Despite its self-deprecatory title, Susan Ray’s docu about the making of husband Nicholas Ray’s final narrative feature proves remarkably informative about the legendary director, his experiment with collective filmmaking and the changing cinematic landscape of the early ’70s. Consisting of footage from and around “We Can’t Go Home Again,” the opus Ray made with his students, juxtaposed with present-day interviews with those former students, Susan Ray furnishes a fascinating dual portrait of a passionate artist at career’s end and a revolutionary dream approaching its terminus. Paired with the newly restored “Home,” “Don’t” preemed in Venice before unspooling at Gotham’s Film Forum.
In 1971, Nicholas Ray accepted a teaching job at a small college in upstate New York. On the principle that the only way to learn filmmaking was by doing, he immediately started production on a feature, with students assuming all functions (including directing) and switching jobs every two weeks. Looking like a mad Old Testament prophet, complete with eyepatch and disheveled mane of white hair, Ray paces around the impromptu sets, clearly the driving force of the project, screaming, cajoling, instructing and insisting on innumerable takes until his fledgling actors achieve the requisite degree of emotional authenticity. The objects of those rants and epiphanies, now in their 60s, comment on the experience.
The year-and-a-half-long communal endeavor, conducted over long days and sleepless nights, spilled into the living arrangements as the undergrads hung out and crashed at the Rays’ house. Social distinctions between teacher and students disappeared, and downtime was recorded along with scripted scenes, “Home” attempting to reflect the ethos of the counterculture to which Ray, ever a rebel in search of a cause, felt attuned. His film’s ambition, involving the orchestration of multiple split-screen images in a variety of formats (this before videotape), far exceeded its technical or financial resources.
As the docu’s jumbled archeological dig progresses, it becomes easier to match the teenagers to their current incarnations as they recall this unforgettably intense period in their lives, telling comparable stories of awe and inspiration that gradually turn to trepidation and concern as money evaporated, Ray’s alcoholism raged and the film met with hostile reaction.
Following a familiar “great man felled by his addictions” scenario, Susan Ray wisely concludes her docu on a vibrant note, as Spanish director Victor Erice sums up the legacy of her husband’s last venture as “a failed movie but one that is exemplary in its failure. … The film captures the fleeting breath of a Utopian experience when life as a community undertaking and cinema as a collective creation are one.”