with a migraine, its life flashing before its eyes. Coming after the immaculate imagery of Rebel Without a Cause or The Savage Innocents, it’s enough to induce heartache and depression, but at the same time there’s a wild optimism in the desperate clutching at some new form, new dramatic language, a transcendent rebirth of cinema, something that can’t be articulated by the artist or even suggested by the raw footage unspooling before us, except as a dream that is visibly striving to come true.



Jonathan Rosenbaum provides some early context in Sight & Sound:

Created in collaboration with Ray’s film class at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and featuring Ray and his students, the film attempts to do at least five separate things at once: (1) describe the conditions and ramifications of the filmmaking itself, from observations at the editing table to all sorts of peripheral factors (e.g., a female student becoming a part-time prostitute in order to raise money for the film); (2) explore the political alienation experienced by many young Americans in the late 60s and early 70s; (3) demystify Ray’s image as a Hollywood director, in relation to both his film class and his audience; (4) implicate the private lives and personalities of Ray and his students in all of the preceding; and (5) integrate these concerns in a radical form that permits an audience to view them in several aspects at once. Thus, for the better part of two hours, six separate images are projected on the screen together, juxtaposing super-8 and 16-millimeter footage against a 35-millimeter backdrop (with the aid of a videotape synthesizer) in one crowded fresco.


Quite simply, it is a Faustian attempt to do the impossible: as Ray indicated at his press conference, an effort to make “what in our minds is a Guernica ” out of such tools as a “broken-down Bolex,” “a Mitchell that cost $25 out of Navy surplus,” and a lot of impatient maverick energy. The hysteria underlining most of the film is reflected in the title Ray originally gave to the project, THE GUN UNDER MY PILLOW; the level of aspiration can be seen in the fact that it is announced as the first part of a trilogy. At its “best” — an excruciating sequence in close-up where a student savagely hacks off his beard — it arrives at some very potent psychodrama. At its “worst,” it becomes an uneven struggle toward coherence landing in chaos, like some orgy of collective action-painting that leaves a classroom in a state of carnage. The theme of autodestruction in one form or another is fairly constant. Ray himself is seen undergoing at least two symbolic deaths: one as Santa Claus, knocked into the air by a hit-and-run driver (his costume lyrically cascading to the pavement in gracefully cut slow motion); another in his own person, near the film’s end, when after preparing his suicide and then changing his mind (like Pierrot le fou), he accidentally hangs himself while attempting to remove the rope. His parting message to his students: “Take care of each other — all the rest is vanity — and let the rest of us swing” — a form of self-abasement that Ray believes appropriate to his generation, described at his press conference as “more guilty of betrayal than any other generation in history. WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN is certainly cinema at the end of its tether; like the fatal test of courage in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, a “blind run” up to and maybe even over the edge of a cliff.



Rosenbaum updates his appraisal for The Soho News, upon viewing the second version of the film in 1980:

Today, thanks to further work done on the film by Ray in the mid-’70s — editing, labwork, and a narration that he added himself — the film is in a much more coherent and lucid shape. As before, the film oscillates between the lives, political engagements and problems of the students and Ray’s own problems and ambivalent stances in relation to them and himself. Early on, wearing a red jacket that inevitably recalls James Dean’s in Rebel, he’s shown going into a barn with a rope, bent on hanging himself — a project that he fumbles. (”I made 10 goddam Westerns and I can’t even tie a noose,” he mutters hyperbolically after the noose slips free.)


Soon afterward, dressed as a Santa Claus on a highway, he mutters some more — about needing a drink and “Who the hell ever invented zippers?” — when he’s hit by a speeding car. After a mock funeral performed by his students, he’s discovered back in the hayloft by one of them, Leslie, who listens sympathetically to his woes. (”Have you ever been to a faculty party?”) Richie, who lives with Leslie, invites him to stay at the house they’re sharing with some other students. The story continues well past graduation and into the Republican convention in Miami in the summer of ‘72, introducing additional students along the way, before Ray is shown attempting suicide again — this time successfully. (Or is it an accident?) His parting message to his students: “I was interrupted….Take care of each other…all the rest is vanity…and let the rest of us swing.”


It’s hard to know how to respond to his parable of self-destruction, filmed almost a full decade after Ray’s last commercial feature, 55 Days at Peking — except to assert without a moment’s hesitation that its formal interest far surpasses that of the Samuel Bronstein spectacular that finished off Ray’s “official” career. The multiple images that were combined via rear projection photography are often extraordinary, and the total effect of this graphic, innovative, agony-ridden document seems to be somewhere between the Guernica of disaffected America that it clearly aims for and the shattered bathroom mirror in which James Mason examines his fragmented features and identity in Bigger Than Life, his most disturbing Hollywood film. The dialectic between cracked self and atomized other is a central theme throughout, perhaps expressed most poignantly — and bitterly — in the film’s title, We Can’t Go Home Again, as well as its punning credit signature, “by US”.


Here’s Harper College student Tom Farrell on collaborating with Ray, interviewed for David Helpern’s 1975 documentary on Ray, I’m a Stranger Here Myself:


And here’s Tom five years later, screening We Can’t Go Home Again for Ray, in Ray’s final feature, Lightning Over Water:


Patricia Cohen talks to Susan Ray for The New York Times:

“It was an experimental film, a difficult film and I think a visionary film that is particularly important today,” Ms. Ray said from her home in Saugerties, N.Y., where she has also been organizing the storehouse of original scripts, notes and movie storyboards for a sale.


With this new showing cinephiles will finally get a chance to judge whether “We Can’t Go Home Again” was an innovative undertaking or a misbegotten enterprise, part of what one film historian has called “a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects” that occupied Ray in his final years.
In certain respects his ideas were ahead of their time. On screen Ray and the students play versions of themselves, a conceit that smoothly fits into this era of reality television. Today’s digital techniques would also make it easy to create the effects Ray painstakingly tried to achieve on a shoestring budget. The directors Abel Gance, Jean-Luc Godard, Stephen Frears and Mike Figgis have all used fragmented screens, but, said Marco Müller, the director of the Venice festival, “the sophistication and emotional power of Ray’s multiple images have not yet been matched, even now that digital technology makes this technique immediately accessible.”



Geoffrey Macnab for the Guardian:

We Can’t Go Home Again is just what you would expect from the unlikely collision between a subversive director in his declining years and a group of students still fired by counterculture radicalism. Inevitably, Ray took the same freewheeling, chaotic approach to teaching as he did to his domestic arrangements. Rather than lecture the students, he recruited them to make a movie, which turned out to be We Can’t Go Home Again. His philosophy was that they should learn by doing.


In the spirit of the times, it is a determinedly self-reflexive production. Ray and the students play themselves, making a film together. “Didn’t you make that Eskimo movie with Anthony Quinn?” one student asks, referring to Ray’s film about the Inuit, The Savage Innocents. A second student rails at him: “You think you know it all just because you made movies and you’re old.” In another scene, we see Ray struggling with a piece of rope. “I made 10 goddam westerns and I can’t even tie a noose,” the director complains. There are split-screen and psychedelic-style colour effects, plus nudity and pot smoking. The result is wildly indulgent but with enough grace notes to keep you watching, however baffled you become.


On some level, We Can’t Go Home Again is a companion piece to (or twisted reflection of) Ray’s best-known movie Rebel Without a Cause, albeit one made with collaborators less talented than James Dean, Natalie Wood, Hopper and Sal Mineo. Rebel was made with the full might of Warner Bros rather than a few borrowed cameras, but Ray was famously open to the delinquents and street toughs whose subculture he was chronicling. He actively sought their co-operation and friendship. Former LA gang leader Frank Mazzola, who worked on Rebel and later became a film editor, said: “The majority of directors in Hollywood didn’t like my type for whatever reason … but Nick became a dear friend.” At Harpur College, the approach was exactly the same. The students were flattered and exhilarated that Ray wanted to put their world on film.



Cullen Gallagher for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

The line between what is and is not real in We Can’t Go Home Again is more than just a blur: it’s downright schizophrenic. And not just to the extent that its narrative mirrors the circumstances in which it was made1 – Nicholas Ray, weary after decades of Hollywood filmmaking, assumes a teaching position at the State University of New York at Binghamton and instructs his students through a collaborative feature-film endeavor – but to the possibility that what we are witnessing is the manifestation of Ray’s own mental breakdown. The symptoms of the disorder – paranoid delusions, warped perceptions, withdrawal from everyday life, behavioral irregularities, and a global splintering of one’s consciousness – are the threads of Ray’s delirious tapestry. And regardless of the many characters that pass by the screen, the one who remains at the center is always Ray. Like so many orbiting moons, the characters (all of them Ray’s students) circle around their teacher, either in submission, collaboration, or defiance, and often alternating between the three as their relationship develops and Ray’s own mental, physical, and spiritual states continue to deteriorate.

In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s Jim Stark cries out, “You’re tearing me apart!” And with We Can’t Go Home Again, Ray has torn apart the cinematic image. Simultaneously projecting myriad formats – super 8mm, 16mm, and a video synthesizer provided by Nam June Paik – and filming the multiple projections onto a single 35mm image, Ray was able to actualize a sense of both mental fragmentation and a sensory/emotional deluge. The images overlap with ethereal majesty, at times highly literal (such as the political footage, including riots and protests) and others deeply ambiguous (whether the psychedelic designs or the dense layering of too-many projections). It is image overload, and only sensation and emotion exist: narrative is dead, logic unknown, time disrupted, and identity discontinuous. Henry Miller’s declaration of principle in Tropic of Cancer seems obliquely applicable to Ray’s anarchy: “[T]his is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pats to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.” (Even future collaborator Wim Wenders admitted to being shocked by the film’s “total negation of any sense of image,” while Jeff Greenberg called Ray’s new aesthetic “disturbing… but maybe it’s all part of the process of de-imagizing the Hollywood director.”) The subversion that was always present in Ray’s most successful Hollywood productions – in terms of genre, character, plot, and mise-en-scene – explodes in We Can’t Go Home Again. As indicated in the title, Ray can no longer return to the modes of representation with which he began his career, and if the film feels more exploratory than expert, it is because Ray is charging ahead blindly (or half-blindly, if one remembers the single eye-patch worn over his right eye at this point in his life), improvising not just a story, but an entire form and methodology. And it is this adventurer’s spirit – along with Ray’s steadfast dedication to “never betray myself again” – that makes the film feel so fresh and vigorous (and vertiginous and obscure) some thirty-odd years later.


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