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 created a communal spirit, basically pulled his class out of their other courses and into his decaying orbit. He drank in excess, had affairs with coeds and was alternately a benevolent instructor and a manipulative tyrant. His younger wife sums it up eloquently in her accompanying documentary, Nick had the passion and obsessive focus on a film that never wavers even when the project is not working, when it sucks, when it's a train wreck, and that's the difference between an artist and a non-artist. Most of us just walk away from lost causes.
As time goes on, 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 this film is the film of filming the film it's filmed. There's smatterings of Ahab, Manson, Colonel Kurz, and Long John Silver in Nicholas Ray's inexorable creative drive. He's the 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. Whether pretending to hang himself or coaxing tears and anguish from his actors he's 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. He could 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.
Maybe that's all art is, in the end, a maze because the insane need to always have an ending, a way out, open to them, at least in their imagination. 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 hack; 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, or to replace it with a blank one. This kind of compulsive behavior when harnessed to genuine art is unstoppable --it succeeds because it already has succeeded. It 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 principle photography.
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. 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 and without a rope except to hang himself with. 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, surrounded by a patchwork ring of images of fire and nooses. Just stick your head through, and let his gravity snap you through the flames.