While Nicholas Ray was directing the bloated and misbegotten epic 55 Days at Peking, he had a dream that if he made the film, he would never complete another feature. The dream turned out to be true. His subsequent work would consist of numerous abortive projects-to-be, as well as The Janitor, a short episode of an erotic compendium film, Wet Dreams, the ironically-titled Nick's Movie, largely directed and finished after Ray's death by Wim Wenders, and the project that came closest to fruition, but not quite—We Can't Go Home Again.
Incidentally, one thing makes Ray's prophetic dream somewhat less uncanny—he had had it a number of times before, on previous shoots.
We Can't Go Home Again took its title, rephrased, from Thomas Wolfe, and its cast and crew from Ray's students at SUNY Binghamton, where he was teaching. Ray felt, or claimed to feel, that the best way for the students to learn about cinema would be to assist him in making a film. The project grew, evolved, changed out of all recognition, shrugging off subjects, titles and themes, moving through different formats and never quite coalescing into a final form.
Back to 55 Days at Peking: Ray was removed from the film midway, and accounts vary wildly as to why. A heart attack was mentioned, as well as a nervous breakdown. Ray's alcoholism was out of control (he was consuming copious quantities of a powerful Italian digestif, in the mistaken belief that this was an alternative to hard liquor) and a strange indecisiveness was hampering his work. Not only directing the film, he was overseeing work on the amorphous, unfinished script, and playing the small role of the American ambassador. At one point, a character suggests that the ambassador is suffering from a "diplomatic illness." Perhaps the same was true of Ray.
But that indecision stayed with Ray and played a role in the disintegration of some of his most promising projects, including a version of Dylan Thomas's The Doctor and the Devils, which attracted the interest of James Mason (Ray's star and producer on Bigger Than Life) and then lost him when Ray changed the story beyond recognition. Ray was too smart, too interested in the process of drama, too sensitive and too internally conflicted to commit himself anymore to a single choice. All avenues had to be explored.
But how to make a film without making choices? In a way, film directing is decision-making. Obviously, some conclusions had to be reached. But, on one level, We Can't Go Home Again can be seen as a gigantic exercise in keeping options open. It's shot in multiple formats: 35mm, 16mm, Super-8, video, designed to be projected at once on a single screen. The story began as one thing, started changing to another, never quite came together. Part scripted, part improvised.
Cullen Gallagher suggests that the film can be viewed as the outward manifestation of Ray's physical and mental breakdown. A symptom and perhaps a cause: Ray's familiar eyepatch first appeared at this time, after the stress of the shoot caused him to blow a blood vessel. God knows what it did to his mind. From another perspective, mental collapse could be the film's subject, and it's filmed from the inside. The fragmented screen, the intense rushes of colour that infuse the images, seemingly at random, the stop-start scenes and playfully abstract editing rhythms: the only real dramatic conflict that matters is the struggle between the film's desire to break apart, and the weaker desire to cling together.
Ray screened various versions of the film, continuing to work on the footage until his death: two different cuts were known to exist, but the last known assembly appears to have been lost, leaving only an earlier and apparently inferior version. With problems synchronizing the various projectors (whose whirring competes for attention with the film's soundtrack) and getting the images to match each other in brightness, the film cannot be considered a finished work. Perhaps it could never have been finished, and perhaps that's inherent in its form. It's not a comfortable film to watch. It goes beyond a mere head-fuck. It's a head-cluster-fuck. The multiple images suggest the POV of a dying fly with a migraine, its life flashing before its eyes. Coming after the immaculate imagery of Rebel Without a Cause or The Savage Innocents, it's enough to induce heartache and depression, but at the same time there's a wild optimism in the desperate clutching at some new form, new dramatic language, a transcendent rebirth of cinema, something that can't be articulated by the artist or even suggested by the raw footage unspooling before us, except as a dream that is visibly striving to come true.
Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.