We Can’t Go Home Again screens this Sunday afternoon at the 49th New York Film Festival, in the “Masterworks” section; it also screens on the 17th at Film Forum, and Oscilloscope will release the film on DVD next year, along with Susan Ray’s companion piece, Don’t Expect Too Much, which screens as a special NYFF presentation on Monday night, and at Film Forum on the 17th as well.
Late in life, weakened by alcohol and defeated by Hollywood, Nicholas Ray took a job teaching at SUNY-Binghamton, and he collaborated with his students on a film, We Can’t Go Home Again, which screened as a work-in-progress at Cannes in 1973 and has popped up sporadically since, including, at last, this restoration of the Cannes presentation. (Ray continued to work on the film up to his death in 1979; his widow Susan’s new making-of documentary Don’t Expect Too Much may offer some insight into the work.)
The film was made by Ray in close collaboration with his students, and mixes their stagings of relatively explicit sex, amateurish avant-garde thriller, and a Robert Kramer/Andy Warhol-ish radical thriller (one student, playing a radical activist, observes that a campus security guard, played by a classmate, has suspiciously long hair) with restaged scenes derived from interactions between compromised father figure Ray and his students, and their real and simulated bad experiences with hallucinogenic drugs; the whole thing is done in very rough sound—and occasionally, sickly overprocessed experimental color—in small frames projected one or two or several at a time against matte backdrops of upstate locales.
The film shares with much of Ray’s work a vivid, passionate sensitivity for the generation about to destroy him: Ray portrays himself as a compromised authority figure, a maverick befuddled by his heirs. (Famously, Rebel Without a Cause was said to be inspired in part by Ray’s discovery of his second wife, Gloria Grahame, in bed with Tony, Ray’s 13-year-old son from his first marriage.)
Early in the film, he chucks darts at a picture of a cop, growling to himself, nearly hitting a girl; he’s berated by one of her classmates, Tom (whose glass eye gives him and Ray something in common), the loving, troubled son of a police officer (“I love my father, but we don’t get along”), to whom Ray later tries, in his way, to give some advice: “Don’t expect too much from a teacher.” (The scene, which uncharacteristically takes up the full screen, sees Tom and Ray walking through the wintery campus, Ray in a coat as bright red as anything in Johnny Guitar.)
“This is so goddam unreal, darling,” Ray confesses to another, particularly exhibitionistic student, Leslie, in the midst of a convoluted story about a murder plot and her recent experience tricking in a hotel room; she’ll also flirt with an inexperienced sound recordist (“there are no rehearsals here” is like a sexual taunt), dance naked, and sing during multiple takes depicting her bad reaction to some speed. (Inside baseball: J. Hoberman went to SUNY-Binghampton, graduating shortly before Ray’s arrival there; according to some colleagues who spoke with him after the screening, he knew Leslie, apparently later to appear briefly in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy.)
The hippie histronics are human, humorous in their posing and pretensions, and punctured on occasion by banalities, or Ray’s tired but ornery confusion (one kid talks intensely about his recent weight loss, and the mindset of himself as a fat kid; Ray breaks in to gruffly inquire: “Instead of girls’ behinds, you compare salad dressings?”) But their confusion is authentic: the students’ screaming fights during sex scenes is augmented by reminders of the era’s confounding politics (they’re frequently juxtaposed with clips of‘Nam, Hanoi Jane, and Allen Ginsberg and the Young Republicans at the 1972 RNC in Miami) as their own experimental acting-out takes its psychic toll—here a montage of details from Picasso’s “Guernica,” and there Leslie earnestly asking, “I know you have the clap, will you give it to me?” After graduation—some refuse to wear a cap and gown—a skeleton group of Ray acolytes retreat to his farmhouse, where Tom—who really does appear to be coming down off something—freaks out, shaves his beard, and repeats his dialogue about his cop father, as Ray, from offscreen, implores, “Just talk to me, Tom.” Ray, who sometimes narrates bits of his students’ development, finally abdicates after a previous unsuccessful suicide attempt (“I made ten goddam Westerns and I can’t even tie a noose”). His parting advice, as his kids go their separate ways into the world: “Take care of each other.”