Before filmmaker Nicholas Ray passed away he worked on an experimental film made alongside a bunch of film students at SUNY where they lived in a sort of 'filmmaker's commune.' The results of this film turned into We Can't Go Home Again and the results are about as far removed from the director's seminal Rebel Without A Cause as you could imagine. No stranger to experimenting with the medium (Ray did, after all, direct Johnny Guitar), the film now sees a special edition DVD release courtesy of Oscilloscope Labs.
So what's this all about? That's a good question. The ninety-three minute long film was made in that aforementioned commune, and basically Ray had his students film him and themselves, while he too filmed them, occasionally appearing on camera himself wearing an eye patch. A nude woman wanders around leaving little to the imagination and actor Tom Farrell shaves off his beard and throughout all of this seemingly random bits of lunacy, we get some very minor plot points involving two people falling in love while Ray ponders hanging himself, lamenting the fact that despite his experience directing westerns he doesn't know how to tie a noose.
On a visual level, the film is interesting - Ray uses split screens a lot here, throwing in various images from different angles and playing with color seemingly as he sees fit and without much need for justification. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
The whole thing makes very little sense, you definitely get the idea that a lot of this is weird for the sake of weird and that the intent was to create, rather than to be coherent. Which is all well and good - this was intended as a student film, so why not experiment a little bit? The pictures turns out to be pretty obtuse, hard to wrap your head around, but also fairly fascinating in its own bizarre way. Ray was not in the best of situations when this was made, he hadn't worked in Hollywood in some time and was teaching because he needed to do something with his life and probably needed the money. Occasionally though, his heart seems in it and this collage of styles and themes and ideas does impress. By using footage of the Democratic National Convention of 1968, riots, and Black Panther's he seems to be at least trying to channel some of the anger that came out of the era but given that this material was culled from Ray's own archives (having shot it upon his return to the United States in hopes of using it in a documentary), it may have just been an excuse to use it after it sat in a film canister for a few years. What the movie seems to be trying to document is the making of the movie, taking things in a bizarre circular direction but it's too out there and tough to get your head around to really work that way. Where the film does succeed is in showcasing the unusual student/teacher relationship that Ray had with his students. It's hard to say for sure how much of this is being put on for the cameras but he's almost lauded as more of a priestly type, one worth confessing your sins and desires to, rather than a typical university professor.
Covering and attempting to explain all of this is the co-feature, the seventy minute Don't Expect Too Much, a documentary made by his widow, Susan Ray, follows the director as he leaves Europe to head back to the United States after leaving 55 Days In Peking, a film he quit after arguing with the cast and the producer and really his last stab at doing something for a major studio. As the sixties turn into the era of social change, Ray is intrigued by what he sees happening with the youth movement around him and eventually lands his teaching spot at SUNY thanks to a referral from Dennis Hopper.
At this point in his life, Ray was battling some substance abuse issues and very early on struggled to connect to a group of students forty years younger than himself, but seemingly not for lack of trying. This is something that Susan Ray, who was a good four decades younger than her husband, picks up on and which becomes part of the focus of her documentary. A lot of interviews with the students who worked on the film with Ray are included here and are quite interesting as they offer some firsthand insight into what it was like working with the infamous director at this point in his long and storied career. The interviews are bitter sweet, you get the impression that the students definitely knew he had fallen on hard times at this point and that they were looking as their opportunity to work with him as a chance to further their own careers, but they often (though certainly not always) speak of him with genuine affection.
As Ray's teaching career bottoms out, his students eventually more or less abandon him but not before there's one screening at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival where the various formats were projected onto a screen and then filmed on 35mm for theatrical projection. It did horribly but Ray kept working on the picture until he died in 1979. Don't Expect Too Much offers up, aside from the interviews with the students, a load of behind the scenes footage as well as interviews with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch among others. In a lot of ways, the documentary is the one that should be top billed here - it's quite well put together and frequently very fascinating. At the very least, watch this before We Can't Go Home Again, as in doing so you'll definitely get a lot more out of it.
The feature was shot on a mix of 8mm, 16mm film and video and was made on a miniscule budget and not always under the most ideal of circumstances but for the most part, the restored version of We Can't Go Home Again looks pretty good for what it is. The image is gritty and grainy but for the most part fairly clean in that there isn't a ton of print damage and the elements used must have been in reasonably good shape to start with. Detail is as good as can reasonably be expected and the image is stable throughout showing no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement resulting in a pretty 'true to film' looking picture.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack, which comes with optional English subtitles, is a bit rough in spots but for the most part is reasonably well balanced. Some audible defects pop up from time to time, but you get the impression this is just part and parcel with the source material and the way in which the audio for the movie was put together in the first place.
The extras start off with some extended interviews with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and biographer Bernard Eisenschnitz that were originally shot for use in Don't Expect Too Much. Jarmusch talks about his time working as Ray's assistant in his younger days while Eisenschnitz discusses Ray's technique - both are quite interesting and worth watching. Also of interest is the inclusion of a CBS special entitled Camera Three: A Profile Of Nicholas Ray in which the filmmaker is interviewed by Cliff Jahr for half an hour, providing some introspection into the director's body of work in his own words. A short film entitled Marco that Ray made in 1977 is included here but only as rushes, along with some cast and crew interviews, more specifically Claudio Mazzatenta and Gerry Bamman. It's a fairly impenetrable bit about some sort of infant death and some trying to solve it. Also look for another oddball short, The Janitor, originally included in an anthology film from 1974 called Wet Dreams. Here Ray plays a janitor who is in charge of cleaning up a movie theater... sort of. It's an odd short involving preachers and sermons and double entendres and its' all quite interesting and bizarre.
Some classy animated menus and chapter selection are also found on the DVD. Susan Ray, Serge Daney, and Bill Krohn Inside the packaging is a booklet of liner notes from Susan Ray, Serge Daney, and Bill Krohn that shed some light on the work included in this set as well as how it was all put together.
Oscilloscope Labs have done an excellent job bringing a legitimately rare cinematic oddity to DVD with a fantastic co-headliner that actually goes a long way towards making sense out of one of Ray's last works. On top of that, the material is presented in surprisingly good shape and we get a few more odds and ends sure to be of interest to those who appreciate the director's work. Certainly a not a release with a load of mainstream appeal, this is nevertheless recommended for those intrigued by the subject matter.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.