MUBI is currently showing throughout most of the world two wonderful Nicholas Ray films. One is his final film, uncompleted but beautifully restored and reconstructed, We Can't Go Home Again (1973). The other is a new documentary by Susan Ray, the filmmaker's widow, Don't Expect Too Much, that is a companion piece to this wildly experimental, collaborative feature. We are showing these two features to celebrate Ray and bring attention to The Nicholas Ray Foundation's Kickstarter project funding a new documentary on the filmmaker, ACTION! Master Class with Nicholas Ray.
UPDATE: After not making the previous project goal, a new Kickstarter projection for ACTION! can be found here. We highly encourage you to donate your support. From the project's description:
"In ACTION! you'll encounter Nick's charismatic presence as he shares his knowledge of what he called "the cathedral of the arts." He'll offer you, in his own words and voice, behind-the-scenes accounts from the sets of his classic films, along with insights as to how and why he did what he did in those memorable scenes—at the Planetarium in Rebel, for example.
He'll share specific techniques of the craft—how to move with the camera; how to direct the non-actor; how to handle props; how to work with sense memory—along with his vast experience and insights from a very full life in the arts. Nick's way of teaching belongs to the tradition going back to the guilds of the Middle Ages in which a craftsman, having mastered his craft, passes it on to his apprentices. He transmits in his teaching that elusive quality—wisdom—acquired through hard living, working, loving, and the willingness to own one’s mistakes."
ACTION! is the third and final part of the Foundation's Nicholas Ray Centenary Project. This project began with the restoration and reconstruction of We Can't Go Home Again, and was continued with Susan Ray's Don't Expect Too Much. Both films premiered at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently traveled to the New York Film Festival. For more information and impressions on the Venice premiere, see David Hudson's comprehensive roundup of commentary. David Phelps wrote a beautiful piece for us about We Can't Go Home Again from the NYFF. More recently, Bill Krohn wrote an incredible article on the film for Kino Slang.
We highly encourage you to explore these two special films, and to support The Nicholas Ray Foundation's Kickstarter. Susan Ray was kind enough to talk to us about the project, putting together We Can't Go Home Again and making her own film, as well as knowing Nicholas Ray, in the following interview with Ben von Cho.
Let’s start with the Kickstarter campaign you’ve got running, what’s it about for those uninitiated and why did you turn to crowdsourcing as a way of raising funds?
We’d like to raise funds to launch the third film of three comprising the Nicholas Ray Centenary Project, a film called ACTION! It will be a kind of master class with Nick, given that Nick avoided the confines of a classroom as much as possible.
Although I believe this film, over time, will become a standard for films about filmmaking, it’s unlikely to do gangbusters at the box office. We believe, if we can properly convey what this film is about, it has a good chance of stirring the curiosity and imagination of the viewing public, so that they’ll want to support it in a way that the usual sources of finance capital are unlikely to do, particularly in this economic climate.
You run the Nicholas Ray Foundation. How did that foundation come together and how did you assemble the Board of Advisers?
The Foundation came together around the intention of getting We Can't Go Home Again restored and out to the viewing public. Ever since Nick’s death in 1979, I’ve felt the imperative of getting that film off the shelf. I believe it’s a landmark work, a visionary work, both technically and in terms of content, and that it has things to tell us that relate very directly to the precarious state of the world today. After all, the kids in the film are now the same age Nick was when he worked with them. They—we—are now the generation in power. The issues we were dealing with in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and how we dealt with them, are in a direct, even causal relationship to where we find ourselves today.
Could you discuss the genesis of your film Don’t Expect Too Much and what the reaction to the film was from some of those who appeared in it? Did you encounter difficulties tracking down many of the students?
As We Can't Go Home Again was never finished, and it’s difficult for viewers to imagine beyond the unfinished work they see on the screen to what the director really had in mind, there seemed a need to offer the audience some background to We Can't Go Home Again, to let them know the unique circumstances under which the film was made and what the vision was that Nick had hoped to realize, both in terms of its singular visual style and its content.
Also I was interested in how the people who had been Nick’s students 40 years ago looked back on the experience and their teacher. I knew the experience of making WCGHA had been profound for every one of them, but I didn’t know how they’d each digested it nor how they feel about it now.
Also I wanted to learn more about my generation back then. Being with Nick, I lived an atypical life for someone my age, and I wanted to learn more about what was the more “normal” experience for my generation.
In short, I approached Don't Expect Too Much with many questions. But no, it was not so difficult to track down the students.
As for the original crew’s reaction to We Can't Go Home Again, in most cases my sense is that their feelings about the film were colored by their experiences in making it, which were powerful and not always comfortable. Many of the crew had held hope that somehow Nick would get them to Hollywood, find them jobs, make them rich and famous—never mind that he couldn’t get himself a job. A couple of the crew seemed able to watch the film with some detachment and appreciation for what Nick had given them; but to most I believe the film was a disappointment.
Don’t Expect Too Much had a very bittersweet aftertaste to it, like an elegy for a generation who never quite found the meaningful utopia they were looking for. Was this your own impression upon seeing the final cut of the film?
It would be more accurate to say it was my impression that led to the final cut of the film. It’s the story as it revealed itself to me. I do believe my generation to be both disappointed and disappointing. Somehow we didn’t manage to stand firm for what we claimed to believe in, and the results have been, well, devastating. I would add that we couldn’t stand firm because the forces we needed to stand firm against were huge, overpowering.
I think Don’t Expect Too Much has a jazzy structural approach to the material. Were there any particular documentaries or films that inspired or influenced you when you were conceptually planning the film?
The structural approach was more a product of the materials we were working with. As Nick would say, content determines form; form conditions content. I wanted to find and relate a story, more than a bunch of information. And a story did reveal itself, through the words of many. In some ways individual identity kept made second to the larger story as I understood it, but not entirely, at least I hope not.
What has been the reaction to your film from those who knew Nicholas Ray?
I don’t assume they would tell me directly, but what many did tell me was that they were relieved I was honest. I guess they expected a snow job. One close friend was very unhappy with the editing, felt it was far too clipped.
What were your thoughts on the way the students turned out and what they ended up doing with their lives? I thought it was fascinating how these students all thought they had a ticket to Hollywood when their new teacher showed up but the reality was quite different…
Honestly it made me sad that so many of them—not all, but many—in dealing with the complexity of Nick’s personality—which I admit was by no means easy—that so many of them weren’t able to acknowledge the love they’d been given. Nick had given himself completely to these young people. Yes, there were failings in the gift, but the heart was there, the giving was there. A teacher like that with heart for his students, a mastery of his craft, and a mind searching for truth—that’s bloody hard to find.
I’m sure there’s a multitude of filmmakers and critics who were willing to discuss Nicholas Ray but you opted for a small selection of interviewees in the film. Could you talk a little about the selection process for getting interviews from those who were not directly connected to We Can’t Go Home Again?
It was a practical one. We had extremely limited funds and an even more limited schedule to get the film ready in time for the Venice Festival. Originally I’d asked someone else to direct a doc about We Can't Go Home Again, but this person had to withdraw at the last moment, so we had only between February and August to do the whole thing, while I was simultaneously overseeing the restoration of We Can't Go Home Again. That said, I was primarily interested in the student crew, and called on others as available to provide a wider context.
Let’s turn to a theme in your film that explores education and the approach to imparting knowledge to students. Do you think contemporary film education is really meeting the needs of students?
I wouldn’t know. As a college dropout, for better or worse, I’ve stayed as far away as possible from formal education. As I tend to think too much, and knew that about myself at an early age, I also knew I needed hands-on experience. I suspect many among the students today are the same, but then there’s a steep price to pay for living without more conventional credentials.
From your time with Nicholas Ray, did you ever get a sense of which period was more artistically satisfying for him: working with the big studios and their constraints or working with relative freedom later in his career?
I believe Nick was happiest during the Depression years. At that time he was working with the Worker’s Theater among theatre groups whose performances were driven by political awareness and responsibility. This was theater that was highly collaborative, in which the cast and crew lived and worked together. They had no money, but they had discipline and imagination, and it seems they did wonderful work and had a great time doing it.
Personally I love In a Lonely Place and The Lusty Men, if I had to pick one or two of my favourite Ray films. I think mainly because of this uniquely American atmosphere he was able to generate in each film, this sadness about individuals, past their prime, searching for professional satisfaction. I’ll never forget the image of Arthur Kennedy and Robert Mitchum standing in front a waving American flag or Susan Hayward, an isolated figure in a trailer park. Do you have any personal favourite(s) from the Ray filmography and why?
At the risk of shocking you I haven’t seen all Nick’s films. There are a couple that others tell me are among the best that I’ve not seen yet. That said, Bitter Victory moves me every time I watch it. It speaks to me about manhood and the existential starkness of human life as no other film by anyone speaks to me. It is life pared down to essentials. I love the look of it, I love the music. It stirs me down to my core. I love Savage Innocents as well. The two compete for first place in my mind. But then second place has several ties, and they’re not all that far behind first.
What were your impressions of Nicholas Ray the first time you met him? Had you seen many of his films?
I’d never heard of him, had no idea what films he’d made. As it turned out, I had seen Bigger than Life as a child, but I didn’t know who’d made it. I thought Nick looked and moved as a man is meant to look and move, but in most cases doesn’t.
In what ways do you see Nicholas Ray’s influence on the current American cinema and more broadly, contemporary world cinema?
I’m not knowledgeable enough to make such a pronouncement. What I’d say instead is that Nick was a remarkable man even above his remarkability as a filmmaker. He recognized and cared profoundly about what is essential and authentic to being human. He was a humanist. These days humanism seems to be going out of style, to such an extent that we’re endangering the existence of our species. If you have any doubt about this, think about what happened two weeks ago in Connecticut. I grieve for those young children, and I also grieve for the young shooter who—I’m just guessing about this—must have felt his own childhood murdered somehow.
As I’ve said, Nick was a rare kind of teacher: He had heart, he had mastery, he had wisdom, he had an undying curiosity—and he loved his fellow humans. Wouldn’t you like to sit in on a class with a teacher like that?