Commemorating Nicholas Ray in his centenary year, in 2011 his last feature-length motion picture, We Can’t Go Home Again (1973-), started doing laps around the festival circuit, sometimes accompanied by Don’t Expect Too Much (2011), a new documentary about the making of the movie. Susan Ray, the filmmaker’s widow, directed this account of Ray’s final film production and shepherded the two films to release. Since its 1973 Cannes screening as a work in progress, We Can’t Go Home Again has been presented from time-to-time at festivals and in cinémathèque retrospectives. Also, in his attempts to finish the film, Ray showed a recut 1976 variant to backers. The image track of the current version is identical to the first, while the soundtrack has been modified.
Typically attributed to Ray as director, We Can’t Go Home Again’s onscreen credit – “by US” – underlines the third-person plural in its title. Acknowledging the collaborative design in a project executed by university instructor Ray and his class of undergraduates starting in the early 1970s, that credit line also characterises the movie as issuing from the United States. As with so much in the many decades, some prosperous and some impoverished, of Ray’s career as a cultural producer, the “home” of this late film remains America.
Mainstream cinema had ejected Ray in 1963, and he exiled himself to Europe for the rest of the decade, returning to the US in November 1969 at the very moment of the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The turbulence of the times meshed with Ray’s own miasma. It took him back to the Midwest, where in the 1930s his stage career had started and where he now aspired to render on film the political theatre of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. When that project dissolved and others failed to materialise, Ray took a teaching position at Harpur College in the State University of New York at Binghamton where he stayed for two volatile years, immersing himself and his troupe of disaffiliated students in the cinematic socio-psychodrama Gun Under My Pillow (its first working title), then appropriately renamed We Can’t Go Home Again.
Founded in the late 1960s by Larry Gottheim and also staffed by Ken Jacobs and, for a time, Ernie Gehr, Binghamton’s new Cinema department was steeped in the experimental film of the period when Ray was invited to join the faculty (it still bills itself as “Innovative, Experimental, Creative” (). His Hollywood history notwithstanding, Ray’s then-current approach was more avant-garde than conventional. Ray had considered using multi-screen techniques as early as 1955 in Rebel Without a Cause, and initially proposed to shoot The True Story of Jesse James (1957) with methods akin to Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Given the opportunity to teach filmmaking while some experimentalists were exploring intrinsic formal properties of the medium – Jacobs used rephotography to generate permutations of an early silent-era film in Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969, 1971), and Gottheim was starting to explore sound-image relations – Ray continued to use movies as therapeutic instruments to treat both personal and social ills.
In 1971, for Ray and the United States those ailments were also political. This is made clear in the opening moments of We Can’t Go Home Again: a mosaic of moving image tiles recalls Ray’s recent Chicago experiences, including the violent police riots at the 1968 Democratic Party convention and the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton. “Within three hours of being inside that city, I’d been Maced and my camera had been smashed”, he sonorously remembers in his voiceover. Events and financial exigency led Ray to seek solace and paid work in upstate New York where, he says, “I decided I’d buy a crooked cane, grow a goatee, wear a crooked smile, and impress them with my rhetoric, rebellion, and ponderosity”. At least that’s the role that he devises for himself in a scenario of co-dependency and mutual aggression. “What was the first traumatic experience you recall?” he asks a student just two minutes into the film, eliciting her memories of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. He dismisses her remembered anxieties, “Ah, what’re you talking about? You were only eight years old,” provoking her defiant retort, “Only?!”
His Binghamton colleagues might have leaned toward the visual-arts strain of experimentalism that led toward minimalist or structural forms of cinema, but Ray mined the dramatic impulse and its intersection with the turns of history. We Can’t Go Home Again suggests the coarse-edged, actor-based practice of John Cassavetes and the self-reflexive cinematic practices of the time: the mock autobiography of Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967), the observational intervention of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), and the apparently out-of-control direction to be found in The Last Movie (1971), made by Ray’s friend since he was cast in Rebel Without a Cause, Dennis Hopper. While Hopper was editing his film Ray, by this point a wanderer, spent time with him in New Mexico not long before taking the job at Harpur.
One significant difference between the 1973 and 1976 versions of We Can’t Go Home Again, retained in this new edition, is Ray’s replacement of student Tom Farrell’s opening commentary with his own. This shift not only more firmly anchors history in Ray’s experience, but also lends the start, and to some extent the whole film, the dimension of recollection. Accepting that a definitive version remained out of reach during Ray’s lifetime, We Can’t Go Home Again stands as a movie “about a man who wants to bring himself all together before he dies” (as Ray himself described The Lusty Men  late in his own life) (2).
“Bringing himself together” involves bringing together, onscreen, a correspondingly vast array of images and sounds, as well as the experiences that they convey. As Robert Breer elaborated in relation to one of his own films, “Things happen after each other in this film only because there isn’t room for everything at once” (3). Ray, however, seemed to think that there was room. Solitary images fill the entire screen on only a few occasions. Most were rephotographed, some in collage-like configurations, and some as single-image fragments that occupy only part of the frame. Most elements had been shot on various gauges of film stock and some had been re-coloured and distorted by a video synthesiser provided by, as Ray put it in 1976, “the immensely talented, inventive Nam June Paik” (4). Ray and his student troupe were charged with monopolising the college’s production facilities. As Gottheim puts it – and judging by the end product that certainly looks to be the case – “Nick was using everything he could get his hands on for his project” (5).
The conflict between Ray and Ken Jacobs that Gottheim, by his account, tried to mediate also involved the students’ allegiance to one instructor or the other. Certainly We Can’t Go Home Again depicts and dramatises fraught and troubling relations between teacher and student. More specifically, it deliberately characterises those relations as being unstable and charged with resentment. The film differs stylistically and institutionally from Ray’s previous, more conventional movies, but it invokes familiar traumas of father-child relationships, reaching back to They Live by Night (1949) and that are key to Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life (1956). These traumas even surface in King of Kings (1961), even if this late-career epic might seem more remote to him than his more intimate Hollywood pictures – “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” indeed. Largely revolving around the filmmaker and a core of his students – performer Leslie, former seminarian Tom, skeptic Richie – We Can’t Go Home Again updates the post-World War II youth culture that Ray explored in his Hollywood films, injecting it with drugs, dependency, liberalised sexuality, and a violence more evidently woven into the fabric of the Vietnam-era than seemed apparent in the “new normalcy” after World War II.
As in all those Ray films, personal trauma radiates broadly into the body politic. In the case of We Can’t Go Home Again we might say the student-body politic, but that too intersects with the traumas of the time. Ray’s first assignment to the class, he relates, was to film the demonstrations around the Attica prison riot in September 1971, requiring that they find “a boy-girl story”. “What’d they say, Richie?” a student asks about graduation. “Not a goddamn word about the war in Vietnam, man.” Having returned from Miami and the Republican Party convention that nominated Richard Nixon for “four more years”, heavily-bearded Tom cleanses himself by harrowingly shearing his face while crumbling into tears, thinking of his police-officer father as images of protest and resistance on the streets play on the screen to the right. It would be convenient to think of the film’s fractured structure as capturing moments across the two brief but intense academic years Ray and his students spent together. Apparently increasingly drawn away from the routine of conventional university schedules, they both isolated themselves in the consuming act of making the movie and ran headlong into America.
If the task Ray and his crew had was to integrate the disparate pieces of their lives and their times, the results are anything but seamless. Sound perspective shifts from moment to moment. Sound and image are rarely synchronised, and post-production dubbing is, at best, shaky. Shots in many instances are obviously joined by splicing tape. They were combined by projection onto a screen – something of a large-format, makeshift optical printer – but, significantly, throughout much of the film that screen appears placed against a window that affords a partly occluded view beyond. Ray and his student actors occupy the smaller and continually changing configuration of small screens within the larger screen contained within the whole screen, but We Can’t Go Home Again also insists on another location: out there.
An earlier consideration of We Can’t Go Home Again, shot while Ray worked at Binghamton, the 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself (David Helpern, Jr.) stressed the anxious symbiosis of teacher and students: “those magnificent bastards”, as Ray calls them at one point. At the centre of that account is a shout-down between Ray and student actor Leslie Levinson, perhaps a moment of manipulative direction, but also a confrontation, made all the louder for having to be heard against the chugging of a generator’s engine. This battle of wills breaches the common hierarchical relationship between director and performer, teacher and student, surrogate father and adolescent child.
When the students meet Ray they brazenly challenge “the new professor of cinema” about his past films – “Then what the hell are you doing here, man?” asks Richie. But We Can’t Go Home Again does hark back to Ray’s Hollywood career and life history. He includes the momentary image of the Dancing Kid’s death, a bullet-hole neat and square in his forehead, and later a shot of young Turkey in the grips of the lynch mob from Johnny Guitar (1954). He extracts a recording of 1940s crony Woody Guthrie’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad”, having used a jaunty instrumental version in They Live by Night. A moment later, a student bids goodbye by quoting Guthrie, “So long, it’s been good to know ya”. Ray replies, “Take it easy, but take it”, T-Dub’s valedictory statement also in Ray’s first picture. Mention of Duke University brings to his mind Burl Ives, a figure from both Ray’s radio days in the 1940s and Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Variously seen in a scarlet blazer, red coat, and dressed as Santa Claus, Ray costumes himself and his students in familiar motifs from Rebel Without a Cause (Jim Stark’s windbreaker), Johnny Guitar (one of Vienna’s shirts), Bigger Than Life (Richie Avery’s jacket and shirt), Party Girl (Vickie Gaye wardrobe throughout, 1958), and even Christ’s raiment from King of Kings. Moments that recall the past erupt through to the surface. Yet although Ray purported to teach his students particular standards of film production, he taught according to idiosyncratic measures. Instead of shooting according to the template of a script, he collected pictures and sounds for an as yet unknown or unarticulated end. As former student David Marc observes in Don’t Expect Too Much, “He had violated the ultimate rule of Hollywood. He was more interested in the process than the product.”
Don’t Expect Too Much, which takes its title from a joke Ray tells about futilely seeking answers from a laconic sphinx, and thus from a teacher, recounts the production and fate of We Can’t Go Home Again during Ray’s lifetime. It concentrates on the relations between the director-teacher and his class members. While the students might have expected to be analysing experimental cinema, as Richard (then Richie) Bock remembers, they instead got an experiential program as they formed a filmmaking company without the standard division of labour. Regularly rotating jobs, they gained acquaintance with all the tasks involved in making movies, behind and before the camera.
As with so much about We Can’t Go Home Again, and about Ray generally, any one event, observation, or idea produces more than one inference. Ray was the ringleader, but often he too had a Bolex readily at hand to capture alternative angles, suggesting the varying power relations in the production. “He taught by doing”, remembers Pamela Pritzker Araujo. While she refers to her and her fellow students’ work as a film crew, she might just as well be referring generally to their deeper, more profound participation in the complex, communal social phenomenon that the production became.
Don’t Expect Too Much untangles We Can’t Go Home Again. Structured as conventionally as its subject is unconventional, it provides an alternative chronicle. Its narrative relates Ray’s time at Binghamton and situates the large-scale class project that became a consuming and, in Ray’s lifetime, unfinished undertaking as a process of exploration, of “seeking” (Susan Ray’s word for her husband’s motivating impulse).
It replays some scenes from the original film, but in a more linear fashion. In a nod to We Can’t Go Home Again’s optically rendered style, the documentary occasionally contains action within an internal screen. In a locked-off image of Ray, as he refers to his practice of dressing so that the director can be easily found on set, his shirt’s colour digitally changes – to red, of course. The implications of the ease of realising such effects nowadays only emphasises the effort involved in doing it then, as well as Ray’s considerable imaginative vision in devising the overall scheme for We Can’t Go Home Again.
DVD extras often include “making-of” documentaries and unused sequences or footage, but they rarely have extensive access to camera originals and audio tape – in some instances providing Ray’s own words, previously unheard – along with additional takes, trims, and other such archival footage that Susan Ray was able to use as source material. When interviewed, student Jane Heymann remembers, “There was no on-the-set/off-the-set. It was like everything was the set with Nick.” And on that virtual set that revolved around Ray, cameras and tape recorders appear to have been rolling every day for his 19-and-a-half waking and working hours (only grudgingly allowing sleep the other 4-and-a-half). Drawing on a reported 90,000 feet of film shot in gauges from 35mm to 8mm, We Can’t Go Home Again incorporates numerous hours of footage into its 94 minutes, and Don’t Expect Too Much deposits even more capital into the image bank.
In addition, Susan Ray’s documentary includes interview segments with numerous of Ray’s student collaborators, many of whom have since built solid careers in more conventional film and television – sound-mixer and designer Bock, for example, editor Charles Bornstein, and producer Danny Fisher –because of, or maybe despite, the circumstances of We Can’t Go Home Again. In addition, it draws on other commentators, including former student and writer David Marc, filmmakers Jim Jarmusch – Ray’s assistant during a later teaching appointment – and Víctor Erice, Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, and Myron Meisel, producer of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, to try to sort out the enigma of Nicholas Ray and the maze of the months and years that went into making We Can’t Go Home Again.
What do the witnesses tell us, and what do we see and hear in the documentary? Bornstein remembers Ray as appearing to them as “a cross between Noah, a pirate, and God”. Angular, eye-patched, and leonine with his mane of white hair, Ray also appears taller than anyone else. Then only in his early 60s, Ray was of course much older than his post-adolescent students. A product of addictions and other bad habits, consequent health issues and genetic chance, he still looks older and more worn-out than they do now in their interview segments, when they too are pushing or past 60.
We Can’t Go Home Again might be the “mess” that editor Walter Murch says it was when Ray brought a version to Francis Coppola, hoping for financial backing. In the end, however, it also conveys the anomie and disaffection, as well as the remedial, utopian desires of Ray, the students, and their society. In its retrospective view, Don’t Expect Too Much positions those forces at a point of change (among the individuals and in the course of contemporary history). “I thought anything was possible”, remembers Levinson, “and that’s what Nick did. Nick had that spirit.” A moment later she concludes, “I think it went wrong really fast”. When he first spotted the disheveled Ray, Murch thought Coppola was consorting with “a homeless person”. He might have been more perceptive than he realised, not just about indigence, but also about a social state of being.
Appropriately for a “making-of” documentary, Don’t Expect Too Much discloses matters relegated to the background of We Can’t Go Home Again. As later lessons collected in the posthumous volume I Was Interrupted indicate, acting constituted the determining craft for Ray (6). Camera and lights were to be positioned for performance, not the other way round, a principle he definitively outlines at one moment in the documentary. A number of sequences in We Can’t Go Home Again, notably a scene played in masks, look as much like exercises as finished story events. In Don’t Expect Too Much Ray and his student performers and crew are seen workshopping, rehearsing and exploring. As important as any specific anecdotes are what this choice reveals of Ray’s directorial approaches on a purportedly collaborative film. Caught on audio tape, and matched with corresponding (not synchronous) images, Ray tells his class, “You don’t give a shit about the Vietnam thing, I know that. But you care about your dog, right?” He conveys a basic lesson in affective memory and the method acting in which he was trained: “That’s what you use. Do you dig?” In a particularly affecting moment, Farrell recalls the source of his decision to shave and thus to change himself – the violent beating he suffered at the hands of a couple of Southerners intolerant of a young longhair. Ray’s comments reveal that he kept Tom from shaving, intensifying the experience for the film. As Fisher remarks, in addition to the event itself, Ray’s direction of the sequence – “Tom, talk to me, would you? Talk to us…. Don’t give it to me in morality, just say what it means to you” –makes the moment that much more intense for being left on the finished soundtrack (typically his voice would have been mixed-out). Moreover, it becomes not only the solo catharsis of Tom in the mirror, but also a complementary duet of mirrored personalities.
It seems almost invariable that accounts dealing with Nicholas Ray and his work involve antithetical but complementary observations. In her commentary Susan Ray coolly remarks on her husband’s contradictions, “On the film set, the anti-authoritarian became the ultimate authoritarian” (adding, however, that a project so complex needed a firm hand to steer). Yet her documentary underlines the extent to which the students too invested heavily in both the gargantuan class assignment that consumed them and the equally large personality that challenged, confounded and taught them. The ones who speak generously attribute much to their learning experience with Ray, while with clear eyes they also speak of his abuses, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as their own disaffection and anger. Student Ken Ross depicts Ray as prowling the halls with a bottle of cheap wine in his hand as if this might have been an iconoclastic gesture, but adds, “I mean, we’re talking about a college building”. Helene Kaplan Wright recalls a backers’ screening overcome by technical problems and Ray’s disappointment. But she also remembers her own disappointment at Ray not being “my strong, successful, always-director teacher”. In an audio extract Ray is heard directing a multi-screen projection, concluding, “I don’t want to show our film in a compromised version again”. Although he stresses the word “our”, the film shortly thereafter recounts the students’ various and plainly evident stages of withdrawal from the project and from him. With the sharpened optics of retrospection and history, they remember Ray’s persistent attempts to finish the film, as well as his corrosive inability to let it go.
Don’t Expect Too Much unravels some of the knots in the project of what turned out to be Ray’s last long-form film, but it also makes clear its own incapacity to untie others. We Can’t Go Home Again, culminating in the semi-fictional teacher’s death at the end of a noose tied for a particular scene – first apparently by suicide and then by misadventure – traces a complicated path of escape and engagement, of hope and disappointment, and remains a site defined by aspiration and contestation – like America itself, a magnificent bastard.
- See Binghamton University, State University of New York, Cinema Department: http://www2.binghamton.edu/cinema/
- See Lightning Over Water (Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders, 1980).
- See the note on Breer’s Pat’s Birthday (1962) at Canyon Cinema: http://canyoncinema.com/catalog/film/?i=534.
- Quoted in Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p. 220.
- Larry Gottheim, “Bigger Than Life: Between Ken Jacobs and Nicholas Ray”, Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, ed. Michele Pierson, David E. James and Paul Arthur, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, p. 93.
- Nicholas Ray, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, ed. Susan Ray, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.
We Can’t Go Home Again and Don’t Expect Too Much are screening as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.