Although ostensibly a straight documentary on Nicholas Ray, David Helpern’s film captures the veteran filmmaker at a point in his career when, according to former producer John Houseman (They Live By Night, On Dangerous Ground), he had burned too many bridges, and was far on the fringes of filmmaking, working with students in a course he designed to immerse university kids into every aspect of making movies instead of more traditional approaches where theory, memorization, studying and discussion preceded students ‘going off into their corners’ to make their little ‘masturbatory’ theses for themselves and ‘their girlfriends.’
Ray was already aware of the more structured form of film schooling, and his own style of hands-on moviemaking with a dose of improvisation (if not flying by the seat of your pants) to create stories with compelling, honest characters in human dramas is what he attempted to teach his class through a two-year adventure which drove many in his little collective filmmaking unit nearly to the breaking point several times.
Helpern uses sometimes lengthy film excerpts (many surprisingly widescreen clips of ‘scope movies) to build up Ray’s gifts as an actor’s director and expert handler of young, self-conscious talent in need of guidance and some bullying when necessary, but the scenes don’t necessarily pad the doc to its hour-long length; they support the contemporary interviews and making-of footage of Ray as he works with his students on a farm to create his latest film – We Can’t Go Home Again [M] (1976) which ultimately became his last feature-length effort.
Even Houseman admits Ray had a lot going against him: a colleague of Elia Kazan, Ray lacked the former’s toughness and ability to shrug off studio bullshit and interference, and the potent battles with producers, executives and studios eventually wore him down to the point where he wasn’t making personal character films but bloated epics in Spain for impresario Samuel Bronston – the ridiculous King of Kings (1961), and 55 Days at Peking (1963) where Ray allegedly collapsed and was replaced by ace second unit director Andrew Marton.
In spite of several efforts to get projects off the ground in Europe, Ray hadn’t made a film in almost 10 years until he had an opportunity to make a film about the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, only to have the production fall apart. Next came an offer to teach at Harpur College, State University of New York at Binghamton, and two years later he was still filming the collective production that he would continue to work on until his death in 1979.
When the university began to make too much noise about teacher and students working and living together to create their film, the group packed up to a farm and continued filming, reshooting, editing, and rewriting, and Helpern’s presence in came just as the group was ready to break apart in 1973.
Ray was opening drinking and smoking during his tenure at the college, and his drinking perhaps explains his differing stages of articulating his replies to Helpern: sometimes he’s lucid and sharp, and beautifully eloquent; other times he pauses at length, and what emerges is a comprehensible but slightly foggy reply.
The stress of pushing himself (often sleeping less that 4.5 hours) and his students from noon to dusk the next day was taking its toll, and Leslie Levinson admits that while she’s still excited by the energy between her and Ray, she was ready to call its quits not long before. Her comments are then followed by a an argument during which she ably holds her own, even challenging Ray’s aura of civility when he’s about to chastise her for a blue word in spite of spouting his own share of expletives in front of the documentary cameraman.
Ray was clearly trying to find the right chemical mix to handle students who clearly weren’t professional actors, teaching while creating a professional environment that would help them succeed in a professional that demands collaboration, but it’s rather disheartening to see the effort and mania that went into their improvised scenes which barely show up in the rough, incomplete version Ray was able to cut in time for the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.
There is no mention of the terms “experimental” or “multi-image” as though the nature of the film was never wholly hammered down until Ray had to solidify what he wanted WCGHA was going to be prior to Cannes. Houseman uses great tact when he describes seeing footage of the film, and it is unusual that no clips of WCGHA appear in the movie – only brief shots as seen as Ray and his students edit scenes on a Moviola.
In addition to a rare glimpse into Ray directing, and the personal challenges he was juggling during his first teaching gig, there are interviews with actress Natalie Wood regarding getting the co-starring part in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Francois Truffaut describing the qualities that made him unusual among American directors working within the studio system. Howard Da Silva, who appeared in Ray’s feature film debut They Live by Night (1949), narrates the film, and WCGHA co-star / student Tom Farrell also provides a brief comment on Ray as teacher, director, and “con-artist” who knows how to manipulate people into getting what he wants – a quality Ray cites as integral to a director who must extract performances from disparate personalities coming from informal or different training streams.
None of the WCGHA behind-the-scenes footage appears in Susan Ray’s 2011 documentary Don’t Expect Too Much [M], making Helpern’s film an important companion piece, with Wim Wenders’ Lightning on Water (1980), which he also co-directed, as the third most important document of Ray’s final years in the U.S.
Film clips include They Live, Rebel, Peking, and In a Lonely Place (1950), which Ray discusses at length, focusing on the rewritten ending, and his separation from wife Gloria Grahame during the film’s production.
When asked by Helpern whether he’ll make his film on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Ray’s reply is now painfully tragic: “I’ll make it some day, after we finish this one, and the next one.” Besides “The Janitor,” a segment in the Dutch anthology film Wet Dreams (1974), and the short film Marco (1978), there was no going back to his feature film days.
David Helpren's other films include the Oscar-nominated Hollywood Blacklist documentary Hollywood on Trial (1976), and Something Short of Paradise (1979), after which he became a producer of B-movies, suchas as Dead Heat (1988), The Hidden II (1993).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan