It’s tempting to argue that the making of the notorious lost Nicholas Ray experimental film We Can’t Go Home Again is more compelling than the film itself, but the making of the film essentially is the film. Ray made it with and about his students while teaching film in the early ’70s after his career as an A-list studio director had died, and the film makes a point of blurring the line between fact and fiction, documentary and narrative, behind-the-scenes drama and the quivering, overheated emotions shown onscreen. So it’s perfect that Oscilloscope’s release of the film is paired with a documentary about its making that is wryly and tellingly titled Don’t Expect Too Much. The documentary comes courtesy of Ray’s widow, Susan, who also worked closely with him on the making of We Can’t Go Home Again.
With this film, Ray was intent on “breaking the rectangle” of conventional film staging through the use of split screens, experimentation, and even a weird new instrument called the video synthesizer that colorizes frames so that they look like trippy kaleidoscopic acid freak-outs, but his ambitions went far beyond that. He wanted to reinvent cinema, to replace acting with living and stories with pulsating, unpredictable reality. Ray went from making the ultimate youth film in Rebel Without A Cause to attempting to make a movie with the real-life equivalents of James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo’s brooders, iconoclastic dreamers out of step with glum adult conformity. Ray had long been a hero and idol of the French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard. With We Can’t Go Home Again, he was attempting a new kind of cinema employing Godardian working methods, Godardian goals, and Godardian content. It’s a fascinating work of intergenerational communion in which the teacher becomes the student, and one of the most influential filmmakers in American film began to follow the rebels who worshiped him.
The film purposefully eschews a conventional plot—and, for that matter, linear comprehension—in favor of an abstract, empathetic, and nakedly emotional portrait of a generation at a crossroads. Though Ray took on a teaching position at SUNY Binghamton’s Harpur College that led to the film’s creation in 1971, We Can’t Go Home Again is very much about the dissolution and anxiety of a ’60s counterculture that was already fraying at the seams. Instead of a traditional narrative, the film gravitates toward individual moments of scorching intensity and unexpected connection, from Ray directing a student/protégé (Tom Farrell) as he tearfully cuts off a beard that is central to his identity, to an unexpectedly insightful confession from a student who sheepishly concedes that for all of their supposed decadence, he and his peers ultimately prefer food to sex.
No less an authority than film editor Walter Murch described We Can’t Go Home Again as the biggest mess he’d ever seen, but if Ray’s late-period obsession is a mess, it’s a vital, vibrant, electric mess that pulsates with empathy and ideas. Ray himself takes center stage in much of the film’s action, fulfilling the role of guru, father, sage, star-maker, teacher, and contemporary to his students. With his towering and dramatic appearance, which is enhanced by a pirate’s eye patch and a cult leader’s undeniable charisma, Ray almost single-handedly holds this squirming, squealing, incoherent experiment together through sheer magnetism. In that respect, the film sometimes suggests an experimental, tragicomic variation on movies like I Love You, Alice B. Toklas or Joe, where members of an older generation tap into the energy and electricity of a youth movement that is throttling the culture.
We Can’t Go Home Again alternates between extremes. It can feel revolutionary, tender, and true one moment and like a bad, leering parody of pretentious art movies the next. Ray and his erratic collaborators were operating without resources or a script, trying to transform the raw material of their lives into art, and the film doesn’t always succeed. Yet there is an unmistakable glory in its heroic over-reaching. It’s an unexpectedly moving elegy to the ’60s from an artist with unique insight into the angst of young people. We Can’t Go Home Again ends with a quote from Ray (“No one does it alone, not even the madness.”) that poignantly comments on the noble aims of a project that found his madness melding with the madness of his students and the madness of the times to create a film that at its best feels like a waking dream.
Key features: Extended interviews with Jim Jarmusch and Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, a pair of Ray’s short films (“The Janitor” and “Marco”), and a segment on the director from a CBS show called Camera Three highlight this generous extras package.