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Philippe Thompson Written by Philippe Thompson
Jan. 3, 2013 | 6:18 PM

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We Can’t Go Home Again (1973)

by Phil Thompson

Oscilloscope Laboratories recently released a digitally restored version of Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again on Blu-Ray and DVD as a 2-disc set, which includes Don’t Expect Too Much (2011), an informative documentary by Ray’s widow, Susan Ray, about the making of We Can’t Go Home Again.

Nicholas Ray, whose directing credits include In A Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and 55 Days at Peking (1963), lost his place in Hollywood in the late 60’s and early 70’s due to his inability to work because of rampant alcohol and drug abuse.

Thanks to friend Dennis Hopper, Ray transitioned from Hollywood to the classroom, securing a filmmaking instructor position in the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Binghamton in 1971.

At Binghamton, Ray taught filmmaking as a communal way life.  According to Ray, “no one does it alone, not even the madness,” and he urged the students that they “help each other to survive.”  We Can’t Go Home Again was the result of the collaborative experimentation of Ray and his students as they attempted to portray the “history of our youth over the last few years” in America.

While many of the protagonists of Ray’s films were “rebels” or “loners” at odds with society, Ray, ever the anti-authoritarian, was an authoritarian on the set of We Can’t Go Home Again.  Ray’s presence pervades We Can’t Go Home Again—he enmeshes himself into his students’ lives as they embrace his experimental approach to filmmaking.

The experimental aspect of the film stems from its use of multiple, overlapping images, which are filmed in several formats, including 8mm, Super-8, 16mm, Super-16, and 35mm, thus melding into one big psychedelic hodgepodge.  Intermingled with recordings of Ray and his students is footage from recent historical events like the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and protests over the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton.  Ray’s use of colorization, which at times is jarring, underlines the experimental nature of the film as it amplifies the anti-authoritarian stance and political alienation expressed.  And while the experimental and collaborative nature of We Can’t Go Home Again is apparent, its direction and narrative are not.  Its narrative failure lies in the very experimental aspect of the film: we are presented with a Ferris wheel of images that go round and round, failing to coalesce.

First-time viewers of We Can’t Go Home Again may wish to view the documentary Don’t Expect Too Much prior to watching the film.  The documentary helps unravel the complexities of Ray’s making a film about making a film and also explains why the film is better explored as an unfinished project.

The viewer-friendly Don’t Expect Too Much provides appealing interviews with Ray’s former Hollywood colleagues as well as SUNY Student Collaborators that are intercut with the narration.  The interviews are insightful and help one better appreciate Ray’s career and the challenges he faced, be it emotionally, financially, etc., in making We Can’t Go Home Again.

Special Features also include:
• Interviews with filmmaker (and former Ray student) Jim Jarmusch and Biographer Bernard Eisenschitz.
• Camera Three - Profile of Nicholas Ray (CBS-1977)
• Rushes from Ray’s Marco (1977)
• About Marco – Interviews with Claudio Mazzatenta and Gerry Bamman
• The Janitor – Nicholas Ray’s Segment from the feature Wet Dreams (1974)
• And a twenty-four page booklet that features photos, as well as essays by Susan Ray, Serge Daney, and film scholar Bill Krohn.

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