Perhaps it’s unsurprising that one of the most famous unfinished films by a major Hollywood director has garnered a mystique, seeding expectations among cineastes as of a work of near-lost genius, if not a sense that what lies in film cans is a misunderstood and unwanted masterpiece ahead of its time. Nearly 40 years after its pemiere at Cannes in 1973 to a "baffled" audience, the end result of Nicholas Ray’s legendary experimental film, We Can’t Go Home Again, still can’t be quantified or isolated into even a handful of firm genres.
Made over two years during his tenure as film professor at State University of New York at Binghamton (1971-1973), Ray immediately immersed his students into the film production process by starting an in-house production in which each person would more or less trade onscreen and off-screen roles and duties until it was completed. There was no genuine script, but rather loose ideas and bits of written dialogue which were filmed using multiple film formats - Super 8, Super 16, 16mm, and 35mm - with the express intent of presenting the films using projectors.
WCGHA isn’t split-screen, as that definition applies to geometric blocks of film that move, divide or share the screen, as done in The Thomas Crown Affair [M] (1968) or Woodstock (1970); WCGHA is pure experimentalism in which images are layered, textured, treated through video solarization (a process heavily used in Jack Cardiff’s trippy 1968 film, The Girl on a Motorcyle), and occupy parts of the screen in a random order, if not as alternative actions or solarized incarnations in specific screen quadrants.
Sometimes the multiple images are quite effective, going farther than present-day efforts: early into the film, scenes of an Attica prisoner protest in Chicago has four separate streams in colour and black & white projected within a roughly 1.66:1 frame, while a fifth image filling a small black hole resembles material shot through a crudely carved peephole. At other times it’s just a mess of solarized video footage - often colours flaring and rippling after being processed through primordial video gear – which goes on as if to add a chunk of colour to the main frame of otherwise wan color footage of barely coherent scenes.
Good or bad, there is no story in WCGHA, just the concept of reality filming itself in dramatic strands taken from the personal realities of the class and its professor. Ray plays himself, a film prof whom the early twentysomething kids recognize from his classics (Rebel Without a Cause being the big hit), and as an aging figure. One student bluntly asks him, ‘What are you doing here?’ implying he’s now a has-been, washed out studio director – the earliest example of the director mining his own uneasy situation to inspire a story for the class.
Ray also provides an intro and closing narration, plus the odd bridge commentary, but the rest of the film is a series of vignettes that initially begin with the film crew filming itself as their project starts up – choosing leading actors and actresses, locations – and going through a series of shots and sequences within the midsection before some semblance of a plot kicks in during the last reel of WCGHA.
At best, WCGHA is part student film as funneled through the director’s unrealized dream of making a multiple-image experimental film that self-consciously uses its crew and creators in a docu-drama setting, riffing then-current political unrest of the country’s youth as they struggle to address the corruption, war protests, and disgust from factions who regard their lifestyle, vernacular, and political beliefs as more useless than genuine counterculture.
Unfortunately, the actual vignettes showing the class in dramatic contrivances are often incoherent. Two characters kissing behind sad clown masks moves to an argument between the couple, spawning anger from the student crew filing the scene, and plenty of violent shoving, but it means nothing. Leslie, pretty much the de facto star in the film's first half, begs Ray for help after a bad acid trip, then feels she’s going to vomit and is aided by classmates in the bathroom, but suddenly appears in front of the camera all manicured to perform a song, only to be pelted by tomatoes because she’s bullshitting too much about so-called personal issues. Another meandering bit of nonsense has a couple skinny dipping in the school pool, only to be chased outside by a student dressed as a security guard, who in turn chases Leslie after she’s made a call for help because she’s trapped in the chemistry lab.
None of it’s a metaphor or allusion to anything; just amateur experimentalism. One could claim the striking works coming our of UCLA – take George Lucas’ early shorts – explored film technique over the collective ideas as realized by Ray’s students with minimal technical expertise or grasp of any genre, but for long stretches WCGHA just feels like a collage of improv segments designed by a professor to create union and thematic cohesion that are wholly absent.
The only sequence that works as an experimental vignette plays off an earlier scene where Leslie is railed by her boyfriend for walking around without any pants. That sequence ends with the group eating ice cream and a head of cauliflower (!), but her character’s uninhibited persona is tied to an elaborate sequence where Leslie watches herself dance in a film projected in the living room. As she removes the last of her garments and starts to pleasure herself beside the flickering projector light, the left side of the screen is filled with footage of her walking down the stairs pant-less, itself consisting of rippling in-camera superimpositions of the same action, body parts in motion, and a frozen visage.
The film’s final 20 minutes are comprised of the following: Tom (Tom Farrell, the star of the film's final half) heads down to the Democratic Convention in Miami, returns disillusioned, cuts off his beard as a symbol of losing his youthful innocence and ideology, and meets up with Ray and the others at a farm.
Sneaking off to the barn, Ray’s attempts to kill himself are too clumsy to succeed (“I’ve made 10 goddamn westerns, and I can’t even tie a noose,” he says dejectedly), so he returns and spends the night with the students. Early in the morning half drive off, and Ray goes back to the barn to presumably get rid of the suspicious noose, only to hang himself just as Tom runs looking for him, and the group returns, unsure whether their teacher’s death was voluntary or the result of a dumb accident of entanglement (even though the rope doesn’t match the thinner type he had intended to use, making this either a continuity error, an accident, or Ray’s character making better use of a thicker rope on his second try).
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Not all of the film’s audio is complete – Ray’s temporary voice for the character of a reporter drafted to be sound man is all that’s left – and sync-sound stems are at best in a state of constant shift, but the silence during Leslie’s trippy nude sequence does enhance its overall provocative nature; robbed of any music or cliched sound effects, an audience has to withhold any signs or discomfort or pleasure until the next sound cut / sequence kicks in.
When the film premiered in its current incomplete form at 90 mins. in Cannes, audiences & critics were “baffled” by the film’s content, and perhaps the shock of seeing a once-great filmmaker assembling a collage of abstract student shorts was enough to ripple beyond Hollywood; if his so-called ‘nervous breakdown’ during the making of his final studio film, 55 Days at Peking (1963), and his dismissal during production didn’t tarnish his reputation, than seeing a brilliant director involve himself with students to create an impenetrable work may well have convinced even international producers that Ray, as a director, was finished. Besides, the very term "experimental" was poisonous by studio or distributor standards.
Perhaps that explains why he never made another fictional feature film, and just popped up in cameos in movies by a new generation of admiring (and European) filmmakers – Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), and Milos Forman’s Hair (1979) – plus the odd short film anthology Wet Dreams (1974) in a segment he also directed, titled “The Janitor,” or was the subject of documentarians until his death in 1979.
Regardless if one has an aversion to experimental filmmaking – in technique or dramatic form – WCGHA is an artifact that represents a two-year period in Ray’s life that proved creatively fruitful. He was directing again after a nearly 10-year absence, was able to realize experimental concepts with simpatico students / collaborators, felt invigorated by the mélange of politics and social commentary flowing from a younger generation, and felt the film was also a new creative training ground for himself.
The sadness in Ray’s film lies in its representation of unfulfilled dreams; not unlike fellow mavericks Orson Welles and Sam Fuller, Ray should’ve been able to use WCGHA as currency for a new project, but perhaps its extreme nature was too much for investors or producers, and while filmmakers like Wenders wanted to help, they knew the cost of making a film mandated something with art house or marginal commercial components - a formula that worked particularly well for Wenders. There’s also the possibility Ray was just tired of struggling against the strict rules of delivering a commercial product, and felt that as his health weakened, his time was better spent instilling his philosophy of creating art to students.
Ray continued to edit and re-edit the film over the years, trying to shape it into something he felt worked, but not unlike Welles and Don Quixote, it was a project that could never be completed due to insurmountable yet practical issues: money to finish the project, actors that had moved on and aged, and a director’s mindset that wasn’t the same as in 1973.
The version that is now in formal circulation is due to a lengthy restoration program which finally clicked when funds and dedication from technicians allowed Ray’s widow, Susan Ray, to essentially clean up the film. Two known prints exist from the 1973 Cannes edition, and it’s that version – not the re-edited attempts from later years – which has been restored without changing a single frame. The audio’s been beautifully cleansed in spite of its sometimes crude form, and Ray’s narration – recorded for the Cannes cut but apparently never used – sounds brand new. It’s a bit of a marvel to hear Ray’s voice so clearly, and it adds extra depth to a film that became a personal obsession, if not an attempt by its co-creator to leave one final work before the effects of alcohol, smoking, and finally cancer killed him in 1979.
The most startling aspect of the film’s construction lies in the framing. Although 1.85:1 is used, what resembles a 1.66:1 ratio of black stemming from the frame’s bottom centre is used as the canvas where the multiple images are projected. (The original prints were created by Ray and his students by literally filming roughly synchronized images from multiple projectors onto the wall of a soundstage, and editing that filmed footage into its current narrative state.) The black canvas is essentially superimposed over a photo of some aerial street scene that’s been tinted orange, which becomes night blue, then black with an abstract pattern to the left, and back to the orange.
On two rare occasions does a single image fill the entire 1.85:1 ratio: a long take where Tom and Ray (each wearing bright ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ red colours) leave the school and discuss how they lost their eyes; and the finale where Leslie looks up and sees Ray in the barn.
Christopher Nolan similarly recognized the impact of selectively popping from a smaller ratio to a large film format image when he interpolated shots and sequences in IMAX between the otherwise consistent 2.35:1 ratio in The Dark Knight (2008). Like Nolan’s film, WCGHA’s real impact occurs when it’s projected in a cinema. However impenetrable WCGHA is, in terms of film technique, there are some amazing ideas at play, and they work best in a large dark room with the audience totally focused on the big screen (if not trapped).
Among the cast of students, just a handful went on to pursue work in film. Tom Farrell has acted in a handful of productions, largely later films directed by Wim Wenders, including Paris, Texas (1984), Until the End of the World (1991), and Faraway, So Close! (1993), Don’t Come Knocking (2005). Danny Fisher became a producer of documentaries – A Generation Apart (1983), Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (1996), and Suicide Killers (2006) - and a few indie films. Leslie Levinson other roles include small parts in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), and the indie film Creating Karma (2006). Ned Weisman and Charles Bornstein became film editors, and Nicholas James became a sound editor.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself [M], a rare 1975 documentary on Ray, featured additional on set footage, and Wim Wenders’ grim Lightning Over Water (1980) featured clips of WCGHA in its post-1973 state. Aside from rare screenings, both docs marked the only times excerpts from WCGHA appeared in a commercially distributed format until Ray’s widow and co-writer of WCGHA directed a great making-of documentary, Don’t Expect Too Much [M] (2011), which reunited several of the students, and featured raw outtakes of the individual narrative streams.
Exclusive comments by Susan Ray regarding Nicholas Ray's unusually structured approach to teaching filmmaking are available via this YouTube link, featuring a brief Q&A with KQEK.com.
Both Nicholas and Susan Ray’s respective films will be released on DVD by Oscilloscope Pictures.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan