"Sunday night at 9, the place to be is the New York Film Festival to see Nicholas Ray's film We Can't Go Home Again," declares the New Yorker's Richard Brody. At the top of its roundup, Alt Screen notes that "Ray himself worked on the film from its premiere in 1973, to his death in 1979; this restoration was undertaken by his widow, Susan Ray. Susan presents Don't Expect Too Much, her own film on Nick's life and work on Monday, Oct 3 at 8:30." Both films will return to the City for a single evening at Film Forum on Oct 17. Start with the Alt Screen roundup, then swing by the one from Venice. Here's a quick sampling of a few of the reviews that have appeared since both of them.
"Eight years after essentially collapsing on the set of 1963's 55 Days at Peking and long after having exhausted studio goodwill with his drug use and erratic reliability, Ray wound up teaching for a spell at upstate New York's Harpur College," writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. We Can't Go Home Again, "much of which consists of a variety of 16mm, 8mm and video-tweaked footage being projected onto a board, with a still photo backdrop occasionally changing in the background," is the film he made with his students, and it's "a serious head-rush of a career's worth of forcibly repressed ideas; many are goofy, but the energy's infectious…. Ray's first film, 1949's They Live by Night, opens with a fugitive couple and a hyperbolic but heartfelt title card: 'This boy... and this girl... were never properly introduced to the world we live in.' At the end of this film, another couple escapes from a barn while Ray swings from a noose while delivering a climactic monologue. 'Take care of each other,' he says, 'it is your only chance for survival.' The boy and girl race off together, on the run and homeless in a contemporary American landscape as heartless as the one that isolated Ray's first martyrs; for all the dated period charms, We Can't Go Home Again ends by connecting 30 years of onscreen teen alienation."
"At times it resembles an oddball, self-valorizing version of To Sir With Love, only this 'Sir' is preaching psychosexual and political liberation instead of clean clothes and good manners. It's an opportunity to see a celebrated auteur wrestling his demons to the end, but in terms of cinema, the Siren got a lot more out of Born to Be Bad."
"Beyond the whole exhausting experience of watching the film, it's full of 'yeah, man' hippie platitudes and a strong sensation that the technology wasn't quite up to the level of unbridled, unquestionably narcissistic creativity," adds Drew Taylor at the Playlist.
"The hippie histrionics are human, humorous in their posing and pretensions, and punctured on occasion by banalities, or Ray's tired but ornery confusion," writes the L's Mark Asch. "But their confusion is authentic: the students' screaming fights during sex scenes is augmented by reminders of the era's confounding politics (they're frequently juxtaposed with clips of 'Nam, Hanoi Jane, and Allen Ginsberg and the Young Republicans at the 1972 RNC in Miami) as their own experimental acting-out takes its psychic toll."
Back to Richard Brody: "Nicholas Ray, returned from a literal and figurative exile, made what may well have been the most advanced and audacious film of the era. The fact that it has been invisible for decades and is only now becoming available makes a viewing — and its release — all the more essential. To quote a now familiar line: It isn't that he was ahead of his time; he was in step with it when others were behind it."
Update, 10/3: Gabe Klinger's must-read in the new issue of Cinema Scope begins by more or less excusing Godard for his claim that Ray is cinema, then moves into an explanation for Ken Jacobs's declaring We Can't Go Home Again a "disaster." The film's "merits may seem apparent, champions of Ray's Hollywood phase have never challenged themselves to see beyond its inherent flaws (the technical sloppiness, the fact that it was never finished, etc.) Similarly, the avant-garde community, perhaps guided by Jacobs's vitriol, has always approached it with indifference, never quite willing to place it alongside the multi-screen experiments of Warhol, Harry Smith, and Godard. We Can't Go Home Again is truly one of the loneliest films; as such, its Venice premiere and subsequent rollout to festivals and cinematheques in a new digital master (Susan Ray has reported that no 35mm prints will be made) will present several high-profile opportunities for a critical re-evaluation. [Víctor] Erice, one of the film's few ardent champions, has asserted that 'time has done nothing but confirm the value of the film,' and perhaps he's right. As one of the supreme film maudits its appeal is undeniable, and seen next to Ray's chief Hollywood output, it offers surprising continuity to his central themes."