Film: Don’t Expect Too Much (2011)

November 3, 2011 | By

Film: Very Good

DVD Transfer: n/a

DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a

Region: n/a

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Genre: Documentary / Biography / Film History

Synopsis: Part biography and making-of documentary on Nicholas Ray and his struggle to make sense of and complete his experimental film “We Can’t Go Home Again.”

Special Features: n/a

 

 

Review:

Please note: this review contains links to brief audio clips featuring comments by Susan Ray on October 30, 2011, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

“Film’s a way of life – it has to be experienced.” — Nicholas Ray

 

Backstory

In 1971, disgusted by the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and disappointed he couldn’t complete his filming of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, a disillusioned Nicholas Ray accepted a post as film professor at Harpur College, State University of New York at Binghamton, and over two years worked with his class to create a film that satisfied two goals: teaching the twentysomethings how to make movies; and fulfilling his own ambitions to explore the use of multi-image film – images from different gauges and formats filling a standard frame to tell a story in a layered fashion instead of the rigid geometric shapes used in Hollywood productions such as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

In 1963, Ray was dismissed from his post as director during the making of Samuel Bronston’s 55 Days at Peking, a film in which he had actually hoped to include a multi-image style [MP3]. Whether he collapsed from exhaustion, or was dismissed due to his own alcohol and drug vices, Ray’s reputation was hurt, and he never directed another feature-length fiction film again.

For fans of his canon, it remains a major blow because with few exceptions, he made great films, and if they were a bit odd in their design, they still possessed strong performances, unusual characterizations, social commentary, and a visual style that met the needs of studio gloss in 1.33:1 or 2.35:1 ratios, in black & white, or Color by Deluxe without harming the integrity of an actor’s performance. As he explained to his students with a sharp tone, “the camera is there to service the actor!”

Ray’s film production class was patterned after Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural apprenticeship program at Taliesin, in which the students worked on the creation of an actual production rather than a heavy emphasis on analysis and theory; learning by doing, with a tolerance for mistakes. Ray’s short time at Taliesin [MP3] exposed him to a more communal production system, and in his film class students rotated duties to learn every aspect of production and post-production. Additionally, both class and professor would act in the film.

Ray played the role of ringleader and professor inside and outside of class, becoming mentor, father figure, and teacher – a multi-image role that must have been gratifying, because soon afterwards he went on to teach classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and New York University (where a young Jim Jarmusch was in his class). The dream of making another film continued to elude him, though, and aside from the odd short film, between 1973 and 1979, Ray repeatedly tried to final edit the only work he could fully control, shape, and complete – We Can’t Go Home Again, the experimental film co-created with his Binghamton class.

Not unlike Orson Welles’ goal to finish Don Quixote, the completion of WCGHA was an impossible because of finances, personal issues, and missing audio elements that ensured there never would be a finished sound mix or full spectrum of completed scenes. The film may also have been the source of inspiration for Ray to keep living, and remain creatively active during a down time that only ended when he died of cancer in 1979.

Even if the film had been finished, it would neither be a full-on experimental film; parts are flawed, incoherent, and reflective of the students’ own filmmaking maturity, and the gifts that allowed Ray to shape performances and create riveting scenes just didn’t work with novice and amateur actors.

 

The 2011 Documentary

As detailed in Don’t Expect Too Much, Susan Ray’s fascinating WCGHA making-of doc / biographical film, Ray had an incredible knack for quickly grasping the psychologies of people, which he used to extract emotions, and build performances. It worked for James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1953), but not necessarily for students because there was no tactile material, and most scenes weren’t part of an actual narrative, but rather conceptual vignettes.

From the outtakes and interviews in the doc, one can see the time spent on performances were intense but irrational by Hollywood standards – 12 hours to wait for an actress to be ‘in the mood’; 3 days to film a bathroom sequence largely aborted in the 1973 edit – but the madness of this process seemed to exist in order for Ray to familiarize himself with his new the role of teacher; pushing the limits of himself and his class to determine the breaking points so he could better strategize as the film class progressed towards the next term.

As a former student explains, “he taught by doing,” which went beyond the classroom. “There was no on the set / off the set,” as filming occurred at Ray’s home, and it wasn’t unusual for class discussions to go on for hours before Ray’s would suddenly decide it was time to start filming. The lack of a formal course structure was extremely unusual and indulgent, and reveals a university willing to experiment with courses much in the way Ray was delving into new terrain as a filmmaker, which former student Victor Erice characterized as a means “to capture film as [a] collective creation” – a peculiar approach for Ray, considering he still made sure he was the boss, on set and off.

He could be benign and supportive, or work his students to extremes, and while it was designed as a rule-breaking film, he contradicted himself by mandating his own rules: the actor is supreme (which is ironic, considering few moments in the film have much dramatic weight); and the need to “destroy the rectangle” of widescreen and formal film composition. His anti-rectangle stance may represent a hatred of the studio-imposed ratios they either created or standardized and imposed, but it’s a functional form he couldn’t escape, because even in its unfinished form, WCGHA exists as several rectangles overlapping each other in a large black rectangle, and in two specific moments the film pops to full screen with images occupying a full 1.85:1 ratio. Ray succeeded in demonstrating the virtues of multiple-image film within the feared ‘experimental’ genre [MP3], but he knew it still had to be presented within an industry standard screen ratio to reach the masses.

To capture her late husband’s period as a film professor, and as a filmmaker in need of a patron’s financial support to complete what became an impossible goal, she’s mined what’s essentially a treasure trove of outtakes and actual footage used in WCGHA. Subtle digital effects are also applied to select shots to convey Ray at work, assembling footage in the school’s edit room; the class watching rushes; and unused footage and sound to detail his temperament with students as they slowly learned the ropes of making a movie.

The details reveal his knack for handling and manipulating personalities of all types, his devotion to creating honest emotional moments for the camera, and the gradual dependency that occurs on set when certain personalities begin to vie for a mentor’s attention, and become somewhat jealous when others receive a greater priority. It’s remarkable the footage even exists, but more surprising is how Susan Ray is able to create such a vivid glimpse into her late husband’s own psychology as a careful yet hard-line taskmaster.

Perhaps the most startling aspect is the condition of the outtakes, which sometimes look pristine. There’s genuine beauty in the rawness of the footage, with textured grain and vintage stock colours, but they also reveal the technical challenge Ray inevitably faced when he had to assemble a print for the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Stream of edited footage (Super8, 16mm, Super16, and 35mm gauges) were projected in tandem onto a wall, reshot with a film camera, edited again, and then projected in a cinema auditorium – specific post-production stages which gradually degraded the footage that may have enhanced its look as a period artifact, but certainly shocked peers and fans in 1973 who knew Ray only from his classic Hollywood productions that boasted the finest technical attributes.

In his later years, he re-edited scenes, which Susan Ray infers was a mistake – ripping apart collective editorial decisions that were integral to the film’s nature as a group effort; the credits actually read “A film by US,” but as one former student laments, he was embarking on a destructive process, and when Francis Ford Coppola gave him an edit suite at Zoetrope Studios to work on the film, Ray allowed a porn editor next door to take a whack at the footage.

Ray’s biggest hurdles were money to finish the film (not every name in his contact book was generous, and fewer were alive by the mid-seventies), and his health, which eventually went downhill in spite of him going sober around 1976. When a student asked him why he drank so much during his tenure at Binghamton, he replied rather cryptically, “I love living dearly, but I’m also in love with dying.” The sadness of seeing their mentor affected by such a self-destructive streak is still evident in the multitude of interviews Susan Ray interpolates throughout the doc, but these are contrasted against their fondness of the man, and the experience of being taught filmmaking trades through a dynamic, chaotic experience which continues to affect them regardless of whether they pursued careers in film.

Don’t Expect Too Much fills in some of the biographical voids left blank by historians and the odd documentary on Nicholas Ray, and while it’s a natural companion piece to WCGHA, it’s also the middle of three key works covering his life and activities between 1971-1979, of which the others are I’m a Stranger Here Myself, a rare 1975 documentary on Ray, featured additional on set footage of WCGHA, and Wim Wenders’ grim Lightning Over Water (1980), where Wenders riffed on the partial autobiographical / fictional style of WCGHA as Ray was dying onscreen.

Exclusive comments by Susan Ray regarding Nicholas Ray’s unusually structured approach to teaching filmmaking are available via this YouTube link, featuring a brief Q&A with KQEK.com.

 

 

© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

IMDB — Official Film Site — Nicholas Ray Foundation — Related Articles: James Leahy’s ‘Guerilla Cinema‘/ Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Looking for Nicholas Ray

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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