Jonathan Rosenbaum recently offered some useful, brief observations on two versions of Nicholas Ray’s last film, a collaboration with Wim Wenders. (1) A third (of sorts) also circulated, and considering the variants can yield some telling differences in a movie that is challenging in whatever version.
In the first half of 1978, Ray was being treated for lung cancer, and then a brain tumour. The radiation and surgery debilitated him, but he dearly wished to continue working. He was teaching at New York University, and the film he had shot with his students at Harpur College, We Can’t Go Home Again, was caught in a morass of incompletion, but as a filmmaker he wanted more to make another movie. Collaborators, some of them former students, found their way to him, including Wenders, who the year before had cast Ray in The American Friend (1977), and Pierre Cottrell, production manager on that film. Once they were involved, production started immediately, because of Ray’s fragile physical health and on account of his personal drive. The shoot combined, on 35mm film and videotape, prepared scenes and documentary observation involving Ray, Wenders, Ray’s wife Susan, his former student Tom Farrell, Wenders’s wife Ronee Blakley, and others in the company that had practically occupied the SoHo loft that the Rays shared. They shot for about two weeks in late March and early April 1979 and resumed for another six days after Wenders, who had been called to California, where he was preparing to direct Hammett (1982), returned to New York. “For Nick after all,” biographer Bernard Eisenschitz quotes Cottrell as saying, “his project was this: I want to die with a film crew around me. That was the important thing.” Not literally the case, he died of heart failure in mid-June, after the crew had scattered, but while the footage remained unedited. As well, the company reconvened to shoot a memorial wake, on a Chinese junk afloat in New York harbour. (2)
Not surprising for a film motivated by illness and frailty, and which documents processes leading to death, the film that Wenders and Ray made provoked commentary from some of the surviving principals not only about matters cinematic, but also about responsibility, ethics, and morals. The opening titles of the finished film embed Ray’s and Wenders’s byline among eighteen other crew members’ names, but the end title crawl gives the two of them directors’ credit. Yet one of those directors died before the movie—or movies, as it turned out—could be completed, weaving those questions of personal responsibility with others of creative authority. (3)
Rosenbaum reports that he was lucky enough to see an early version then called Nick’s Movie at a private screening before the film showed at Cannes in May 1980. The festival archives list it by its more common title, Lightning Over Water, and that is what appears in the title sequence of any extant finished version. The matter of the variant titles that Rosenbaum raises is something of a diversion, but just to cast a really pedantic line in the water, Amazon may catalogue the Anchor Bay DVD as Nick’s Film—Lightning Over Water as Rosenbaum notes, but only the latter title actually appears on the disc and packaging. Perhaps for pre-festival, pre-release screenings it was called Nick’s Movie. On the French DVD that is also how the title is subtitled, under the standard English-language title. Jonathan Cott called it Lightning Over Water (‘Nick’s Movie’) in a document that accompanied the film at Cannes. (4) A book version published in 1981 by Zweitausendeins, perhaps tellingly credited to Wenders and the film’s co-producer Chris Sievernich but not to Ray, is nonetheless titled Nick’s Film, with Lightning Over Water in a smaller typeface on the title page. (5) Hedging its bets, the cover of the recent Wild Side Video release from France includes all three titles.
More important than the titles is the variety of versions to which Rosenbaum refers. At the time the Ray film was edited, Wenders was occupied with preparing Hammett for Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope. By Wenders’s own account he was able to offer little input to his regular editor, Peter Przygodda: “Left alone by its two directors (one died and the other took a powder), he chose to edit it without adding anything to the material he found, no narration or comments.” (6) In a 1984 reference guide to Ray’s career and work, I presented details about this version, including its 116-minute running time, as well as press information prepared for the Cannes screening including the Cott essay, although I had not seen that version of the film. Unfortunately I never did see this edition, which was also shown in a couple of other venues where screenings had been promised. Afterward Wenders withdrew the film for revision.
Before completing the book I did see the revised version, which Wenders and Sievernich edited. That rendition received the limited release and limited response that the film attracted. It was the five-reel 35mm print I was thankful to borrow to view and synopsize for the book, having to shlep it to a Paramount screening room in midtown Manhattan on a hot August afternoon. This version was also fixed in the Zweitausendeins book, a large-format, full-colour photo-découpage. Now in the home-video era, this is also the version that Anchor Bay released on DVD in 2003, and it runs almost exactly ninety minutes. As Rosenbaum points out, Eisenschitz properly distinguishes between these two as the “first” and the “definitive” versions. (7)
Lightning Over Water was first released in home-video formats, however, by Pacific Arts in 1987. This version too runs very close to ninety minutes, substantially shorter than the version that Rosenbaum saw, or which showed at Cannes. Otherwise, I gathered from what I knew but had not seen, it bears consistencies with accounts of Przygodda’s pre-Wenders cut, though with some significant distinctions. Very few discussions of Lightning Over Water mention both the Wenders cut, availability of which was comparatively constrained until the 2003 DVD release, and the Pacific Arts release on videotape and Laserdisc accessible to scholars, instructors, and commentators from 1987 in video stores or libraries. In 1989 Rosenbaum referred to the earlier release, but only briefly. (8) In their 1993 book on Wenders’s films, Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken refer without detail to differences between the film that they evidently viewed and the “printed cutting continuity” on the one hand and “the American videotape version” on the other. (9) Also in a note, in her 1995 book Narrative Mortality Catherine Russell explained, “Pacific Arts Video has unfortunately released the first version as Lightning Over Water.” (10) Though she does not and may not have been able to explain the triply misbegotten circumstances, “unfortunately” is a particularly well-chosen word.
Hammett had distracted Wenders from the editing, as had his new marriage to musician and actor Ronee Blakley, but he viewed the Ray film a few days before he and it were to travel to Cannes and decided in the hours left to him to recut a reel that he particularly disliked. Movielab printed Przygodda’s version, with Wenders’s amended reel, and that print showed at Cannes. Then after withdrawing it, over three months in Los Angeles and New York Wenders and Sievernich made adjustments to the whole film. “We did it all ourselves,” Wenders told Eisenschitz. “I had never physically edited before. Chris had training as an assistant editor.”(11) This yielded a shorter version, to which Wenders provided his own voice-over commentary. When distributor Gray City, Inc., a partnership of Wenders and Sievernich, later licensed Wenders’s films to Pacific Arts, Movielab sent out a print labelled Lightning Over Water. Unused, unlike the distribution copies it had no signs of wear. Unfortunately it was Przygodda’s version, unfortunately no one checked that it was Wenders’s as intended, and both unfortunately and mysteriously it went out for video mastering missing the penultimate reel, either Przygodda’s or Wenders’s cut of it. (12)
In the historical account, then, we are left with Przygodda’s version, likely the one that Rosenbaum saw, and Przygodda’s version with one amended reel, which showed at Cannes. Gray City’s prints were destroyed, so perhaps neither is extant. Of the two video versions that can be seen, the Pacific Arts version is Przygodda’s, or at least 5/6 of it, and the Anchor Bay edition is Wenders’s final cut, definitive, as Eisenschitz puts it.
A troubling and contested film, Lightning Over Water revolves around Ray’s death. He and Wenders effectively play themselves in a nominal story and a reflexive documentary account that incorporates the recording of Ray’s decline by the crew buzzing around the SoHo loft where most of the action occurs. According to the story, a superimposed title informs us, on 8 April 1979 Wenders arrives in New York to start this film, though production started with Ray’s personal appearance accompanying a screening of his 1952 rodeo classic for RKO. He tells the college audience, “We are starting this film of ours with about the same amount of headstart that we had on The Lusty Men,” which is to say, evidently not much. Ray and Wenders talk about the story, which Ray apparently first conceives as a fiction with him as a dying character much like the self-forging painter he played in The American Friend, but Wenders argues, “It’s you, Nick. Why take the step away?” Ray, Wenders, and others in the loft later screen We Can’t Go Home Again, the project Ray and his class had started in Binghamton, New York, some eight years before, playing versions of themselves, and which he asserts he is trying again to pull together, with former student Tom’s help. Feeling unwell, Ray is taken to hospital, and Wenders has to go to California. When he returns to New York, he finds Ray healthy enough to be directing an acting workshop, a solo performance by Gerry Bamman of Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy.” Sometime after Ray’s death on 16 June 1979, the crew gathers for a wake on a Chinese junk sailing in New York harbour. They and Wenders are below and Ray’s wife Susan is above, as is the urn containing Ray’s ashes.
These are some of the events that comprise the action of Lightning Over Water. As the first two suggest, in the manner of conventional narrative filmmaking it purports to relate a chronological account stitched together from scenes shot in a different order. Not only did Wenders with stylistic self-awareness direct his early-morning arrival to echo the opening of The American Friend, where Dennis Hopper’s Ripley steps out of a cab on the same SoHo street and climbs the same stairs to pay a visit to Ray’s character, an art forger. If the Lusty Men screening was the first scene to be shot, then the opening sequences, in which Wenders arrives and after Ray wakes they agree to work together (Ray: “Wim. We ought to make a film together.” Wenders: “I start today if you will.”) must of course have been shot later. Reflexive disclosure of such necessary discrepancies quickly forms part of the film’s overall strategy. Within moments Ray and Wenders repeat their lines, and video footage provides alternative views revealing crew members at work and filling the space behind the movie camera, an alternation that continues throughout Lightning Over Water. The Pacific Arts and definitive versions share these basic events and this structural design, intercutting higher resolution, artfully lit, and carefully controlled images made on motion-picture film stock and muddier, often shakier, and informally composed images and sounds recorded on videotape.
They contain other significant variations of degree and emphasis, however. In the theme song that runs over the opening titles, for instance, Ronee Blakley’s lyrics differ markedly. In the earlier version her opening recitative, omitted from the later, is on the nose, referring directly to the situation and the film: “Riding uptown to see Nick/ Play gin/ Help him/ Where does my love lie?/ … Nick on junk/ Blowing out to sea/ To sea/ On the Hudson/ … Honk! Honk! To the hospital/ ….” In another song sequence deleted on revision, Blakley’s lament “Texas” accompanies Wenders as he leaves New York, called back to California, before returning later in April to find Ray overseeing the Kafka adaptation. When at that point Blakley enters the auditorium with Wenders and they sit several rows behind and above Ray, in Przygodda’s cut Ray finds them almost immediately as he looks back wordlessly smiling. Wenders shows Ray more clearly back at work, engaged with directing actor Bamman, before he discovers them, calling, “Hi, Wim! Hey, Ronee!” In both versions she asks, “Hi, Nick, how you doin’?” In Wenders’s cut, Ray answers, as if in one of his 1950s Hollywood movies, “All right. Gee, it’s nice to see you,” replacing the earlier version’s response by vestigial hedonist Nick Ray, “Let’s go out and get crazy.” She asks, laughing, “When?” “Right now,” he says, adding, “Anything that’s better.” “Better than what?” asks Wenders, prompting Ray’s mordant, “Right now.”
Przygodda included more of Bamman’s performance as a lecturer to an academic assembly who describes and enacts his former life as an ape of the Gold Coast. The first version patches together extended moments of the actor not only orating, but also whooping and snerfing half-naked as he reverts to his status as non-human ape. Wenders instead concentrated on the articulate primate, though ending Bamman’s scene on the character furiously clutching the rungs of a stepladder representing, as he puts it, “my—a cage,” without a “way out.” “I do not use the word ‘freedom,” deliberately, he adds. “No, freedom was not what I wanted, but a way out … out … out … out… out … OUT!” With a cut to a post mortem flash forward of the Chinese junk floating in the harbour with a Moviola on deck, film stock flying in the wind, before returning to the auditorium and applause for the Kafka scene, the link between the two trapped animals facing mortality is evident.
In the first version, the Kafka scene instead ends as a rehearsal in progress when, before Bamman starts the scene again, Blakley takes the stage to introduce the “report from a distinguished member of the human community.” Referring to his and unmistakably Ray’s “struggle,” she also foreshadows a scene in which she plays a prominent role, which the Pacific Arts version lacks. Ray lies in a hospital bed, surrounded by sheer white curtains that might suggest a ward but which also lend the setting abstraction and the impression of a dream that the sequence gains as it plays out. Wenders’s wife Blakley and Ray act out a riff on King Lear as Wenders and Ray’s wife Susan look on, in separate shots with mirroring eyelines. Reversing roles, a cut places Wenders in the bed, just waking, and Ray in a chair nearby. Implicitly the director’s chair, it also perhaps connotes a confessional. Cachectic but clad in the eyepatch that recalls his more vigorous but still wounded past, in an unbroken five minutes he rallies rage about his frailty and his mortality. As the scene ends, Ray calls “cut,” undermined by Wenders, who tells him to cut and then instructs, “Don’t cut.”
Included in the definitive version, its absence in the Pacific Arts edition might have suggested that for some reason it was deliberately excluded. The Cannes and the Pacific Arts versions differ by some twenty-six minutes, however, about the length of a 35mm projection reel. A changeover mark just a few seconds before the end of the “Report to an Academy” sequence where Ray appears to have revived and the start of an epilogue after his death—a space where we might justifiably expect to find Ray’s last living appearance—suggests the solution and the gap left by the missing reel.
To have dropped an extended scene that included Ray—and Ray at his most resolute—would have been tendentious at best. Kolker and Beicken appear to infer that to be the case, crediting Wenders with “removing, finally, [the film’s] most excruciating sequences,” meaning the Lear scene. (Strangely, however, this also implies the Pacific Arts videotape to be the surviving director’s final cut, rather than Przygodda’s.) (13) Jonathan Cott’s notes accompanying the first, longer version mention “the concluding father-daughter conversation (between Ray and Ronee Blakley).”(14) The sequence echoes another dream contained in the variant versions, Wenders laying in the hospital bed while Tom shoots video, concluding with Tom asphyxiating his fellow figurative son. As Cott points out, however, it also mirrors a moment deleted for the definitive cut, a conversation between Wenders and Ray’s wife, even more fraught a competition. At Ray’s request, Susan takes over his part in a game of backgammon and a conversation with Wenders:
Wenders: “What did Nick ask me to come here for?”
Susan: “He’s gathering his family around him.”
Wenders: “I’m not his son.”
Susan: “Are you sure?”
Wenders: “No, I’m not sure about it. Still I’m not his son.”
Susan: “Well then, why did you come?”
Wenders: “He asked me to. I thought it was right.”
Susan: “You also came for yourself.”
Wenders: “Oh, yeah.”
Susan: “I don’t think the kind of thing that’s taking place … here takes place except between people who are very closely related. And blood has not very much to do with it.”
Wenders: “Are we closely related?”
Susan: “You and me? Well, we spar as if we are. I don’t know about that. After two years we can finally say hello. What took so long?”
Wenders then wordlessly steps away, out onto the fire escape, and faces away from Susan, and the camera moves back to rest on her.
Two persistent stylistic features distinguish the earlier Pacific Arts version from Wenders’s later one. The main titles in both run over shots of the junk drifting in the harbour, shot from a helicopter high above. (“The closer I get to my ending, the closer I am getting to rewriting my beginning,” says Ray to his college audience, and the allusion to Ray’s Hollywood beginning and the bold aerial shots of They Live By Night (1948) bears that out.) Wenders’s cut suggests Ray’s ending, finishing on the cremation urn as the boat’s riggings creak after the theme song fades. Przygodda takes the action below deck, introducing the wake early in the film and returning throughout to the crew members as they work through their memories, tales, and feelings. Following the early implication of the film’s destination in Ray’s death and the time after, Wenders showed the crew members at work but contained their post mortem to an epilogue after Ray, in the Lear scene, finally calls, “Cut.”
Wenders also introduced a sporadic voice-over commentary “in film noir mood,” as he characterised it, suggesting Ray’s contributions to that Hollywood cycle, They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place (1950), and On Dangerous Ground (1951), despite their lack of that fatalistic noir convention. (15) (By coincidence, this also recalls a more recent project, when in the continual revising of We Can’t Go Home Again Ray replaced a voice-over by Tom Farrell with his own.) As the Yellow Cab lets him out, Wenders relates, “The night flight from Los Angeles brought me into New York on a cool and clear day. It was still early in the morning, when I arrived in SoHo on the corner of Spring Street and West Broadway. I had been given two weeks off from the preproduction work on my next film. I was here to see Nick.” Except perhaps for the exact intersection and the length of his furlough, all these details are pretty self-evident, such was Wenders’s skill. He had earlier commended Przygodda, “He had the images tell their own truth, courageously. Every film has to explain itself, but this one maybe moreso than others.” (16) He came to think it needed explaining, and in the process he changed an artistic decision that had produced what he had once addressed as courage. His commentary afterward is only occasional, but it fills in his whereabouts—telling the viewer that he had to return to California, for instance—and interprets his observations. “What mattered was what the film was doing to our friendship.” Both Przygodda’s approach, using the wake as a motif, and Wenders’s adoption of voice-over invoked memory and cast the film as retrospective. Wenders’s device ensured that the memories were Wenders’s.
Elaborating on his need to revise the film, Wenders remembered, “We had gone so far, Nick and I, in our daily struggles, and I hadn’t followed through to the bitter end.” (17) In a scenario with a weakened and obviously dying man at its centre—as the reason for the project’s being—doubts, remorse, second-guessing, and self-interrogation arise for the characters. By all accounts, Ray wanted to die working. As Susan Ray has said, admitting that Ray’s physical state made difficult knowing how he might feel at any specific moment, the shooting of Lightning Over Water exemplified contradictions that characterised him: “I think he wanted to quit all along and I think he wanted to keep going all along. There was no way to tell which he felt most, both were very much a part of him.” (18) While the project as it evolved might not have been to his satisfaction, taking it on and seeing it through to his end was.
An irony remains. Wenders tried to complete Nick’s Movie or Lightning Over Water and produced more than one motion picture in the outcome. The other project that competed for his attention met a similar fate when Zoetrope suspended Hammett ten weeks into an eleven-week shooting schedule because of persistently insoluble script problems. Again Wenders and an American friend differed, though he commented, diplomatically, “Francis has been much more of a colleague than a producer.” After firing Wenders, unusually enough, Coppola enticed him to return and authorised him to shoot most of the movie again, but differently, in order to produce a final version, also like Lightning Over Water released to confusion and little acclaim or audience interest. (19) Mortality of course determined that Wenders could not remake his collaboration with Nicholas Ray or reshoot scenes with his protagonist. In both instances, however, he endeavoured to make Wim’s movie.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Global Discoveries on DVD: Sometimes (Matters Arising),” Cinema Scope 51 (Summer 2012): 64.
- Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. Trans. Tom Milne. London: Faber, 1993,472–89.
- See, for example, Tom Farrell, Jon Jost, and Richard Combs, “Nicholas Ray: The Last Movies,” Sight and Sound 50, no. 2 (Spring 1981): 92–97; Patrick Bensard, “Entretien avec Susan Ray,” Caméra/Stylo 1 (Spring 1981): 87–93.
- Jonathan Cott, “Lightning Over Water (‘Nick’s Movie’),” May 1980, in Blaine Allan, Nicholas Ray: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, 134–35.
- Wim Wenders and Chris Sievernich, Nick’s Film/Lightning Over Water. Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 1981.
- Wim Wenders, Notes on Lightning Over Water, 5 May 1980, in Allan, 136.
- Eisenschitz, 569.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Cult of Personality (Let’s Get Lost), Chicago Reader, 21 July 1989, http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=7537
- Robert Phillip Kolker and Peter Beicken, The Films of Wim Wenders: Cinema as Vision and Desire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 91.
- Catherine Russell, Narrative Mortality: Death, Closure, and New Wave Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, 236.
- Eisenschitz, 491.
- I am very grateful to Lilyan Sievernich, who answered questions and provided details in e-mail correspondence, August 2012.
- Kolker and Beicken, 91.
- Cott, in Allan, 135.
- Eisenschitz, 491.
- Wenders, in Allan, 136.
- Eisenschitz, 490–91.
- Eisenschitz, 484.
- Michael Goodwin and Naomi Wise, On the Edge: The Life and Times of Francis Coppola. New York: Wm. Morrow, 1989, 290 and 293–94, 324–25, 346–47, 367; Tim Hunter, “The Making of Hammett: How Two Directors, Three and a Half Writers, Several Studio Executives and Francis Ford Coppola Took Five Years to Make 90 Percent of What May Be a Very Good Movie,” New West 5, no. 19 (22 September 1980), cited in Jon Lewis, Whom God Wishes To Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997, 84–89.