Monday, September 28, 2009

Nick Ray: The Living and the Dead

We are once again in the midst of festival season, that bizarre, hectic period of time where thousands of films are screened and thousands of opinions are generated, more often than not before said films are even over. In this age of instant messaging, blogging, tweeting and constant 24 hour news cycles, the desire to "get there first" seems the be all end all of critical faculty. Never mind that the occasional reflection might change one's view, that notion that a new and unique work of art can grow and change in one's mind over time. I for one can't imagine sitting through a Pedro Costa film on zero sleep, having already seen a film or two and planning the next screening afterward. This is not the mindset with which to approach certain kinds of films (yes, I mean the slow ones - slow and contemplative).
With that in mind, I'm embarking on a series of profiles on whatever director I feel like writing about, with no concern whatsoever for what is new, "hot" or decisively controversial. Simply great filmmakers who I happen to find intriguing. Up first is Nicholas Ray, an iconoclastic maverick who got his start as a Hollywood melodrama artist and gradually built a body of work based on romantic disillusionment, replete with crushed dreams, dashed hopes and near suicidal doses of ironic fatalism. He's perhaps best known for "Rebel Without A Cause", although that film's enduring legacy is based more on the Dean performance than Ray's masterful direction. One of his greatest films, "Bigger Than Life",remains criminally unavailable on any home video format, along with "The Lusty Men", "Wind Across the Everglades" and "Hot Blood" ("The Savage Innocents" exists in a now out-of-print region 2 import. Snatch it up if you find it somewhere). "Party Girl" has recently become available thanks to Warner Home Video's unique (and somewhat ill advised) archive on demand service. So here it is:
Godard once remarked that “the cinema IS Nick Ray” – a dictum that requires few qualifications, not only with regards to what constitutes Ray’s cinema but to what constitutes cinema in general. Never one to conform to studio bound hegemony, Ray quietly navigated genre-bound assignments (careful to leave indelible marks wherever he went) to idiosyncratic tangents to full blown maverick outsider, ending, perhaps inevitably, as avant-garde provocateur. At the risk of sounding intentionally contrarian, We Can’t Go Home Again might be Ray’s masterpiece, a bold summation of virtually every subtext that occurs throughout his several decades as a studio outsider. Unabashedly lo-fi and a one-of-a-kind time capsule, We Can’t Go Home Again represents most fully a particular kind of (anti) social discontentment, a kind of unique surliness that expands upon, informs, and retroactively explodes Ray’s own genre-defining excursion into the youthful counter-culture-discontentment as self-actualization-cum death trip.

* * *

A heartbeat
tears my insides apart
And tears apart my dreams
in the whirling dark
I never got to go
I cannot make it
I never get to have my dreams
and I will not take it…
You can’t take and steal from this body…

They were supposed to be my dreams…
Gun Club, My Dreams

“This boy…
and this girl…
were never properly introduced into the world we live in…”
opening title scrawl of They Live By Night

“I was born when she kissed me
I died when she left me
I lived a few weeks while she loved me”
from In a Lonely Place

“I’m a stranger here myself”
from Johnny Guitar

“I kill the living and I save the dead”
from Bitter Victory

“love as ambivalent pathos,
the search for authenticity,
happiness existing if only by virtue that it can be destroyed”
notes I scribbled in the margins of a book while watching Bigger Than Life about 10 years ago

* * *

A “circle of pain” indeed; two more notes, written hastily while in the daze of an overwhelmingly emotional viewing of On Dangerous Ground (the viewer inevitably succumbing to Robert Ryan’s shattered sense of self) – cosmic inevitability and existential predetermination. Too lofty a philosophy perhaps, reeking of term paper bigness, but one feels the crushing sensation of smallness while watching a Ray film - smallness in the sense that everything around us – society, family, institutions - is simply too big, too awesomely grand (and awesomely corrupted) for one man to fathom. No mistake about it, Ray’s is a sensitive cinema, at least in the sense of undercutting and schizophrenically undermining traditional masculine roles. Sensitivity can’t help but come to the forefront (doomed love being a Ray specialty), only for that same sensitivity to be crushed under a boot heel (here is social criticism at that existential level). One is reminded of the unforgivingly violent landscape, prone to eruption at any given moment – the exploding hills in Johnny Guitar, the cold plains of On Dangerous Ground (even the title itself!), the frozen lands of The Savage Innocents, the arena of The Lusty Men (institutionalized violence, played for profit and sport), the war torn dessert of Bitter Victory (again with the title and a penchant for self fulfilling prophecy!), the perpetual unknowability and deadliness of the Florida swamps in Wind Across the Everglades, even the family unit itself in Rebel and Bigger Than Life (emotional strife located in the distorted geometry of the home gone horribly awry). The helicopter shot that opens They Live By Night surveys a vast, empty landscape, which will eventually host a series of violent encounters.

There is the addition of hopeless love – fatalistic more often than not. Potential violence is, apparently, much like emotional inertia – inescapable; note how many of his characters come together, only to be eventually ripped apart: Born To Be Bad traces the disintegration of not one but two relationships, one right after the other; Sal Mineo perishes for Dean in Rebel; the rivals of Wind reconcile, only for Cottonmouth to die of a snake bite while saving his once bitter enemy; Bogart and Graham find happiness and stability only to be driven apart by fear, rage and violence, as he returns to his lonely place; Crawford and Hayden walk away from the final confrontation in Johnny Guitar, but into an unknown future, as the frontier is becoming more and more civilized (civilization being corruption more often than not); Mason recovers from addiction in Bigger Than Life, but has exposed the dark underside of the nuclear family and its incubation of paranoia, dread and violence; the absurd futility of war is expressed through romantic rivalry in Bitter Victory, the current husband and former lover slugging it out on a grand scale, Burton eventually succumbing not to bullets or artillery but nature itself (that deadly landscape!) - etc, etc.

As Jonathan Rosenbuam has pointed out in his seminal essay “Circle of Pain”, Ray is fascinated by outsiders – rodeo men, gypsies, the blind, poachers, teenagers (especially teenagers), cowards, the poor – all on the fringes of proper society. It was perhaps inevitable (that word again), given his activism and liberal politics in the 30’s and 40’s, that he would be attracted to the counter-culture in the late 60’s. But that romantic fatalism rears its ugly head, and violence is once again located in the home, this time contextualized by a failing and fading revolution (this cements Ray’s similarity with Rivette). We Can’t Go Home Again traces the efforts of a film class, under the guidance of Ray himself, to make a collective film - that the film itself, although scripted, is essentially a document of its own making, is entirely part of the point; that the film disintegrates along with its protagonists is also part of the point. Ray and his students use all manner of equipment, whatever could be begged or borrowed, resulting in footage shot on 8mm and 16mm then being projected and re-photographed on 35mm.

The use of multiple images on the same screen is its own kind of simultaneous collectivity mixed with obliteration – they share the same space but cancel each other out, becoming a kind of white noise. Is there a more profound extrapolation of post ‘68 politics? It can be difficult to follow what exactly is going on at any given moment, and the use of multiple projections eschews any traditional standards of framing or cutting – the edit now exists between two or three or four completely unique images, not simple individual scenes. There is also ray’s fascination with everyday architecture becoming visual symbols of entrapment – lattice work or stair railings become bars, often ensconcing his doom laden last-romantic couple or self destructive individual (think Sternbergian bric-a-brac laden with masochism). The filmed narrative, what there is of it, reaches a kind of boiling point of accusatory disintegration, resulting in Ray’s onscreen death by hanging. That Ray intends to commit suicide, only to then change his mind, then accidentally hanging himself, speaks to something larger, I think. This is the personality that has given us so many catastrophic couplings destined for untimely ends that he perhaps felt he should save the best for last. It is an absurdity – tragic, certainly, but fundamentally absurd. As a bold final statement of purpose, Ray sums up a career of romantic contradiction: take care of each other and let the rest of us swing. This is sentimentality tinged with masochistic violence. This is sensitivity being crushed under a boot heel. This is the cruel romantic irony of Nicholas Ray.