A restored version of director Nicholas Ray’s “We Can’t… (Oscilloscope )
Nicholas Ray was a countercultural figure before the fact, a 1960s maverick in 1950s Hollywood. He was also a prime exhibit in the midcentury school of auteurist film criticism, which emphasized and embraced the personal signatures of directors working within an industrial system.
Writing in Cahiers du Cinema a few years before making his own directorial debut, Jean-Luc Godard declared that he found in Ray's work the very essence of the medium: "Le cinema, c'est Nicholas Ray."
It's not hard to see why Ray's films — intense, volatile, verging on pop-art brashness in their stylization — would speak so strongly to the up-and-coming iconoclasts of the French New Wave. The most obvious through-line in Ray's work is his palpable sympathy for the young and the troubled.
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He began his career with "They Live By Night" (1948), a tender, tragic story of teenage lovers on the run, and for many his best-known work remains the angsty-young-man classic "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), starring an iconically red-jacketed James Dean.
Ray thrived within the establishment by subverting it but eventually became a casualty of the system (and of his own addictions). He ended his career with a long period in the wilderness and an improbable teaching stint in upstate New York, which resulted in his final film, "We Can't Go Home Again."
Famously unfinished — he was tweaking it when he died in 1979 — it showed as a work-in-progress several times over the years (including at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973). Now Ray's widow, Susan, has overseen a restored and reconstructed version, which has been making the festival rounds since last year and has just been issued on DVD in a two-disc edition from Oscilloscope.
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Ray suffered a much-publicized collapse on the set of 1963's big-budget "55 Days at Peking," which turned out to be his last Hollywood film. Unemployable for years, he finally accepted a job at the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1971, where he promptly devised for his undergraduates a hands-on pedagogical experiment: He got them to make a movie, using their own lives as raw material.
As the first-person plural of the title suggests, "We Can't Go Home Again" is a collective effort, although hardly a cohesive one. The students made up the cast and crew, alternating tasks so they could experience various aspects of production. To some extent all are playing themselves, as is the eye-patched, grizzled Ray.
The film takes shape as a vivid mess of conflicting impulses — the students struggling to give voice to their agonized confusion, a great filmmaker willing into existence something resembling a final testament. In the spirit of the times, the whole thing is premised on the inseparability of art and politics and life.
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Shot in multiple formats, with some images distorted by a video synthesizer, the film unfolds in a fragmentary tumult. In his quest to "destroy the rectangle" Ray projected several images simultaneously onto a backdrop, and refilmed the slapdash mosaic to create a primitive split-screen effect. Alongside the footage he and his students shot are clips from the Chicago Democratic Convention protests and the Attica prison riot. As with the most fascinating films of the '70s, the implicit subject is the end of the '60s.
Ray said his ambition was to fashion from humble means a searing vision akin to Picasso's "Guernica." That isn't quite how it turned out, but at its most pungent "We Can't Go Home Again" transcends mere time-capsule fascination. There are stretches of tedious improvised acting-out but also moments of raw psychodramatic power, most notably a harrowing scene in which one distraught student, Tom Farrell, shaves off his beard while prompted and directed by an off-screen Ray.
The DVD also includes Susan Ray's new documentary "Don't Expect too Much," which combines behind-the-scenes footage and present-day remembrances. The testimonials of Ray's onetime students are mostly fond, but in recapping the final years of the director's life and the project that consumed it, "Don't Expect too Much" (as befits its title) stops well short of hagiography.
In her documentary Susan calls her late husband "a gambler who often lost." The Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice, a longtime admirer, describes "We Can't Go Home Again" as a failed film but one that is "exemplary in its failure."
Scattershot and often awkward, "We Can't Go Home Again" barely resembles the poised, charged entertainments of Ray's prime. But it is also a fitting capstone for this textbook auteur, bringing together many of his familiar themes and putting front and center the ambivalence he smuggled into his Hollywood films.
Writing himself into the story, Ray dramatizes the central dynamic of his movies: his affection and empathy for young outsiders.
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