Friday, November 04, 2011
Odin's Last Stand: WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN
A great experimental film premiered on TCM last week from Nicholas Ray, which he shot in the late 1960s-early 70s with his film class while teaching at an upstate NY school. Along the way Nick may not have made a real film per se, but he created a communal spirit, pulled his entire class out of their other courses and into his decaying orbit, for better and worse, drank in excess, smoked "quantity," had affairs with coeds and generally--as was his wont since the beginning of his long tortured career--alternated between being a benevolent pied piper and a manipulative tyrant. His younger wife sums it up eloquently in her accompanying documentary, and I paraphrase: Nick had passion and an obsessive focus on the project at hand, a focus that never wavered, even when the project was clearly not working, was never going to work, when it's a train wreck, out and out. And that's the difference between an artist and a non-artist, is the ultimate message here. Most of us just walk away from lost causes. For guys like Nick Ray, lost causes are the preferred kind. But is that Quixote-esque madness, true courage, or--perhaps--the terror of 'finishing' a project, and being forced to confront the empty page, the empty budget, the empty house, once more?
As time goes on, Nick and his class's ambiguously semi-finished collaborative collage WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN (1973-ish) becomes a self-reflexive right place / right time black hole. An old Hollywood outsider inspires and infuriates and exhausts an upstate New York crew of campus semi-radicals - and films same, and is in turn filmed by the class and his girlfriend, footage of which is swallowed back up into the thing itself (like mounting a serpent on the wall even as it's in the midst of swallowing you). There's smatterings of Ahab, Manson, Colonel Kurz, and Long John Silver in Nicholas Ray's inexorable creative drive as he charges boldly into the abyss of 'semi documentary' ala MEDIUM COOL, GIMME SHELTER, BILLY JACK, I AM CURIOUS YELLOW and so on. He's the kind of film teacher you both hope for and fear, since he has you convinced that if you fail to follow him over the lip of madness then you must not really want to be filmmaker. He'd be great if you needed an ennabler - someone who'll always be drunker and up later than you, and yet never is late to the cutting room (since he never leaves). Whether pretending to hang himself or coaxing tears and anguish from his actors he's always a little bit Norman Maine from A STAR IS BORN, ever a stone's throw from the long swim as he grooms the next generation with a love born of mortal desperation. Left to his own devices, he'd be editing and re-editing this film forever, it's a maze he created just to get lost in, and like therapy, you know you've graduated when you've worked up the nerve to leave him to it. You graduate when you learn to do the one thing he can't teach you, to fucking quit.
Maybe that's all art is, in the end, a moment in maze where you either say hello or goodbye to the guidewho'll either get you lost (if you're stagnant in your foundhood), or found if you're lost too long in the wilderness. Maybe it's because the insane need to always have an ending, a way out, open to them, at least in their imagination. And for Nick it's at the end of a rope or a gun, far less terrifying than the credits of his current work. I'm reminded also of the Buddhist monks brushing their elaborate sand mandalas back to muddy sand and Welles' tinkering with the edits and sound on each and every film post-KANE until it's snatched from his hands by impatient producers and hacked back into some semblance of order by a sane, orderly profiteer; or drunken De Kooning in his early years, painting over and over on a single canvas with the same paint simply because he has neither the money nor sobriety required to judge it finished and/or the ability to replace it with a blank one. This kind of compulsive behavior when harnessed to genuine art is unstoppable. And it can't fail because it avoids judgment - it's the work in progress - the "previews" for plays, the test screenings for films that would die ignobly if opened up to critical judgment.
The unfinished work fills the void no amount of sex and possessions ever could. Nicholas Ray's film is a success because he worked on it long enough that he could distract his mania and so could catch some winks. It's a success because he wasn't dead before he could finish it. It's a success because it's still not finished. It has no terms to be accepted by. It's simply a a con game, wherein a wily old visionary cheats the reaper, one last time.
Does the finished product of WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAN amount to anything? Compared to what? The only ideal way to see it would be at four in the morning at a small university projection room with the people who made it, a thick haze of pot and tobacco smoke, and co-eds in thick beards and glasses sitting cross-legged in the aisles, passing jugs of wine, with Nick Ray sitting behind you, yelling at the projector or the screen, entering and exiting the room to compliment his entrances and exits in the film - sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose, and with actors onscreen showing up with beards one reel, then shaven the next, it taking a few beats to recognize which guy passing Nick the film cans and taking the others away, is the same dude. But on TCM in your living room, on your modern day utopian sofa, the film's relevance will depend on where your own head is at: are you a filmmaker yourself, one who perhaps chooses self-reflexivity and post-modern metatextuality as your mise-en-scene, since it ensures the sets are always free, the actors always present?
I wish I had Ray's mania and am glad I don't. Something inside me keeps me from ever letting go of the rope as I descend into the abyss that Ray jumps into, always, headfirst, holding onto the rope only because it calms him to think any moment things get too demonic he can use it to hang himself and escape. WE CAN'T GO HOME practically dares the audience to dive in after him, right through the screen. He even left us a wide open hole, woven open by a patchwork ring of images of unrest. Just stick your head through, and let his old Hollywood gravity snap you through the flames.