Friday, September 30, 2011

NYFF 2011: We Can't Go Home Again (1976, restored 2011)

In quite possibly the internet's only juxtaposition of Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar) and George Lucas (Howard the Duck and some other films), let's consider two of their lesser-known works: Ray's experimental 1976 We Can't Go Home Again, and, less than a year later, Lucas's modest Star Wars. Despite their releases, both directors have continuously tinkered with their films: Ray was re-editing We Can't Go Home Again when he died in '79; Lucas has just re-released Star Wars and its obscure sequels in several subtlely different versions. Likewise, there's a new version of We Can't Go Home Again for the New York Film Festival and fall 2011 release. Since you can't buy action figures for Nicholas Ray's film ("Girl without Pants!" "Shaggy Guy with Shaveable Beard!"), let's examine that movie, okay?

Nicholas Ray became estranged from the movie industry in the 1960s—alcohol use and flop films helped cement the end of his Hollywood career. In 1971, recommended by his friend Dennis Hopper, Ray took a teaching position in filmmaking at Binghamton University. The project he and his students created over the next two years became We Can't Go Home Again, an exceptionally hallucinatory and highly experimental film over overlapping images, sounds, and character arcs on a variety of film size and stock. It's both unsettling and thought-provoking: an overlapping collage with split-screen images (perhaps influenced by and building on its growing use in the late 1960s in motion pictures like The Thomas Crown Affair, Woodstock, and Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls). Figures are heavily polarized both figuratively and literally: as they talk, bicker and confront, the screen breaks into overexposed, out-of-sound-synch images, color burning and flaring up like the tensions of Ray's students, a community that feels at times like a cult.

This is no easy film to watch, but is that the point? Ray captures the furor, anger, and unrest of the times both visually and thematically, even in less experimental scenes. In one of the few full-frame, non-synthetized scenes, a student walks with Ray to a bar, balling his fist and taking swings that don't connect at Ray just out of his vision. "I wanted to see if you were really blind in that eye." We Can't Go Home Again is not a documentary, but it feels more immediate and real than a whole cartload of docs. Confusing, controversial, and challenging, it is a series of punches right at us past our faces: the representation in all its non-linear reality of youth culture of the post-1960s.

Ray's continuing work with the film right through his death has been continued by his wife Susan Ray to result in the current cut. Accompanying this release is Don't Expect Too Much, Susan Ray's directed documentary of the tangled and controversial history of Ray and his final film.

We Can't Go Home Again opens at the New York Film Festival on October 2. Both We Can't Go Home Again and Don't Expect Too Much will air on Turner Classic Movies in late October and will be screened at festivals and art firm houses across the US in late 2011, followed by DVD in 2012.

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