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In August of 1971, Nicholas Ray moved to Binghamton, New York, to take a two-year post with Binghamton University's Harpur College as a visiting professor in their film department. "You can only learn film-making by making films," was Ray's mantra, and he put it into practice. He drafted all three classes to become his crew, cast and collaborators: forty-five students rotating through the various production roles (camera operator, sound recorder, editor, electrician, script supervisor, etc...) to learn hands-on filmmaking with Ray as mentor, ringmaster and director. We Can't Go Home Again, first screened in unfinished form at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and famously unfinished until Susan Ray, the director's widow, completed/restored/reconstructed the film in 2011, made its official re-premiere at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, almost forty years later. (The restoration was in collaboration with EYE Institute Netherlands and The Academy Film Archive and with the support of numerous film foundations and archives).
Begun under the working title "A Gun Under My Pillow" (a reference to Sal Mineo's character in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), the film was embarked upon with the spirit of collaboration and experimentation. Ray had not completed a film since 55 Days at Peking in 1963, itself a frustrating experience for the director thanks to interference from the producer. He spent the next decade trying to get new projects off the ground, with a break hanging out with Dennis Hopper on his radical The Last Movie (1971). He even started shooting a film about the trial of the Chicago Eight with the defendants playing themselves, grabbing footage of events outside the courtroom along the way. Some of that footage, along with other documentary slices of America's volatile political culture, found its way into this new production. The rest was concocted and created by Ray and the students.
Ray himself narrates and stars as a version of himself: the director of Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night (1949) who comes to the liberal arts college to teach filmmaking and gets to know his students (overcoming their initial sense of distrust) as they embark on a film inspired by their own ideas and experiences. While making 55 Days at Peking, Ray had a premonition that he would never finish another film. That premonition, as well as premonitions of his death, frames his story. While grappling with the idea of being a teacher and an authority figure ("Don't expect too much," he tells one student, a resigned, ambivalent bit of philosophy where we expected the punchline to a joke), his students' lives and relationships guide their stories. A former seminary student named Tom Farrell became a central character whose initial antagonism turns to camaraderie. Leslie Levinson, a dancer brought into the film by a friend, became another defining character in We Can't Go Home Again, and her startling stories and daring revelations (all inspired by actual events in her life) push the film's content as much as Ray's relentless experimenting pushed the form. The film reflects and confronts the political volatility of the era, looks at sexual freedom and guarded relationships and takes an ambivalent stance toward authority figures.
"It is difficult to distinguish the film from the conditions it was made," wrote Tom Farrell to Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz. They filmed without a script, improvising scenes from ideas worked out between Ray and the students, and shot mostly at night to avoid conflict with other classes. There is a distinct shagginess to the production, as much due to the technical inexperience of the students as to Ray's own disinterest in technical polish. They shot in multiple formats -- 35mm, 16mm and super-8 film as well as video, with some of the footage run through video artist Nam June Paik's video synthesizer to manipulate color and create video effects, with direct sound or no sound at all. Much of the dialogue and sound was added later with little effort to match footage. The film became scuffed and damaged over time.
While screening rushes, Ray hit upon the idea of using multiple projectors and overlapping images on the film screen. That became the aesthetic of the film ("I had dreamed of being able to destroy the rectangular frame," he once said, "I couldn't stand the formality of it). This isn't a traditional, slick split-screen effect with its geometric dazzle, as was so popular in late sixties cinema, but something less precise, more organic, more seemingly spontaneous. Imagine the cinema equivalent to a DJ club mix, with images complementing and contrasting each other and narrative lines overlapping and flowing from one visual stream to another. It may not always be coherent but it was a daring attempt to deconstruct and rebuild cinematic storytelling.
The We Can't Go Home Again production dragged on for three years, with Ray driving his students and himself to exhaustion and wearing the patience of the university with his monopolization of the equipment and resources. The final scenes of the Harpur College shoot were shot with professional equipment (rather than the not-always-reliable college cameras), made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. (Those scenes are identifiable as the only full-screen footage in the film.) But when the film was accepted into Cannes (as a work-in-progress) the race was on to finish editing and create a single 35mm print that incorporated the multiple screens (previous attempts to screen the project via multiple projectors were disastrous). That work in progress, screened on the final afternoon of the festival, was not well received. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in Sight and Sound, the film "may have actually hurried a few critics back to their homes; but it probably shook a few heads loose in the process."
Ray never stopped working on the film. He shot new scenes, continued to re-edit and rerecord dialogue and sound (including his own narration) and reshape the film. In 1976 he screened his revised version (footage of which was seen in Lightning Over Water (1980), Ray's collaboration with Wim Wenders), and that version was the basis of Susan Ray's restoration, which she worked on after Ray's death in 1980. "Ultimately, I was trying to come to a deeper understanding of what Nick had in mind," she told indieWIRE writer Shane Danielson in a 2011 interview. "Because We Can't Go Home Again is emphatically not a finished film. So I was curious to find out what it might have been, had he the opportunity to make it what he wanted." Now completed (as much as it can ever be considered complete) to Ray's intentions, We Can't Go Home Again may not defy Rays' premonition (he was never able to complete the film himself) but it nonetheless stands as the final film from an American master. And for all its shagginess, it is a film that he had far more control over than his final Hollywood projects. His themes inform the fractured narrative, visual mosaic and at times haunting imagery of this unique film.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Tom Farrell, Nicholas Ray, Susan Ray
Cinematography: Richie Bock, Peer Bode, Danny Fisher, Mark Goldstein, Stanley Liu, Steve Maurer
Film Editing: Richie Bock, Charles Bornstein, Tom Farrell, Danny Fisher, Mark Goldstein, Nicholas James, Carol Lenoir
Cast: Richie Bock (Richie), Tom Farrell (Tom Farrell), Danny Fisher (Danny), Jill Gannon (Jill), Jane Heymann (Jane), Leslie Levinson (Leslie), Stanley Liu (Stanley), Luke Oberle (Luke), Nicholas Ray (Nick Ray), Ned Weisman (Ned), Phil Weisman (Phil).
by Sean Axmaker
"Nicholas Ray: An American Journey," Bernard Eisenschitz, Faber and Faber
"I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies," Nicholas Ray, edited by Susan Ray, University of California Press
"The Films of Nicholas Ray," Geoff Andrew, Charles Letts and Co.
"Nicholas Ray Was an Early Adopter: An Interview With Susan Ray on Her Husband's Legacy," Shane Danielsen for indieWIRE, 2011