In 1971, the famous and much-admired Hollywood director Nicholas Ray became a teacher at Harpur College because he was broke. He was 58. He had not made a film since 1963, 55 Days at Peking, a multimillion-dollar production that almost killed him (he suffered a severe heart attack) and certainly killed his Hollywood career. His students could not believe their luck. It was as if a god had fallen out of the sky and crashed into the upstate New York college. This teacher, this luciferous creature, had directed some of the brightest immortals in the history of Hollywood—Charlton Heston, Joan Crawford, James Dean, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart. And what did Ray do with his stunned students? He made an experimental film with them, We Can't Go Home Again. Stranger still, he put a lot of energy into this crazy and confusing no-budget film, which was never completed, and possibly could not be completed.
The film is great for only one reason: It captures the twilight years of the great director. What's revealed through its constant chaos of images and youthful energy are the deep parts of Ray's artistic mind—how it worked, how it approached the art of filmmaking, and how this peculiar vision of cinema related to the real world and life itself. Susan Ray's Don't Expect Too Much, a documentary about the making of this film, goes even deeper into the director's mind. Indeed, it is more useful to watch the documentary before watching We Can't Go Home Again. Don't Expect Too Much, which includes an interview with Jim Jarmusch (one of Ray's students), presents a clear path through the mess of visual and sonic experiments.
We Can't Go Home Again is not only about the end of Ray's life but the end of post-beat youth culture in America. After the unfinished film, after Ray's death, we enter the 1980s—Reagan, Thatcher, the rise of Wall Street. In this respect, the film is a lot like Milestones, a 1975 film about the sad business of hippies leaving the woods and returning to the economic realities of the capitalist system (NWFF screened it in 2009). Ray died in 1979. We Can't Go Home Again and Don't Expect Too Much at Northwest Film Forum, Feb 10–16.