The name of the film is We Can’t Go Home Again. But for the Binghamton alumni who helped make the experimental movie in the early 1970s, seeing a restored copy of it at the New York Film Festival was, in fact, like going home again.
“I never thought I’d see this again,” says Pat Cannon ’80, who viewed it a few weeks earlier at the Venice Film Festival. “I got to relive the past life of 40 years ago.”
We Can’t Go Home Again was the last major project of acclaimed director Nicholas Ray, best known for the classic Rebel Without A Cause. Ray was a rebel, himself, when he was invited to join Binghamton’s brand new cinema department in 1971. To teach his students about film, he decided they would make a film. Under Ray’s direction, it was an intensely personal, creative process that inevitably attracted attention and controversy. The film was shown, unfinished, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, and Ray was still editing it when he died of lung cancer in 1979.
To mark the centennial of Ray’s birth, his widow, Susan Ray, had the film restored. She also made a documentary called Don’t Expect Too Much, featuring many of the Binghamton alumni who worked with her late husband, to accompany it. Both films premiered in Venice, then were shown at the New York Film Festival and now will move on to television, DVD and other venues.
The making of We Can’t Go Home Again was a wild ride that helped shape students’ lives and careers.
“I wanted to make a living dancing and was successful at it,” Cannon says, “and in a way I have to give Nick Ray credit for it.” She recalls traveling to Manhattan with Ray and some of the other students to screen part of the film for a potential backer. “Nick was running out of money for film. He would go to his black book and try to call in favors.” At the screening room, the sound didn’t sync up with the film, so Ray told the women to sit in the front row and say their lines along with the film. “It was chutzpah to do what we had to do. That was Nick’s gift to me.”
Cannon, who owns Pat Cannon’s Foot & Fiddle Dance Company, says she was a gaffer and in a few group scenes, but was mostly a writer for the film.
The film had no real script. Much of the dialogue came from prompts that Ray used after he got to know his students, says Ken Ross ’73, who did sound for the film and has spent his career as a filmmaker. “He would get to know them and use the material from their lives, the conflicts they were having — twist them, triangulate them, instigate them — find things below the surface.”
“Nick would dig around in people’s psyches,” Cannon says. What came out was captured on film.
The story line in the film is a fictionalization of the lives of the actors. “Nick’s film is about the dynamics between a group of young people and their teacher on a microcosmic level and how each of them was searching for self-image — which he described as being as dangerous as a riot,” Susan Ray says. “It deals with a moment in our cultural history when the younger generation was alienated from the older generation. As one of the kids says in the film, ‘we want to do our own thing.’ They were withdrawing into a narcissistic time, and I think Nick captured the moment when that was really taking seed.”
The Cinema Department at Binghamton must have looked like a safe haven for Ray when he first visited. The department was the first regular academic department in the world to offer cinema as an official liberal arts undergraduate major, says Larry Gottheim, a founder, former professor and department chair in cinema at Binghamton.
“The emphasis was on cinema as fine art,” he says. Early hires included filmmaker Ken Jacobs, who came from an art, rather than an academic, background, and Ralph Hocking, who started with photography and then moved into the nascent area of personal video production. “So this was, from the start, an unconventional program,” Gottheim says.
When it came time to hire the next faculty member, many experimental film artists were considered, he says. “I had read that Nicholas Ray was at loose ends … and had had a difficult time in Hollywood in recent years.” He invited Ray to visit campus.
Ross recalls the visit: “There was a two-week period where we watched as many of his films as we could get. They Lived By Night — we memorized every frame.”
“When he came, he made us get out all the equipment (much of it acquired from New York state surplus) and began thinking of uses for it. He fascinated the students,” Gottheim says.
Ray was asked to join the faculty with the understanding that he could be innovative within the constraints of a university program but without Hollywood-style restrictions. “The administration saw his hiring as part of their vision of making Harpur College a distinctive and innovative liberal arts college,” Gottheim says. And Ray was excited.
At Binghamton, Ray was no aloof academic; his life became centered around his students. “He was such a towering and charismatic presence: eye patch, white hair, tall and lanky,” Ross says.
“He was a force of nature, and you could get swept into it,” Cannon says.
The movie began to take shape.
“His first idea and guiding principle was to teach the kids how to make a film by making a film,” Susan Ray says. What it would be about shifted over time as Ray and his students got to know one another.
“Working with Nick was a roller coaster,” Cannon says. “He’d give you his soul — the genius and the demons — and he brought out the genius and the demons in us, too. There were long nights in the Lecture Hall, a half gallon of Almaden white wine attached to his arm.”
Ray rented a farmhouse in Vestal, where he and the students worked on the film. “He increasingly created an insulated world around himself and the students working for him,” Gottheim says.
“Nick was a brilliant, lost filmmaker at the time,” Ross says. “He was out of the milieu where he had made his best work. He was addicted.”
The relationship between Ray and the University began to crumble. Tensions arose within the department, and to some extent, rival “camps” developed between Jacobs and Ray. There were misunderstandings and confrontations.
“Nick seemed to have a problem with authority, a subject of many of his films,” Gottheim says. As the demands of Ray’s film became greater, the project was consuming a disproportionate amount of the department’s resources, he says, “and he began to confuse my efforts to manage the use of the equipment with his prior problems with authority in Hollywood.”
Ray left after just two years. He took the unfinished film to the Cannes Film Festival and continued to edit it until he died. Many of his students went on to careers in film and the arts.
Susan Ray’s says her documentary is not an attempt to explain Ray but to convey more about what he had in mind. “Anybody who is worth their salt is going to be difficult to some people some of the time,” she says. “He was very honest, he was not a people pleaser.
“It’s very difficult for people to imagine that somebody might be tired of Hollywood,” she says. “The last 10 years of his life, when he was heading away from Hollywood, they are incomprehensible to people, so they assume he had lost his talent or was too far gone in his addictions. The reality was that he was extremely creative in that period. He didn’t have the money to do what he wanted.
“He didn’t want to let those kids down,” Susan Ray says. “He loved those kids. He knew that a lot of them had invested hope and energy and expectation in the film and he knew his vision hadn’t been fulfilled.”