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Review: We Can't Go Home Again

Amateur avant-garde hijinks
By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  November 2, 2011
3.5 3.5 Stars

can't go home again

By the end of the '60s, Hollywood was done with the hard-drinking, rule-breaking, ambivalent humanist-iconoclast/auteurist icon Nicholas Ray (1911-1979), director of, among many others, They Live By Night, Johnny Guitar, and, most famously, Rebel without a Cause. And so fate (and pal Dennis Hopper) placed him at SUNY Binghamton, as filmmaking prof to a cabal of disenchanted Nixon-era undergrads. With this growling, eye-patched scoundrel-messiah egging the semi-naked kids on, a movie was born, titled We Can't Go Home Again, and only now, more than three decades after Ray's death, given a final edited shape by Ray's widow, Sue.

Made as a communal experiment, the film is an avalanche of amateur avant-garde hijinks, closer to Brakhage and Markopoulos than to Hollywood. It often comprises multiple film images projected beside or on top of each other, in a free-associative scrapbook goulash. Pieces are video-solarized into abstraction, others are projected onto nude bodies, and archival footage of social unrest, from Attica to Kent State, is folded in like yeast into batter. The upshot is haphazard but not obscure — it's a film about its own making, with the students awkwardly enacting their own doubts and fears about their unhinged teacher, and Ray provoking them to take cinema as a life's-blood vocation.

In other words, you have the fever of nascent film culture, the paranoid heebies of the Nixon years, and the elegiac decline of Ray and the auteurism he epitomized, all wrapped into one unstable package. The narrative helplessly establishes itself after awhile, with Ray as the most ambivalent and dangerous Ray hero of them all, staging his own mock-suicide and making the kids wonder if everyone involved (and they were in waist-deep, for a year) would survive the experience. There's no telling if Ray had always harbored an inner avant-gardist, or if one had been born from his autumnal frustrations and toxified brainwaves, but either way this swan song virtually redefines that term, as something like a Godardian End of Cinema.

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