Five Questions for Cullen Gallagher About Nicholas Ray

by |
09/04/2009 9:34 AM |


The L Mag film critic co-curates a special-guest-graced screening of a rarely screened documentary on Nicholas Ray this Sunday evening at Union Docs. The floor is his.

1. What is We Can’t Go Home Again?

We Can’t Go Home Again is Nick Ray’s most radical and personal film, and the hardest to see. After years and frustration with commercial filmmaking in Hollywood, Ray spent much of the 1960s traveling through Europe, and afterwards wound up teaching at SUNY Binghamton in 1971. He decided to teach filmmaking through a collaborative process with his students, all of them working and living together, and writing, improvising, filming, and learning as a group. It’s a collage of personal portraits, autobiographical interludes, and improvisational confrontations, shot on video, Super 8, 16mm, 35mm, all projected onto a screen (sometimes simultaneously), and re-filmed. It’s a remarkable film, and there’s nothing else like it. Sadly, it is incredibly difficult to see. It also has a tricky history, with a couple of different versions Ray was constantly working with, and it was never commercially released.

2. What about I’m a Stranger Here Myself, the screening you’ve curated at UnionDocs this Sunday?

Part of what makes David Helpern’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself so valuable is that it documents Ray and his students/collaborators on the set of We Can’t Go Home Again, offering an extremely privileged and intimate look at their creative processes. We Can’t Go Home Again was very much a work-in-progress, with the filmmakers reinventing the concept as they went along. It is rare to see such a great artist as Nicholas Ray captured in the act of creation.

3. How have both films affected your feelings about Nick Ray?

Helpern’s documentary seems essential for understanding Ray’s methodology and ideology. Ray has always been concerned with outsiders banding together, surrogate families on the fringe of society, and particularly youth culture. You see this on-screen in Rebel Without a Cause, with the trio of James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. And even in something like Wind Across the Everglades, you can sense that Ray has sympathy for Burl Ives and his rag-tag group of poachers — they are supposed to be the villains, but there’s such a fascination with their own communal laws and rituals. And with We Can’t Go Home Again, Ray really made a connection between life and art like never before in his career. His students and he really did come together. Their work was their life, and vice versa.

4. How did it come about that you were able to invite Ray’s daughter and collaborators to speak at this screening?

Last fall I reviewed We Can’t Go Home Again for Not Coming to a Theater Near You, and was surprised to receive comments from Susan Ray (his widow), as well as his students Leslie Levinson and Tom Farrell (both of whom will be speaking at the event). Steve Holmgren (UnionDocs programmer) and I just started sending out emails to Ray’s family and collaborators. Some of them were even on Facebook. They would suggest other people to contact, which was also very helpful. Everyone was extremely willing to get involved.

5. What are you most curious to ask them about?

I wonder what the first day of class was like — did he actually take roll call? Mark people as tardy? I’m interested in how Ray navigated the educational line, if at all, since it started out as technically a college course. I know there were clashes with the administration, and at some point they all moved off campus together. This also comes off as an intensely personal film, not just for Ray, but for everyone. I’m really curious to see what the project meant for them at the time, and how they feel about it now. And, of course, there is always the itching desire to try and understand how the film ultimately fell apart, seeing as how it was never properly released, and Ray continued to tinker with its editing. Letting go of something so close to you couldn’t be so easy, for all of them.