"I made ten goddamn westerns, and I can't even tie a noose." - Nicholas Ray
Shot around the time of Nixon's re-election, premiered at Cannes in rough form in 1973, and then promptly forgotten, what is ostensibly Nicholas Ray's final full-length motion picture is a strange specimen. Released nearly a decade after the legendary filmmaker's final studio picture, We Can't Go Home Again is a bizarre amalgam of social and artistic commentary, both real and staged, at once artifice and truth. It's hard to say if it's actually any good, or even remotely successful, but it is fascinating. As a work from the man Jean-Luc Godard declared to be cinema itself, it's a formalistic teardown of all that moviemaking was and could be. Cinema is looking in the mirror and is unhappy with what he sees.
Indeed, this is a film that has more in common with Godard's experiments in essay films with Jean-Pierre Goran (note the appearance of the infamous Hanoi Jane newsreel) and self-reflexive explorations like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm than it does with Ray's most revered motion pictures, like Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar. The auteur's state of mind is laid out in the opening narration. The 1960s are over, the bad guys won, and the good guys are in retreat. It is in this climate that Ray stops making movies and takes a position as a teacher in upstate New York, effectively divorcing himself from the "action." His move is representative of the cultural shift, from the group dynamic to more individual (read: selfish) concerns. Throughout We Can't Go Home Again, Ray tries to guide his students--also, his cast--toward something greater, some kind of community, even sending them to the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. All his efforts fail, however, when Nixon wins the Presidency, and the old man must resort to more drastic measures to rally the young troops in his care.
We Can't Go Home Again is a film that is very difficult to describe in any way that really captures what is going on. The movie is set up as a documentary, but it is not. It's also a narrative feature, but then it isn't quite that, either. It toys with conventions of crime movies and also horror movies, but then exposes its own pretense. Ray sets up a fairly rigid style, essentially establishing two primary frames and then setting up other planes of activity within them. There is a static backdrop throughout We Can't Go Home Again, one that changes a handful of times, but the image remains still regardless of what it becomes. The main portion of the film is placed on top of that. Since most of the static images are outdoor scenes, the effect is almost like seeing the screen of a drive-in movie theater, with the world continuing on behind the fiction you are engaging in.
Within this center frame, the actual action unfolds. Sometimes the "events" of the movie take place in a marginalized screen within a screen, sometimes there are up to three screens within the one. Only once does Ray break from all this and provide one full-frame montage, letting a moment of "reality" take over. It's a conversation between Ray and one of his students, both of whom, for all intents and purposes, play themselves. We Can't Go Home Again is a movie that is about Nicholas Ray making a movie while he teaches about making movies. The metafiction doubles back on itself, like a ribbon of frosting being drizzled onto a cake.
Thus, it seems futile to try to organize any thoughts on the movie, though my guess is Ray wants the chaos of We Can't Go Home Again to eventually coalesce as some kind of artistic order in the viewer's mind. I don't think I am quite there yet, so instead of writing a conventional summation, I'm just going to share the bullet points of the notes I jotted down while watching We Can't Go Home Again, and maybe they'll coalesce for you.
If We Can't Go Home Again never quite comes together, that could be because it was never truly finished. This version is billed as a "restoration/reconstruction," and the documentary Don't Expect Too Much has been titled that for a reason. Put together by Susan Ray, Nick's wife, this feature takes the piles of footage shot for We Can't Go Home Again and uses the leftovers to tell the tale of the movie's making, detailing Ray's move from Tinsel Town to a college campus, and the big experiment of enlisting his students to make a movie. There was no plan, they would make it up--and learn--as they went.
Susan Ray compiles this unseen material with new interviews conducted with many of the students, including Stranger Than Paradise director Jim Jarmusch, to recreate how the passion of unbridled creation gave way to fatigue and bruised egos. Eventually, the film floundered due to its lack of focus and Ray's addictions; at the same time, understanding what he was going for and how he wanted to "break the rectangle" and not be beholden to standard film conventions sheds some light on the impulses behind We Can't Go Home Again. It also makes sense that the title was chosen by the students, who had no idea to what degree their ability to turn back was fading. The film crew became a family, and then like most families, quarreled and disintegrated.
Following the Cannes premiere, Ray spent a lot of time chasing money, and then entered into a phase of continuous editing. These days, what he envisioned would be easy. Digital editing tools would allow the frames within frames within frames he desired. All he could do in the 1970s was project the different images simultaneously and try to bring them together. The thread never emerged, he never could pull the ship in the bottle to its full height. In many ways, he was ahead of his time, but in many others, Ray was just out of time.
Don't Expect Too Much is widescreen, 1.78:1. The new footage has the expected crispness of modern video, while the older footage (which naturally is boxed off in the wider frame), is nicely preserved and restored, making a fairly seamless presentation.
On the subject of Ray himself, there is a half-an-hour interview with the man shot for CBS in 1977, around the time of Marco. We also get extended cuts of the interviews with Jim Jarmusch and biographer Bernard Eisenschitz that were filmed for Don't Expect Too Much.
Finally, another short piece by Ray is included, the 1974 episode he directed for the anthology film Wet Dreams. The director himself stars in this as the titular "The Janitor." Totaling 12-minutes, it's a profane and obtuse short about a man who cleans up in a movie theater and his personal proclivities, which include religion and politics in addition to sex. I'm not going to mince words: it's pretty much terrible.