“Nobody talks to children,” observes James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. “No,” agrees Natalie Wood, “they just tell them.” Nicholas Ray, who directed the 1955 movie from his own story, earned a reputation as a filmmaker who not only talked to young people but listened to them. He made his debut with They Live by Night (1949), a sensitive treatment of teenage lovers swept into a life of crime, and followed it with Knock on Any Door (1949), about an impoverished Chicago kid who winds up on death row. Powered by Dean’s iconic performance, Rebel became the definitive 50s document of adolescent rebellion. Even Ray’s adult characters could be profoundly angry and alienated: Humphrey Bogart’s cynical screenwriter accused of murder in In a Lonely Place (1950), Robert Ryan’s police detective driven to violence in On Dangerous Ground (1952), James Mason’s suburban family man addicted to pills in Bigger Than Life (1956). The cinema of Nicholas Ray was a world of lonely misfits unable to make their peace with society.
This Friday the Block Museum of Art will present the Chicago premieres of Don’t Expect Too Much, a new 70-minute documentary about Ray by his widow, Susan, and a restored 35-millimeter version of We Can’t Go Home Again, his unfinished final film, both of which were unveiled at the Venice film festival last year to commemorate his centennial. They focus on a much less exalted period of Ray’s life: in 1971, nearly ten years after the director’s Hollywood career had fizzled out, Dennis Hopper (a bit player in Rebel Without a Cause) helped him land a teaching gig at State University of New York at Binghamton, where he enlisted his students in the creation of an epic experimental feature drawn from their common experience. We Can’t Go Home Again, which runs 93 minutes, is often arresting but more often tedious, a game but failed attempt to marry experimental techniques to an improvised story. Don’t Expect Too Much, on the other hand, is an important addition to Ray’s life story, a troubling account of a 60-year-old artist, once great but now awash in a sea of drink and drugs, as he tries to connect with people 40 years his junior.
One can’t really understand We Can’t Go Home Again without revisiting the end of Ray’s Hollywood career. Following the commercial success of Rebel Without a Cause, he invested himself in a series of ambitious films—Bigger Than Life, Bitter Victory (1957), Party Girl (1958)—that didn’t perform nearly as well at the box office. He worked at a snail’s pace and was sometimes fired before his pictures were completed, though he retained the sole directorial credit. By 1960 he’d become persona non grata in Hollywood and decamped for Europe, where he labored on a couple of bloated international productions for the aspiring mogul Samuel Bronston. As Patrick McGilligan explains in his new biography Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Ray talked a big game about pursuing smaller, more adventurous projects, but the siren song of the expense account was irresistible. Though King of Kings (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) both made money at the box office, Ray’s drinking and erratic behavior during the productions destroyed his professional reputation.
Through the 60s he bounced around Europe, conjuring up films that never got made, then in late 1969 a couple of American independent producers persuaded him to return to the U.S. to make a drama about a young man being tried for marijuana possession. Within hours of landing in Washington, D.C., Ray was filming war protesters being gassed by police in Dupont Circle, and before long the pot film had morphed into a semidocumentary project about the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, which Ray covered. (Roger Ebert met Ray during this period and profiled him for the Los Angeles Times.) Ray was out drinking with Tom Hayden and some of the other defendants when word arrived that Black Panther members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark had been killed by police; Ray took his crew to the scene and filmed the bodies. He could never secure financing to finish the Chicago Seven project, and it imploded as so many others had. But the experience radicalized Ray, and he would incorporate some of the footage he’d shot into We Can’t Go Home Again.
Don’t Expect Too Much shows Ray bringing this new energy to his film students at SUNY-Binghamton, and the documentary’s most engrossing element is the interviews Susan Ray has collected from those same students, now as old as Nick Ray was when they worked together. She, too, was 40 years younger than Ray, an 18-year-old student who’d volunteered for the Chicago Seven’s defense committee when they met, and she clearly understands the generational tension at play in her story. Ray immediately abandoned the classroom for hands-on instruction, with students rotating every two weeks from camera to sound to lighting to acting. There was an element of mutual exploitation: to him the students were a pool of unskilled but free labor that could keep his new project moving, and to them he was their ticket to the big time, a Hollywood veteran whose address book was jammed with movie stars’ phone numbers (most of them out of date). At the same time, the interviewees speak of Ray with admiration if not always affection; the man they remember was a brilliant artist and a passionate teacher, infuriating and inspiring.
The situation was more like a cult than a class; they were all welcome at Ray’s home, where drink and drugs were commonplace, and they worked on the film for days on end, often long into the night. (Ray claimed that he needed only four and a half hours of sleep.) When the students asked him what their film was about, he replied, “It’s about what we’re looking for. We’re looking for ourselves and a sense of identity.” Some of the scenes they shot were autobiographical, with Ray as a washed-up director taking a college gig in upstate New York (“What the hell are you doing here?” asks a student). Walking into any room, you might find yourself in front of a rolling camera. As the project gained momentum, Ray began to act on his long-held desire to “destroy the rectangle” of the frame with split-screen imagery and multiple narratives. He also became fascinated with the colorization effects of pioneering video maker Nam June Paik. “This is going to be the way of filmmaking in the future,” the 60-year-old veteran promised his 20-year-old charges, “and we’re participating in trying to learn how to do it.”
Ray was famous for his long, impenetrable silences, yet the documentary is studded with practical advice that reveals a great deal about his filmmaking. An actor’s director, he focused completely on the performance and on one occasion spent 12 hours readying his young players for a scene. “The director is never ready until the actors are ready, until the scene is ready,” he insisted. When someone suggested an actor move into the range of a light, Ray snapped, “We use the instrument in order to make music; we do not use the music to show off the instrument.” Ray knew how to find an actor’s trigger, as one student puts it, and each person was different. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who knew Ray in the 70s and appears in the documentary, recalls that before Rebel Without a Cause, Ray took an auto trip with James Dean to get to know him, wondering, “What’s gonna be my way to work with this guy.” In other situations Ray could be less subtle: when Joan Crawford couldn’t muster an appropriate level of rage for a scene in Johnny Guitar (1954), he ordered stagehands to toss her wardrobe out of her trailer and drive over it with a truck.
After two years Ray was shown the door at Binghamton, but he managed to finagle a screening of the film at the 1973 Cannes film festival; students remember ferrying the footage to Hollywood in a Cadillac and creating a final print by projecting the various stocks—35-millimeter, 16-millimeter, Super 8—onto a screen, where the composite was shot in 35-millimeter. The Cannes premiere was a bomb and Ray moved on, leaving some of his young collaborators embittered, but he never quite gave up on the project. Three more years of dire substance abuse followed before his young wife finally persuaded him to quit drinking, though no sooner had Ray cleaned up than he was hit with a cancer diagnosis. With Susan’s help, he revised the film until his death in 1979, restructuring the narrative and recording a voice-over to help tie everything together (this is the version now being premiered). We Can’t Go Home Again reaches its dramatic climax with a scene of Ray hanging himself; one might read it as a literal death wish, but perhaps it was just a ghoulish wish for filmmaking to be reborn.
Don’t Expect Too Much benefits greatly from the extensive behind-the-scenes footage left behind, which gives one ample opportunity to compare the middle-aged interviewees with their youthful selves. Whatever their feelings toward Ray now, they all seem to regard the movie shoot as a galvanic experience, their recollection supported by some of the explosive moments captured in We Can’t Go Home Again. One tight close-up shows Leslie Levinson, a pretty blond girl and a natural actress, provoked by Ray into a frightening meltdown, while another shows crew member Tom Farrell, who’d been jumped by rednecks during a trip through the Deep South, bursting into tears as he cuts off his hippie beard. Like Baudelaire, observes Farrell, Ray seemed to be “going down into the depths to find something.” Not all his students were willing to accompany him. Crew member Helene Caplan White marvels at Ray’s ability to bring the exact same level of passion to his work even when it was going badly. “I didn’t trust myself to have that,” she admits, “and that’s why I’m not an artist.” That lesson alone must have been worth the tuition.