YEAR IN FILM: Contemplating the filmmaker as teacher
One of the year's most significant film restorations originated in a comparable workshop environment. Nicholas Ray arrived at SUNY Binghamton in 1971 not having directed since 55 Days at Peking (1963). As in Kuchar's workshops, he took his students as collaborators: everyone rotated production jobs and worked toward the common ends of We Can't Go Home Again, an unspooled picture of dissolution spanning the election years of 1968 and 1972. The workshop process became central to the psychodrama itself. As in other films of the era by John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, and Shirley Clarke, the filmmaking style dives deep into breakdown narratives: he and four students charting out self-destructing versions of themselves.
In Leo Tolstoy's prescriptive essay "Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us, or Are We to Learn from the Peasant Children?", the great Russian author dramatizes his teaching experience to show how an attuned instructor can enrich a student's intrinsic sense of harmony. Ray evinces a similar degree of trust in his pupils, but towards the ends of drawing out their intrinsic disharmony (this was Nixon time, after all). The composition of the drama and the drama itself bleed into one another; performance is inescapable, the film grasping how the phrase "the personal is political" was reversing itself.
We Can't Go Home Again — which plays in a restored and reconstructed version along with Susan Ray's contextualizing documentary Don't Expect Too Much at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in January 2012 — was long thought unsalvageable for both technical and artistic reasons. Ray conceived the film as a multi-projector performance, with several streams of narration playing simultaneously and various 16 mm/Super 8 mm frames affecting a kind of cinematic Guernica. The limitations of the novice crew are readily apparent, though the amateur acting likely plays differently in our present media environment. Ray continued to tinker long after presenting a version at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and the present reconstruction doesn't claim to be definitive. It does, however, make Ray's vision a feasible if still challenging theatrical proposition.
As always in the director's work, the characters' emotions are primary and sharply defined in space. Vulnerable figures reach across their loneliness; improvised family units emerge from the ashes of corruption and betrayal. The thin veneer of middle-class reality that gives 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and 1956's Bigger Than Life their magnificent tension is gone, leaving only the characters' own psychological mirrors and Ray himself clad in James Dean's red jacket. Student Tom Farrell is the last of Ray's boy angels, a bewildered innocent suffering moral estrangement from his policeman father (whom he loves). The agonizing close-up in which he shears his beard in front of both a mirror and Ray's camera is both visceral and symbolically telling, the beating heart of the film.
Though deeply marked by shame and pain, We Can't Go Home Again also has a comic streak. The counterculture dream is pictured as eating raw cauliflower without any pants on. As he prepares to act out his suicide Ray mutters to himself, "I made ten goddamned westerns, and I can't even tie a noose." Of course this kind of flaunted martyrdom requires its own vanity, which might lead one to wonder about the lasting impact of Ray's teaching — that is, whether his ferocious movie might have superseded the students' learning.