Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 20, 2011 3:50 am 
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Shattered mirrors

It's for the experts, notably among them Jonathan Rosenbaum, to describe the relationship between this film by Nicholas Ray and his State University of New York at Binghamton students, and his wife, and its other versions and another film or other films that relate to it or grow out of it. The consensus is that the orginal We Can't Go Home Again was "finished" in 1972, and shown at the Cannes Festival in 1973. But it wasn't satisfactory, and it wasn't shown under satisfactory conditions, being screened at the end of the festival when everyone was too tired to take it in. There have been various versions since. This current new version, carried out under the supervision of Ray's widow (and fourth wife) Susan and completed this year under the auspices of the Nicholas Ray Foundation, The EYE Institute of the Netherlands, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive, adds new voiceover material provided by Ray himself replacing a student's voiceover, and there are other improrovements, notably a ditigalizing of the images.

We Can't Go Home Again is by and about NIcholas Ray and his film students in New York State at that time in the early Seventies, and all the things that were going on in their minds and in their lives at that moment, including their love affairs; the state of mind and professorial voice of Ray over ten years after he stopped making movies in Hollywood; the Vietnam War; the Siege of Chicago; the dynamics of a film class focused on making a film; and so forth.

To do justice to all this complexity, Ray and his collaborators use an interesting, alternately separate and overlapping, multiple screen technique. It's not at all a aslick, symmetrical split-image setup, but something more complex, sui generis, and expressive. The whole screen sometimes is used as a framework showing the Binghamton campus, with the various films the students shot set, small, a little to one side, within that big frame. Sometimes there are several or multiple frames in the big frame. Sometimes the film takes over the whole screen like a conventional motion picture. And the frames within the frame are of different formats. There are also different sound tracks that overlap while different frames are unreeling on parts of the big screen.

I liked this. It seemed a good way of capturing the effect of a chaotic collaborative effort. Ray himself dominates, along with several of the students, such as Leslie and Richard, a twenty-something couple who are both students in Ray's class. Ray is always puffing on a cigarette, usually wearing a black eye patch (though sometimes not, and once he's asked why and he says, in effect, that it just gets too damp and icky sometimes), and he's also seen wearing a red jacket.

Ray is wearing the red jacket, which Jonathan Rosenbaum says "inevitably recalls James Dean’s in Rebel [without a Cause]," in a long sequence out by a barn, where he goes aloft with a rope, aiming to hang himself, and in the course of botching the job, uttering the immortal line, ”I made 10 goddam Westerns and I can’t even tie a noose!" Ray doesn't die. He lived on to die of lung cancer in New York City in 1979.

It is essential to We Can't Go Home Again that it should be a mess and that it should have no definitive version. It's a monument to Ray's final years and to the sprirt of the early-to-mid Seventies. Ray had drug and alcohol problems; he later joined AA. He used drugs with his Binghamton students (it was the Seventies). The style of We Can't Go Home Again is very Seventies and very druggy. The film is also a remarkable expression of an intimate collaboration -- no doubt in a sense much too intimate -- between an arts teacher and his passionate young students, who challenge him in this film but also love him.

In his August 2011 discussion of this film on his blog, Jonathan Rosenbaum sums up We Can't Go Home Again using a comparison drawn from what for me is Ray's most haunting, and drug-trance-like, Hollywood film: "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."

This restored version of Nicholas Ray's collaborative We Can't Go Home Again (1972/2011) was premiered at Venice and also included as a sidebar item of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center in 2011. It was screened at Lincoln Center for this review, with a Q&A including Susan Ray.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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