Nicholas Ray’s “We Can’t Go Home Again” (1976 / 2011) at Film Forum (Oct 17); intro by director’s widow Susan Rayby Michael Atkinson on October 14, 2011Posted in: Essay
YOU ABSORB THE THRUST of a single Nicholas Ray film—say, the iconic tenderness of his lovers-on-the-lam debut They Live by Night (1949), or the hormonal gargantuanism and feverish angst of the teenage-Purgatorio classic Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—and you stumble away with no concrete notion of what makes him, almost unarguably, the greatest of midcentury Hollywood’s home-grown directors.
But by the time you’ve seen roughly half or more of his credited 21 features, the auteur terrible emerges fully formed: saber-toothed, broken-hearted, expansive, incisive, and always hungry for larger truths. That is what the Cahiers du cinema tribe and Andrew Sarris saw so vividly — the ghost in the machine, the animorphosis hidden in plain sight — that only by collecting a director’s work otherwise so compromised, piece to piece, by the studio system, could you reconstruct a personal signature as you would a dinosaur out of scattered bones. Ray is auteurism’s Spinosaurus, and its Mahler and Dickens too. He is the axis of the idea.
For hyperbole, though, it’s tough to best Godard’s famous pronouncement: “If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of re-inventing it, and what is more, of wanting to.” Wanting to? Is desire a problematic factor in auteurism? Of course, what Godard conjectured about Ray potentially doing is what Godard himself wanted to do and actually did. And just as Godard was beginning his headlong lunge at the medium’s kneecaps, Ray, tackling his biggest-budgeted films, began to seem untenable within the industry; by the time Godard was dashing from his fifth film to his sixth in four whiplash years, Ray was essentially shut out.
Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night (1949)
Like too many auteurs, Ray could be seen as a casualty of the combine, but the reality is more exhilarating. Ray was the paradigmatic oppositionist, the anti-establishmentarian who, instead of being exiled to the outskirts like a petulant avant-gardist or Beatnik, managed to cut a swath through the Hollywood barley while infusing the studio-set reflexes with ambivalence. He was the first American artist to understand the passionate tragedy of youth in the postwar era. They Live by Night preceded by several years the explosive adolescence of pop-rock LPs and teenybopping suburban angst, and you could almost say Ray invented, if not cinema itself, then maybe snot-nosed rebellion and even rock ’n roll.
Ray also defied every basic tenet of the Dream Factory’s manufacturing methodology, built mostly from dramatic problems solved by happy endings, gender roles left uninterrogated, American families and communities conceived as wholesome and poisonless, protagonists cast as reliable guides through the story. The scary troubles at the heart of In a Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Lusty Men (1952), Rebel without a Cause, and Bigger than Life (1956) – not to mention King of Kings (1961) – are not going away after the endings’ efforts at tidy resolution. It may have been a miracle that Ray lasted in that town for as long as he did.
Natalie Wood and James Dean talk with Nicholas Ray on the set of Rebel Without a Cause (1956)
HOLLYWOOD WAS FINISHED with Nicholas Ray — drinking, spitting and doping on set, converting formula plots into ambivalent journeys through American neuroses, taking every opportunity to tip sacred cows and toss barn-burning Molotovs — just as the ‘60s were reaching full swing. After his nervous collapse and high-profile replacement on Samuel Bronston’s period-set mega-production 55 Days at Peking (1963), Ray was unemployable. Too many years without work went by, and in 1971 — the same year Hunter S. Thompson went hiding from the epoch’s violence in a Vegas hotel room, and Walt Disney escaped into the magical kingdom of his newly launched Orlando theme-park — Ray retreated to the farmlands of upstate New York, where buddy Dennis Hopper helped him land a gig teaching at SUNY Binghamton.
He arrived like a grizzled angel of chaos high on pedagogic uppers, to teach a motley crew of game undergrads how to make movies by forcing them, in an apparently endless struggle and through non-stop involvement in every technical level of production, to just make a fucking movie. The result, We Can’t Go Home Again, has no official year; from its first screening at Cannes in 1973 through the version Ray was tinkering with when he died in 1979 to the present reconstruction, it has changed like a teenager changes: awkwardly, in uneven bursts, and in spite of itself. Now, only time and mortality has settled its hash for good, into a final version that is final only because Ray’s widow Susan has said it is. Somebody had to.
THIS IS NOT your Uncle Jean-Luc’s Nicholas Ray movie.
Made as a collective experiment on a variety of gauges, starring clueless students playing versions of themselves while dealing with a bizarre, eyepatched (but not one-eyed) scoundrel of a teacher, We Can’t Go Home is a torrent of amateur-indie-film-school craziness in form and content. Propelled by Ray’s outrageously give-it-all Theatre of Cruelty methodology, these kids careen through the film like a platoon of baffled jarheads barked into a suicide mission by an insane lieutenant. Forget the Ray you knew: the widescreen emotionalism, the profound use of interior space, the polished pathos of social confusion. It’s gone, along with Ray’s ability to make deals or stay sober. The menace that lurks in the dark corners and in the red eyes of all of Ray’s films is here, though, as is the faith Ray has always held in the necessity of unstable protagonists, sympathetic heroes who might, given enough pressure, explode into psychomania at any moment. Here, of course, the uncertain and toxic figure is Ray himself, facing the ass-end of both his career and a chemically-addled life, lost in the burgs with a bunch of obstinate, surly kids who may not all, we’re tempted to think as we watch, make it out alive.
Formally, it’s as if Samuel Fuller decided to make a Stan Brakhage film. We Can’t Go Home Again (which will soon be released by Oscilloscope) is in every way an experimental film; most of it is comprised of up to five separate film images projected beside or on top of each other, in a hectic and free-associative melange. Video is solarized beyond comprehension, images are projected (rather evocatively) onto nude bodies. Archival footage of recent unrest, from Attica to Kent State and Jane Fonda and beyond, is tossed into the mix. The effect is quite like being at a private screening with multiple projectors, and Ray and his class are, in an uncoordinated fit, throwing things onto the wall, to see what sticks. Some of the images are merely unfocused splotches of grain, but most are passages of the film itself being shot, with Ray alternatively commanding in crazy-captain mode and patiently allowing the hairy youngsters to overreact to his provocations. Entropy always threatens to accelerate, and the sense of teetering disaster is frightening.
You couldn’t conjure a more salient vision of the Nixon era if you tried.
So of course the film is a time capsule: an auto-elegy for the days when film school was fun, risky and frequently naked, as well as for the waning ‘60s, with its politically distressed students and urgent bull-session sexiness, all of which Ray obviously responded to more than any other 60-year-old in sight. Still, that was then, this is now—and as we ask ourselves what became of these earnest, beleaguered college kids, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that only few went on to have anything to do with the movie business at all. Danny Fisher is a low-boiling indie producer, and Ned Weisman is a documentary editor, but for most of the cast/crew, Ray’s film is their only credit. The film’s female lead, a pugnacious gamine named Leslie Levinson, was not even a student (or so we’re told) but a protest chick with a clothing allergy whom someone picked up at a demonstration. She’s had only a few bit parts since, including a walk-on in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), but in We Can’t Go Home Again she is the focus of Ray’s yearning camera, the weathered cad’s last Gloria or Natalie.
Ray’s film eventually coalesces, kind of, around a sort of abstracted thriller scenario that’s as unmoored and unarticulated as any “plot” from the filmographies of Rivette or Kuchar brothers, climaxing in a kind of near-silent, shot-counter-shot meta-suspense scenario in a barn (shades of the first movement of Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse), that threatens to lead to Ray hanging himself from the rafters. Supposedly, several of the students were afraid that’s exactly what might happen, and that Ray was using the film as his own final testament, and the class as his funeral singers.
SUNY student Tom Farrell talks with Nic Ray (sporting his iconic red jacket).
RAY WAS JUST being Ray, and the film can play, if you retain your Ravian state of mind, as what happens when you let the industry’s greatest congenital sonofabitch snap the frayed ends of his tether and run amok in the fields of cinema: no rules, no overhead, and, significantly, no projected audience. Earlier in his career, Ray’s transgressive instincts were sublimated within the spectacle of Hollywood itself but nothing in We Can’t Go Home Again is all that different in intent from the mainline of Ray’s filmography.
The sensitive but pioneering demythification of the Western in Lusty Men; the frustrated self-strangulation of the American postwar family in Rebel; the conversion of the American patriarch into the Nieitzschean psychotic we always knew him to be in Bigger; the persecution by poverty of the young lovers in They Live; the crazed gender-bender tragedy and psychosexual power struggle in Johnny Guitar (1954), the cop’s rampant sociopathy in On Dangerous Ground, the uncertainty about the safety and sanity of masculine personality in Lonely Place — these are all thematic dilemmas that cannot be solved inside the films themselves. Life was the unsolvable, compromised, politically untenable mess that Ray was laying out in his Binghamton film, and for the first time he didn’t need to merely suggest an uneasy open-ended anxiety beyond the ending credits – the ambivalence is built into every shot, every act of bullying bravado, every awkward line reading, every act of post-production indecision, leading right up to today.
So, the movie may be finished but forever unfinished in a very real sense, finding rarefied company on the top shelf of elusive follies alongside Ken Kesey’s Further (recently reshaped as Magic Trip), William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm project, Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico!, and perhaps Gregory Markopoulos’s Eniaios. But that remains one of cinema’s more effervescent paradigms – the sense of movies as a fermentation of time and life that changes and resists permanence just as we do. I’m not sure, frankly, if Godard was right about Ray – if, in fact, Ray was such a sui generis aboriginal that he could have been capable of inventing the essence of the form, as opposed to simply using it to sonogram the 20th-century America he grew up with in his bones.
But this much seems authentic – that if Godard’s mission was to recast the relationship between life and cinema not as alternatives to each other but as commingling streams, then Ray was truly his avatar. For Ray, a film was never separate from “the world,” but part of it, reflecting it like a convex mirror, stretching into it past the ending credits, roping in the realities of the actors’ lives or the production history or Ray’s own seditious psyche. We Can’t Go Home Again is in this way the purest cut of Ray, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health.
Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1976/2011) is playing at Film Forum on Monday, Oct 17; Susan Ray, the filmmaker’s widow, will introduce the film. The event will be book-ended by double-feature screenings of Don’t Expect Too Much (2011), a new documentary about the production of We Can’t Go Home Again directed by Susan Ray.