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Nicholas Ray's 100th Birthday - Spotlight
Remind Me

Don't Expect Too Much (2011)

If We Can't Go Home Again remains the most difficult to assess of Nicholas Ray's films, that's partly just because it has long been the least accessible. Shot mainly over a two-year period in collaboration with Ray's filmmaking students at Harpur College (the State University of New York, Binghamton), We Can't Go Home Again has existed in two forms: a version prepared for screening at the 1973 Cannes film festival, and a 1976 recut version made in the hope of attracting completion money. Until almost the end of his life, Ray continued to work on the editing, as can be seen in Wim Wenders's Lightning Over Water (1980), which shows the cancer-stricken Ray in his final months. Low-grade video copies of We Can't Go Home Again have circulated among collectors and on the internet, the poor image quality heightening the puzzlement felt by many viewers on encountering this late and most experimental work by the director of They Live by Night (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), and Bigger than Life (1956).

Even in the new restoration that premiered at Venice in September 2011, based on the 1973 version and supervised by Susan Ray, Ray's widow, We Can't Go Home Again can only be considered a film "in progress." The use of concurrent multiple images requires every viewer to mentally edit his or her own version of the film at each viewing. The structure of the film is inherently volatile: there is no stable version of the film, and no fixed point from which to see it. In this, the film remains inextricably tied to its production conditions and to its historical time and place. Ray intended We Can't Go Home Again as a document of the transition in the USA from the politicized radicalism of the late Sixties to the entrenchment of the early Seventies (the same transition covered by Robert Kramer and John Douglas's great Milestones [1975]). Ray described the project as "an observation of the reaction young people have had to that period of direct confrontation, to the period of withdrawal [and] search for self-image..."

Ray also wanted it to be a learning opportunity for his students (all of whom were required to fulfill in turn various roles: actor, cameraperson, sound person, editor...) and an adventure in self-discovery and self-revelation, for himself as much as for them. Though the process of making the film was collaborative, with students contributing material from their own experiences to the screenplay, which changed from day to day, Ray played the central character - a former Hollywood director who comes to a northeastern college to teach filmmaking - and assumed the central function of director. The result is a film that in its turbulent rhythms and editing patterns, in its themes of sacrifice and intergenerational betrayal, and in its mood of restlessness and dissatisfaction stands as a major Ray work. Its title not only refers to Thomas Wolfe but points to a classic scene in Ray's The Lusty Men (1952) and to the constant strain of hopeless nostalgia in Ray's films, while the climactic sequence, in which two lovers come to the aid of a possibly suicidal friend, reprises the climax of Rebel without a Cause (1955).

Susan Ray, who, as Ray's partner, lived with We Can't Go Home Again from its inception through Ray's lengthy attempts to finish it, has provided the ideal introduction to the ambitions, accomplishments, and contradictions of the film in her documentary Don't Expect Too Much (2011). Integrating talking-head testimony from people who participated in We Can't Go Home Again as Ray's students, Don't Expect Too Much also makes extensive use of footage from We Can't Go Home Again and film and audio documentation of Ray during his time at Harpur College. Susan Ray's voice-over narration ties together the disparate materials in a manner that is sympathetic, entertaining, and deliberately loose. The editing of this documentary captures the complexity of the Harpur project, with the participants often appearing as silent and intense reactors to other people and other images, while faces, forms, ideas, attitudes, and intensities approach one another and split apart in unpredictable ways. Refusing to impose a dominant point of view - either her own or Nicholas Ray's - on the emotions of the participants and the messiness of the original footage, Susan Ray has made a documentary that not only respects its subject but can be thought of as a logical continuation of the earlier film.

Don't Expect Too Much - the title was one of the working titles of the Harpur College film - explores the contradictions in Nicholas Ray's character, together with the extent to which We Can't Go Home Again was an effort to break through the conventional boundaries of the teacher/student relationship, of the film frame, and between actor and character, actor and filmmaker, and actor and audience. As Don't Expect Too Much shows, the project became a manifesto of Ray's views on filmmaking and acting. In his valorization of the theory of "action" and his insistence on placing the actor (or the actor's relationship with the director) at the center of the filmmaking process, Ray can be seen as carrying on the essence of a theatrical practice that he inherited from Stanislavski and Vakhtangov. He was willing to keep the crew waiting for hours for him to be satisfied that the actors were ready with their actions. "If you don't have content within that goddamn camera, and all you have is composition, you have nothing," Ray told them (echoing something he had said in an interview with Cahiers du cinéma back in the days when he was a top commercial director). As one of the students recalls, "His mantra was, the camera is there to service the actor." Dressing down a grip for asking actor Tom Farrell to move his face so that the light would hit it better, Ray said, "We use the instrument to make music. We do not use the music to show off the instrument."

Susan Ray could have found any number of luminaries from filmmaking, film criticism, and film scholarship to testify to Nicholas Ray's importance, but wisely she refrains from introducing many voices from outside the concentrated and intense experience of We Can't Go Home Again. Prominent among those who comment on Ray from such an outside perspective is director Jim Jarmusch, who offers some revealing anecdotes of his relationship with Ray (which dated from a few years after the Harpur College adventure, when Ray was teaching at NYU). Victor Erice, another great director interviewed for this documentary, offers the definitive comment on We Can't Go Home Again: "The film captures the fleeting breath of a utopian experience: when life as a community undertaking and cinema as a collective creation are one."

Producer/Director/Writer: Susan Ray
Cinematography: Peter McCandless
Film Editing: Tom Haneke
Music: Tim Ray, Norman Zamcheck, Markus de Pretto
Cast: Nicholas Ray, Jim Jarmusch, Tom Farrell, Leslie Wynne Levinson, Richard Bock, Charles Bornstein, Jim Jarmusch, Susan Ray (narrator).

by Chris Fujiwara


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