It’s taken almost four decades to bring you Nick’s last full-length film We Can’t Go Home Again, and not for lack of trying. Why so long? We couldn’t find the funds. We didn’t need much compared to what most movies cost, but we needed more than we could figure out how to raise. No doubt there’s more than one reason for this; but mostly it was because—I’ll say it right off—We Can’t Go Home Again is a “difficult” film. It’s not going to break any records at the box office.
Over the years, some who know more about movies than I ever will told me to give it up, to let the thing stay on the shelf. We Can’t Go Home Again was a mess, not a work for which Nick should be remembered. When he’d made the film, they told me, he’d already slipped a good ways down a steep slope; he wasn’t the artist he’d been.
I wasn’t sure they were right about that, nor was I sure they weren’t. Nor was I a devoted widow tending a flame! Meanwhile, like an infant wailing for air from behind the locked door of a closet, the film kept crying out. It seemed it would not let me be until it was freed. I didn’t consider, is this a good film or a bad film? I just knew it had to breathe.
In 2010, in what I vowed would be the last try, I wrote Marco Muller, then head of the Venice Mostra, to ask if, once again, he would take the film under his wing. Twenty years before, as director of the Rotterdam Film Festival, he and his assistant Sandra den Hamer, had tried to help. (Godard, also in Rotterdam at the time and overhearing me beg from the festival office phone, had slipped me 20 guilder.) Others too had helped as they could, while Nick was alive and after; but it was never enough to get the job done.
So when Marco wrote back that he’d premiere the restored film in honour of Nick’s 100th birthday, and Sandra, now head of EYE Institute Netherlands, agreed to sponsor the restoration, it was as if, after repeatedly running head-on into a brick wall, the wall dissolved in thin air.
Now all that was left to do was to do it. The challenge was this: Both the restoration of We Can’t Go Home Again and a full-length “making of” documentary would have to be finished for Venice. We planned that a multi-disk DVD, website, and teaching film would follow. The project would demand a lot of work in not so much time, far more from me than I could selflessly give. To see it all through as I had committed to do it would have to be about more than preserving things past. It would have to offer something fresh and inspiring to me, as well as to its audience. If possible, I’d have to discover how Nick’s film relates to who we are, where we are, how we are now.
As it turned out, this was not such a hard thing to do.
* * *
We Can’t Go Home Again was shot by Nick and his film students mostly between the fall of 1971 and early 1973 at Harpur College, State University of New York at Binghamton, New York.
Today we know that those years were a turning point for this country, if not for the Western world; and Nick, whose antennae were always probing the ground some decades ahead, knew it then. Through the ‘60s, young people still felt the world was theirs to explore, wrestle with, take responsibility for; that what they did in the world could affect it. The ‘60s saw mass demonstrations; spiritual awakening; the untethering of gender roles and sexual mores; and new forms of artistic expression, from electronic music and video art, to the collages of Robert Rauschenberg and the multiple image of Stan Brakhage, Jean-Luc Godard, and let’s not forget Nick Ray. In the ‘60s, with and without mind-altering drugs, consciousness stretched in every direction.
By 1971, the pendulum had swung to its farthest point in that direction and begun its swing back. Expansion turned to contraction. By then we’d been in Viet Nam for two decades; witnessed the gunning down of three national leaders who had unified and inspired us; witnessed our friends beaten bloody at a festival called a Celebration of Life; and learned that the military-industrial complex held more power over us than those we’d elected to hold it.
The breach between generations that was just cracking open at the time of Rebel Without A Cause (1956) was now gaping. Fathers who’d fought in World War 2 looked with contempt on their sons who refused to fight in Saigon. Sons looked with bewilderment at their fathers who, after bringing them into this world, would send them to senseless battles and death. Young people retreated, defeated, embittered. As Nick observed, the university became “a place of shelter and retirement from confrontation … where people [went] to avoid the world.” (1) When, in the opening scene of We Can’t Go Home Again, Richie tells Nick, his new professor, “We want to do our own thing,” he defines the trajectory of the film and of his (our) generation. Nick observed, “No longer seeing images they could believe in, they searched [for images of] themselves.” (2)
As the film unfolds, we see the character Leslie dance to her reflection in the mirror, and masturbate to her image onscreen. In one scene, she confides to Nick that she’s met up with a pimp, and the pimp knows a john who will pay her “a lot of money” to masturbate while he watches. In another, she sets up two rivals in separate plots to steal the film department cash box. In another she recounts how she asked a drug dealer to give her the clap, and he did. “I could always be a flower but I’m not. I’m always ugly!” she cries.
We see two lovers, Richie and Jill, meet after a summer apart, in masks. Each as Pierrot, each with a single tear fixed in papier maché to the cheek, they embrace mask to mask.
We see Tom peer into the mirror through his one good eye as he shaves off his beard. He shaves so he’ll look less like a hippie and more like everyone else, to make himself less of a target; but, as he tears at the beard with scissors and blade to bare his face for the first time in over a year, we see a being who is, for that moment, skinless, stripped clean of identity, what the Zens may mean by “your face before you were born.”
These are intimate moments. And as eloquently as they speak for the individuals on the screen, they also speak for an entire generation and for the moods, attitudes, and social politics of the time. Watching Tom shave, we see a young man catch the reflection in his glass eye of his fate as an outsider. We also see an entire generation’s impotent surrender to the exigencies of the norm, to the “Approval Matrix,” as a leading magazine now calls it.
“The ‘70s was the decade in which people put emphasis on the skin, on the surface, rather than on the root of things,” wrote Norman Mailer. “It was the decade in which image became preeminent because nothing deeper was going on.” (3) In the character Leslie’s recounting of her plan for a hustle, we observe a young woman desperate to be seen who has found someone willing to pay to watch her. How different is she from those who announce the details of their lives on Facebook and Twitter? Consider this statistic: In our country today, for every one journalist there are four public relations professionals. (4) Is there no link between such a trend and Leslie’s deal with her pimp? In her plot to steal the film department cash box, is her motive so different from the motives of those who almost brought down Wall Street? Nick observed of his crew, “The conformity and achievement syndrome [in them] is very disturbing to me … I think the material gain world has begun to mean everything.” (5)
The young people in We Can’t Go Home Again are now the same age Nick was when they knew him. They—we— are now of the generation in power. To my eyes We Can’t Go Home Again has a lot to tell us about who we were four decades ago and how we came to be who we are now; what choices we made and allowed to be made that helped push our world to its present-day tipping point. It shows us the cusp of an era, the precise moment when, because we weren’t strong enough, wise enough, generous enough to uphold it, the vision of a caring world mutely shattered.
* * * * *
But that’s only the one level of discovery that’s come to me through this film. Another concerns the form of We Can’t Go Home Again, how it looks: as many as five or six smaller images running at once within a 35mm frame; colours extrapolated into garish neons; faces and forms distorted, sometimes beyond recognition. As he described it in a press conference at Cannes, where the film was screened in 1973 as a work in progress, it was an effort “to make what in our minds is a Guernica.” If there was ever a doubt, that tells us Nick’s view on the times. Still, given that the film was never finished, and given his various addictions, I wondered how clear he was in his own mind about how he meant to convey it.
Curiously, sifting through hundreds of hours of archival audio, I found answers in Nick’s own words and voice—for he had a habit of recording his conversations with himself as well as others. Often his remarks satisfied my questions so precisely, it was if he were speaking to me from the grave.
* * *
First some history: Nick’s interest in multiple image—or mimage, as he called it—was not born during his time at Harpur College, or through his exposure there to New York experimental filmmakers. Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz traces multiple-dimensionality in Nick’s films going back to In A Lonely Place (1950). It’s visible—and audible—in the opening sequence of 55 Days to Peking (1963), and Bigger Than Life (1956) as well. He was actively experimenting with mimage as the overall form for a film by the early 1960s, in Belgrade. There he shot a series of tests with cinematographer Vladimir Novotny while preparing the feature Doctor and the Devils. The tests were lost and the feature aborted, but he continued to explore mimage in an unfinished film about the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1969-70). It was a life-long study for him.
The job at Harpur gave him exactly the right situation to explore the technique in depth. That there was no budget to speak of presented tactical problems, of course. It also insured a kind of freedom unthinkable on the set of a high-budget film. Nothing left to lose becomes opportunity for those able to grasp it.
Nick used to speak of a film finding its natural duration at about 90 minutes, the length of the dream cycle. Multiple image provided the means to tell several interrelated stories unfolding simultaneously within that span of time. “It is a departure in filmmaking,” he said, “resting on the concept that we don’t think in straight lines.”
He was always first and foremost a storyteller, and, despite the impositions of studio executives on several of his films’ endings, never a linear storyteller needing to “tie things up in pink bows,” as he put it. He saw the linear storyline as the artificial result of a too-tight viewpoint. By contrast, his use of the wide screen (prior to We Can’t Go Home Again) and of several images unfolding multiple narratives simultaneously, and his insistence on “breaking the rectangle,” were tantamount to yanking off a set of blinders.
His vision for the multiple image in We Can’t Go Home Again was a disciplined one. From 8mm and 16mm footage, he and the crew edited several assemblages, each with its own integrity. The assemblages were projected against a 35mm matte and timed by stopwatch to run in a given relationship to each other, thus creating a larger picture, also with its own integrity. Then this larger picture was shot off the screen in 35mm.
Although instinct guided his placement of the smaller images within the 35mm frame, that instinct was informed by a knowledge and love of painting. “Painting in the expressionist school,” he said, “has been far ahead of us [filmmakers] if you look at the works of Nolde, Kirchner, Kokoschka, Pechstein, Beckmann.” He also studied Goya’s black period, Picasso’s Guernica, and Velazquez’s Las Meninas, for examples. His notes confirm that his compositions were precisely weighted. “I shot a lot of footage on traffic lights,” he explained, “so if I wanted to prepare the eye for going from lower right to upper left, I used [those] lights as subliminal pinpoints to take the eye up there. [That way] you are not confusing the audience with a three-ring circus.”
Although some have attributed Nick’s forays into multi-dimensionality in We Can’t Go Home Again to some kind of psychotic break, he wasn’t alone in his interest in the non-linear nature of thought. “All the music that really interests me … is contrapuntal music, music with an explosion of simultaneous ideas,” said pianist and thinker Glenn Gould, around the same time. “It’s music where one acknowledges the essential equality of those ideas.” (6) The same acknowledgment is in the contemporaneous paintings of Rauschenberg, in Godard’s Numéro Deux (1975), the films of Brakhage, the soundtracks of Robert Altman. It’s also in the spherical view of a highly realized meditator. This to propose the possibility that multiple image as Nick envisioned it, rather than a symptom of psychosis, may have been the expression of an expanded awareness.
Early on in the course of production, Nick was introduced to Nam June Paik’s video synthesizer, which allowed him to play with the shapes and colours of the images he’d caught on film. “I love the expressionism of a bad TV set,” he said. “I have access to a colour TV that is very bad, but it’s wonderful. I see football games on red earth, with green faces.” (7) The synthesizer offered far more options than the bad TV. At the time he was editing the film for Cannes, I believe he was still in the first flush of infatuation with colourization, still exploring what it could do, prior to working out how it might best be disciplined to serve dramatic values.
He carried around a copy of The Luscher Color Test comprised of small cards, each of a different colour, to spread before anyone that was willing. The task was to order the cards by colour preference. The back of the book provided interpretations, and Nick developed his own. “I ask about two colours constantly, whenever I’m with strangers,” he said. “What does green mean to you? What does purple mean to you? It’s almost regional as to whether green is jealousy, or health, or hate, or love.” The use of colour to express a psychology¾ his choice of the orange dress in Bigger Than Life (1956), the red jacket in Rebel, Vienna’s (Joan Crawford) white gown in Johnny Guitar (1954), and the black and white in the minimalist landscapes of Bitter Victory (1957), for examples¾was another through-line for him that he brought to his students for study.
Nick told the crew, “You are at the equivalent state of a rehearsal in theatre, where this is a privileged time for making mistakes. You ought to take advantage of it.” It was an opportunity he provided them, and one he took for himself as well. This is a critical point in understanding his approach to We Can’t Go Home Again. Although the term “experimental” has come to carry a negative charge when applied to a film, We Can’t Go Home Again as Nick left it is an experiment still in process. Its technical flaws can challenge a viewer, no doubt about it. I wonder, though, if some of the discomfort doesn’t stem from the film’s non-linearity and the uncertainty that evokes, and the unfortunate assumption that if something is uncomfortable, it’s not good.
In a letter dated December 22, 1817, John Keats coined the term “negative capability” for the ability to tolerate discomfort and ambiguity, describing it as “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement … that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” As such a man, Nick wrote in his first letter to me of the Eskimo people whom he loved so much, who live by the word Maybe.
We Can’t Go Home Again is chock full of Maybes. It won’t allow me to sit back and be entertained. It doesn’t tell me what it is I’m watching or how I’m meant to respond. It demands either I take it in entirely through the senses, with no attempt at cognized understanding; or that I apply my own experience and observation to it to see where they’re going to lead me. Either way it demands an exertion from me, an active participation; and I, like many audiences today, can be lazy.
* * *
The deepest layer of questions I brought to this project, and the one, frankly, that made me most uneasy, concerned Nick himself. Who had he been then? How good a teacher? How compromised was he by the addictions? How had he felt about his students? How had they felt about him? Really why was the film never finished?
In interviews with the original crew, all of them spoke of how Nick, unlike others of his generation, listened to them, was interested in them, spoke with them eye to eye. Many of them believed themselves to be the favoured son or daughter—and it seems not one of them was mistaken. Nick’s notes indicate he thought about each of them, with insight but without judgment, even of those who, to my eyes at least, were less than appreciative of him. He found a unique way to relate to each according to her or his need and disposition, dropping by at four in the morning for scrambled eggs with one, exploring the synthesizer with another, building a camera with another, painting with another, talking architecture with another. He cared about their development. That they confided in him so deeply tells me they trusted that.
At the same time he was a master passing on the experience and wisdom of a lifetime to his apprentices, as Frank Lloyd Wright and Elia Kazan had passed on their experience and wisdom to Nick, as masters of whatever craft have passed on their experience and wisdom over centuries. The process of achieving mastery, or even a journeyman’s skill, has never been easy. How could it be? No matter the specific nature of the transmission, it involves tests of abilities and character, challenges posed by both the subject matter and the master transmitting it. The Tibetans advise, “Treat your master like a fire. Get close enough to feel the warmth, but not so close you get scorched.” The likelihood is that, driven by one hunger or another, some of Nick’s students got too close to the blaze.
* * *
Nick described one scene in We Can’t Go Home Again like this: “A Santa Claus is trying to hitch a ride on the snowy streets opposite a New York State university. He gets hit hard by a truck. Two youngsters approach. They ask him if he is a real Santa Claus. Seeing the strips of celluloid bursting out of his pouch, they ask, ‘Are you making a film? What is it about?’ He says, ‘Have you ever asked yourself, ‘Who am I? What am I? Why am I?’”
These were the questions he taught his students to ask, and the questions he asked of himself, until the day that he died. So in We Can’t Go Home Again, as Nick, by turns loving or demonic, directs the cast in the peeling away of their masks, so he reveals himself, poking around in the rubble of his addiction and an outworn identity. “They helped de-imagize me,” he said of his student crew. “They helped me de-imagize myself.” (8)
One image that had to go was, of course, that of Hollywood director, one that came with a fair share of trappings. On the one hand Nick left Hollywood to free himself from the image, and did not grieve it much. “While I’ve participated in [creating images] on a fairly grand scale … I would be terribly burdened if I had an image of myself,” (9) he said. As for the trappings: “Hollywood has—or did have—perhaps the best technicians and the best equipment in the world. But the executives wouldn’t let them be used; and so the adventure of filmmaking in Hollywood lost all of its allure.”
On the other hand, he was inconvenienced and bewildered by the loss of resources. It forced him to learn a new way of life—or to relearn an old one. He was not unwilling to do this—he often said he was happiest during the Depression, living on cream cheese sandwiches in a theatre collective—but it was a humbling process undertaken by a proud and no longer young man. It would not be achieved overnight.
Meanwhile, he threw himself into teaching.
Nick intended We Can’t Go Home Again, from its inception, as a vehicle for teaching. But filmmaking for him, as he said repeatedly, was not just making a film. It was a way of life, a means of bringing understanding to self, other, and world; of learning “how to say hello to each other.”
So he built of his crew a family, just as he had with the cast of Rebel. “Each film has been a separate family,” he said. For the time they were together the members of the film family became everything to each other, a culture on which they all grew.
As much as Nick loved film, his dedication to this growth in himself and his students, to researching the questions as the Santa defined them, was foremost, always foremost. If he hadn’t been able to make films, he’d have found another way to pursue the quest. As he said to Tom, “I don’t give a shit if you’ve learned a goddamn thing in cinema in the year-and-half I’ve been here if you learned to have the nerve, the faith.
That said, what I read, watched, and heard from him in the course of this project tells me he never lost—not for a moment, not even in his most drunken and dissolute state—a modicum of his discernment, talent, or vision as a filmmaker.
What he did lose when he left Hollywood was the spine the studios provided. By spine I mean the support, the authority to buck or bow to, the schedule, the budget already in hand—the hard practicalities a film gets built around, what keeps it all from collapsing. As he put it himself, “A boy needs a father at certain times in his life so he can kick him in the shins … The boy misbehaves at one point, runs away at another, while his father remains constant, a gauge against which the boy can measure himself. Take that away and the spine is lost.” Although alcoholism surely was a factor, to my mind the greater obstacle to the completion of We Can’t Go Home Again was this missing spine. All his life Nick kicked against Saturn, the authority of the father, while his need to have Saturn to kick against remained—one of those irreconcilable conflicts that’s either tragic or character-building, depending on how one lives it.
The perspective of 30 years also shows me what envy, resentment of the crew’s incursions into my life and home and relationship, kept me from seeing at the time: what love and monumental generosity allowed Nick to forego his standards as an accomplished artist to provide for his students the platform they needed for learning.
Nick knew the problems with We Can’t Go Home Again, both structural and technical. I’m pretty sure no one knew them better. As a filmmaker and as a teacher, he despaired over them, as he did over what he saw of himself onscreen. At best it’s a major challenge to find oneself a subject of one’s own work; and this was not Nick was at his best. The tragedy of the film, if there is one, is that eventually he did pull himself out of addiction; he did redeem himself and find a clarity with which he could have finished the film. He just didn’t get the time.
Recently I sent a DVD of the film to a friend who had no small role in getting the Ray project launched. She watched it, then called to report: “I don’t get it.” Two months later she called again: “I don’t know why, but I can’t get it out of my head. It just keeps working on me.”
We Can’t Go Home Again is messy, flawed, and unfinished, at times infuriatingly so. But the mess, like the dirt of this Earth, is fertile, teeming with life and potential. And I can’t help but think that the life of it lies precisely in its mess and imperfection, in the profound humanness of it; and that this life in it is its greatness. A good artist makes a work of art, as polished, complete, and perfect as it can be. A great artist conspires with God to make life, which, as it turns out, is anything but.
I’ve come to believe that We Can’t Go Home Again may already have fulfilled Nick’s vision for it, which, as he wrote it, was this:
I would like to help create a new concept of film as a living, continuously breathing thing, so you see the molecules of thought and emotion and experience working all the time, and in a kind of wonderful disorder that permits the audience to participate in creating its own order and drawing their own conclusions.
* * *
A Note About the Restoration:
The restoration of We Can’t Go Home Again was accomplished in 2010-2011 as a collaboration between The Nicholas Ray Foundation, EYE Institute Netherlands, and the Academy Film Archive, using as reference the version of the film that screened at Cannes in 1973, the most complete version, though not the last. (10) Our intention was to remove the obscuring effects of time to make the film more accessible, while tampering as little as possible with its content and “homemade” quality.
The image restoration, under the guidance of the EYE Institute, was accomplished at Cineric, Inc., New York City. There we scanned the 35mm negative of the Cannes version on an Oxberry 4K wetgate. Then, according to an agreed upon protocol, the image was further reviewed to remove tears, line scratches and cue dots; while grease pencil marks, fingerprints, and tape splices in the assemblages—traces of the students’ process in learning their craft–were left as is. A large recurring white flash at the bottom of the screen due to a splice in the rear-projection loop was removed.
The faded colours of the original negative were restored, but we did not correct characteristics of the original photography such as exposure, focus, and imbalance in the colour grading of the multiple images.
The audio restoration/reconstruction took place at Audio Mechanics, Burbank, California, overseen by the Academy Archive. The original soundtrack, pieced together hastily and provisionally for the Cannes screening, was missing sound effects and dialogue. These were recovered with the help of Richard Bock of the original crew.
The film’s narration, in Tom’s voice in the Cannes version, was replaced with one Nick recorded in his own voice as he worked on the film after Cannes.
Distortions such as crackle, static, and hiss were removed. (11)
- Ray Archive.
- Norman Mailer, “Mailer on the ‘70s—Decade of ‘Image, Skin Flicks, and Porn’” U.S. News and World Report, December 10, 1979.
- Statistic quoted by Yalman Onaran, senior writer, Bloomberg News, at the 21st Annual Hyman P. Minsky Conference on the State of the US and World Economies.
- Ray Archive
- Glenn Gould, A State of Wonder (documentary)
- Ray Archive.
- In 1976, in New York, we cut a 63-minute assemblage to show to potential backers. Although we didn’t have all the film with us at the time, this version included scenes shot after the Cannes version was edited, and those who saw it felt it had a sturdier narrative structure.
- For greater detail about the process of the restoration, please refer to www.nicholasrayfoundation.org.
We Can’t Go Home Again is available on DVD release by Oscilloscope. A version of this essay appeared in the booklet accompanying the DVD.