NYFF 2011: Notes on Nicholas Ray’s ‘We Can’t Go Home Again’ and Occupy Wall Street

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The only way to start talking about Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again is to first search for the words to describe how the film appears on screen. For the most part, a black rectangle appears over a matte – a shifting series of still images of the Binghamton University campus, where Ray was a professor for part of the film’s production – and that rectangle in turn houses multiple cinematic superimpositions. Those competing images come in 8, 16, and 35mm formats and are not always well defined in relation to each other, as they often collide, overlap, and shift positions. There is a rough texture to the visuals with everything slightly washed out with a bluish tint, but still amazingly vivid, especially the skin of the film’s subjects. And sometimes the images explode into seas of color, made possible through Ray’s use of a video synthesizer, with waves of green, yellow, magenta, purple and many others rippling out in response to figurative gestures.

Begun in 1971, Ray continued to work on We Can’t Go Home again up until his death in 1979, and now it is finally being presented in its most fully restored, yet still incomplete, version at the 2011 New York Film Festival. To say that it is the director’s most “experimental” film is accurate, but misses the point. Ray was a constant experimenter, from the impressionistic shadows of In A Lonely Place to the extravagant colors of Johnny Guitar, and We Can’t Go Home Again is not merely experimentation, but an attempt to reconnect in a radically new way with the medium he had been working in for almost 30 years. Introducing the film on Sunday night, Ray’s widow Susan said her late husband’s purpose was threefold: to find a cinema that would more accurately reflect how we experience the world and process memory, to bring moral weight to the images, and to use filmmaking to teach others how to make films.

We Can’t Go Home Again is a teaching film, but it is also very much a student film. When Ray began teaching at Binghamton, he devised the project with his students, and on screen they play fictionalized versions of themselves in a narrative dispersed across the different visual threads. Ray and his students begin making only to find that barriers between the film and real life, and between student a teacher, begin to fall apart. In the resulting anarchy, there is a willingness to be daring. We Can’t Go Home Again risks pretension and absurdity in form and content (from the silliness of some of the staging, to the music that runs from deep blues to Moog synth drones), but comes out bold and moving. Ray is as much the student as he is the teacher, unlearning, relearning, and remaining all that he knows; the dialogue with his students is a type of rebirth.

It is also a way for Ray to process his personal failings, and the failings of his generation. We Can’t Go Home Again opens with footage of the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the conspiracy trial of the Chicago 8, and Ray latter bemoans to his students that young people are not following up with sufficient radical action over conditions at Attica prison and the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami. But frustration does not prevent connection, and in a truly brilliant scene Ray’s bent elbow and grey curls frame the face of Leslie, one of his female students, as he listens to her recount a particularly uncomfortable sexual incident. Her facial expressions are enlarged by the framing, giving her emotions their full due. It is powerful, empathetic, and gorgeous, much as it is when Ray layers images of Leslie walking down a flight of stairs naked, recreating Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2. It is not the formal lessons that Ray imparts that count, but the emotional ones.  Before the fictional Ray hangs himself at the film’s end, he leaves a few last words to his students: “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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Immediately after the final screening of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival (Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin), but before any awards could be handed out, several young filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard rushed the stage to announce that festival was being shut down in solidarity with the student strikes then being wages across France. It is unlikely that there will be repeat of Cannes 1968 at the 2011 New York Film Festival – there is no longer such a link between politics and cinema – but it is hard to ignore what is going on less than 60 blocks away from Lincoln Plaza. Occupy Wall Street, originally organized by the Canadian group AdBusters is now entering it’s third week, and it seems to only be growing at Zuccotti Park (as well as spreading to other cities), even after some 700 were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday.

On Sunday I wondered down to protest, not to take part, but to be, well, honestly, a tourist. Fortunately for me I was far from the only tourist. Walking the edge of the park, you could be forgiven for asking if there were more protestors posing with signs, or more people with cameras they were posing for (I was at first too self-conscious to snap my own pictures, but soon gave in). And there lots of signs, many just Sharpie-scrawled notes on old pizza boxes, which when discarded are being collected and laid out at one end of the park into a massive word mural. Reading the slogans is like sorting through a cornucopia of lefty issues, from corporate greed and wealth inequality (the main target of OWS), to education funding, to health care reform, to ending nuclear power, to the ending Israeli settlements on the West Bank. If the chief criticism of Occupy Wall Street is that it has failed to offer up any demands or a uniting purpose, this isn’t helping.

But wandering into the park, a different image started to take shape. People preparing meals, hanging out on old mattress that have been trucked in to sleep on, and having impromptu drum circles (my favorite of which was four kids who were also giving away hand-rolled cigarettes). There is not a lack of focus with Occupy Wall Street. All of these issues are being raised because they are all pressing, immediate issues, and they have all become so intertwined that we cannot solve one without addressing them all.

The grievances are real, and we all know they are real because unless you are one of the very wealthy, you encounter them every day in form or another. But the images from Occupy Wall Street are being treated as a curiosity.  To some degree this is a failure on the part of the protesters themselves, who have designed the protest and all sub-events to be captured in pictures or on video that is then easily viralized.  But that doesn’t mean the actions aren’t driven by genuine conviction.  We on the outside put so much emphasis on the images, dissecting and analyzing them that we are forgetting to actually talk about the underlying issues.

In Andrea Ujica and Harun Farocki’s Videograms Of A Revolution (which screened at the Museum of the Moving Image; not a NYFF event, but whatever), several pieces of amateur and professional film shot during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 are featured. Not only do Ujica and Farocki provide a detailed account of events, but they construct the film to show how the films helped shape the events themselves. Knowledge of being filmed empowered thousands of protestors to rush government buildings and force dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to flee, shaped the power struggles after the fall of the Ceausecu government, and turned the state television offices into the central battleground of the revolution.  As the film’s narrator at one point intones, “Not only does film capture history, it allows history to happen.”

And so it is with Occupy Wall Street. The event would not exist without the possibility of videos and pictures being passed around the internet via social networking sites. But it is important to remember that while images may allow history to happen, they are not history. We run the risk of putting to much emphasis on what we can view on our computer screens and not enough on asking questions about what is happening ever day in our lives. There is something happening here, even if you don’t know what it is, Mr. Jones.

Louis Godrey

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