We Can’t Go Home Again (1972/2011)
A Film By Nicholas Ray
If you know Nicholas Ray, it’s probably because you’ve viewed his quintessential teen angst film, Rebel Without a Cause. Perhaps if you’re a cinephile, you’ve dug into In a Lonely Place or They Live By Night, noirs that helped define the genre. You might know Mr. Ray as a director of men that fall against inescapable forces, anguished by their own destinies that trap them. But what happened to Mr. Ray? Where exactly does a man with such sound and fury disappear?
The answer, finally after forty years, is We Can’t Go Home Again, an experimental feature from 1972 that was Mr. Ray’s last narrative film. Thanks to his wife Susan Ray, We Can’t Go Home Again has been vividly brought to life in all, well, its mystique and confusion. Shot with students in Binghamton’s Harper College in upstate New York, We Can’t Go Home Again premiered to middling reviews and not much buzz in Cannes in 1973. Mr. Ray kept shooting footage and editing it until his death in 1979, and thanks to Mrs. Ray, we now can explore a filmmaker who instead of continued the traditions that defined his career, ended with something quite different.
From the start, We Can’t Go Home Again sets itself as a wholly experimental feature for the get go, employing four projections at once (a press conference with some of the student filmmakers that worked with Mr. Ray explained it was originally projected with four and then captured on the projected wall). Mr. Ray, talking in a voiceover about the 68 Chicago riots, talks about his escape to Northern New York to teach a class. Ken Jacobs, the famed experimental filmmaker, ran the department, so it seems likely that the film would not follow classical narrative format.
And thus documentary becomes fiction and visa versa, as we see Mr. Ray gathering his students to teach film by making a film themselves. Mr. Ray is a gigantic figure, often wearing his eye patch (he was blind in one eye) and making cinematic references to himself. In one scene, where he contemplates suicide, he mutters, “I’ve made 10 westerns but I have no idea how to tie a noose.”
This is surely a film that is a brainchild of the 1960s movement trying to hold onto its last legs. The stories of the kids are often about their insecurities and their rebellious nature, but often you get the sense that anything and everything is up for grabs, including clown sex (nudity is of course a given). Often we see a scene where they discuss the scene they just shot, just in case you didn’t get that it was all a film.
What is more fascinating is the filmmaking itself, watching the same scene from multiple angles, or perhaps shots of a riot juxtaposed with an intense monologue. Your eyes have to make actual choices in We Can’t Go Home Again of how to read information and what information to read. Color is never naturalistic; some sequences are either poorly restored, or more likely, made to resemble an acid trip instead. And frames clash, grow in size, move around, and challenge all the classical ideas of how to watch.
There are a few scenes that resemble Mr. Ray’s earlier work, particularly an intense monologue where a student shaves while discussing his ambivalent relationship with his father that’s a policeman, but otherwise We Can’t Go Home Again feels like it was truly a new step for Mr. Ray into a different type of filmmaking, one deriving from the avant-garde tradition than the Hollywood one he began. It’s sad that it was his last step; it feels like an incomplete work of art that has much to say, but no idea how to say it.