After forging a solid friendship during production of "The American Friend," Wim Wenders suggested making another film with Nicholas Ray - a ploy that simultaneously fulfilled Ray's final great wish, since he was dying of lung cancer, and gave Wenders a break between the difficulties of getting "Hammett" off the ground at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios.
Though Ray is seen early on reading a proposed outline of the film, "Lightening Over Water" has no real structure - a challenge Wenders immediately states in the film's periodic narration, and a dilemma that the film's editor faced during first assembly while Wenders was mired in "Hammett," and co-director Ray was by then dead. The film itself uses his imminent demise as an uber-motif, culminating in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek wake at the end. Wenders subsequently realized the film's third person perspective was wrong, and recut the film himself to the present version, which remains a highly personal, often painful, and sometimes funny portrait of a brilliant director kicked out of Hollywood after never completing his last feature, "55 Days At Peking."
Perhaps Ray's greatest problem lay in being a filmmaker with high artistic pursuits - his films did make some money, did receive critical favours, and actors respected him - but his films were still being made under the entrenched studio system. Had he been born a decade later, perhaps he may have had a longer and more prolific late career with some of the more open-minded independent producers who popped up during the sixties and seventies in America, and particularly in Europe. There was also a drinking problem - something briefly alluded to in Wim Wenders' commentary track - though the subject ends at Wenders stating Ray had been completely sober for five to six years.
Ray wanted the film to be about a man reclaiming his dignity; something he wanted "Lightning Over Water" to accomplish, and that goal is what retains the viewer of this strangely compelling documentary that deliberately blends several dramatized scenes with straightforward doc segments - shot with 35mm film and consumer-level VHS equipment - with scenes of Ray giving a lecture at Vassar College, and small moments with his devoted wife, Susan.
Years ago one of the few places to see this film was on one of Canada's French channels in a bleached out, French subtitled print, so it's a revelation to see the film looking so lovely. Ed Lachman's camera work mixes natural and dramatic lighting - the latter efforts alluding to the fine fictional threads that Wenders and Ray had originally conjured for the film - and much of the colours are relatively muted, with reds, browns and orange coming through clean and stable. The low light sequences are fairly clean, including several nighttime shots in Ray's large apartment, where Lachman frequently uses a red gel. The VHS footage looks awful, but it's classic late-seventies tube technology dumbed down to bulky consumer level, and as Wenders explains, the footage reflects the real-life, cancerous element that returns the viewer to Ray's terminal condition during the film's lighter moments.
Wenders likes the arty approach, and here it manages to click; with a close friend dying onscreen, Wenders has plenty of compelling material and historical facts to keep his commentary track interesting. Where much of the extant critical books on Nicholas Ray are filled with inflated theories, Wenders brings the man back down to Earth, offering personal observations on his life, work, and volatile career. Termed 'difficult' by the corporate establishment that ultimately banished him, Ray comes off as a highly articulate lover of the arts, with a passion for music, a respect for actors, and as Wenders terms, a man with obvious elegance. A brief sequence staging a Kafka play demonstrates why Ray had a knack with thespians - a quality that kept the ousted director for several years at New York's Actors Studio.
Film fans will also be intrigued to see "You Can't Go Home Again," Ray's incomplete, avant garde film which he screens for Wenders and the crew. Combining 35mm, 16mm and 8mm stock, Ray's movie exists only as a ragged print which has only been released, so to speak, in this documentary.
The new 5.1 remix isn't far removed from the original 2.0 surround track, and the various levels are well balanced, with Ronee Blakley's title song and underscore coming through nicely.
Anchor Bay's been taking advantage of archival material in several of their recent releases, and to add extra resonance to Ray's condition, they've included "Especially For Pierre" - a 38 minute, unedited chunk of VHS footage where the director gives a brief intro before a film screening at a college, and his concluding Q&A session. Lifted in his wheelchair onto the stage, draining several cigarettes, and speaking with great pauses because of the immense pain, it's admittedly difficult to watch, although its presence manages to exact a kind of revenge on Hollywood that the documentary - with its more structured passages and tighter tempo - didn't achieve; where "Lightning Over Water" helps Ray reclaim some dignity, "Especially For Pierre" quietly says to Hollywood 'This is what you did to me,' though the act of completing these lectures adds a concluding 'I'm still kicking. Deal with it' punctuation.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan