Poetry of the Mystic
High school peer of Joseph Losey. Student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Protégé of Elia Kazan. One-time pal of Manny Farber. Radio propagandist for the OSS. Director of some of the strangest, most delirious, passionate, other-worldly films to ever emerge from Hollywood. Such is the career of Nicholas Ray.
His work would have been difficult to classify at any point in the history of the cinema, but in the 1950s, with Hollywood attempting to redefine itself in a changing landscape, Ray’s successes seem even more radical. He emerged alongside Fuller, Minnelli, and Sirk as filmmakers born of their specific moments while also transcending them. Indeed, those three, like Ray, were directors whose styles bloomed in the late 40s, exploded in the 50s, and faded away at the dawn of the 60s. Such easy categorization certainly belies the greatness of works like Two Weeks in Another Town and White Dog—two Minnelli & Fuller films made after their 50s heydays—but unlike many of the other towering figures to begin directing in the years immediately following World War II, Ray, Fuller, Minnelli and Sirk belonged to the Eisenhower years. In their films, we find what that period really meant to America: the unspoken reality behind affluence and power.
If the 50s are so important to placing Ray within his social context, then why is he important in 2009? Film Forum’s near-complete retrospective this summer will help provide answers. He is a constant reminder of an artist attempting to defy business and express his inner passions; in other words, to reveal himself through his work. This is the quality that seems to have caused the Cahiers crowd to fall in love with him as passionately as they did. (Truffaut once said that Johnny Guitar was more important in his life than it was in Ray’s.) The constant war with studio brass had a great deal to do with Ray’s artistic failures, but it could also partly explain the delirious pleasure of his masterpieces. For one to be able to buck convention and get away with it is the sign of a rebel with a cause.
The power of those masterpieces comes from what Ray sought when making each film, from the event of its production to its life on the screen. Ray once said that “time and space play no role in the construction of a film.” He was legendary for paring scripts down to their essences and finding their inner magic with the actors. Indeed, he is the opposite of Tarkovsky: the Russian master shapes time into a material being, while Ray loosens it from any physical property. He commands physical space—along with the light, shadows, and colors that travel through it—to create a mystical, other, and perhaps better world. They are worlds in which patriarchy is subverted, freedom is achieved, and violence is suspended from time’s linear flow. They are worlds in which the forgotten of society—outlaws, artists, rodeo tramps, teenagers, Gypsies, Eskimos—have agency, and a voice. We see hope in On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, Hot Blood and Party Girl. We see nervous ambivalence in The Lusty Men, Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger than Life. We see crushing despair in They Live by Night and In a Lonely Place. Most important of all, however, we see that suspensions of the real world into something greater are always possible, if only for a fleeting moment outside the temporal realm. Robert Mitchum was right: Nicholas Ray was a mystic.
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.