Just uploaded are a pair of documentary reviews that are really two parts of a three-film arc covering Nicholas Ray’s final years, as seen through the eyes by very different filmmakers.
In 1975, David Helpern constructed a doc around Ray as a maverick, back at work again. He visited the set of Ray & his students at the farm they called home after Harpur College wasn’t too crazy about the total immersion design of the film class, causing them to set up shop far away from the school campus and indulge in 'all filmmaking, all the time.'
It was the polar end of the spectrum, in which students & teacher spent too much time together making and remaking scenes for a film with an experimental edge that would never be perfect.
In this behind-the-scenes drama, the teacher struggles to find his place in the world after a substantial phase of his career in Hollywood is long gone, and students become codependent on the icon they have as their teacher, friend, and father figure, while drinking and obsessive working habits are taken beyond the traditional boundaries of a pedagogical elective. As the group approaches the two-year mark, the cracks create ruptures in areas of tolerance and behavioral norms, and petty squabbles – a pet peeve of Ray – becomes common between teacher and student.
It’s a scenario for a fascinating tale, and yet the experience was unique and did inspire some students to pursue careers in the arts. Ray himself went on to sobriety, teach again, and find a new calling; and perhaps internally reckoned feature filmmaking would be, at best, a rare occurrence from then on.
Studios had started to give carte blanche to a new wave of film student wunderkind and mavericks, and the results were The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper), Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino), New York, New York (Martin Scorsese), 1941 (Steven Spielberg), Sorcerer (William Friedkin), and THX 1138 [M] (George Lucas) – not failures per se, but movies that radically underperformed, neglected to reap the high investment to cover their high budgets, or in the case of Heaven’s Gate, help kill a studio.
For Ray, even if he could’ve made a film with studio backing, one suspects there would’ve been plenty of strings attached as even wunderkinds had tested the limits of studio tolerance. While the early seventies produced some of the greatest American films, the late seventies revealed what happens when power goes to anyone’s head – and the making of We Can’t Go Home Again [M] (1976) was a small scale version of a production without boundaries – filming until exhaustion, running on fumes, and repeating the process daily until the more money was raised.
Helpern’s doc, I’m a Stranger Here Myself [M], balances the WCGHA on-set footage with interviews material featuring actress Natalie Wood, producer John Houseman, and director / former critic Francois Truffaut, and it’s a great package that uses contrasts to evoke an artist in transition. The doc was made before Ray edited WCGHA into a rough version for Cannes, and there’s anticipation that perhaps the film Ray was creating would lead to something – a deal, an association, a project, or restore some professional respect.
In his essay “Looking for Nicholas Ray,” writer Jonathan Rosenbaum relates Wim Wenders’ reaction to seeing footage from WCGHA:
“When I first saw We Can’t Go Home Again,” Wim Wenders told me, “Nick showed it to me on an editing table. (Wenders was editing his film The American Friend at the time, in which Ray played the part of an art forger.) “I thought it was pretty revolting. I mean, I was shocked by the amateurish aspect of it, also the sense of destruction that was in there — both together.”
“Since then, I’ve seen it six or seven times,” Wenders went on. “Finally, I got to see a new print — at least the image was new, the sound track was just as lousy as ever — where the image was really brilliant and absolutely mind-blowing. You just have to imagine the sound in order to appreciate it, and you realize just what a great movie is hidden in there. Not even hidden, it’s there — you see it.”
Wenders’ shift perhaps explains the challenge of trying to make sense of an impenetrable work that clearly left a strong impression, and whether he had a change of heart because he was growing close to Ray during the making of Lightning Over Water (1980) or found meaning in the film’s rough structure, it’s a case where perhaps the ambition within an impenetrable work is so impressive, it changes one’s ‘revulsion’ or ‘bafflement’ into respect and adulation.
Wenders and Ray attempted to work a bit of the experimental narrative into Lightning’s otherwise documentary design, but the film was obviously affected by its star’s death, leaving no opportunity for reshoots, and leaving us with a flawed and sometimes frustrating work.
Susan Ray’s Don’t Expect Too Much [M] (2011) is the wrap-up of all three, and it’s a sober (and traditional) narrative on the making of WCGHA, filled with interviews and rare footage to once again provide contrast to a complex director who was putting everything of himself into one project, and searching for a new life purpose after several career hurdles.
According to his widow, Ray had an early interest in applying multi-image filmmaking to projects, but the cost, existing technology, and studio interest just weren't there (or at least for him. One suspects that had Stanley Kubrick wanted to shoot a film in a multiple image design after 2001: A Space Odyssey, MGM or Warner Bros. would’ve opened the vault doors).
Susan Ray stated in the Q&A that followed the WCGHA screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this past Sunday that Ray had shot test footage for a proposed project in Europe, but the footage is long lost (unless it’s sitting in deep storage in a Zagreb laboratory or elsewhere).
The dream to experiment was applied to Ray’s aborted Chicago Conspiracy Trial film (of which some of the footage appears at the beginning of WCGHA), and no doubt he had plans to break more rules had another project surfaced after WCGHA screened in Cannes in 1973.
According to the Nicholas Ray Foundation, to celebrate the director’s centenary, a Collector’s Edition DVD is planned, featuring both the Cannes and later workprint version(s) of WCGHA, plus Susan Ray and David Helpern’s documentaries (the latter of which is currently archived on YouTube). Packed into the proposed set is the short film Marco (1978), and “The Janitor,” Ray’s segment in the 1974 Dutch anthology, Wet Dreams.
In addition to the aforementioned film reviews, I’ve interpolated some brief audio from the WCGHA Q&A, plus a short side interview I did with Susan Ray, regarding Ray’s role as teacher.
One final comment: there is a conundrum with Susan Ray’s doc in that for some, it should be seen prior to WCGHA, and yet to (presumably) be affected the way Nicholas Ray intended, WCGHA ought to be seen with no prior knowledge. While it did seem odd for the TBL to screen the doc prior to WCGHA this past weekend, for myself, it was useful because it placed it in some context without spoiling its plot, its sequences, and its finale.
(This due to an age issue. In 1968, I was falling out of my crib onto the parquet floor at night, and between 1971-1973 I was playing with Hot Wheels autos. I do recall seeing a moon landing on TV, but that's the extent of my vicarious experiences with the era's momentous social turmoil.)
Blathering has now ended. You may now read the reviews.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
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