Suicide Scrawl: Nicholas Ray's "We Can’t Go Home Again"

Nick Ray's genre of everyday life.
David Phelps

“I didn’t know who to believe—my parents or the television set.” — We Can’t Go Home Again ('73 cut)

“On the one hand, Ray has a knack for disrupting smooth sequences with odd interpolations… a sense of trying to carve out some space for immediacy and spontaneity inside institutionalized patterns of construction. But against this is a proclivity for heavy symbolic underlining and general schematization, which place the individual movements of the films within thickly determined contours” — B. Kite, Bigger Than Life: Somewhere in Suburbia

“Salvation is a private affair.” — Jacques Rivette, On Imagination

Nicholas Ray

Some thoughts crystallized around We Can’t Go Home Again.


In retrospect, Nicholas Ray can seem as much like the last great Hollywood romantic as the first serious parodist of a generation, Godard, Oshima, Ruiz, still to come: anatomizing genre structure and hallmarks not to show the extension of personal philosophy into any world (Hawks at home in Westerns, comedies, noirs), but to match his characters’ own synthetic, treehouse fantasy worlds with his own; to match their explosion of their worlds with his own; to match these dual impulses, of simulation and self-destruction, as the parodying of a world they mean to reject but lack the terms to do so. Almost inevitably, Ray’s heroes run up against neatly constructed worlds, of which even the most naturalized and spontaneous (Hot Blood, Wind Across the Everglades, Savage Innocents) are built on rituals of violence and consumption. The heroes’ journeys from outsider, audience surrogates to unreliable narrators follow some impulse of love and death to the point where it bursts all cultural codes, even as the hero becomes a mock-image of a world he can’t live within and can’t live without. With Brecht’s followers—Lang, Losey—Ray is one of the few Hollywood directors who can leave an audience horrified at its own sympathies.

And yet the cultural codes by which Ray’s heroes live and die—customs of a local society—become the stylistic codes of Ray’s films as well, even the codes he overthrows: noirs, Westerns, and even ethnographic surveys provide a framework for his characters both to emulate and explode. In Rebel without a Cause, Jim Stark spurns his parent’s bourgeois home so he can play house with a simulated-wife and simulated-child. Bigger Than Life’s Ed Avery becomes a demi-god of his own imagination but the film’s as well: branching shadows, high over the genuflecting camera, he becomes his own hallucinated cliché, and the film’s as well—the monster of the living room. The constant snow of On Dangerous Ground, almost dimensionless, beyond any real time or place, plays as alienating a world as the continual minutiae of the city life of the film's first third—though it’s the alienation of the outdoors, as in Ray’s wilderness films, that sanctions off the lovers, blindly, from anything but each other.

Each new world becomes the old in new vocabulary and dress. For a director who made so many movies about tools of society flouting their inherited culture, his styles can seem so deliberately inherited that they’re less products of a worldview—Ray’s own, whatever it is—than products of whatever world it is he’s filming. So an often baroque director shows something like a documentarian’s humility to his stuff, in the artifice necessary to respond to an artificial world: even Johnny Guitar, like almost all of Ray’s films, in nearly unsubstantiated style, puts itself at the service of its characters’ dreams.

Ray’s Romanticism can sound a lot like Anthony Mann’s, borne from post-war anguish, “pressurized by the apocalypse and ready to explode” (one ripe summation), for irreconcilable lovers instead of individuals, for emotional, physical, and social cripples making overwrought bids for normalcy and respect. Like Mann’s characters, Ray’s tend to follow the violence of a violent world until they can transcend its limits altogether—while extra-vulnerable to it the entire film. But where Mann’s characters seem like they rise from the ashes of their own hatred, a lot of the time Ray’s seem stuck with emotion as genre baggage: emotion is the product of a part played in a story, a part they’ve been called to play. They can try to ignore this imposition and live out their lives (The Lusty Men, Bitter Victory, Savage Innocents), or they can try to deal with it unsuccessfully within the framework of everyday life: Jim Stark drinks a glass of milk at the height of melodrama.

However “true” the feeling for rage can seem against chummy convention in the heroes of In a Lonely Place or Bigger Than Life, it’s impossible to say whether their battle is against their own instinct or the outside world. There’s none of Mann’s fatalism in Ray’s films: Bogart is victim to impulse, but his impulse comes as sudden outbursts, doomed thrusts for freedom in a sedentary life, rather than an all-consuming hunger sublimated into every action and decision. For all his inner torment, the character is less a psychological study, facing a neat moral dilemma à la Kazan, than the sum of intonations and gestures of a man or woman acting the only he or she can. Whatever suffering Bogart, Dean, and Mason share, it’s the suffering of guys, each different, living the only lives they know how. And so as soon as Ray appears in his favorite guises of alien cool to an unfeeling world—the lover in exile, emotional fount, reckless broker of “man’s inner violence,”—the romantic’s impulse towards self-annihilation, as the ultimate act of will-to-power, can look something else too: a self-effacing artist who insists his worlds can only be judged in their own terms, but that still they must be judged.


From We Can’t Go Home Again’s opening titles (“A Film By Us”) to its extended closing, as Ray imitates suicide to release his film to its real student makers, Ray seems to pivot his movie on his own self-effacement, even as he projects four syncopated image-tracks onto a mock-movie screen against a few rotating backgrounds. The film is Ray’s—he is the narrator (in this version), the arranger, and seemingly the wellspring of images so disparate to be some sort of stream-of-consciousness—and the film is not Ray’s: written and performed by his students, the footage sounds largely improvised, the result of documentary footage, personal interrogation, and on-the-fly bricolage. One intermittent subject is parents and children: the kids, Vietnam generation, love their parents but can’t respect them, and Ray becomes his own unreliable narrator who’s not much better. Nobody’s sure they want him around, and his propulsive grillings and directions turn him into one more authority figure in what he called “a generation of betrayers.” Ray’s movie just nicks the self-hagiography of other late-life self-portraits, with their constant play of self-projection—Film Portrait, Truth and Illusion, A Tale of Wind, As I Was Moving Ahead—by insisting its author, whatever kind of guardian angel he is to guide audience and actors, must be overthrown.

So the split-screen process requires a grand overseer to concatenate the pieces into some coherent formal order, at the same time it unsettles any notion of a single narrator to guide us through a world moment-by-moment, site-by-site, in any order of space and time. So many tonal registers are covered simultaneously by We Can’t Go Home that it can feel like the work of four artists at once: one character’s breakdown offset by another’s horseplay, just as doc footage of political rallies is framed as a character’s dream, and self-flagellating monologues are framed as doc footage of actors’ exercises. Most of the footage exists on such a broad spectra of documentary-fiction gradations that the difference between the dramatic rebelling of student protestors and the dramatic rebelling of a student troupe have less to do with which is more “true” and “real,” when everything is subject to the smeary abstractions of the film’s video synthesizer, than the ways a generation tries to expose itself to a outside world—an audience made up seemingly of each other in this doomed, collective fantasy. Under Ray’s occasional voice-over and fragmented song, the movie exists almost like a series of alien objects projected continuously, beyond any stable source, onto the film’s screen-within-a-screen.

A few years before Numéro Deux, We Can’t Go Home Again feels like a narrative disintegrated into its constitutive elements at the same time it’s like a democracy of images. Ray’s internal montage within sequences plays as much as a patchwork, with sound splices to make the simplest shot-reverse-shots disjunctive, as his external montage linking these image-tracks together—so much that sequences occasionally ricochet around the tracks as if their signals have been crossed and characters from one world have entered another. For sound, Ray redubs improvised scenes so totally that they can seem like alternate tellings of the same event. In this triple montage—internal-image, external-image, sound—of a few characters battling similar problems, living similar lives, alternate scenes of repeated arguments, songs, and debates fracture into the echoes of characters and voices projected into each other’s scenes. Or another way of looking at it: as if these small glimpses of everyday life have been unitized into formal motifs to be redeployed for rhythm.

Why should real life be set to a faulty, bebop beat of stuttering, rephrased monologues, long-deferred reaction shots, and jump cuts in and out of black? And why should it be lyrical, with a clarinetist playing to the dusk; a hooded elder who climbs a hill to the sounds of a girl’s lulling; Ray in winter, superimposed against himself, dressed as Santa Claus crossing a Binghamton highway as if towards himself? All of Ray’s images move in and against the abstraction of the video synthesizer that will turn them into red, analogue scrims or smears of light like a projector’s—even seeming to project the next image over. But it’s an abstraction on par with his holding shots a beat too long, and all the montage’s disjunctions: a way of isolating the person from the narrative and seeing them for how they look, not in the right light, but a light, just as we see how they look in the context of one possible narrative—into which they look to have been stitched from some other. Each image seems to project the other, openly, as Ray superimposes a projectionist against a girl lit in the shadows of a film.

As much as the movie plants a wedge between narrative and event, Ray is maybe the only Hollywood filmmaker to see how Hollywood storytelling and the American avant-garde could be reconciled: ways to gauge facts of everyday existence against an ideal, abstracted form that turns man into an iconographic figure, a figure of genre or a figure of light.

This abstraction becomes a matter of context—of lighting, of montage, of current history—in dealing with the stuff of daily life as it’s cast into set images and parts to play. At the same time it takes genre and abstraction to undo all the roles men have cast themselves into, and make them something both more universal and local: images of certain people in certain expressions and colors in a particular time and place as they shape-shift from one expression to another. According to Susan Ray, Ray’s theme was “the search for self-image—and it’s as dangerous as a riot.”

In Ray, lyricism is like a form of resistance—We Can’t Go Home Again is paced in these pockets of rogue tenderness that belie the big themes and issues defining the characters in their era. The film becomes the culmination of Ray’s suspension of characters in spaces for prolong periods of downtime, before cutting them back into action: a reckless editing that treats moods like transitional states open to contemplation, rather than character-revealing moments of crisis.

“Hope that the unpolished aspect of their performance will be seen for what it is as real and as a representation of a representation,” said Ray. A favorite image here, used as counterpoint to the main drama, is of drama itself, stage performers and masked player that can quietly mock the actors’ method intensity (no more true than a mask), while emphasizing Ray’s main concern for some theatricality (“help me! Noone’s helped me! I’m always ugly!”) that’s a purer distillation of life than life itself. It’s the mask-likeness of sobbing, laughing, hysterical revelations that’s as revealing as any pretense of naturalism in what’s being said; the characters are less the balance-beams of Kazan’s big issues than the emotional slow-burners of Garrel or Ferrara, characters treated not as characters, but bodies and flares of light, going about their everyday actions in the midst of a genre movie. But here the genre looks like reality.


We Can’t Go Home Again opens with the violent ’68 Democratic convention in Chicago, and for the first few minutes, Ray seems to be picking up on Abel Gance’s notion of split-screen to show all the things that happen around a movie’s world: the drama of the protagonists in the center, the context of the era and supporting characters in the wings. But the credits—a person for each of the film’s four panels—turn the split-screen into a small community of images, dispersed past any central position, and the movie will continue this way for most of its running time, never quite favoring one image over another. Of course it plays within standard binaries of inside and outside, content and form: if one image is the thinker, the other seems to be his thought; if one image is the drama depicted figuratively, the other is the drama drawn abstractly; if one image is of a house’s exterior, as the film shows at one point, it must be superimposed with its interior as well to give the effect that when one opens the door onto the house, one opens the whole house to his sight as well. Inside/outside: the abstract street sequences punctuating We Can’t Go Home Again, pom-poms of speeding lights, seem like carry-overs from They Live By Night, as if the movie can go anywhere within its world, open any door and walk on into a scene.

Two worlds are held up as counterpoint. As the worlds of reality and dream in Rebel Without A Cause, On Dangerous Ground, Bigger Than Life and the rest that end up showing each as the other’s echo. But each of these images has its own weight, so that the two players in masks, acting symbols on-stage and even placed as symbols of the squabbling couples below, aren’t treated symbolically at all, but as another unit in the branching drama: as two of the characters who have donned masks at a local performance, and been captured by Ray’s documentary. Each image is treated as its own image, nearly dyssynchronous from the rest, that one image can only counterpoint a second as much as a second counterpoints the first. All the film’s allegories of the filmmaking-as-society—the exploitation, tyrannies, and role-playing enabled by a production line trafficking in human souls as mobile capital—don’t come across as parables so much as case studies. They simply give the terms in which relationships have been made to operate. So wider society is also just a reflection of the film process, and it becomes difficult to say what’s the thought and what’s the thinker when both the rebel and the rebellion are products of each other—and riot footage, no more true than two actors donning masks, is framed as the dream of a duller reality.

And because We Can’t Go Home comes out of a duller reality than its characters might plead for in their outbursts, there’s room to incorporate not only the romantic jealousies, venereal diseases, and prostitution surrounding the movie's production, but, all throughout, Ray’s travails with his eye patch and one character’s (Tom’s) response to his own beard. Each plays parts: the eye-patch figures in Ray’s estrangement, while the beard gives Tom away as a phony cop and rebukes the clean-shaved face of his police detective dad. When Tom cuts it off barbarically, it is the end of an era: not because the beard is meaningful or symbolic, but because it’s meaningful and symbolic to him.

Scorsese’s The Big Shave a few years before had given a similar situation, in which a shave turns into a bloody self-debasement—hippiedom turning to war—and, at some point, a convenient metaphor for Vietnam returning home to soil America’s anodyne façade with all the blood shed in the name of its image. But where The Big Shave is effective for its nonsense—its one event can’t really be taken as anything but a symbol—We Can’t Go Home Again spins so many connections that none can dominate as the true intention. Tom shaves in a larger image and gains the soundtrack panting and snipping. In a small image to the right, a cavalcade drives by an assembly of waving onlookers. A cut to a policeman and dog, as Tom nearly squeals, and another cut to the police dragging a body on the road. The JFK assassination—the end of an era—or the memories of a policeman’s son of his father in action as Tom returns to a fallen world?

Tom, still in frame-left, clenches his wrists and keeps shaving; after an interval of black, the twinkle of light on river-spume pops up frame-right in an unmoving shot like abstracted film grain. The camera pans along a new stream of water, then cuts to a boy kneeling by something like water, and after a shot of duck on the water, cuts to a bearded man who peers over a walking bridge onto the stream like the kid before. If these are simply Tom’s memories of a boy growing into a man in a single cut—or the film’s imagination of a boy and man, caught as documentary footage, now figured as one cogent  Tom-character—the figures by the stream seem as contemplative as the shaver, and as likely to be pondering him as he is them. But there’s a question of why Tom the savage shaver would be imagining tranquil streams at all.

We Can’t Go Home Again’s own liquidity seems one of its primal sources, and quickly Tom the shaver is abstracted into waves of light undulating while the stream-gazer gazes and a drone goes on droning; when the soundtrack returns to the shaving scene, Tom has turned the sink on, and this cue of running water brings the right image-track, the gleaming stream, into the left as a now completely liquid superimposition with the abstract waves. Was it the sound of the sink for Tom that cued this timeless, placeless memory of running water from other memories of the streaming motorcade? Maybe. In any case Tom’s self-image as he shaves his beard becomes as fluid as it must, submitted to all combinations of color, shape, and texture. A crystalline realization through murky waters: Tom appears again without distortion on his own, seen as he sees himself. As the image of a naked girl in the film, even a girl trotting downstairs nude, seems able to launch love affairs and jealousies, Tom’s end as a hippie marks the end of an era and the strange, paradoxical hope that these characters will be liberated from any preset images when they can finally see themselves. As for Tom, he is a character who shaves, and a character who pauses when passing over bridges, and in both cases a kind of dramatic hero.


We Can't Go Home Again

So to one parodist’s saying that history is a nightmare, from which I’m trying to awake, Ray responds with a suicide note near the end of We Can’t Go Home to say it’s up to the dreamers to dream themselves alive:

 “I have been interrupted. She’s right, Richie, let him sleep for a short time. Not too long a time, just long enough to get back his dream. The floodgates are opening and the water is rushing like people against the dams and the goddamns. But waken him in time. Take care of each other; it is your only chance for survival. All else is vanity—and let the rest of us swing.”

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