Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nick Ray at Cahiers du Cinema (circa 1950s)

The TIFF Bell Lightbox is currently running a Nicholas Ray retrospective The Cinema Is Nicholas Ray as part of its Hollywood Classics series. The series is programmed by James Quandt, scheduled over two seasons and is centered on the recent restoration of We Can't Go Home Again*, which will be playing on Sunday October 30th at 4PM and will be introduced by Susan Ray. "Poetic, pessimistic, high-strung and humanist, Ray's films are set in a lonely place and on dangerous ground - the wounded psyches of often solitary nomads, strangers who keep looking for a home in a world to which they "have not been properly introduced,"" Quandt writes in the 180°. These screenings will offer Torontonians a glimpse into Ray's mesmerizing work. We Can't Go Home Again, which has recently been restored, and Susan's own Don't Expect Too Much, a companion-piece documentary on We Can't Go Home Again are the kind of films by Ray that Bill Krohn compares to flying saucers, "you catch glimpses of them or hear about them from people who've seen one." The rare prints and the fact that they are only shown once or twice give these Cinematheque screenings an aura-like quality.

Since the Godard line that "The Cinema is Nicholas Ray" is quoted ad nauseam (The Dreamers, the bulk of journalistic reviews) I thought that I would take the occasion to look at what else the Young Turks had to say about the auteur with whom most of them fell in love with when they first discovered They Live By Night at the Rendez-Vous de Biarritz in 1950. A great resource for their writing** is the anthology edited by Jim Hillier, Cahiers du Cinema - The 1950s; Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (1985)***. In the book's section on American Cinema there is a dossier on Nicholas Ray which includes reviews by Jacques Rivette on The Lusty Men, Francois Truffaut on Johnny Guitar, Eric Rohmer on Rebel Without a Cause, Jean-Luc Godard on Hot Blood and Bitter Victory, and an interview from November 1958 between Charles Bitsch and Ray (one of the first American directors to be interviewed in the magazines, as the editorial staff had no real contact with the foreign trade press). Within these pages - beautifully translated and with foot-notes by Liz Heron and Tom Milne - you can find what made the French film critics at Cahiers du Cinema so exciting to read at the time - and I believe more importantly - retrospectively and currently.

So what were the films that Ray made in the '50s? There is Born to Be Bad and In a Lonely Place ('50); On Dangerous Ground, Flying Leathernecks and The Racket ('51); Macao and The Lusty Men ('52); Androcles and the Lion ('53); Johnny Guitar and a teleplay High Green Wall ('54); Run for Cover and Rebel Without a Cause ('55); Hot Blood and Bigger Than Life ('56); The True Story of Jesse James and Bitter Victory ('57); Wind Across the Everglades and Party Girl ('58). In terms of his contemporaries, Jacques Rivette in The State of the American Cinema (Cahiers N.54) writes, "At present the undoubted spearheads (...) of the age of the auteurs are Nicholas Ray, Richard Brooks, Anthony Mann and Robert Aldrich," while Truffaut places him in the "Wise, Dassin and Losey generation." Even more so then these other directors, Ray stood at the fore-front of this new generation of Hollywood film-makers that came on the scene after the war. He stood as a harbinger for the modernity that was to be felt in the world of cinema.

From De l'invention (Cahiers N.27), Rivette reflects the magazine's generosity in discussing Ray,
"Without any doubt, the most constant privilege of the masters is that of seeing everything, including the most simple mistakes, turn out to their advantage rather than diminishing their stature. If you are now surprised to see me give the benefit of this law to Nicholas Ray's latest film it means you are ill-prepared to appreciate a work which is disconcerting and asks for, not indulgence, but a little love."
From L'Amirable Certitude (Cahiers N.46), Truffaut writes,
"Nicholas Raymond Kienzle is somewhat, in fact very much, the passionate discovery of the 'young critics'. Nick Ray is an auteur in our sense of the word. All his films tell the same story, the story of a violent man who wants to stop being violent, and his relationship with a woman who has more moral strength than himself. For Ray's hero is invariably a man lashing out, weak, a child-man when he is not simply a child."****
And here is Truffaut at his more aggressive,
"You can refute Hawks in the name of Ray (or vice versa), or admit them both, but to anyone who would reject them both I make so bold as to say this: Stop going to the cinema, don't watch anymore films, for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a view-finder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema. An insufferable pretension? No: a wonderful certainty."
In Ajax ou le Cid? (Cahiers N.59), first off Eric Rohmer discusess (see: deplores) the translation of Rebel Without a Cause into French La Fureur de Vivre [The Rage to Live], as well he reads Ray's "masterpiece" as "a genuine drama in five acts," which is a surprising look at the film and an ambitious one. Rohmer, who has always been more conservative than his peers (in terms of both taste and filming approaches), proves to be just as insightful and adventurous in his prose as the other writers,
"It is impossible to attach any convenient label to his [Ray's] position, as one can with John Huston. It isn't problems that interest him, in the manner of Brooks, but human beings. There is not a trace of the psychological complexities so dear to Mankiewicz. None of those instantly dazzling flashes of lyricism, as in Aldrich. His tempo is slow, his melody usually monochord, but its delineation is so precise, its progress so compulsive, that we cannot allow our attention to stray for a moment."
Jean-Luc will be Godard (where at this point in time, he thinks, that D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpant is "the most important novel of the twentieth century"), which means wildly ambitious. Here he is from Rien que le Cinema (Cahiers N.68),
"After seeing Johnny Guitar or Rebel Without a Cause, one cannot but feel that there is something which exists, only in the cinema, which would be nothing in a novel, the stage or anything else, but which becomes fantastically beautiful on the screen."
Though disappointed about Hot Blood he can still find some merits,
"In short, [Hot Blood] is a semi-successful film to the extent that Ray was semi-uninterested in it."
And on Bitter Victory from Au dela des etoiles (Cahiers N.79),
"It is no longer a question of either reality or fiction, or of one transcending the other. It is a question of something quite different. What? The stars, maybe, and the men who like to look at them and dream."
And on the acting,
"Bitter Victory is exceptionally well acted by Curt Jurgens and Richard Burton. With Et Dieu... Crea la Femme, this makes twice one can believe in a character created by Jurgens. As for Richard Burton, who has acquitted himself well enough in all his previous films, good or bad, when directed by Nicholas Ray he is absolutely sensational."*****
To conclude, here is Truffaut from the 1973 documentary I'm a Stranger Here Myself where he further explains this Cahiers obsession towards Ray,
"What attracted us was that there was something European about this man from Hollywood. European in what way? Perhaps in the frailty, vulnerability of his leading characters. His male characters weren't 'macho'. There was this great sensitivity, especially in dealing with affairs of the heart, which lent a sense of great reality. At a time when Hollywood movies were rarely personal or autobiographical, you always had the feeling that the love stories in Nicholas Ray's films were true stories."
* Some new writing on We Can't Go Home Again appears in the latest issue of Cinema Scope (N.48), which includes a piece by Susan Ray, Out of the Box, (Susan also has a long autobiographical introduction in I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies), and Gabe Klinger, Nicholas Ray’s Film Maudit Restored. It's also worth highlighting here another overlooked Ray title, The Janitor (which is available on YouTube). Brad Stevens writes about the film,
"What fascinates me about this short is the way it clarifies the structure of Ray's last few films, which are full of clashes between superego and id figures (Walt and Cottonmouth in WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, Tommy and Rico in PARTY GIRL, Inuk and the trooper in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, Leith and Brand in BITTER VICTORY, Christ and Barrabas in KING OF KINGS). Here, Ray plays both the id and the superego, suggesting just how personal this theme was to him."
** In addition to the selection of pieces in the book other Cahiers articles of note include Jacques Doniol-Valcroze on They Live By Night, Paul et Virginie se sont maries la nuit (Cahiers N.5), Truffaut on They Live By Night, Les Extremes me touchent (Cahiers N.21), Eric Rohmer on Bigger Than Life, Ou bien... ou bien (Cahiers N.69) and Venise 1957 (Cahiers N.75), Luc Moullet's Filmographie de Nicholas Ray (Cahiers N.89), Fereydoun Hoveyda on Party Girl (Cahiers N.107), Jean Douchet and Jacques Joly Nouvelle Entretien avec Nicholas Ray (Cahiers N.127), Bill Krohn on We Can't Go Home Again (Cahiers N.288), and part of Ray's late period script Mister, Mister with an introduction by Wim Wenders (Cahiers N.400).

*** Other good resources on Ray include Bernard Eisenschitz' peerless Nicholas Ray: An American Journey and Patrick McGilligan's new Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure Of An American Director.

**** This passage on hidden narratives is similarly brought up in the magazines contemporary writing, here Jean-Philippe Tesse from his review of J.J. Abrams' Super 8, Leve les yeux (Cahiers N.660),
"Abrams has been to able to reconcile his storyteller-recycler spirit all the while plunging into the childhood cinema experiences of reactivating it's magic. And, certainly, he does this by re-taking brilliantly the secret scenario of all of his films: the curring of the hero by the irruption of the supertural within his neighborhood."
***** Here is Stephane Delorme on contemporary actors from his review of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, Requiem pour un reve (Cahiers N.664),
"Like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Natalie Portman plays in a sense her life: good comedian, appreciated, who never really craved the screen, child-star (Luc Besson's Leon) reduced to these roles of the princess in the Star Wars films without ever imposing herself (...) The troubling emotion comes from these effortless lost gazes and raised eyebrows of inquietude and concentration. As well we are on Natalie Portman's side, we want her to succeed. Aronofsky is the best American casting director."

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